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Hipster Jews have new take on American Judaism

Rachel Zoll

This is what vibrant religious life looks like in one corner of American Judaism: a T-shirt that says "WWBD?" above a sketch of Barbra Streisand. A man in drag teaching Torah. A website called Mazal Tov Cocktail, a self-described "encyclopedia of Jewish radical culture" represented by a flaming rag inside a bottle of Manischewitz.

This is what vibrant religious life looks like in one corner of American Judaism: a T-shirt that says “WWBD?” above a sketch of Barbra Streisand. A man in drag teaching Torah. A website called Mazal Tov Cocktail, a self-described “encyclopedia of Jewish radical culture” represented by a flaming rag inside a bottle of Manischewitz.

A marriage of hip and Jewish that emerged in the late 1990s has redefined religious identity for irony-loving twenty- and thirtysomethings from New York to Los Angeles and beyond. They flock to all-night multimedia celebrations of Jewish holidays; fill nightclubs where Jewish storytellers are the headlining act; start magazines, journals and websites—all while wearing a wide array of irreverent clothing. Among the edgier items is a bra made out of yarmulkes.

Traditional Jewish leaders who for years have been wringing their hands over declining religious observance among young people and rising intermarriage rates are hardly rejoicing at the trend.

For them, it is a superficial fad as welcome as a Hanukkah bush.

“I’ve heard many off-the-cuff comments that are quite critical,” said Steven Bayme, an expert on contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee, the near century-old advocacy and social service group.

Keeping the religion alive

But the young thinkers spearheading these new ventures say their elders should look beneath the kitsch. There, they say, Jewish leaders will find the modern-day answer to the question that has vexed every generation including this one: how to keep the religion alive.

“Our mission is to promote Jewish literacy and to empower people to take it on their own terms,” said Amichai Lau-Lavie (36), president of Storahtelling, whose shows are an explosion of traditional ritual and contemporary performance. He sometimes goes on stage dressed as a woman, Hadassah Gross, a Jewish motivational speaker and widow of six prominent rabbis whose motto is “a little bit of irreverence is very good for battling irrelevance”.

“We use edutainment. We make them laugh. It’s 95% humour, culture [and] radical fun, and 5% meaning. If they want more, they’ll come back next time,” Lau-Levie said.

The significance of this debate within the community cannot be overstated. Jewish groups have spent millions of dollars researching how they can prevent young people from abandoning their faith, as studies have found they are doing in steadily increasing numbers. Community leaders have started outreach programmes ranging from free Israel trips to singles dances and hip cafés—all aimed at trying to hang on to the younger generation.

Storahtelling

But these efforts, while achieving some success, haven’t come close to the popularity of the outlets young people have devised for themselves. Storahtelling is booked around the country. Heeb, the quarterly magazine most identified with the trend, printed 25 000 copies of its latest issue, while trying to diversify into other media and continuing its sold-out literary events that have expanded from the United States to London and Berlin.

“What we’re doing is creating Jewish experiences where there otherwise weren’t [any],” said Heeb editor Josh Neuman (33), a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it led to Jews marrying more Jews. I wouldn’t be surprised if it led to Jews becoming more Jewish. But it’s definitely not the goal.

“This audience feels so comfortable because people feel they’re not being manipulated for some larger agenda.”

No one disputes that these events are attracting young people who previously had little or no contact with the Jewish community.

However, traditional leaders say it is difficult to see what the happenings provide other than a good time.

‘Distribution point’

Roger Bennett (36), vice-president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies in New York and a leader in supporting innovative programmes for young adults, contends the websites, clothing and performances are not an end in themselves. They are a “distribution point” for experiences that lead to deeper exploration of what it means to be Jewish, he says.

Bennett is co-founder of Reboot, a non-profit organisation aiming to recreate Jewish community through film, discussion salons, a quarterly journal and music. The music arm of Reboot has reissued the 1959 album Bagels and Bongos, a Latin-Jewish music recording by the Irving Fields Trio. Bennett is also a co-author of Bar Mitzvah Disco, a book of photos and essays about the coming-of-age rituals in the 1970s and 1980s.

He says the outlook of young American Jews is not so different than that of youth in other faiths, who also are less inclined to join a worship community and instead express their spirituality informally with friends and through individual prayer, books and magazines. Evangelical Christian leaders understand this dynamic and have responded by developing new Christian music, literature and film—a model Jewish leaders should follow, Bennett said.

“Jewish history is one of challenge and response. Its very strength is that it changes from generation to generation,” Bennett said. “It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Cultural shift

Reboot holds meetings that have inspired some of the more faith-oriented projects by young Jews. The Ikar worship community in Los Angeles was formed last year by 31-year-old Rabbi Sharon Brous, who is also involved with Reboot. The group is religiously traditional, with worship in Hebrew, but rejects the conventional synagogue approach by making volunteer work and social justice advocacy a central activity of the community—among other innovations.

“We wanted to provoke a cultural shift,” said Brous, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a leading rabbinical school, who said her organising has been modelled partly on the approach of MoveOn.org, the liberal political group—holding house parties to discuss religious and social issues, and coordinating events through the web.

Some leaders of older Jewish organisations are tentatively starting to acknowledge these efforts, but very little funding has followed and many youth-led projects are struggling financially.

“I think what the Jewish community has basically done is said, ‘It’s impossible to reach those people. We’ve been trying. We’ve put all this money into them,’” Brous said. “In some ways, it’s much easier to give up on this population than to look at what changes need to be made.”—Sapa-AP

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