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Regarding Media

Reaching Out, With Cheek, to Young Jewish Readers

The provocatively titled magazine Heeb hopes to strike a hip chord.

January 17, 2002|ALINA TUGEND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK --"This is the result," says Jennifer Bleyer, waving at proofs of the soon-to-be released first issue of Heeb magazine, "of a bunch of kids meeting for a year in an East Village basement and cracking jokes about rabbis and Hebrew school."

The glossy, 64-page publication she's holding includes a story about Jewish stereotypes in the television show "The Simpsons," a profile of Neil Diamond (complete with pullout poster), and a look at Jews' relationship to pizza (ambivalent, according to the article).

The "New Jew Review," as it bills itself, also has more serious stories on political activism in Puerto Rico, Israel and the U.S. But the main tone of the magazine is slick, edgy and knowing and, oh yeah, Jewish.

According to its promo postcard, the magazine is "an ambitious antitrust investigation into the monopoly on God. It is a sweaty prizefight between hip-hop and sushi in this corner and klezmer and kugel in the other. It is the ... love child of Emma Goldman and Lenny Bruce."

It is also an effort to connect with young Jews who feel disenfranchised from their religion. "I meet Jews all the time who have such ambivalence about being Jews," says Heeb's ad manager, David Kelsey, 31, whose day job is in the wholesale knish field. "For most people, their education ends at a bar or bat mitzvah, so they associate Judaism with that awkward adolescent age. Heeb is not just about being hip. We hope it gets people to reexamine their own Judaism."

Bleyer, the magazine's 26-year-old editor, describes herself as having a typical "suburban American Jewish schlock" upbringing in the Midwest. Her first foray into journalism was in her teens with the one-time publication of an underground punk magazine.

At the time, she says, Judaism "seemed the absolute anathema of everything I was interested in--punk rock, anarchy, literature. Judaism seemed nerdy and boring. But I never felt embarrassed about it. If anything, I wanted to connect."

She first made that connection as an undergraduate at Columbia University, when she combined her interests in punk rock and Judaism with the publication of another one-issue low-tech magazine, Mazeltov Cocktail.

Bleyer went on to dream up Heeb while an intern at Harper's magazine in spring 2000, and discovered she could get a $60,000 grant from Joshua Venture, a San Francisco-based foundation aimed at promoting young Jewish entrepreneurs. The foundation is backed by a number of organizations, including Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

Heeb, which plans to be a nonprofit quarterly, is due on newsstands around the country Feb. 5. The initial circulation run will be 16,000, and the first issue will cost $4.50. Distribution will be in major bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Although the magazine has yet to be published, the name Heeb--which is a deliberate misspelling of the ethnic slur "Hebe"--has raised some eyebrows in the Jewish community for some time.

"I understand the magazine's intent is to try and attract disaffected Jews, which sounds like a fine purpose," says Ken Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "But why have a name that really distracts from its purpose? Words like that still have power, and this tends to diminish the sensitivity to them."

Bleyer, who exudes a low-key confidence and a self-deprecating sense of humor, obviously doesn't mind if her magazine provokes the mainstream Jewish community. But she seems pleasantly surprised that--so far--the response has been as positive as it has.

Bleyer says that she received "hundreds and hundreds" of e-mails last year following publicity about Heeb in the Jewish press and in the weekly New York Observer, and very few were negative.

"Given the name and the tone of the magazine, which is not nearly as sanctimonious as the Jewish community likes to be, I'm surprised how supportive [the Jewish community has] been. For every 50 e-mails of support we get, there's one that accuses us of being self-hating Jews."

J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, one of the oldest Jewish newspapers in the country, says, "I don't have a problem with a magazine with that name. I think it's bold, and I think it's on to something. We have to think outside the box to reach the next generation." The Forward, which is published in Manhattan, placed an ad in Heeb's first issue.

Goldberg says, however, that "no one has shown how you build a constituency if you burn your bridges, if you cut the ties to the traditionalists and reach out to the next generation."

The Heeb staff, pulled from Bleyer's pals from Columbia University and other like-minded folk, is tiny. The advertising, which includes the San Francisco beer company He'Brew, the Knitting Factory nightclub and independent production company Freed Pictures, is minimal and largely on an issue-by-issue basis. But interest among prospective contributors is intense, judging from a recent meeting.

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