Guest Columnist: US Orthodoxy and fear of the arts

How can a society that crams the classes of law schools and medical schools barely yield a single poet or painter?

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra 521 (photo credit: Yeugene/WikiCommons)
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra 521
(photo credit: Yeugene/WikiCommons)
After making aliya last March, I started taking clarinet lessons at the Academy of Music and Dance, this country’s answer to Juilliard. Unsurprisingly, my instructor, Gadi, is a graduate student at the academy. What might surprise my friends in New York – as it did me – was his kippa.
In New York, one cannot find an Orthodox teacher at a serious conservatory. In fact, the likelihood of finding a classically trained Orthodox clarinetist in the Big Apple hovers at about zero.
As the weeks progressed, I realized that Gadi was hardly an anomaly. At the academy I noticed young kippa-wearing violinists, cellists, pianists and more. And surely there were at least as many Orthodox young women.
In fact, music is not the only art in which Orthodox Israelis are represented. Here one finds Orthodox painters, filmmakers, composers, writers and poets. In America? Forget about it! A celebrated fiction writer who is also a rosh yeshiva? In America, unthinkable. Here there’s Haim Sabato.
What’s more, Israel boasts a boys yeshiva-music high school, an Orthodox girls art high school, an Orthodox film school, and even a haredi classical conservatory for girls – not to mention myriad observant students at major art academies.
The hermetic absence of Orthodox Americans in the arts has long troubled me. There has never been a society without its quota of creative spirits. African tribes, barbarians in medieval Europe, aborigines in New Zealand, Indians in Central America have always had their dancers, musicians, artists and storytellers. Orthodox Jews in America? Nada.
Any normal society needs its quota of creative types. One that is lacking its quota is seriously deficient. Art is not a luxury. It is a necessary vitamin, if not our oxygen.
IN AMERICAN modern Orthodox circles, classical music means going to the opera once a year on an organized fund-raiser for Yeshiva University – hardly an integral part of one’s cultural diet. (If you’re wondering whether one can major in music or art at YU, keep dreaming.) A kippa at the New York Philharmonic is rare; at the Jerusalem Symphony it’s commonplace. Check the radio pre-sets in the Lexus of an Orthodox American, and the likelihood of hitting a classical or jazz station is marginal.
Culturally, modern Orthodoxy claims to be a quantum cut above its frummer brethren. Yet in truth, hassidim are vastly more culturally balanced – having their own fashion, music, dance and art. These may not be to everyone’s taste, yet they are no less valid than the creativity of other insular societies.
Indeed, both the modern Orthodox and the yeshivish borrow their celebratory and liturgical music exclusively from the hassidic world. And one often finds hassidic paintings on modern Orthodox walls. Kitsch? Maybe. But still.
How can a society that crams the classes of law schools and medical schools barely yield a single poet or painter? One explanation must be the prohibitive cost of being religious in America. The price of admission to Orthodox society for a family of four is a combined household income in the top 2%. A couple earning a gross $200,000 barely breaks even after $45,000 in tuitions plus synagogue dues, High Holy Day seats and summer camp – all paid in aftertax dollars. Then there are the added costs of kosher food, Pessah, inflated real estate prices and charity.
Understandably, Orthodox parents steer their children into lucrative professions rather than encouraging them to do what they love (and I include the sciences as well). The word “muse” is not part of their vocabulary. Even the rabbinate and Jewish pedagogy are spurned by the best and brightest, as these do not pay enough to make Jewish life affordable. It shows in the quality of American rabbis and day-school teachers who, with a few noteworthy exceptions, are distressingly average.
THE COST of being Jewish in Israel is significantly lower. Yet, while this might explain a lower incidence of Orthodox artists in the Diaspora, it cannot explain their total absence.
Clearly there is something else that fundamentally differentiates Israelis from Americans, and Americans who make aliya from those who don’t.
Economic excuses for avoiding aliya are an anachronism. This country’s economy is booming while America’s is on the wane. The cost of Orthodox living is significantly lower here. The weather is better, the food fresher and health care is universal. Plus, the cost of university tuition is relatively tiny, and the likelihood of on-campus assimilation is nil.
What then keeps the 95% who do not make aliya stuck in Teaneck and Englewood, Riverdale and the Upper West Side, Flatbush and the Five Towns? They march religiously in the Salute to Israel Parade, send their kids to Bnei Akiva and NCSY, come to Jerusalem for Succot or Pessah, yet insist on staying in a declining America.
I believe the answer is courage. Diaspora Jews are not blessed with a surfeit of courage. They are geniuses at risk aversion. They choose safety in numbers, safety in professions, safety in neighborhoods, safety in the cars they drive. None ride motorcycles.
Israelis and American olim have far greater courage – above all, the courage to enlist in the IDF, not to mention the courage to camp out in the forest or undertake a six-month trek in the jungles of South America. By contrast, even younger Diaspora Jews prefer cruises and luxury hotels with three meals a day and round-the-clock tearooms.
Choosing painting over law, music over medical school, writing over banking takes courage. One chooses an art because it is a passion, not because it comes with a guarantee. The kind of young man who volunteers for Golani or commands a tank is not easily intimidated by the risk of being a poor writer or filmmaker.
American Orthodox teens are fast-tracked into college and narrow-tracked into law school or dental school. Their Israeli counterparts spend three years as soldiers before embarking on a grueling trek through Asia or Latin America. If law school is in their future, it is well in this future. And if their gift is playing oboe or videography, they don’t have frightened parents and gutless pedagogues weaning them into life with a safety net.
It appears to be a combination of expediency and fear that derails American Orthodox youth from pursuing the arts. We can only wonder at the staggering loss of genius that would enrich us as a people, and make this world a better place.
After all, there are enough Jewish lawyers already, no?
The writer an advertising creative director who made aliya in March. His son, who preceded him, is a lieutenant in the IDF.