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For a generation of Jews, it's kosher to be cool

Call it Hebrew chic -- multiculturalism has sparked a movement bent on celebrating a culture that's newly hip.

March 03, 2004|Carol Eisenberg | Newsday

Jason Saft once believed Jewish cool was as incongruous an idea as, well, a Jewish James Bond.

Growing up in Levittown, N.Y., Saft, 26, admits he felt "ashamed and embarrassed about being Jewish." He wanted to be like all the other kids at Division Avenue High School, which is to say, Irish or Italian.

That was before he got in touch with his "kosher fabulosity," as he likes to say, and helped stoke a worldwide pop-cultural movement. A year and a half ago, after brainstorming with friends about cutting-edge Jewish humor for a new theater, Saft printed out their logo, ironed it onto a T-shirt, and went walking around Manhattan with it plastered across his chest.

The message was simple, racy and undeniably proud: "JEWCY," it said.

"I was mobbed," Saft says. "People were coming up to me on the street, Jews and non-Jews, saying 'I have to have that shirt.' "

Suddenly, as Saft discovered, it had become hip to be Hebrew in America. From the website, which proclaims that "Jew and cool are not incompatible, but go together like peanut butter and Kosher-for-Passover chocolate," to the arrival in downtown movie houses of the Hebrew Hammer, the first Jewish action hero in the guise of a Yiddishkeit Shaft, a younger generation is creating new narratives of what it means to be Jewish in America.

And JEWCY has become one of its emblems, capturing the flip attitude of a largely secular group weaned on rap, hip-hop and the new American love affair with multiculturalism.

With no advertising save Web logs and word of mouth, the T-shirt has become the accouterment of choice for a new breed of Jewish hipsters from Manhattan to Los Angeles. They listen to bands like the Hasidic New Wave and Hip Hop Hoodios, delight in the Yiddish-inflected humor of the magazine Heeb: The New Jew Review, and read a new raft of young, transgressive Jewish writers.

"I think it's too soon and too inchoate to call it a movement yet, but I really do believe there is something profound and exciting going on right now with young Jews who are trying to connect with Judaism in thoroughly untraditional and in thoroughly new ways," said Joshua Neuman, 31, publisher and editor of the 2-year-old Heeb.

"These are people who are really comfortable in their identities and so they can be playful about boundaries and make fun of themselves," says Alicia Svigals, a Jewish music pioneer whose work with the Klezmatics starting in the mid-'80s set the stage for the hipsters.

To be sure, there are plenty of young Jewish people who never bought into the caricature of Jews as meek, or had the self-doubt that JEWCY's Saft did, but for whom the revival of all things self-consciously Jewish is still meaningful.

Theirs is a generation, after all, reared largely in the American suburbs without firsthand knowledge of privation or persecution -- and for whom hip-hop is often more familiar than Hebrew. They have watched with fascination, and not a little envy, as one ethnic group after another has rediscovered its particularity now that Americans have come to embrace multiculturalism. Many are impatient with their grandparents' preoccupation with Jews as victims or "the chosen people," even as they experience the Holocaust as a Steven Spielberg film.

Many seek "new" connections to Jewish culture in the burgeoning music scene -- exploring jazz by John Zorn's Masada and Hasidic New Wave; klezmer by bands like Mikveh, Golem and Pharaoh's Daughter; and even novelty hip-hop by 50 Shekel.

Others pass around books by a new generation of self-consciously Jewish writers.

Some assert newfound ethnic pride by wearing edgy and sometimes explicit slogans such as "Yo Semite" and chortling over Heeb's homage to the big-hipped, big-nosed appeal of "the Jewess."

And a few have dedicated themselves to reclaiming the old slurs with a chutzpah that would surely make their grandparents cringe -- turning "hebe," for instance, from ugly epithet into an everyman greeting, spoofing Jewish cabals on, and drinking He'brew, "the chosen beer" from the Northern California-based Schmaltz Brewing Co.

"I think this time is going to be seen, in hindsight, as the beginning of a golden age," says Heeb's Neuman. "You could call it post-denominational Judaism. Our staff includes Jews from every denomination ... all of whom think of ourselves as trapped, for better and for worse, in the same historical narrative. And we want to have a dynamic, interrogating, nuanced, at times critical and at times irreverent relationship with all things Jewish."

Some acknowledge, though, that that posture might change if resurgent anti-Semitism abroad takes hold in the U.S.

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