Thursday, October 12, 2006

Jewish Hipsters

The young people involved as artists and audience in the world of avant- garde Jewish culture, the group I called in yesterday’s post ‘Generation Heeb’, fully embrace the influence of the outside world. They are as interested in how Jewish life changes and intermingles with other cultures as they are in Jewish culture itself. They are interested in Judaism strictly as a culture and remove all sense of religious obligation or affiliation. The latter is privatized; a person can have in his heart a total and pure faith, but publicly, religion does not figure as a feature of the scene. In principle avant- garde Jewish culture could be compatible with much of Orthodox life. ''Yeshivish at home, hipster in public.'' I am exaggerating, but there is really no reason why such combinations will not eventually occur.

The really creative feature of this new version of cultural Judaism, unlike so many earlier versions, is that they set out to deliberately make Jewish culture appear as something that is constantly changing, something that exists in the present and evolves with popular culture. At its very best it can make Jewish life appear even ahead of the curve, which is a feat that is quite difficult to pull off given the ferocious speed with which the contemporary musical and art worlds move. The now- ness of the scene, its homage to bohemia's and avant- gardes past, and its youthful devil may care in- your- face insouciance all make it attractive to young people. The young feel they are not being manipulated for the sake of some ulterior end, like becoming a Lubavitcher or going to Temple. Heeb culture aspires to be an autonomous scene that fits naturally into the stylish and youthful communities of young secular Jews. It can be found in neighborhoods like Alphabet City on the Lower East Side, Park Slope, Carol Gardens, Williamsburg and Red Hook in Brooklyn and Bucktown and Wicker Park in Chicago. The Heeb world view looks at Jewish life through the same prism as it’s demographic, so that the audience and artists are especially close in spirit, on the same page as they say.

It is interesting to compare Generation Heeb with two other groups of Jews devoted to culture. The first is the Modern Orthodox satirical, comedy web site bang it out. The latter is basically behind the curve, its strong point being parody. It treats politics, news, and culture as grist for joking around…a sort of elaborated Purim Torah, derivative and dependent on others to step out and say or do something. The site, though it has its share of college humor is frequently funny. The effect of reading the material however is that of a sideline spectator on a larger culture far away. The outside world changes, different players come and go, but Modern Orthodoxy and its anchor in the world of religion and Torah remains a constant. Even the more sophisticated secular Latke-Hamantash festival held each year at the U. of Chicago is essentially a spoof, a throw away item and not a cultural force. Heeb culture is frequently something new that is part of what is happening now, a creative take on the world we live in today.

A more interesting comparison is to the group known as the New York Jewish intellectuals centered on the Partisan Review of the late forties and fifties. There is a great deal to be said about this very important group of thinkers, and much has already appeared in various memoirs and studies. In terms of intellectual heft, seriousness of import, contributions to highbrow serious culture there is no comparison. In its day the Partisan Review crowd, almost all Jews, dominated much of the world of criticism and literature. There is a direct line of descent from Partisan Review to the New York Review of Books, Dissent and the Nation and on the right to Commentary, the Public Interest and the neo-conservatives. The Heeb group in comparison is a bunch of schleppers, nobodies. However in terms of influence on Jewish life the situation is more complex. Heeb is proud of its Jewish heritage and is intent on making a contribution to Jewish life. The New York Jewish intellectuals, even the formidable Irving Howe all graduated from Jewish life. Lionel Trilling may have gotten his start in Commentary, but he saw himself as an American Matthew Arnold, defending the genteel pieties of Protestant culture. Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv, Lionel Abel and the youngest of the group, the recently departed Susan Sontag all saw themselves as playing on a larger world or American stage. Their long term influence on Jewish life has been minimal. If anything they signify the inability of American Jews to develop an indigenous American Jewish high culture. Heeb culture being less pretentious and much more accessible has a better chance of having some influence. It would be wonderful if the culture continued to develop and became more widely known.

One final thought. Jewish bohemians in the thirties and forties, as well as the Jewish beatniks of the fifties and hippies of the sixties were poor and operated outside of the capitalist core. The Jewish kids who think of themselves today as hipsters, a term whose meaning is very different from the original use of the word in the fifties, are far from poor. All one has to do is look at the prices of condos in one of the neighborhoods where these hipsters live. When the beatniks and hippies used to live in Alphabet City they occupied rat infested tenements with junkies as neighbors. Today the restaurants on Clinton Street and Rivington Steet are not ashamed to charge a $75 for dinner. And they are full. With hipsters. Life is too fast and expensive to afford any significant number of people, (with the exception of charedim,) the luxury of forming a genuine counterculture. Apparently Jewish hipsters somehow have found a way to support their style of looking like they lead a bohemian life. I give them credit for creating the illusion of being cool and fancy free.


At 11:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But who cares if Judaism is hip? Hip is by definition something passing, transitory, shallow... Things that sound like they go against the "timeless" nature of judaism.

At 12:29 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

I know what you mean. Here's an example of timeless Judaism from Yeshiva University.

At 1:41 PM, Blogger LitaLives said...

First of all, Mr. Anonymous most probably considers YU a passing phenomenon, not part of the "real" torah world.
Secondly, it seems that the tape is part of YU's Kiruv (as opposed to Chizuk) efforts. If so, it is allowed to be more flexible in reaching out to all the tinokot shenishbu.
However, Anonymous is correct in his position that basing Judaism on some passing "hip" cultural activity/position is a very weak platform for building something long-lasting. It may very well be that there is nothing else these people will relate to, but it's still a sad commentary on modern day Jewry.

At 4:01 PM, Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Actually the "timeless" moves on the YU link can be dated to somewhere between 1981 and 1985. These kids must be really "hip", they're only about 20 years behind the times...


At 12:36 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Two sweet, but no talent Israeli girls put together a perky but otherwise undistinguished video that has now been seen 10,025,942 times on YouTube . Details plus the video are to be found on Jewlicious.

Not exactly timeless, but I would say influential.

At 2:02 PM, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Interesting posting. Well thought out. The whole hipster thing (from the frum angle) is mostly being perpetuated by those who were raised frum. Could write more, but it's erev Yom Tov.


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