Is Seinfeld Jewish Experts seek cultural definitions

Watching this show with his young daughter, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture's executive director Richard Siegel was thrilled to see yet another example of Jewish identity popping up in mainstream culture.

"It's a very reinforcing thing," Siegel said, which lets the viewer "be a confident Jew in public. That is tremendously healthy."

But can a bit of television comedy count as American Jewish culture? That depends on whom you ask.

Academics and culture mavens from across the country spent four days at Stanford University last week probing the past, present and future of American Jewish culture. Sponsored by the Taube Family Foundation, Koret Foundation and Shoshana and Martin Gerstel Conference Fund in Jewish Studies, the event marked the 10th anniversary of Stanford's Jewish studies program.

While many of the lecturers and guests make a career of pondering Jewish culture in the New World, few agreed on what this actually constitutes.

Octogenarian author, critic and scholar Alfred Kazin, a nonobservant Jew whose books include the autobiographical "New York Jew," looks to Mea Shearim, Jerusalem's ultra-religious neighborhood where Chassidic men with beards and black hats live minute by minute with God.

"That's Jewish culture to me," said Kazin, who had trouble finding Jews to include in his upcoming book about American writers' relationships to God.

Instead of focusing on God, he said, most American Jewish writers dwell on the day-to-day existence of the bourgeoisie. By Kazin's definition, Philip Roth doesn't make the cut. Only Saul Bellow wrestles sufficiently with God to count.

Harvard University Yiddish literature Professor Ruth Wisse takes a similar view, asserting that the first generation of immigrants was inherently Jewish vis-a-vis their language, diet and dress.

But shortcuts to Jewish culture no longer exist, said Wisse, who proudly describes herself as a Litvak — a Jew of Lithuanian stock. Today's assimilated American Jews, she said, must approach Yiddishkeit "through the…serious study of Jewish texts."

Other scholars at the conference offered broader, more inclusive definitions.

Jonathan Sarna, an American Jewish history professor at Brandeis University, won't limit his parameters of Jewish culture to the study of Talmud.

Sarna goes so far as to include TV's "Seinfeld" show, which traces the offbeat life of a single, assimilated Jewish comedian.

"Seinfeld" is "reflecting the life of American Jews," he explained.

Others disagreed. Stanford religious studies Professor Arnold Eisen compared Jerry Seinfeld's sitcom to "bagels and lox, which are no longer Jewish." He instead identifies American Jewish culture with Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and with artists such as Judy Chicago, who have reconnected with their heritage.

"American Jewish culture at its best is learned conversation among Jews about major issues," Eisen said. "It needn't be religious."

While some predict doom for American Jews, Eisen sees a burgeoning of this sort of "informed conversation." He notes the influx of Jewish film festivals and Jewish studies programs.

"These are not small things," Eisen said.

That nose-ringed hipsters are launching a Jewish counterculture through magazines such as Davka is another healthy sign, he said, which derives "from total comfort and confidence within America," as well as from a spiritual longing.

Richard Siegel, who co-authored all three volumes of "The Jewish Catalogue," likewise eschews arguments that Jewish culture is evaporating.

"We've…broken out of the institutions of the Jewish community," said the former hippie, who now sports a business suit and a short haircut.

Some American Jews fret that mainstream depictions of Judaism dilute the culture. But Siegel feels it lets Jews express their Jewish concerns and experiences in a broader context.

"Schindler's List," for example, will have more impact on Americans' attitudes toward the Holocaust than any work produced thus far, he predicted.

He noted that the movie's creator, Steven Spielberg, is a more or less assimilated Jew.

Pointing out that filmmaker Mel Brooks recently joked on CNN's "Larry King Live" that his next movie will straighten out all the kinks in the Talmud, Siegel said Jewish culture is becoming more and more a part of the mainstream media.

"It's everywhere," he said.