Many of the Jewish artists and writers involved in the Berlin Secession and the expressionist circles of Der Sturm searched for an appropriate artistic language to express a modern Jewish identity. This marriage of modernism and Jewish tradition was part of a larger movement, inspired by Zionism, that sought to create a modern secular Jewish culture.

The philosopher Martin Buber coined the term "Jewish Renaissance" for this cultural enterprise in a speech at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel in 1901: "The specific characteristics of a nation find their purest expression in artistic creativity. . . . Thus, our art is the best way for our people to find itself." In this search for aesthetic, spiritual, and political renewal, a modern Jewish idiom was forged in a variety of styles.

Lesser Ury—celebrated for his landscapes and scenes of Berlin life—evolved a Jewish symbolism in his monumental depictions of noble figures from the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish past. Works such as his Jeremiah (1897) and his evocation of Jewish suffering in Jerusalem (1896) became touchstones for the next generation of Jewish artists. E.M. Lilien, who invented an iconography for the Zionist movement, was influenced by Jugendstil and the English Arts and Crafts Movement; the free-flowing ornamental style became a visual equivalent for the Zionists’ struggle for freedom and their vision of a better future.

Hermann Struck, one of the few religiously observant artists, depicted Jewish rituals, landscapes of the land of Israel, and spiritualized portraits of old Jewish men modeled on the art of Rembrandt. A master etcher and beloved teacher, Struck became an important figure for the younger generation of Jewish artists who arrived from the eastern provinces; it was in his studio, for example, that Ludwig Meidner and Jakob Steinhardt began a friendship and collaboration that led to the founding of the Pathetiker group. Inspired by Nietzsche’s writings, by the recently rediscovered art of El Greco, and by Martin Buber’s publication in German of Hasidic tales, the Pathetiker strove to depict the mystical states of the prophets.

At the same time that many of the Jews who belonged to the Berlin avant-garde were promoting an international cosmopolitan art, others were laying the foundation for a Jewish national art.