NEW YORK, Aug. 23 (JTA) — Jennifer Bleyer was never much for doing her Hebrew homework. Back at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills, Mich., where she was a student in the mid-1980s, she was something of a troublemaker.
“There was sort of a rebellious coterie at Hillel,” she recalls. “It was just restrictive enough to make us want to rebel.”
She won’t give names or details. There may have been a prank pizza order from a phone in the school office — after all, it was only middle school.
But if the teachers at Hillel occasionally scolded Bleyer for daydreaming in class, they also taught her the power of words and encouraged her to write.
Those formative years at Hillel are what made Bleyer the radical Jew she is today. Now, the 25-year-old is starting a magazine for other radical Jews.
Bleyer is one of eight “social entrepreneurs” awarded seed money and training from the Joshua Venture, a new fellowship program that encourages young Jews to pursue community-building entrepreneurial projects. Her project is Heeb Magazine: The New Jew Review, a national quarterly of arts, culture, and progressive politics for Jews in their 20s and 30s.
Billed as “the bastard child of Emma Goldman and Lenny Bruce,” Heeb’s editors promise it will be a vital forum for “cool Jews and their friends.”
Bleyer is no stranger to publishing. A freelance journalist who has written for Spin magazine and covered Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign for the Web site WorkingforChange.com, she has distributed her own underground magazines, or ‘zines, since high school.
As a 15-year-old in Cleveland, where she moved with her family, Bleyer was drawn to punk feminism and drifted away from “anything remotely Jewish.” But when she moved to New York to attend Columbia University, she realized her radical leanings and cultural heritage were not irreconcilable.
“I began to notice that so many other kids who were into punk and played in bands and published ‘zines were also Jewish,” she says.
In her sophomore year, Bleyer published Mazeltov Cocktail, a ‘zine for “young Jewish punks.” The response was phenomenal.
Bleyer sold upward of 5,000 copies and discovered that there were others out there who shared her desire to stretch the category of “Jew.”
After graduating in 1998, Bleyer worked for New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, investigating charges of police brutality. A political activist, she bristled at what she sees as the CCRB’s bureaucratic inertia and turned to journalism. While working as an intern at Harper’s Magazine, she began forming the idea for Heeb.
“Actually,” she says, “it really just came to me in a flash: There needs to be a new Jewish magazine.”
When the Joshua Venture announced its inaugural call for applications in the spring of 2000, Bleyer applied and was chosen last December from a pool of a hundred applicants.
“We were really blown away by how visionary Jenn was, by her drive, her commitment to her work, the cutting-edge way about her,” says Brian Gaines, Joshua Venture’s executive director. “Her long-term leadership potential for the Jewish community is tremendous.”
Joshua Venture gave Bleyer $60,000 in capital and will provide continued entrepreneurial training and support during the two-year fellowship.
Last spring, Bleyer began assembling a nine-member editorial board in preparation for Heeb’s inaugural issue in January 2002. Among the first to join the board was fellow Detroiter Ophira Edut.
Edut, who grew up in Oak Park, is herself a veteran publisher. In 1992, while a sophomore at the University of Michigan, Edut launched the multicultural feminist magazine HUES — Hear Us Emerging Sisters — with her twin sister, Tali, and a friend.
Eschewing waifish models and dieting tips in favor of photo essays on single working mothers and forum discussions among black women, HUES found an enthusiastic campus readership before going national in 1995.
Edut sold the magazine to a Minnesota publisher in 1997 and went on to edit “Adios, Barbie,” a collection of essays on female body image. The book has since been reissued by Seal Press as “Body Outlaws” to resolve a dispute with Mattel.
Now, with Heeb, Bleyer and Edut hope to connect with a long-neglected demographic of young and hip Jewish readers who can appreciate the attitude behind the magazine’s cheeky title.
“So many Jewish publications are tragically serious,” Edut says. “They have an almost apologetic way of saying, Yeah, I’m Jewish.”
“We want to create a space to explore the meaning of Judaism, to explore Judaism as a hybrid pop culture,” Edut says, adding with a laugh, “I mean, Jews are so behind when it comes to pop culture.”