Monday, December 17, 2007

Jay-Z, The Big Lebowski and the Death of Jewish Self Consciousness

Jews have arrived. Don't take my word for it. Check out the video for Jay-Z's Roc Boys, which Rolling Stone magazine has chosen as the record of the year (http://youtube.com/watch?v=ww4Rz2hsxDU). If you don't want to listen to the entire song (and I can't understand anyone not wanting to), forward to the 3 minute mark. Right around the spot where the self-proclaimed "best rapper alive" celebrates with "black bar-mitzvahs, Mazel Tov, it's a celebration...L'Chayim" accompanied by stepping on a glass.

OK, I know, we don't break a glass at a bar mitzvah (unless the waitress drops one). But all the same, we have so arrived that Jewish simchas are held up as the epitome of celebration.

And it's not only happening now. In The Big Lebowski (one of the greatest movies of all time), Walter Sobchak declares himself to be "shomer f---ing Shabbos" in spite of the fact that he isn't actually Jewish (http://www.evtv1.com/player.aspx?itemnum=8931&aid=19).

Compare this to Charles E. Silberman in his book A Certain People, written over twenty years ago, in which he reflects on the reluctance of Jews to publicly display their Jewishness. In a memorable story, he remembers attending a funeral as a young man, and his elderly aunt, noticing that he has not removed his kippah, comes after him to say "Take your yarmulke off darling...you're outside; it's not nice."

We've come a long way. Not only are we, and more importantly, our children, unambivalent about their Jewishness, they are quite proud of it and perfectly comfortable with it. So proud, that recent studies (particularly one by Cohen & Kelman) suggest that many young Jews prefer to "do Jewish" in spaces that are not Jewish, rather than within the walls of institutions that they perceive as being unresponsive to their needs.

Good news and bad news. Good news for Jewish continuity and the future. Not so good for those Jewish institutions that are clinging to models that were built at the very time that Charles Silberman was taking off his kippah in public.

There is much more to be said about the need for synagogues and other Jewish institutions to get with the program. But in the meantime, hats off (and kippot on!) to Jay-Z and Walter Sobchak for reinforcing the message that the Jewish people are officially a part of American life.

And, as Jay-Z says, "L'Chaim!"

Oh, and if anyone knows him, please tell him that he's invited to my house for Shabbos dinner anytime.

With Beyonce.