Arts & Culture What Can Link Non-religious Jews? Guilt & Pleasure Offers an Answer

Mireille Silcoff already had been hired to edit the new Jewish magazine; now she just needed to give it a name. “At one point I just started asking people, ‘What are the first things you think of when you think about your Jewishness?’ ” Silcoff recalled. “You can’t imagine how many times ‘guilt’ came up — and ‘pleasure’ came up enough to be interesting.”

Guilt & Pleasure — “A magazine for Jews and the people who love them” — hits newsstands across North America this week, offering readers content ranging from long-form essays and memoirs to fiction, comics, photography and archival material.

The quarterly journal was created by Reboot, a three-year-old nonprofit network of young Jews that promotes projects exploring issues of identity and community. The magazine aims not only to inform and entertain, its creators say, but to get Jews talking about issues they think ought to be more fully explored.

“The magazine is a means to an end,” said Roger Bennett, its publisher along with Reboot, and vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies in New York. “All of it is meant to be raw material that anyone, anywhere can use — invite 20 of their friends round to their home to start to have an argument.”

Observers of American Jewish culture say the magazine debuts during an unusual burst of cultural creativity among young North American Jews, and reflects these innovators’ drive to assert themselves as distinctively, if not religiously, Jewish.

“It’s very much a sense of recovering peoplehood and culture as distinctive elements in the lives of young Jews, even yong Jews who seem turned off by what they find in synagogues,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University.

“I think that Guilt & Pleasure in some ways is also part of that: You don’t want to go to synagogue? Familiarize yourself with American Jewish literature, which will give you a feeling for Jewish culture,” he said.

Each issue will revolve around a theme. The first, called Home & Away, will examine issues of “place and identity and the nexus between them,” Bennett said, and includes original contributions from novelists Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar and Etgar Keret as well as graphic artist Ben Katchor.

The second will look at fights and battles; the third is about magic.

The idea that spawned the magazine was a series of highly popular salons that Silcoff — G&P’s editor in chief — ran out of her Toronto living room beginning three years ago. Soon hundreds of people were clamoring to get in on the discussions, and similar salons are regularly held these days in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Montreal.

Guilt and Pleasure’s editorial and production team hopes the new journal will generate similar talking parties across the continent — and thinks the interplay of the magazine’s pieces will itself function as a kind of debate.

“It’s meant to be the best discussion you’ve ever had at the dinner table, in a magazine,” Silcoff said.

As the magazine’s Web site, www.guiltandpleasure.com, puts it, “It would be a sin for an individual to quietly read a magazine that covers the theme of community alone.”

In this vein, each edition will be connected to interactive Web-based discussion guides.

The editorial board boasts a series of well-respected names coming out of a series of disparate fields. They include Shteyngart, Vapnyar and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer; magazine writers Susan Dominus and A.J. Jacobs; and photographers/graphic artists Gillian Laub and Seymour Chwast.

In what may be an unintentional nod to two icons of Jewish literature — Kugelmass, of Woody Allen’s “The Kugelmass Episode” and Alexander Portnoy of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” — the magazine’s editorial board includes scholars Jack Kugelmass of Arizona State University and Eddie Portnoy of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Shteyngart’s contribution to the inaugural issue is a short play, a fictional account of an interview between Mikvah Tannenblatt, senior correspondent for Kosher Homes & Gardens, and one “Jerry Shteynfarb,” novelist.

It opens with the following exchange:

Mikvah Tannenblatt: Where’s your mezuzah?

Jerry Shteynfarb: My what?

M.T.: Every other apartment on your floor has a mezuzah. Where’s yours?

J.S.: Oh, the door thing. Well, it doesn’t really fit in with my aesthetic, which is more, you know, secular. Besides, everyone else on this floor is Orthodox. Except for the nice Chinese lady down the hall.

As a “strong proponent” of secular Jewish culture, Shteyngart — who wrote the best-selling “The Russian

Debutante’s Handbook” and the forthcoming “Absurdistan” — says typical Jewish newspapers, emanating from a “very organized community basis,” don’t speak to him.

Guilt & Pleasure, which he called a Jewish Paris Review, does.

“For as long as there have been Jews in America, there have been Jewish secular cultural enterprises,” he said. Still, he sometimes wonders what, if anything, binds non-religious Jews.

“What among secular Jews makes us a community? Are we a community? I don’t have an answer for that,” he said. But he’s hoping Guilt & Pleasure will spur some discussion on the topic.

Sarna said young Jews are fueling a level of creativity and vibrance not seen in North American Jewry since the heyday of the Chavura movement three decades ago. Much of this activity, he said, is an effort to forge community by young Jews who want to differentiate themselves from other whites in North America.

The new journal is not the first such effort. In fact, Sarna said, the emergence of this broader creative energy is a “replay of a moment I’ve seen four or five times in my life — and all of them have had positive results.”

He cites several examples of related moments of the past:

In the early 20th century, there was Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s synagogue-center model, sometimes called the “shul with a pool,” which aimed to draw Jews into synagogues by offering gymnasiums, social halls and schools in addition to sanctuaries and prayer services.

More recently came Heeb, an irreverent magazine targeting young, Jewish hipsters which also has defined itself as a cultural movement, offering parties and literary events in addition to the publication.

Then there are entertainers like Sara Silverman, a comedian known for pointed, no-holds barred riffs on ethnicity — often her own.

She is “somebody who seems to have a quite deep feeling of what it is to be Jewish — you’d have to have that kind of feeling in order to mock the tradition the way she does,” Sarna said.

Silcoff said Guilt & Pleasure hearkens back to a Jewish tradition that has less to do with religion so much as wrestling with Jewishness.

“My mission is not continuity,” she said. “It’s not a magazine about keeping people Jews or getting people to marry Jewish people and have Jewish babies.

“What we’re trying to do is rekindle a kind of youthful brand of Jewish intellectualism that I feel has lain dormant for quite some time.”

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