Jews' encounters with modernity – through new political, economic, intellectual, and social institutions, as well as new technologies and ideas – have engendered a wide array of responses that have transformed Jewish life profoundly. Nowhere is this more evident than in those practices that might be termed Jewish popular culture. In phenomena ranging from postcards to packaged foods, dance music to joke books, resort hotels to board games, feature films to T-shirts, Jews in the modern era have developed innovative and at times unprecedented ways of being Jewish.
While these works and practices reflect the diversity of Jewish life ideologically and geographically, they share a common rubric that distinguishes them from other forms of Jewish culture. Many examples of Jewish popular culture manifest notions of Jewishness that owe nothing to the traditional rabbinic concepts that have defined Jewish life for generations. But even those examples that do draw on Jewish traditions emerge from literacies, protocols, authorities, economies, and sensibilities that are distinct from and sometimes at odds with established Jewish precedents.
The term “popular culture” intimates something different from other kinds of culture, different especially from what might be thought of as elite, official, or “high” culture. Rather than try to establish fixed criteria for distinguishing popular culture from other cultural modes, it proves more valuable to note when culture is claimed as popular, who makes these claims, and to what ends.