Article Library / Annual Assessment

2017 Annual Assessment

The term “cultural versatility” is used here as the ability to look at a problem from diverse perspectives, rooted in different traditions, cultures, and languages. This ability helps people understand that there is more than one response to a problem. Cultural versatility often results from a broad-based, open-minded education, having foreign friends, and travel. Some of the roots of this ability could be very old. Rabbinic Judaism values argument more than uniformity of thought. The Talmud reports unending arguments between two schools interpreting the Torah, the House of Hillel who tended to facilitate the law and the House of Shamai who tended to make it more stringent. The Talmud states that the opinions of both sides, though conflicting, are equally valid – “words of the living God” – but that only Hillel’s interpretation will become law. Why? Because he quoted the contradictory opinion of Shamai together, and even before his own, thus showing respect for his opponent’s arguments.9 In other words, often there is not one, absolute, uncontestable truth, two “truths” are possible and both must be examined side by side.

The philosophical and moral implications of this principle are enormous. It encourages diversity and versatility of views widely beyond the religious sphere. Even the proverbial argumentativeness of Jewish politics could partly be influenced by this Talmudic precept. Chinese academic scholars are studying Judaism in order to understand the sources of Jewish creativity. Why are the Chinese less creative in spite of their huge numbers and their enormous efforts in education? One scholar incriminates the traditional Chinese quest for uniformity. He advises his people to emulate the Jews: “In the Talmud there is no one answer or opinion to one question. Different answers to the same question could be true at the same time, and all could be valid. This kind of thinking could be qualified as distinct in its encouragement of diversity and negation of uniformity.”10

Apart from religious tradition, the location and socio-economic situation of Diaspora Jews also encouraged diversity of thought and culture. Jews lived in many different places. A Frenchman visiting Turkey and Egypt in the 16th century marveled at the linguistic and cultural versatility of the local Jews: “They speak, it might be Greek, Slavonic, Turkish, Armenian or Italian…and so they speak every language and have been of great service to us, not only in translating for us but in communicating to us how things are in that country.”11

Richard Florida’s 2002 classic, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, regards cultural versatility as the dominant source of creativity. Creative thought, and the innovations that flow from it, flourishes in some environments but not in others. It thrives in places that are diverse, open, and tolerant – particularly toward unconventional people. Florida’s creative class comprises scientists, engineers, architects, educators, writers, artists and entertainers, approximately 30 percent of the U.S. work force, while the “super-creative core” comprises 12 percent. Their creativity is distinguished by diversity, individuality, tolerance, and talent (with the latter not excluding education for which Florida shows less interest). Conferring the creativity label to such a large percentage of the population is excessive. Many members of each of these professional categories do repetitive, uncreative work. The true creators and inventors are much fewer.

Florida pays attention to the geographic location of creative people. They tend to congregate and live in close proximity. Similar observations were made long before when many creative people wanted to live near the sources of power and money. The Renaissance painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari offered a thought-provoking explanation for Florence. When a man of exceptional talent emerges, “nature” tends to create a second one “to encourage mutual emulation and inspiration” – but also competition and rivalry.12 Today, location is less of a concern because the information and transportation revolution has obviated the effect of geographic distance, but until not so long ago, location was an important supporting factor of Jewish as well as non-Jewish creativity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Odessa became a magnet for rich Jewish businessmen, creative thinkers, writers, poets and politicians because Jews enjoyed more freedom there than in any other part of the Czarist Empire and because it was a city of many minorities. It was probably the most “multicultural” city of the Empire. Bialik, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Ahad Ha-Am, Isaac Babel, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Leon Trotzky all came from Odessa, or lived, were educated or published there. All of them were multi-lingual and felt at home in various cultures.

Biographical case studies demonstrate the links between cultural versatility and Jewish creativity today. An entertaining example is that of an unusual, brilliant Jewish aerospace engineer, Ben Rich (1925-95), who played a lead role in the conception and development of the Lockheed SR-21 Blackbird Mach 3 Long-Range Strategic Reconnaissance Aircraft. The Blackbird made its first flight in 1964. It was one of the most successful military planes ever developed by the United States. It kept flying over the Soviet Union and was never shot down. It was the first stealth plane, based on radically new designs. Aerospace experts regarded it as the most important aircraft innovation since the jet-engine and called Ben Rich “the father of stealth.” This is how Ben Rich describes his family background and upbringing:

…[M]y own stern father, Isidore Rich, [was] a British citizen who had been…the superintendent of a hardwood lumber mill in Manila, the Philippines where I was born and raised. The Riches were among the first Jewish families to settle in Manila, and after one of my paternal grandfather’s business trips to Egypt, he brought back a snap-shot of the beautiful young daughter of one of his Jewish customers to show to my bachelor father…Marriage followed a few years later. My mother, Annie, was a French citizen, born and raised in Alexandria, a brilliant linguist who spoke thirteen languages fluently, a free spirit who pampered me…13

Illuminating in this story is that Rich inherited from his parents and upbringing an innovative spirit wide open to the whole world, which he used much later in a field that could not have been more remote from his family’s life and interests. But if his versatile mind encouraged Ben Rich to tinker with radically new aero-frame designs, it took a special trigger to produce the Blackbird. This is what we call “stress”: America’s fear of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

Yuri Slezkine called the 20th century “The Jewish Century” because Jews in the West and in Russia both absorbed and affected all surrounding cultures in major ways. This was the basis of their own, and of the modern world’s creativity. The 20th century was unprecedented in Jewish history when it comes to creativity. The move from marginality and exclusion to participation and involvement, the march out of the ghetto, explains the burst of modern Jewish creativity.

It is difficult to measure and compare cultural versatility objectively, in contrast to educational attainments that can be measured. Foreign language fluency might allow for an approximation of cultural versatility. In principle, knowing several languages should open the polyglot’s mind to different cultures and different ways of problem solving.

What can be said about the evolution of cultural versatility among Jews today? There are differences between the United States and Israel. Fewer and fewer American Jews are born abroad and have a life experience comparable to that of Ben Rich, and fewer and fewer master any of the languages their grand-fathers, and sometimes fathers, brought to America. But many, particularly younger Jews are travelling, absorbing new cultures and, occasionally, languages and also know enough of Judaism or Israel to be able to see issues from different perspectives. An interesting sub-group are the Russian Jews who immigrated to America over the last 20 years, today almost half a million. They are bi-cultural and bi-lingual. To draw conclusions about current American Jewish cultural versatility based on so few, and sometimes contradictory, data and some conjectures is hazardous. Maybe one can say that cultural versatility as a condition of creativity among American Jews survives but probably does not increase compared to the past. However, their versatility like their education is probably still higher than that of America’s general population.

Measuring the evolution of cultural versatility in Israel difficult as well. It may be argued that young Israelis born in Israel generally exhibit less cultural versatility than Israelis of a previous generation who were largely immigrants and were familiar with the cultures and languages of their home countries. However, today, there are signs pointing towards greater openness among Israelis compared to the situation some decades ago. A growing number of Israel’s young learn foreign languages, particularly English, and a growing number of Israelis travel to and work in foreign countries. Israel’s culture absorbs large numbers of foreign books, films, theater performances, music, art exhibitions and more. Can one conclude that Israel is becoming more culturally versatile?

The over-proportional growth of the Orthodox population both in Israel and America could reduce overall Jewish cultural versatility, at least in the short and medium term. This population respects and often knows one culture only. Long-term consequences are not predictable. Religious beliefs may prohibit some artistic production, but not necessarily scientific and technological innovation. Within the religious population and especially among the newly religious (Hozrim B’tshuva), there are individuals who have an intimate familiarity with both Western and Jewish Orthodox culture. Some of these individuals make significant contributions both in the arts and humanities, and in science and technology.