Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Generation Heeb

One approach to the problem of intermarriage and assimilation, which would have some of the features of an invisible hand process (see my blog on Starbucks) is to work on the common perception of Jewish life as being un-cool and uninteresting. How to do that is not an easy task. Kiruv (proselytizing) organizations try but they don’t have a clue because they are essentially un-hip themselves. The intuitive idea is to create some cultural world which young people can relate to and which is cooler than their own situation, and still has some tangential relationship with being a Jew. Such work is very different from the work of a Hillel. Hillel organizations after providing for religious services and kosher food essentially are a sort of Rah Rah Rah! for Judaism. They function, to some extent, like a fraternity or sorority on campus. I noticed a sign the other day at the Northwestern Hillel that read “Hookah in the Sukkah…Come join us.” Cute, but it only works for the sort of kid who thinks a sukkah at Hillel is the place to be. What about all the young people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Hillel?

I want to talk about a movement of sorts that speaks to these issues. I’m not even sure movement is the right word. There is this developing scene in New York, Philly, L.A., Berkeley, and even in Chicago that is a combination of music, arts, satire, in-your-face-outrageous whatever, and all with a Jewish patina. I like this crowd and I think it could accomplish a great deal. Apparently, I’m not the only one. The UJA Federation has donated a million dollars to Jewish arts organizations. They have funded twelve fellowships of up to $45,000 for emerging Jewish artists. The Federation is beginning to recognize that avant –garde art and culture have a huge impact both on young people and people who are not so young. A recent study by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture found that young Jews, even those who avoid synagogues and JCC memberships, read Jewish books, listen to Jewish music and attend Jewish concerts. The report noted that “the events that form the core cultural experience for young Jews aren’t overtly Jewish.’’ Unaffiliated Jews were most comfortable in secular venues, watching bands that blend Jewish music with other genres, like hip-hop and jazz. Some who were interviewed for the study described Jewish organizations by comparison as “bland” and “conformist.” Young people most always find the society of their elders bland and conformist, and they are usually right.

I’d like to give two examples from this cultural scene. There’s an organization in Chicago called Kfar and their offering a concert series this year called Tzitzit: Voices from the Jewish Fringe. Here are some of the groups that will be performing:

Shtreiml- a band that combines klezmer, gypsy music and jazz and won an award for their debut album, Harmonica Galitzianer

Juez- jazz and progressive rock rhythms with hip-hop, garage rock and Yemenite influences.

Simply Tsfat- a group known in the Orthodox community consisting of three Breslov Chassidim, two Americans, and one Israeli, violin virtuosity, flamenco guitar, Breslover melodies, and their infectious sense of joy.

Y-Love (Yitz Jordan)- a hip-hop, black rapper, convert (Bostoner chasid- who woulda thunk?) who weaves polyglot rhythms in English, Arabic, Yiddish and Hebrew with Aramaic thrown in. (I assume because he’s into Zohar.)

RebbeSoul- rock, world-fusion, Mizrahi chants, played by a power percussion trio using balalaika, darbouka, djembe, and cajon.

I don’t know about others but it certainly looks interesting to me, and if I’m in town, I’m going.

My second example of the scene is the provocative magazine called Heeb. I don’t know what exactly to say about Heeb. OTOH…OTOH. Sometimes Heeb verges on smut. Most of the time, it’s just a very funny magazine. They will do almost anything to twist the dialectic one more time, but I believe their heart is in the right place. Recent issues included interviews with Jeremy Piven and the very funny, and admittedly very foul-mouthed, Sarah Silverman. In the current issue entitled “The Food Issue” they have a pig on the cover. In this issue they have a piece called People of the Bulk: History’s Hungriest Heebs” where they discuss two figures in the Talmud with very large stomachs together with Mae West, Ariel Sharon, Buddy Hackett, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Wendy Wasserstein, Elvis Presley, Herod, and Richard Simmons. It takes a peculiar outré and eccentric imagination to put all this together, precisely the sort of imagination that might appeal to high-spirited non-conformist young people.

Heeb also runs parties and events around the country celebrating nothing in particular and bringing together young people interested in fun and social networking.

(If I had the space I would describe New York’s Jewlapalooza festival, JDub RECORDS, and the more serious music of the artists associated with John Zorn. Maybe some other time.)

If the Federations would only recognize that many JCC’S are so nowhere, (New York and Washington being notable exceptions), and the continuity of the Jewish people does not require elderly women play mahjongg in absolute comfort, there would be lots of money to create a creative edgy Jewish culture that would enable young people to feel being a Jew is something very special.

To be continued…


At 12:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Hillel and Hookah in the sukkah: The challenge Hillel's face are as you describe, but the better Hillel's are doing precisely what you advocate. Not all programs you see are for everybody or intended as such. Hillel's hire staff to work outside the bulding, not only for those who pass through the doors. That includes all sorts of cultural events, theater groups etc. That includes big names and littler names in all dimensions. Is Hillel reaching a100 %, no, but a recent event with Jeremy Piven sold out in a matter of hours. The best directors create multiple entery points for those who walk in and those who don't. The best rabbis show up on campus at events that are Hillel, Jewish Studies etc, but as importantly also where students are (even if they are not "Jewish" events), not to take them over, but contribute presence and caring. From personal experience, a simple act of presence, with a follow up note, can create a relationship that lasts a long time. It becomes chizuk, which can also open doors.

But, even somewhat involved students need cool programs, like the sukkah example. And don't be sure, they won't come, I sent out an email asking some students to help me put up my sukkah. One who did had never had a sukkah, was on the track team, and brought up in a Reform affiliated home. The other grew up with a sukkah and was a vegan. Fortunately, I found CRC vegan donuts to serve.

The other piece worth mentioning is that stuff like the Fringe in Chicago are geared to folks outside of university, 20's, 30's etc. More work is needed with that population.

A Former Hillel Director

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Neil Harris said...

A John Zorn fan... we should meet.


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