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Are You a ‘cool Jew’? New Book Helps Figure out the Answer


Are you a Heebster?

Jon Stewart is. Adam Sandler is. Superman and Spiderman are. Even Curious George is.

“When you’re a Heebster, you don’t have to work hard to be cool, you just have to be proud to be a Jew,” says journalist Lisa Alcalay Klug, the author of “Cool Jew” (Andrew MacMellis Publishing), a new how-to-book that is a cross between “The Preppy Handbook,” “The Jewish Catalog” and the Dummies/Idiots Guides.

“People come up to me now and say, ‘My name is Mordechai Lefkowitz, am I a Cool Jew?’ or ‘I’m Moroccan, am I a Cool Jew?’ and even, ‘I’m a shiksa, and I love knishes, am I a Cool Jew?’ “

But defining who is or isn’t a Cool Jew isn’t Klug’s main interest. What she hopes to do with “This Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe” — the subtitle on the cover beneath the diamond-studded “Cool Jew” title — is to “inspire people to enjoy being Jewish, to be more informed and explore beyond the book,” Klug says.

The book can be seen as part of the wave of hipster Judaism that has produced the irreverent Heeb and Guilt and Pleasure magazines, JDub Records and reggae singer Matisyahu, “Challah Back” and “Yenta” T-shirts and HeBrew Beer. “Cool Jews,” however, also seeks to catalog the trend.

Klug’s interest in the topic began in 2005 when she saw evidence of Cool Jews all around the Bay Area, where she lives. She wrote an article about it first for the San Francisco Chronicle and later for the Forward — or The Forvertz, as Cool Jews would call it according to her “A Minyan of Ways You Know You are a Heebster” list.

“After I wrote those two pieces, I was convinced there was something bigger, and I wanted to write a book that reflects what’s happening in Jewish culture, with the love of Judaism and celebration of Judaism,” says Klug, wearing a fuchsia T-shirt embossed with the Heebster logo — an aleph-like H in a Superman logo.

In her matching brown hoodie and long flair brown skirt, Klug is much like the “Sheebster” illustration in her book of the cool Jewess, who also wears a T-shirt with a logo (“Ladino Rocks!”) and has “hips genetically programmed for childbirth.” The Sheebster, though, has curly “hair with a life of its own,” while Klug’s brown locks lie straight under her cool brown shades.

As for age, all Klug will say is that “a true Heebster is ageless.”

While the 235-page soft-cover book, with its spot-blue illustrations and crowded layout, may not be as slick as other publications in the genre, it is much denser and intense than its title suggests. It includes cute lists such as “Jewish vs. Goyish,” “Heeb vs. Dweeb,” the “Heebster Challah Fame” and “Super-Powered Heebsters.”

But it also goes beyond the humorous, with detailed illustrations of lifecycle events, like an explanation of “Betrothals According to the Laws of Moshe and Yisrael,” a list of kosher certifications or a competitive look at women’s hair coverings throughout history.

So does this mean Cool Jews are religious? For Klug, who was raised traditional but now considers herself an “Ashkefardic Neo-Chasidic Carlebachian Shomeret Shabbat Heebster,” the answer is yes.

Perhaps that’s not such a surprising answer coming from a descendant of the famous Zionist Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai of Sarajevo. But in the broader Cool Jew movement — one that extends beyond Klug’s book — the answer is generally no, or not necessarily.

Cool Jews, after all, may sport a tattoo of the Shema or a hamsa on their body, as per The New York Times article this summer titled “Hey, Mom, the Rabbi Approved My Tattoo.” Or they might be a JAP who knows a few words of Hebrew, like Norah Silverberg in the new teen comedy “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” where actress Kat Dennings explains the concept of tikkun olam — repairing the world (a favorite concept of Cool Jews) — to the character of Nick (played by Michael Cera, a Cool Jew if ever there was one).

But what exactly does it mean to be a Cool Jew?

That’s the million-dollar question for the established (read: older, moneyed) Jewish community. When community leaders ask, “How do you promote Jewish continuity?” and “How do you encourage Jewish engagement?” and most often, “How do you involve the next generation?” what they are really asking is: What speaks to people about Judaism?

For the older generations, it often meant identifying with Israel, remembering the Holocaust and fighting assimilation and intermarriage. But “the focus on Jewish continuity isn’t a motivating factor,” says Tobin Belzer, a research associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

“Young adults are trying to do things that feel authentic to them, which doesn’t [necessarily] mean joining a federation or a JCC or a synagogue,” says Belzer, a sociologist who studies Jewish young adults.

Belzer sees a new lifecycle stage where people marry later.

“There’s this extended period between college and marriage where people are trying to find a way to be Jewish and create an identity of their own,” she says.

This can mean developing an identity through visible markings (tattoos, T-shirts), culture (music, literature) and even religion (the independent minyan movement where Jews start their own prayer groups rather than join established Orthodox, Conservative or Reform synagogues) — all of which can sometimes be difficult for older funders and donors to understand.

“There’s been a lot of controversy about it — people who fund these things want it to be substantive,” Belzer says. “They want to make people more Jewish, and by ‘more Jewish’ they mean more educated or more knowledgeable or promote Jewish continuity.”

But that is not exactly the end goal of people like Aaron Bisman, the 28-year-old founder of JDub Records, which launched Matisyahu and currently represents Balkan Beat Box, Golem and the new Sephardic rock group Delion. The company also hosts parties across the country.

“When I say I’m going to bring 100 people together for quality Jewish experience, and it’s more meaningful to them and creates a positive experience with their peers, [the funders] may hope the outcome there are more Jewish babies,” Bisman says.

“My goal is not to make Jewish babies; my goal is not to increase Jews in America. My goal is to increase Jewish identity, to increase Jewish content that we have in the mainstream,” he says. “Those are harder to identify.”

For people like Bisman, it’s about putting it out there without an end goal.

“We have to be focused on helping them enrich Jewish lives and trusting them,” he says.

It’s certainly not about being cool.

“I’m really anti the whole ‘cool’ thing,” Bisman says. “The whole thing is off — it feels very much like it’s been put on us. Nothing we do is about how can we be cool. This idea of cool emanates more from an individual or person who is comfortable with who they are.”

Cool is the wrong word, says Rachel Levin, the associate director of the Righteous Person’s Foundation and co-founder of Reboot, a network whose mission is “to engage young Jews in making Judaism relevant for their generation.”

“The cool factor is not the issue,” Levin says. “The issue is how do you take an age-old conversation and make it resonate with a new generation.

“I think it’s a matter of really engaging people in the conversation — that’s a really, truly open conversation, not to just convince young Jews to do what has already been done before them, but that is authentic and engaged in the broader world. They want to have their Jewishness be part of their whole identity, not subsume their entire identity.”

That brings up the question of whether “Cool Jews” or “authentic Jews” or whatever one wants to call the eager, culturally involved identified Jews of Generation Y actually is a movement.

Bisman says he wouldn’t call it a movement.

“So much of this is about not being labeled,” he explains.

Bisman says it’s a mistake to lump everyone together, that there are innovators, artists exploring Jewish culture, people creating their own prayer groups, others creating products and others creating events.

“If we’re all one thing, it’s over as soon as you label it: A trend becomes a fad and yesterday’s news,” he says. “But I don’t think that Jews will tire of telling their stories or finding ways to connect to each other.”

That should supply plenty of naches to the older generation, says Yoni Gordis, the executive director of the Center for Leadership Initiative, an operating foundation based in Vancouver funded by Lynn Shusterman.

The center is one of four foundations re-launching The Joshua Foundation, a nonprofit fellowship program that provided some of the initial funding for groups such as JDub Records and Heeb magazine.

“They are creating a Jewish community that people want to want to partake in or live in, and that’s better than what was offered by the mainstream 10 years ago,” Gordis says.

The older generation sees a bleak Jewish future, where identity and community are fading, but “we find it taking new tones and new forms,” Gordis says. “It’s not bleak. It doesn’t look so dark out there. It’s actually quite exciting.

“If they could see how much the young people really care about their history and their peers, how they deeply identify with their tribe and their generation, it would be such a relief to them.”

They might even be cool with it.

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