Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

How cultural appropriation became good for the Jews

I used to love watching Dana Carvey as the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live. I loved his parody of the smugness, self-righteousness and ideological assurance that is typical of the religious and cultural right.

It is true of the cultural left, as well. Especially in the area of identity politics.

It is time to talk about the issue of cultural appropriation.

What is cultural appropriation? Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”

This can include the “unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

Now, for sure, no one likes wannabes, of any stripe. There is something pathetic about people who want to be everything and anything other than who and what they really are.

And, there is something maddening about those who take from other cultures — just because they want to.

Sometimes cultural appropriation does not feel good – especially when a “powerful” culture is borrowing elements from a less powerful culture.

A number of years ago, a Protestant minister invited me over for lunch. He had a Hanukkah menorah on his fireplace.

“I think it’s neat,” he responded.

My inner response was not as kind: “That’s not yours.” I felt, well, culturally colonized.

But, by and large, cultural appropriation has been good — for the world, and for the Jews.

A little more than 50 years ago, the late Gerson Cohen, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, gave an extraordinary speech, “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.”

Yes – Gerson Cohen, a religious Jew, an unambivalent Jew, believed that assimilation could be a blessing.

What he meant by “assimilation” was not sheer imitation for the sake of “fitting in,” but rather:

The healthy appropriation of new forms and ideas for the sake of our grown and enrichment. Assimilation properly channeled and exploited can thus become a kind of blessing… assimilation is a drug capable of paralyzing or energizing, depending on how we take it and how we react to it.

So, a short (and woefully incomplete) history of how other cultures have energized Judaism — or, at the very least, have offered their insights to Judaism, and how Judaism has interacted with those insights.

Consider :

Hebrew ?

More like ancient Babylonian. The names of the months like Tishrei, Heshvan, etc. – they are all products of our sojourn in Babylonia.

Not only that: As a visit to the ancient synagogue at Beit Alpha in Israel will prove (I am taking a group from my synagogue there later in July), Jews were hardly immune to the attraction of astrology.

  • Hellenization (or: It’s Greek to me). When the ancient Greeks exported their culture to the Near East, the process was known as Hellenization. Those peoples absorbed the qualities of the Greeks by learning to speak Greek, reading Greek literature, and imitating Greek customs.

On the one hand, there were aspects of Hellenistic culture that were threats to Judaism. That is why we have the festival of Hanukkah — to celebrate the Maccabees’ victory over (some of ) the forces of Hellenism.

To this day, the elegant Hebrew term for “assimilation” is l’hityavein — to become Greek.

But, on the other hand, there were aspects of Greek culture that Jews readily adapted. Like personal names, for example (ever wonder why so many Jewish men are named Alexander?) And aspects of Greek science. And even the emphasis on education — all Greek.

  • The Passover seder. As various scholars have suggested, the Passover seder meal derives from the Greco-Roman symposium. Elite citizens reclined on cushions and discussed philosophy. Jews reclined on cushions and discussed the exodus from Egypt.
  • Spanish-Jewish poetry from the Middle Ages drew on Muslim poetic models.
  • Jewish theology has always been an act of cultural appropriation. Jewish theology = Jewish texts + something derived from the larger culture. Philo, the first Jewish philosopher, was influenced by Plato. Maimonides, perhaps the greatest Jewish philosopher, was influenced by Aristotle – or, actually, by Muslim readings of Aristotle. Martin Buber drew on existentialism. Mordecai Kaplan was influenced by American pragmatic thinkers.
  • Hasidic dress. Ironic – that pious eastern European Jews would wear the garments of the Polish nobility that had once persecuted them.
  • Jewish music. Check out the music of Salamone Rossi; it sounds like Italian Renaissance music. The “traditional” melody to Ein Keloheinu started its musical career as a German drinking song.
  • Language. Yiddish borrows freely from German, Slavic languages and Italian. Ladino uses Spanish and other Mediterranean languages.

It is not as if the Jews only took from other cultures. We gave back as well.

  • Our greatest gift was the Bible itself. This is especially true of the story of the Exodus. English settlers “borrowed” Jewish history. They imagined the British monarchy to be Pharaoh; the Atlantic Ocean to be the Red Sea; and North America to be the land of Canaan – which is why, in particular, there are so many biblical place names in New England. Black slaves saw themselves as the spiritual descendants of Jewish slaves in Egypt, which is how we get such spirituals as “Let My People Go.”
  • The early church took the melody of the chant of the book of Lamentations, and that became Gregorian chant.
  • The most spoken and sung word in churches? Halleluyah – straight from the Psalms.
  • It doesn’t take a lot of chutzpah to notice how much Yiddish has been schlepped into American English.

By and large, cultural appropriation has been a good thing — within limits. We have to know what aspects of a culture are appropriation-worthy, and which are not.

A rejection of cultural appropriation is a rejection of civilization itself.

That rejection itself deserves to be rejected.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

6 Comments

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  • Cultural appropriation, or dipping, is something while important also has gone to the absurd. I can understand reducing a highly significant and meaningful cultural expression to a farce, but like all social theories there are no clear boundaries which causes more hostility than was originally intended.

    Cultural appropriation has been defined by those cultures that are not in the main stream as a way of keeping the main stream out. Or, in less PC terms minority cultures do not want the majority culture to take from them. This is most significant in the US since we are made up of every culture.

    If we take a look at US majority culture you will see that they freely borrow from each other in fashion, traditions, holidays, food, etc. Brunettes become blondes, brown eyes become blue, fashion from Italy is worn in French, English, Irish, German, Spanish, cultures. We eat Fish and Chips, Mashers and Bangers, Bratwurst, Souffle, Paella, etc. I don’t need to identify as Irish to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, or German to enjoy Oktoberfest either. We welcome, we share, regardless.

    Now I understand when society reduces a significant cultural tradition to mockery, or taking what is sacred and using it in a manner that disrespects its meaning. Native American culture being a prime example, and all religious iconography. I think anyone with any real sense of what an important cultural tradition/expression is, will naturally hold such icons with respect.

    The problem I have with this cultural appropriation, is that it has turned into exclusion for its own sake. So by the current definition of CA, I cannot listen to Reggae because I am not Jamaican, I cannot wear my hair a certain way because it “belongs” to another, I cannot wear certain jewelry because a certain culture made it, I cannot eat Burritos because I am not Mexican, it goes on and on. Conversely, these same cultures that want to exclude others from theirs cannot even abide by their own rules for CA of the majority culture.

    What really irks me about all of these artificial social constructs is that someone or group decides something is offensive just to be contrary in most cases, there are no clear boundaries or even a clear definition, and rather than bring awareness it is often times just to be socially punitive.

  • You said something that actually comes very close to defining when/what cultural appropriation is versus cultural borrowing, exchange or influence i.e. your conversely statement as to CA from the majority culture. That presumably infers the existence of a minority culture that has less power or value. CA in that instance is experienced as subjugation or diminishing of identity.. For example consider the Washington Redskins history (1932/1937 dates) compared to the bigger picture for American Indians at that time in terms of lands, voting rights and citizenship at the same time the team was named, The argument against the name and logo has been ethnic stereotyping. I think it is harder to see/understand when one stands at the top of the social food chain. But the other question I have is does something culturally unique become less unique and increasingly diluted when it becomes adopted by mainstream culture – kind of like the food most people eat at a Chines restaurant.

  • Cultural appropriation is something that idiots oppose. They oppose it largely…because they can. It receives credibility among the Left who have, in their religion, made it a tenet that third-world cultures are equal to…no, better than…Western. It’s a lunacy that has grown and grown and now, in its new-found vigor with what the Left sees in the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, it is coming up with more and more bizarre ways of opposing what they believe he represents. People have always adopted aspect of other cultures…from, literally, the dawn of time. This article displays that well and articulately and convincingly. Maybe I ought to adopt the idea of opposition to “cultural appropriation” and punch the next non-Jew in the nose that I see eating a bagel! It’s that idiotic.

  • I am a Jew, who used to (about 35-40 years ago) help local Christian congregations have authentic seders until I found out that they were using the Haggadah creatively. The wine became the blood of Jesus, and the matzah…well, you get the picture. After I became informed about what was going on, I decided to ask first whether they wanted an authentic seder or a Christian version of it. I was living in a very small (pop. 5,500) town in the deep South. Once I began kindly turning people down for the assistance, work got around, and people stopped calling me for help. Soon after that, the local newspaper published an article about a new Jewish group that would be delivering a presentation in town. The group turned out to be Jews for Jesus. That one called for me to write a letter to the editor to set them straight that this was not a Jewish group. About 15 years ago, I attended a panel discussion in a college town in Indiana. It was held at a Catholic church, and the panel consisted of a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a Protestant minister. Sounds like a joke about 3 men walking into a bar, no? There was a good-sized audience of middle-aged to elderly adults. About an hour into the discussion, and after becoming frustrated, I stood and asked this question: “Why are we all here? What are the Jews in this room supposed to get out of this conversation?” I was told that it was an opportunity for us to learn about each other. I wasn’t rude, but I was direct. I said, “I’ve been alive for 55 years, and I have studied all of your religions and have known a lot about you for most of that time. I’ve lived in small-to-medium-sized towns most of my life. Most of my close friends are not Jewish (sound familiar? Some of my best friends are…). There were very few Jews living in my towns. After all of this time, why do you still need to learn something about me and my religion? Why don’t you KNOW about me? You use our scriptures. Haven’t you been at least a little curious about how and why our scriptures are a part of yours?” My Jewish husband wanted a large hole to open up in the floor so he could fall through it and disappear. For many in the room, I believe it was like going to the zoo because they like giraffes so much, and I was a giraffe. They didn’t know anything about giraffes. They just thought that giraffes were interesting and rather strange and mysterious. Not interesting enough to read much about giraffes, but enough to go to a zoo to see them every once in a while. I asked again, “Now, again, what are the Jews in this room supposed to learn from this discussion? How are we supposed to benefit? I think that the reason we’re here is so that the Christians in this room can find a way to explain to us where we are going wrong…why Jesus is the only way.” That is exactly what came out of the discussion. They didn’t ask us questions about our religion. They asked us why we were not Christians and could they help us see their wisdom. I found it to be a disturbing and useless exercise. Later, another town I lived in had a showing of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion.” And, once again, we had the troika panel of clergy. Most of the “Jews” there were Jews for Jesus, adorned a little too much in the accouterments of Judaism—stars of David that were a little too large and obvious, kippas, etc. This is probably the most offensive cultural or religious appropriation I have seen over the years. The messianic “Jewish” groups somehow coming to the conclusion that being Jewish and believing in Jesus as savior are not mutually exclusive. Thank you for giving me the space and opportunity to write this. Religious expression/practice is one of my research interests. I would entertain any replies.

  • “But the other question I have is does something culturally unique become less unique and increasingly diluted when it becomes adopted by mainstream culture – kind of like the food most people eat at a Chines restaurant.”

    What you are describing is the fusion of cultures. And NO it does not become less unique, it creates a whole new interesting category combining elements in two groups.

    Take Mexican cuisine. A blend of traditional Nahua and Native foods with the addition of vegetable and animal products introduced by the Spanish. Was this an act of “dilution”, or did it create a whole new and UNIQUE category??

    Or take the modern Mongolian hip-hop scene, where they take American styles of music and often enough blend it with Mongolian folk music into their own unique style. Are THEY “diluting” American culture by blending their folk music into it, or are they creating something wondrously new for themselves??

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