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.

Yael Miller
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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 ones religion.

When Madonna began studying Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), it rapidly spiraled into a Hollywood trend. The pop icons 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 arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute gala, Monday, May 2, 2011 in New York. Credit: AP