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Arts & Culture It Helps to Know Your Audience: Girl Produces Magazine for Jewish Teens

March 24, 2005
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By day, 14-year-old Emily Larson lives the life of an ordinary teenage American girl. She goes to school, chats with her friends, plays guitar, adjusts to her new braces, and complains — just a little — about having too much homework.

But as soon as her homework’s done, Emily, a pleasant, soft-spoken and intensely focused teenager from Holliston, Mass., who is in the eighth grade at the Maimonides School in nearby Brookline, takes on her Hebrew name and morphs into Leah Larson, the publisher of Yaldah, a magazine for Jewish girls.

The magazine’s name means “girl,” and its second issue is just off the presses.

“A lot of people said they were very pleased with the first edition,” Leah said on a recent weekday evening. “Last night I was on the phone with girls from Crown Heights in Brooklyn who want to help.” She’s also heard from many parents.

News of the magazine is slowly spreading. People — including the religiously observant girls Leah hopes to reach — hear about it from her Web site, at Jewish day schools and by word of mouth. Copies of Yaldah have been ordered from Florida, St. Louis and even London.

Leah is most excited by the e-mail correspondence she’s struck up with readers from around the world, who live in countries as close as Canada and as far away as Uruguay — and even Japan.

Leah may be young, but she’s no newcomer to publishing. By the time she became a bat mitzvah, she’d had stories, essays, poems, illustrations and photographs features in local newspapers and in two magazines for teenage girls, American Girl and New Moon. She won a $300 prize for a story New Moon published.

Though she enjoys some of what American Girl and New Moon have to offer, Leah says these and other magazines can are shallow and lack Jewish values.

When her artwork was turned down for an American Girl cover contest in November 2003, Leah started playing around on her computer, turning disappointment into creative invention. That afternoon, she came up with the name and logo for Yaldah, and an outline for a magazine that featured stories and articles by and about Jewish girls.

Ten months later, on a shoestring budget and a prayer, Yaldah made the transition from Leah’s computer screen to full-color glossy pages. She raised the money for the first issue herself by selling advertising.

The first 150 copies sold out within two months, and Leah printed another 80 copies. She printed 200 pages. The second issue — Winter 2005 — was published with a run of 200. She’s now planning the spring edition, which she hopes to get out in time for Passover.

Leah may be tapping into an otherwise ignored market. If she is right, young Jewish girls from observant families will relish a fun and creative magazine where they can both express themselves within their religious world and broaden their horizons.

It’s a world captured by Stephanie Wellen Levine’s nonfiction book about Lubavitch girls, “Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers, and in parts of Tova Mirvis’ novel “The Outside World.”

The cover this season’s Yaldah features a 13-year-olds, Shani and Tova, standing in a snowy-landscape scene, dressed in stylish winter gear and smiling.

“Girls like to read things that look nice,” Leah said. Yaldah offers page after page filled with original color artwork, cute graphics and snappy photographs.

With advice from her printer and her father’s colleague, a graphic designer, Leah said, “This edition is much more pleasing to the eye” than the first one had been.

Leah knows her audience because they are her peers, and Yaldah’s friendly girl-next-door tone comes packaged in a jazzy, attractive design. The latest issue has a quiz on getting organized — what magazine for girls doesn’t?

A feature interview with the young Jewish actress in “Agent Emes,” a commercial video series that features religiously observant Jewish kids solving mysteries, adds the star-appeal readers her age enjoy. There’s a four-page spread on the basics of babysitting and an illustrated story by 13-year-old Zehava Gale, a classmate of Leah’s at the Maimonides School in Brookline.

But what sets Yaldah apart is its Jewish content, much of it coming from peers.

In an attractive two-page layout, readers meet Bina Banayan, a 13-year-old girl from a religious family in Panama, who describes her large family, her school the availability of kosher ice-cream and shopping.

There are ideas tzedekah projects and directions for a kosher Bazooka bubble gum costume for Purim, submitted by 10-year-old Jenna Grady, a fifth-grade student from Lexington, Mass. “Yaldah is Judaism in everyday life,” Grady said.

“I go to public school, so a lot of my life is secular. Yaldah is religious and I feel a connection to the people who write for it.”

How does Leah handle the demands of publishing a magazine?

“Somehow I’m doing it,” she says. She often does her homework during her free time at school and on car rides. Sometimes she even does it on the way to school, she said.

But Leah’s easygoing manner belies the intensity of her devotion. Last summer, she gave up the chance to go to summer camp, opting instead to write, edit, design page layouts, raise funds and negotiate with printers. Her supportive but prudent parents put a lock on the door to the family room, limiting the time Leah could spend on the computer.

Some companies have responded to her advertising pitches, including an online seller of modest clothing and an Israeli shoe company, but getting advertisers remains a challenge. “Advertisers are nervous about going with a newer magazine, worrying that it’s too small,” she said.

Leah hopes that this summer, she can finish the fall issue in July so she can go to camp.

Has her life changed since she became a publisher? “I’ve got my own computer on a big Yaldah desk in my room,” she said. “But my parents turn off the internet connection at 8 p.m.”

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