Mind The (Pop Culture) Gap

Mind The (Pop Culture) Gap

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Picturing the mid-20th-century New York that my parents grew up in, I always glimpsed it in black and white. It must have been, it felt to me, a world drained of color, something in between the grainy, dark photographs of my grandparents and the lustrous chiaroscuro of Alfred Hitchcock movies — films that I knew because my family convened after dinner every night around the family television set in the living room. Indeed, in an age before the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, we watched Victor Borge concerts and Masterpiece Theatre together, just as we took it for granted that on family car trips, it was my father’s beloved classical music that was going to be on the radio.

I internalized my parents’ culture. The consciousness of my father’s encyclopedic knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas was equally a source of pride to me; it afforded what the pop culture scholar Donald Weber has dubbed a “nostalgia for the nostalgia of Jewish fathers” — a vicarious and wistful but still often galvanic connection to the past.

Fast-forward 30 years, to a car trip last weekend with my 12-year-old daughter, Hannah. I was driving her to a bat mitzvah on the Jersey Shore, and she spent the entire ride listening to her iPod on her headphones. I asked her what she was listening to, and she gave me the predictable preteen line-up of female stars: Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift. When she took a break, I asked her to listen to a CD of cantorial music by Theodore Aronson, a cantor from South Orange whose resonant, mellifluous voice intoxicates me.

We didn’t get to the first chorus before she insisted that I turn it off. I reflected ruefully that Hannah and I, beyond living on different wavelengths, inhabit different planets, whose orbits are fated never to intersect. Not that my wife and I don’t enjoy spending time with our daughters enjoying the music of their generation; Taylor Swift, for instance, is wonderfully talented (especially now that she’s in her 20s and writing songs for adults). Our 8-year-old, Sarah, does hip-hop routines, along with her best friend (also named Sarah), to Demi Lovato’s “Heart Attack.” And our 5-year-old, Leah, does priceless renditions of One Direction’s “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful.”

Nevertheless, for all the regional productions of Broadway musicals that I shlep my children to, there is a serious disconnect between their world and ours. I see it in my college students too, in their lack of interest in anything that happened before they were born — or, for that matter, anything that happened before yesterday. Their reality is an entirely contemporary one, in which the past is not just irrelevant; it’s thuddingly, enervatingly dull. They, like our biblically named daughters, live in a world as far removed from the past as one could imagine.

There is precious little that is Jewish about the pop culture that the current generation of youth is absorbing. Their great grandparents came of age watching and listening to Al Jolson, Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor; their grandparents grew up with Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Zero Mostel; their parents adulated Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Barbra Streisand. American pop culture was largely dominated by Jewish stars, in a way that it is simply no longer the case. (The fact that so many Americans under 40 still rely on Jon Stewart for their news is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, although it may not augur well for our democracy.)

So I can send my children to day school and to Camp Ramah, I can take them to synagogue and to Hillel services, but in the end, the language that they speak will be the language of pop culture. For now, thankfully, this is quite sanitized — I’m dreading the day when they start listening to real hip-hop, with its explicit, degrading lyrics. I mentioned klezmer the other day, and I was surprised that my kids looked at me blankly. “What are they teaching you in that day school?” I asked, half jokingly, half petulantly. “Don’t they teach you about your culture?” As one, they turned away, iPods in hand, back to the culture that speaks, and sings, to them.

Ted Merwin, who writes about theater for the paper, teaches at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa.), where he directs the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life.

read more: