Rethinking Judaism and Pop Culture

On the surface, it may seem that widespread acceptance of Judaism is a positive sign; but the use of Jewish cultural and religious icons often comes with a view of Judaism that does not do it justice.

Of late there seems to be an emergence of a Jewish fan club, particularly in the United States, with its members emulating Jewish practice, ideals and values as a form of pop culture.

From black-hat-donning urban hipsters, to Evangelical Christians creating ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) for their marriage ceremony, Judaism has become a type of trend apparently worth following.

Jay-Z sang about “black bar mitzvahs”, Black Eyed Peas chorused “mazel tov!” in their hit “I Gotta Feeling,” Republican maven Michelle Bachmann clumsily made a stab at Yiddish during a political interview, the most famous anti-Semite of our times Mel Gibson is producing a biopic about Judah the Maccabee. The list goes on.

On the surface, it may seem that this widespread acceptance is a positive sign for Judaism; but the use of Jewish cultural and religious icons often comes with a view of Judaism that does not do it justice.

By conjuring up this superficial image of Judaism, one runs the risk of dehumanizing the Jewish people as a whole, and raising misguided stereotypes about what constitutes an ideal Jew. Cultural appropriation, flattering as it may seem, brings with it a serious danger to the integrity of one’s religion.

When Madonna began studying Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), it rapidly spiraled into a Hollywood trend. The pop icon’s primary place of study, the Kabbalah Center, publicly denies any link with Judaism, and even asserts that Kabbalah is not a Jewish practice. For many Jews, this is blatantly offensive, as Kabbalah is traditionally studied by those deeply immersed in Torah and Jewish practice.

As a people, Jews need to be cognizant of this phenomenon, knowing when to share its rich heritage with its non-Jewish neighbors, and when to safeguard their traditions for generations to come.

Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Madonna May 2, 2011
AP