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Jewish Culture and Stereotypes

Culture > Jewish Culture, Humour, Cuisine and Religions

Natan Sharansky

Secular Jewish culture
embraces several related phenomena; above all, it is the culture of communities of Jewish people, but it can also include the cultural contributions of individuals who identify as secular Jews.
The community of Jewish people is generally considered to be an ethnoreligious rather than solely a religious grouping; Judaism guides its adherents in both practice and belief, so that it has been called not only a religion, but also a "way of life". This makes it difficult to draw a clear distinction between the cultural production of members of the Jewish people, and culture that is specifically Jewish. Furthermore, not all individuals or all cultural phenomena can be easily classified as either "secular" or "religious", a distinction native to European Enlightenment thinking and foreign to most of the history of non-European Jews.
Throughout history, in eras and places as diverse as the ancient Hellenic world, in Europe before and after the Age of Enlightenment, in Islamic Spain and Portugal, in North Africa and the Middle East, in India and China, and in the contemporary United States and Israel, Jewish communities have seen the development of cultural phenomena that are in some sense characteristically Jewish without being at all specifically religious. Some factors in this come from within Judaism, others from the interaction of Jews with others around them, and others from the inner social and cultural dynamics of the community, as opposed to religion itself. This phenomenon has led to considerably different Jewish cultures unique to their own communities, each as authentically Jewish as the next.

For at least 2,000 years, there has not been a unity of Jewish culture. Jews during this period were always geographically dispersed (Jewish diaspora), so that by the 19th century the Ashkenazi Jews were mainly in Europe, especially Eastern Europe; the Sephardi Jews were largely spread among various communities in North Africa, Turkey, and various smaller communities in a diverse range of other locations; Mizrahi Jews were primarily spread around the Arab world; and other populations of Jews were scattered in such places as Ethiopia the Caucasus, and India.
Although there was a high degree of communication and traffic between these communities — many Sephardic exiles blended into the Central European Ashkenazi community following the Spanish Inquisition; many Ashkenazim migrated to the Middle East, giving rise to the characteristic Syrian-Jewish family name "Ashkenazi"; Iraqi-Jewish traders formed a distinct Jewish community in India; and so forth — many of these populations were cut off to some degree from the surrounding cultures by ghettoisation, by Muslim laws of
dhimma, and other circumstances.
By 1931, shortly before the Holocaust, 92% of the world's Jewish population was Ashkenazi in origin, including the vast majority of European and of English-speaking Jews. Moreover, secularism as a concept was largely a European idea, and a series of movements in Europe militated for a new, heretofore unheard-of concept called "secular Judaism". For these reasons, much of what is thought of by English-speakers and, to a lesser extent, by non-English-speaking Europeans as "secular Jewish culture" is, in essence, the Jewish culture of Central and Eastern Europe, and its subsequent development in North America.

Medieval Jewish communities in Eastern Europe continued to display distinct cultural traits over the centuries. Despite the universalist leanings of the Enlightenment (and its echo within Judaism in the Haskalah movement), many Yiddish-speaking Jews in Eastern Europe continued to see themselves as forming a distinct national group —
" 'am yehudi", from the Biblical Hebrew — but, adapting this idea to European Enlightenment values, they assimilated the concept as that of an ethnic group whose identity did not depend on religion, which under Enlightenment thinking fell under a separate category.
Constantin Maciuca writes of "a differentiated but not isolated Jewish spirit" permeating the culture of Yiddish-speaking Jews. This was only intensified as the rise of Romanticism amplified the sense of national identity across Europe generally. Thus, for example, members of the General Jewish Labour Bund in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were generally non-religious, and one of the historical leaders of the Bund was the child of converts to Christianity, though not a practising or believing Christian himself.
The Haskalah combined with the Jewish Emancipation movement under way in Central and Western Europe to create an opportunity for Jews to enter secular society. At the same time, pogroms in Eastern Europe provoked a surge of migration, in large part to the United States, where some 2 million Jewish immigrants resettled between 1880 and 1920. During the 1940s, the Holocaust uprooted and destroyed most of the European Jewish population. This, in combination with the creation of the State of Israel and the consequent Jewish exodus from Arab lands, resulted in a further geographic shift.

Defining secular culture among those who practice traditional Judaism is difficult, because the entire culture is, by definition, entwined with religious traditions. (This is particularly true for Orthodox Judaism.) Gary Tobin, head of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, said of traditional Jewish culture:
"The dichotomy between religion and culture doesn’t really exist. Every religious attribute is filled with culture; every cultural act filled with religiosity. Synagogues themselves are great centers of Jewish culture. After all, what is life really about? Food, relationships, enrichment hellip; So is Jewish life. So many of our traditions inherently contain aspects of culture. Look at the Passover Seder — it's essentially great theater. Jewish education and religiosity bereft of culture is not as interesting."
Yaakov Malkin, Professor of Aesthetics and Rhetoric at Tel Aviv University and the founder and academic director of Meitar College for Judaism as Culture in Jerusalem, writes:
"Today very many secular Jews take part in Jewish cultural activities, such as celebrating Jewish holidays as historical and nature festivals, imbued with new content and form, or marking life-cycle events such as birth, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, and mourning in a secular fashion. They come together to study topics pertaining to Jewish culture and its relation to other cultures, in
havurot, cultural associations, and secular synagogues, and they participate in public and political action co-ordinated by secular Jewish movements, such as the former movement to free Soviet Jews, and movements to combat pogroms, discrimination, and religious coercion. Jewish secular humanistic education inculcates universal moral values through classic Jewish and world literature and through organizations for social change that aspire to ideals of justice and charity."
In short, Israelis tend to classify Jewish identity in ways that are strikingly different from American Jewry.

Literary and theatrical expressions of secular Jewish culture may be in specifically Jewish languages such as Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino, or it may be in the language of the surrounding cultures, such as English or German. Secular literature and theater in Yiddish largely began in the 19th century and was in decline by the middle of the 20th century. The revival of Hebrew beyond its use in the liturgy is largely an early 20th-century phenomenon, and is closely associated with Zionism. Apart from the use of Hebrew in Israel, whether a Jewish community will speak a Jewish or non-Jewish language as its main vehicle of discourse is generally dependent on how isolated or assimilated that community is. For example, the Jews in the shtetls of Poland and the Lower East Side of New York during the early 20th century spoke Yiddish at most times, while assimilated Jews in 19th and early 20th-century Germany spoke German, and American-born Jews in the United States speak English, just as the British-born Jews.

Politics and morals
Even in religious Judaism there is much room for a range of political or moral views; this diversity is even more apparent among secular Jews. However, even Jewish secular culture is often strongly influenced by moral beliefs deriving from Jewish scripture and tradition. In recent centuries, Jews in Europe and the Americas have traditionally tended towards the political left, and played key roles in the birth of the labour movement as well as socialism. While Diaspora Jews have also been represented in the conservative side of the political spectrum, even politically conservative Jews have tended to support more consistently than many other elements of the political right. Some scholars attribute this to the fact that Jews are not expected to proselytize, and as a result do not expect a single world-state, which differs from the beliefs of many religions, such as the Roman Catholic and Islamic traditions. This lack of a universalizing religion is combined with the fact that most Jews live as minorities in their countries, and that no central Jewish religious authority has existed for over 2,000 years.

Professions associated with Jews
Jews historically have been associated with a number of professions, from banking and finance to oil pressing. In the modern world, intellectual professions have traditionally been considered particularly "Jewish". These include banking and finance, law, medicine, science, social sciences, psychology, academia, and more recently computers. This occupational preference is probably even more relevant to many Mizrahi Jews, as well as Kurdish Jews, who looked down on farming and were highly represented in these fields.

Banking and finance
In the Middle Ages, European laws prevented Jews from owning land and gave them powerful incentive to go into other professions that Europeans were not willing to do. During the medieval period, there was a strong social stigma against lending money and charging interest among the Christian majority. In most of Europe until the late 18th century, and in some places to an even later date, Jews were prohibited by Roman Catholic governments (and others) from owning land. On the other hand, the Church, because of a number of Bible verses forbidding usury, declared that charging any interest was against the divine law, and this prevented any mercantile use of capital by pious Christians. As the Canon law did not apply to Jews, they were not liable to the ecclesiastical punishments which were placed upon usurers by the popes. Christian rulers gradually saw the advantage of having a class of men like the Jews who could supply capital for their use without being liable to excommunication, and so the money trade of western Europe by this means fell into the hands of the Jews.
However, in almost every instance where large amounts were acquired by Jews through banking transactions the property thus acquired fell either during their life or upon their death into the hands of the king. This happened to Aaron of Lincoln in England, Ezmel de Ablitas in Navarre, Benveniste de Porta in Aragon, etc. It was often for this reason that kings supported the Jews, and even objected to them becoming Christians (because in that case they could not be forced to give up money won by usury). Thus, both in England and in France the kings demanded to be compensated for every Jew converted. This type of royal trickery was one factor in creating the stereotypical Jewish role of banker and/or merchant.
As a modern system of capital began to develop, loans became necessary for commerce and industry. Jews were able to gain a foothold in the new field of finance by providing these services: as non-Catholics, they were not bound by the ecclesiastical prohibition against "usury"; and in terms of Judaism itself, Hillel had long ago re-interpreted the Torah's ban on charging interest.

Jon Entine published
Abraham's Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People in 2007 - his book, which was favorably reviewed by Nature Genetics, reviews studies that show that Jews test out to have a higher IQ on average than many other population groups.
There is a consensus among intelligence researchers that IQ differences between individuals within the same population are significantly heritable. European Jews' history of persecution selected for high intelligence, leaving a positive effect on the hereditary component of their IQ. Historical persecution, extended urban living and natural selection led Jews to embrace education as a transportable asset, to better adapt to novel surroundings.
Talent in the study of Torah traditionally contributed to one's social success in Jewish communities; those more lacking in the capacity for such study were perhaps more prone to assimilate into general culture, thereby raising the average intelligence of the given Jewish community. A biological (hereditary) explanation for high Jewish IQ may be that modern European Jews are descended mostly from the several thousand Jewish settlers that belonged to occupations that are "far more highly selected for intelligence". European Jews were forbidden to work in many of the common jobs of the Middle Ages from 800 to 1700 CE, such as agriculture, and subsequently worked in high proportion in professions such as banking and trade, some of which were forbidden to non-Jews by the church. Those who performed better are known to have raised more children to adulthood, according to Cochran
et al., passing on their genes in greater proportion than those who performed less successfully.

Typical and stereotypical phenomenons
et al. hypothesized that the eugenic pressure was strong enough that mutations creating higher intelligence when inherited from one parent but creating disease when inherited from both parents would still be selected for, which could explain the unusual pattern of genetic diseases found in the Jewish population, such as Tay-Sachs, Canavan disease, Gaucher's disease, Niemann-Pick disease, Mucolipidosis type IV, (Ashkenazic Jewish disorders), and Beta-Thalassemia, Familial Mediterranean fever, Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, Gilbert's Syndrome, Glycogen storage disease type III, Machado-Joseph disease, (Sephardic Jewish disorders), and other disorders and diseases. Some of these diseases (especially torsion dystonia) have been shown to correlate with high intelligence, and others are known to cause neurons to grow an increased number of connections to neighboring neurons.
The typical or stereotypical "neuroticism" of some Jews may be partly related to this high(er) intelligence, and the typical or stereotypical "Jewish mother" behaviour (nagging, overprotective, manipulative, controlling, smothering, and overbearing) may in turn be a result of this "neurosis", which Freud classified as "normal human behaviour unless it causes problems".

Medicine, science, and academia
The strong Jewish tradition of religious scholarship often left Jews well prepared for secular scholarship. In some times and places, this was countered by banning Jews from studying at universities, or admitted them only in limited numbers ( Jewish quota). In medieval and early modern times, Jews were disproportionately prevalent among court physicians. Even in recent times, Jews have been poorly represented among land-holding classes, but far better represented in academia, professions, finance, and commerce. The strong representation of Jews in science and academia is evidenced by the fact that 167 persons known to be Jews or of half-Jewish ancestry have been awarded the Nobel Prize, accounting for 22% of all individual recipients worldwide between 1901 and 2004. In addition, of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people of the 20th century, 14 are either of Jewish ancestry or have converted to Judaism.

Yoram Kaniuk

Literary and artistic culture
In some places where there have been relatively high concentrations of Jews, distinct secular Jewish subcultures have arisen. For example, ethnic Jews formed an enormous proportion of the literary and artistic life of Vienna, Austria at the end of the 19th century, or of New York City 50 years later (and Los Angeles in the mid-late 20th century). Many of these creative Jews were not particularly religious people. In general, Jewish artistic culture in various periods reflected the culture in which they lived.
Yoram Kaniuk (1930), a leading Israeli writer, said, "The harshest criticism of Israel and the Jews has always come from us. The biggest anti-Semites of all are educated Israelis, and my daughters are as fanatical as they are, but sweeter than most. I’m also a Jewish minority in my home because my wife, who has been living in Israel for 45 years, isn’t Jewish, so my daughters aren’t either. One of them, who’s fighting against the war today and davka (a word you don’t have in English!) for the Palestinians, sees herself as a Jew and she feels Jewish, but she isn’t religious, so she can’t be a Jew in Israel. If she we’re in Germany in the 1940s, she’d be sent to the camps because of her Jewishness, but in Israel, she isn’t a Christian either because unlike her mother, she wasn’t baptized. What a pity. On the Seder night, when we say, ‘Pour out your wrath on those who do not know you,’ we mean my wife and daughters. When my daughters served in the army, I was afraid they’d desert and come home with guns in their hands and conquer me for the Arabs, and I raised a white flag and surrendered.”

culture of Israel developed long before the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 and combines the heritage of secular and religious lives. Much of the diversity in Israel's culture comes from the diversity of its population. Originating from around the world, Jewish immigrants arrived with diverse cultural backgrounds and contributed to the development of Israeli culture, which follows cultural trends and changes across the globe. Israeli culture also reflects in the diaspora, especially the ideology of the Zionist movement beginning in the late nineteenth centure.

Jewish migration

Throughout Jewish history, Jews have repeatedly been directly or indirectly expelled from both their original homeland, and the areas in which they have resided. This experience as both and emigrants have shaped Jewish identity and religious practice in many ways, and are thus a major element of Jewish history. An incomplete list of such migrations includes:

  • The patriarch Abraham was a migrant to the land of Canaan from Ur of the Chaldees.
  • The Children of Israel experienced the Exodus (meaning "departure" or "exit" in Greek) from ancient Egypt, as recorded in the Book of Exodus. (There is, however, no scientific proof of this Exodus.)
  • The Kingdom of Israel was sent into permanent exile and scattered all over the world (or at least to unknown locations) by Assyria.
  • The Kingdom of Judah was exiled by Babylonia, then returned to Judea by Cyrus the Great of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and then many were exiled again by the Roman Empire.
  • The 2,000 year dispersion of the Jewish diaspora beginning under the Roman Empire, as Jews were spread throughout the Roman world and, driven from land to land, and settled wherever they could live freely enough to practice their religion. Over the course of the diaspora the center of Jewish life moved from Babylonia to the Iberian Peninsula to Poland to the United States and, as a result of Zionism, to Israel.
  • Many expulsions during the Middle Ages and Enlightenment in Europe, including: 1290, 16,000 Jews were expelled from England; in 1396, 100,000 from France; in 1421 thousands were expelled from Austria. Many of these Jews settled in Eastern Europe, especially Poland.
  • Following the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, the Spanish population of around 200,000 Sephardic Jews were expelled by the Spanish crown and Catholic church, followed by expulsions in 1493 in Sicily (37,000 Jews) and Portugal in 1496. The expelled Jews fled mainly to the Ottoman Empire, the Netherlands, and North Africa, others migrating to Southern Europe and the Middle East.
  • During the 19th century, France's policies of equal citizenship regardless of religion led to the immigration of Jews (especially from Eastern and Central Europe).
  • The arrival of millions of Jews in the New World, including immigration of over two million Eastern European Jews to the United States from 1880–1925.
  • The Pogroms in Eastern Europe, the rise of modern antisemitism, the Holocaust, and the rise of Arab nationalism all served to fuel the movements and migrations of huge segments of Jewry from land to land and continent to continent, until they arrived back in large numbers at their original historical homeland in Israel.
  • The Islamic Revolution of Iran forced many Iranian Jews to flee Iran. Most found refuge in the US (particularly Los Angeles, CA) and Israel. Smaller communities of Persian Jews exist in Canada and Western Europe.
  • When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the Jews in the affected territory (who had been refuseniks) were suddenly allowed to leave. This produced a wave of migration to Israel in the early 1990s.

Diaspora (outside Israel)
The waves of immigration to the United States and elsewhere at the turn of the nineteenth century, the founding of and later events, including pogroms in Russia, the massacre of European Jewry during the Holocaust, and the founding of the state of Israel, with the subsequent Jewish exodus from Arab lands, all resulted in substantial shifts in the population centers of world Jewry by the end of the twentieth century.
Currently, the largest Jewish community in the world is located in the United States, with 5.3 million or 6.4 million Jews by various estimates. Elsewhere in the Americas, there are also large Jewish populations in Canada, Argentina, and Brazil, and smaller populations in Mexico, Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, and several other countries.
Western Europe's largest Jewish community can be found in France, home to 490,000 Jews, the majority of whom are immigrants or refugees (or their descendants) from North African Arab countries such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. There are 295,000 Jews in the United Kingdom. In Eastern Europe, there are anywhere from 350,000 to one million Jews living in the former Soviet Union, but exact figures are difficult to establish. The fastest-growing Jewish community in the world, outside Israel, is the one in Germany, especially in Berlin, its capital. Tens of thousands of Jews from the former Eastern Bloc have settled in Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East were home to around 900,000 Jews in 1945. Fueled by anti-Zionism after the founding of Israel, systematic persecution caused almost all of these Jews to flee to Israel, North America, and Europe in the 1950s. Today, around 8,000 Jews remain in all Arab nations combined.
Iran is home to around 10,800 Jews, down from a population of 100,000 Jews before the 1979 Revolution. After the revolution some of the Iranian Jews emigrated to Israel or Europe but most of them emigrated (with their non-Jewish Iranian compatriots) to the United States (especially Los Angeles).
Outside Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and the rest of Asia, there are significant Jewish populations in Australia and South Africa.

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