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Heeb crosses the pond

LONDON, Dec. 22 (JTA) — The New York-based magazine Heeb is coming to England — but whether the United Kingdom’s rather reserved Jewish population will appreciate the magazine’s offbeat urban style remains to be seen. The magazine’s British launch was held last week at a Jewish film festival, organized in association with the Jewish Community Centre for London, at a plush theater in north London. The four-day festival saw a succession of innovative Jewish films that, according to publicity materials, trod “the line between the holy and profane, the particular and the universal, the earnest and the irreverent” — sentiments that equally could describe Heeb. The magazine’s cheeky title alone — a self-conscious attempt to reclaim an ethnic slur — guaranteed it mounds of publicity before its February 2002 debut in New York. Its iconoclastic style soon brought it into conflict with mainstream Judaism, most notably when the Anti-Defamation League’s reacted with outrage to Heeb’s parody of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which depicted Jesus wearing a tallit as a loincloth and a bare-breasted Virgin Mary with body piercings. Nevertheless, by melding popular culture with controversy and kitsch — covers have included a disc jockey spinning a record-shaped matzah and a fervently Orthodox Jew in a Superman costume — the publication had a distribution of around 35,000, with an estimated readership of 150,000, according to Joshua Neuman, Heeb’s editor in chief and publisher. Most readers are in the United States, though the magazine also has subscribers in Canada, Australia and the Caribbean. Bringing the magazine to England seemed to be the next logical step. Nursing a drink at the launch party, Neuman, 32, didn’t let his jet lag overcome his enthusiasm. “Heeb is a cultural movement as well as a magazine,” Neuman said, pointing to a grass-roots strategy in the United States that has developed Heeb parties and literary and comedy events that a team of two staffers and some 75 volunteers hopes to export to the United Kingdom. Given the size of the U.K. Jewish community — less than 300,000 — Neuman acknowledged that Heeb is aiming for a small niche. But “sometimes in places with a smaller demographic you find some of our most enthusiastic readers,” he said. “People aren’t extremely out and proud about being Jewish in Houston or Kansas City.” Yet the magazine seems to have perplexed its constituency. Jo Schneider should be the perfect Heeb reader: A 28-year-old graphic designer, she’s proud to be Jewish, but the mezuzah fixed to the lintel of her flat in the heart of hip east London is pretty much the extent of her affiliation. She saw Heeb’s Web site and found it “quite funny,” so Schneider took out a subscription. “I liked the idea that it’s Jewish but not religious or political, because I haven’t been brought up with either aspect,” she said. “But having read it, I don’t actually get it. I don’t know the celebrities, or who they’re talking about.” In addition, she said, she found it disrespectful. “One thing I didn’t like is that it’s so aggressive,” she said. Neuman acknowledges that the Heeb format may need some tweaking to make it more accessible in England, though he maintains that the magazine’s American flavor is part of the attraction. “When people buy our magazine, they’re buying a little bit of New York,” he said. But it’s not just the U.S.-centered content that may baffle the British. Lawyer Darren Braham, 27, likes Heeb’s “out-there topics,” but believes most U.K. Jews won’t see it the same way. “The north London Jewish attitude is different than the New York attitude,” he says. “We’re a lot more muted over here.” His journalist friend Alex Sholem, 26, agrees. A few months ago, Sholem ordered a T-shirt from Heeb’s Jewcy clothing line. He liked the shirt — emblazoned with a picture of a bearded figure holding the Ten Commandments and the logo “Moses is my homeboy” — but he’s unsure about the magazine itself. “By its nature, it uses a lot of pop-culture references that will go over the heads of a lot of London Jews,” Sholem said. While it’s refreshing to read a Jewish publication that isn’t obsessed with communal wrangling, anti-Semitism or Israel, he said, “I’d be surprised if it took off or had more than a very small cult following. There isn’t the audience for it. The majority of Jewish youth here is just so homogenous and mainstream in their taste.”