Experts divided on whether the exaltation of Judaism as hip is a positive thing
Friday, January 13, 2006
BY BRYNN MANDEL
The "it" item of the moment is neither a sparkly handbag nor a pair of up-to-there boots. Try a Star of David. Or a Kabbalah string. Or perhaps, a "You had me at Shalom" T-shirt.
As pronounced in promotional material for "So Jewtastic," a now-airing VH1 documentary: "It's never been hipper to be a Jew."
VH1 isn't the only outlet touting the trendiness of being Jewish. Media as varied as the New York Times, the Associated Press and Heeb magazine have all taken note of a growing phenomenon referred to as the Jewish hipster, or heebster, movement. Broadly, the hipster movement includes Jewish cultural elements -- publications, parties and events, many based in the New York City area -- that often use the lens of irreverence, humor and kitsch to explore what it means to be Jewish.
It includes edgy T-shirts branded with phrases like "YO SEMITE," from chosencouture.com, and "Jewcy" from the like-named webzine and event promoter that advocates: "Being Jewcy is a lifestyle. It's pro-Manischewitz, pro-Jewfro, pro-Barneys Warehouse Sale... To be Jewcy is to be bold and visible, vocal and proud." The scene includes a battle of the Schwartzes, where online visitors to Heeb magazine vote for their favorite Schwartz of the Month. And it includes a growing number of Web sites like jewschool.com and dailyjews.com devoted to the examination of Jewish issues.
Is it just a fad?
Contemporary Jewish experts, rabbis and scholars diverge on whether the exaltation of Judaism as hip is a positive thing. Some call the heebster phenomenon a substanceless expression by a younger, largely secular generation. Others consider the new celebration of Jewish humor, fashion, music and tradition in pop culture a potential inroad toward preserving Jewish culture.
Equally disparate are views on what has prompted this moment of hip Jewishness, what it may signal for the future of Judaism and whether it is, in fact, a movement at all.
David Singer, director of research for the American Jewish Committee, which has conducted annual surveys of American Jewish opinion since 1997, said no specific statistics directly reflect whether there has been a shift among young Jews' religious identity in recent years.
Couched in broader concerns some Jews have about the religion's future -- half of all Jews who married in the past five years wed a non-Jew, according to Singer -- Singer said the labeling of Judaism as hip could be a positive counter to younger generations' aversion to organized religion.
"By all measures of Jewishness, there's less of it as you go down the generations," said Singer, explaining it reflects a tendency of young people of all faiths to be anti-establishment.
Like others, Singer said it remained to be seen whether the hipster Jew image would translate into anything more than a fad.
"It could be a 15-minutes-of-popularity thing," said Singer. "Who knows how long Jewishness is in, Jewishness is out."
'Flourishing of Judaism'
Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach of Chabad Lubavitch of the Northwest Corner, embraces Judaism's popularity of late. "You can only be excited to see this," said Eisenbach, noting as positive the widespread embrace of everything from Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu to keeping kosher. "I think this hipster part helps with the flourishing of Judaism."
Reena Judd, a Reform rabbi who was recently appointed as Quinnipiac University's full-time leader of Jewish life in Hamden, echoed a similar sentiment, though the 42-year-old professed herself as largely unfamiliar with the so-called hipster element.
"Anything that draws younger people into their Judaism has merit," said Judd.
But Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee, isn't so sure.
"The relevant point is whether this will lead to serious Jewish engagement. Where is the Jewish learning? Where is the connection with Jewish people and Jewish values?" asked Bayme. "This hipster movement certainly doesn't align itself with people of the book. But it might lead to that."
Roger Bennett co-founded Reboot, a New York-based nonprofit that uses culture -- from books like "Bar Mitzvah Disco" to a magazine to films and its Web site -- to explore Jewish identity, community and meaning in terms relatable to 20- and 30-somethings. Reboot launched salons, self-contained local gatherings that use the organization's magazine, Guilt & Pleasure, as fodder for informal discussions across the nation.
"There is something deeper than cool going on," said Bennett, who thinks the dying off of younger Jews' grandparents -- those who often kept Jewish rituals alive in families -- has prompted young adults to reconnect to their roots.
"It's young Jews coming together to use culture to create community... Many of these expressions use culture, they use film, music, to explore issues of historical value, ritual and meaning."
Sarah Bunin Benoir, a 30-year-old professor of contemporary Jewish studies at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, advocates that those who are concerned for Judaism's future should adapt to these new forms of religious expression.
"Young Jews who are not affiliated with synagogues or other organizations are finding their connections to Jewishness through culture," she said, noting even non-Jews attend some of these gatherings, which tend to take place in non-Jewish venues. "I personally think it's a wonderful thing that people are interacting with their Jewishness in new ways."