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Bring Back The Jewish Beatniks


When I entered college, many of my classmates viewed me as an anomaly. I was a (mostly) observant Jew, and I was firmly entrenched in the school’s creative arts community. As my religious friends prepared for careers in law or accounting, they were continuously astonished by my immersion in English literature – a course of study they considered a thoroughly impractical and esoteric subject.

Throughout my junior year, my two religious roommates complained bitterly about their professors and their classes, but they were resigned to their misery. My unabashed enthusiasm for literature earned me their ridicule. One of my roommates loved to repeatedly ask what I was going to do with a degree in English literature. “Become a poet?” he intoned, wildly amused at the thought of it.

This was not always the tenor that emanated from Modern Orthodoxy. According to Yeshiva University folklore, in the 1960s a group of donors who were interested in launching a business school approached Samuel Belkin, president of YU at the time. Belkin, a firm believer in the university’s motto Torah Umadda (“Torah and secular knowledge”), was vehemently opposed to the project. According to YU employees, he objected to a business school within the university because it would reinforce negative anti-Semitic stereotypes and he thought the pragmatic goals of a business school did not fit the ethos of Jewish religious studies combined with a liberal arts education.

In 1977, a fake ad in Yeshiva University’s yearbook made fun of the idea of a business school at the university. The mock ad promised that a school of business “will be opening its doors to all students who cannot cope with liberal arts.”

Eleven years after Belkin’s death, YU did eventually open a business program. Twenty-three percent of its undergraduates are enrolled in the Sy Syms School of Business, according to university records. These numbers are remarkable.

By way of comparison, the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University’s undergraduate business program, claims only 1,354 of Georgetown’s 14,826 undergraduates. Similarly, the Wharton School currently has 2,560 undergraduates enrolled in the program, of 19,311 undergraduate students attending the University of Pennsylvania, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

By treating education simply as a means of gaining entry to the workplace, Modern Orthodoxy has eliminated one of the fundamental distinctions that once separated it from the haredi world. This shift toward an embrace of utilitarian secular knowledge within Modern Orthodoxy is almost certainly influenced by the ultra-Orthodox worldview, which has exerted substantial influence over the Modern Orthodox community. As Jack Wertheimer noted in A People Divided, most educators in the day school movement are graduates of the yeshiva world. These Jewish studies teachers, he said, “have imposed their worldview on the schools and their youthful charges.”

I have noticed contempt for the arts within the ultra-Orthodox community that is more prevalent than I was accustomed to during my college years. According to the yeshiva worldview, pursuits other than the study of Torah are encouraged only insofar as they are beneficial to make a living to support one’s family; literature, music, and the arts are largely disdained.

To an extent, I empathize with this perspective. The arts undoubtedly pose a challenge to traditional values, since creativity can open the door wide to deviant religious behavior. The best-known contemporary (secular) Jewish artists provide ample cautionary tales: Bob Dylan’s brief embrace of Christianity and Leonard Cohen’s embrace of Buddhism are not models of the spiritual lifestyles religious Jewish parents wish for their children.

But in focusing only on the risks of art and literature, we forget that they benefit the religious experience. Art encourages its students to become creative thinkers and to acquire a strong sense of self – areas that are laudable for the religiously motivated persona.

For this reason, there is a history of Jewish artistic expression. Throughout the medieval period and beyond, Jewish rabbinical personalities were skilled poets and musicians. Shmuel HaNagid, Yehuda HaLevi, Avraham Ibn Ezra, Moshe Ibn Ezra all wrote secular poetry. In 18th-century Italy, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, better known as the Ramchal, wrote poetry and drama.

In addition, disillusioned Orthodox young people who are struggling to find meaning in their lives establish a Jewish connection through art where they cannot find inspiration through Torah study alone. There is a groundswell of religious Jewish artists who are working to establish a relationship with the Divine on their own terms. A nascent community of religious artists – including the Orthodox African-American hip-hop musician Y-Love, poet Matthue Roth, novelist Tova Mirvis, and the novelist and playwright Naomi Ragen – are all working to create a more art-friendly and embracing religious model.

That’s good news, but it’s not enough. All of these talented artists are producing art as individuals. However, religious resistance to the arts can only be dismantled by arts education. Without teaching the arts to children and teenagers, this small group of artists and musicians faces little hope of moving to the cultural mainstream of the religious community.

We need students and educators alike to realize that art is not the enemy of religion. Success will arrive when the next generation of Jewish artists is no longer viewed as a group of countercultural renegades but are included as authentic conveyors and participants of the hallowed religious traditions.

Jeremy Seth Davis is founder of Jewish Writers Alliance, an organization devoted to sparking creativity and literary achievement in middle school and high school-aged Jewish writers. His writing has been published in The Financial Times’s Mergermarket.com, The New York Daily News, FT.com, and Investment Dealers’ Digest.

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When I entered college, many of my classmates viewed me as an anomaly. I was a (mostly) observant Jew, and I was firmly entrenched in the school’s creative arts community. As my religious friends prepared for careers in law or accounting, they were continuously astonished by my immersion in English literature – a course of study they considered a thoroughly impractical and esoteric subject.

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