Smashing idols

Joshua Neuman (36) is a past editor and now publisher of the United States’s most popular Jewish youth magazine, Heeb. Yes, there is such a thing. It’s a glossy that was launched from a disused synagogue in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 2002.

Almost instantly the magazine resonated with Jewish youth worldwide whose culture is often perceived by outsiders to be self-marginalising and uncool. Yet Heeb, which appropriated a negative term for Jews — in the same way that gays have taken on board the term “queer” — grabbed attention beyond the confines of its own cultural group.

According to Neuman, the magazine is now distributed to a readership of more than 150 000 (although he doesn’t specify how many readers there are to each copy). Last weekend he visited Johannesburg and Cape Town to speak at a cross-provincial annual Jewish studies talk shop called Limmud. There he presented his latest irreverent idea: a Jewish swimsuit calendar included in the latest edition of the quarterly Heeb.

Models include an array of Israeli beauties doing things characteristically Jewish (although in a most immodest manner).

The cover girl is Leonardo DiCaprio’s partner Bar Refaeli. Photographed by Gilles Bensimon, she reclines on a beach, looking harassed, while being hounded by an army of lobsters. As Neuman puts it: “Here is the most kosher creature on Earth being stalked by the most unkosher creature.”

The Mail & Guardian spoke to him after he had discussed his career and ideas at the event, held at the University of the Witwatersrand’s medical school on August 31.

What are your thoughts on your South African experience so far?
I saw a great deal of Cape Town. I spent three days walking everywhere, and then I just got to Johannesburg today. I was emailing a friend back home and I said: “It’s heaven on Earth surrounded by electric barbed wire.”

How is the level of discussion between Jews at the Limmud symposium?
It is predictably better than America. If I do this kind of thing in Canada or England (I have probably done 200 speaking engagements since we started), no matter who’s in the audience it’s always more substantial. No matter how familiar they are, or no matter how alien it feels to them, it’s always a more substantial discussion than we would have in America.

Is the Heeb identity a fixed thing like punk or Rasta?
I don’t think those are fixed things either. I think the moment they become fixed things they start to wilt and die. That’s why I handed the editorial reigns of the magazine over to somebody else the day I turned 35. I didn’t want to be a day out of our demographic. I didn’t want to be clinging to the past. I didn’t want to be like an aging punk-rocker. I wanted this thing to change organically and to continue. What is so special about Heeb is that it’s an organic expression of a particular time and things change. The magazine has got to change in order to stay relevant, and maybe die.

I would be open to it if it ceases to be, if our take on arts, culture and politics ceases to reverberate in the souls of readers. Then, you know, we’ll just end it. That being said, we’re constantly adapting and, very self-consciously, trying to throw curved balls to our readers.

Just when they think they know where we stand on an issue we try to subvert that or play with it a little. Ultimately the part of Jewish tradition we connect with most is the idol smashing, and the last thing we want our readers to do is to hold up Heeb as an idol. If they’re reading the magazine correctly, they are smashing the idol of Heeb, I think.

If you are not editing now, are you the owner?
I am the publisher and a partner. I am a co-owner.

Who is the constant editor?
Our editor left in April to edit Eminem’s book. Movie director Brett Ratner [of X-Men] came in to guest-edit. I really like the guest-editor model but it didn’t work out for our upcoming politics issue. So I am kind of the interim editor but keeping a low profile.

Does your magazine ever really confront Middle East politics head-on or is it all in soft focus?
We have a different idea, I guess, of what head-on is. I don’t think magazines are particularly good at polemicising, or at least magazines in this day and age just don’t function well in that capacity. For us there’s the timeliness issue, but we don’t shy away from it. Robert Crumb did a cover of our issue back in 2005. His initial idea, and I want him to return to [that] some day, is a picture of Disney taking over Israel and building a theme park. One solution to solving the quagmire is to let the Disney corporation take over.

This upcoming issue is the politics issue — it will be a meatier issue.

What are the issues confronting young Jews in the US now?
Why am I Jewish? Why be Jewish? Do I feel like a young Jewish American? Isn’t that a weird question? Our readers don’t think of the issues that are important to young Jewish America. I think they think about the issues that are important to them and they feel comfortable exploring those issues in Jewish contexts: the energy crisis, the economy, jobs, poverty. I would say just issues that are important to regular people.

Will they vote as Jewish Americans or will they vote as Americans?
They will vote as young people. Jews in America are generally voting progressively. I think 75% of them are going to vote for Obama.

Is there actually such a thing as the Jewish vote?
There is. There is something like the institutional Jewish power vote.

Is the Jewish vote overrated?
The Jewish vote isn’t, but I think the Jewish youth vote is. I don’t think that young Jewish young people are going to be out of whack with older Jewish people. What is interesting is the conflict that exists here [in South Africa] between liberal Jews and orthodox Jews. In America there is none. In America you have the institutional world and everybody else. The majority lacks any power. It’s analogous to the situation here because, similarly, the minority voice is hegemonic.

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Matthew Krouse
Guest Author

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