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Arts & Culture Love It or Hate It, Heeb Debuts — and Rocks Downtown Manhattan

February 8, 2002
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It’s too early to tell how successful Heeb, the newest and most irreverent Jewish publication on the newsstands, will be — but the magazine sure knows how to party.

Throngs of young Jewish hipsters wrapped around a dingy corner of Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Tuesday night, waiting their turn to squeeze inside the launch party of the hyped magazine — the self-proclaimed “new Jew review” for funky Jews and non-Jews alike.

Inside, people dressed up like Lubavitch Jews twirled each other alongside a gyrating woman in a midriff top and calf-high fur boots. A man tossed down a jug of Manischewitz wine. A tattooed woman in a bikini top flirted with an artist. A V.I.P. room upstairs was roped off for press and invited guests, echoing a distinction made at the door.

All the while, partygoers nibbled on knishes and scattered matzah. A steady stream of the offbeat Gen-Y and Gen-X set, including a noticeable number of African Americans, squeezed by each other with barely room to breathe.

Simply put, the Heeb party was where Judaism meets cool — or, perhaps, ridicule.

Many are uncertain which it will be, given the magazine’s pejorative title and risque content.

The inaugural issue’s cover has a retro design featuring a black-skinned hand spinning a matzah on a DJ’s turntable.

Contents include an article on “Jewfros,” or Jewish afros; an interview with Peaches, a Jewish porn punk singer grabbing her crotch in a shocking close-up photo; the memoir of a man’s reported tryst with Jewish beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg; and, last but not least, a centerfold of Neil Diamond in red leather.

It doesn’t spare on language as tawdry as its subjects, either. They reprint the explicit lyrics of Peaches, whom it describes as 1970s rock star “Gary Glitter as a horny chick on cocaine.”

In Berlin, “scenesters were quick to recognize the genius of a woman spanking herself in pink hot pants and reciting raunchy deadpan raps,” the article gushes.

A photo of Orthodox Jews peering down a woman’s cleavage is indicative: There’s a lot of sex in Heeb’s first issue.

CNN’s TalkBack Live program hosted Heeb Editor Jennifer Bleyer on Wednesday for a discussion about the magazine, titled “Hip, hype or hateful?”

ABC radio host Steve Maltzberg criticized Bleyer for using a derogatory term for Jews as the title and for filling Heeb’s pages with content he said was freakish.

Bleyer, who was educated in Jewish day schools in Chicago and Detroit, said the name is something of a street term intended to reclaim pride in Jewish identity and heritage as gays have done with “queer” and blacks have done with “nigger.”

She was calm and poised on TV, reiterating her pride in the Jewish people at every opportunity and promoting the rights of all minorities.

Some in the audience congratulated Bleyer, but others disagreed with her.

“Let the girl have her magazine!” one African American girl exclaimed, while a proud Christian argued that naming the magazine “Hebrew Pride” would have better accomplished Bleyer’s goal.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Southeast regional director, Deborah Lauter, called in to the show to express her misgivings about Heeb.

“My concern is that the use of what has been a traditionally anti-Semitic epithet is not appropriate for a magazine that’s seeking to reach out and involve the younger Jewish community,” Lauter later told JTA. “While the goals of the magazine seem laudable, I think they could have chosen a less controversial title to attract their readership.”

But if the crowd at Tuesday night’s launch party was any indication, Heeb may have a considerable following.

One observer marveled at the masses, wondering how Heeb attracted so many guests — more than 1,000, according to Bleyer. They included a large number of “downtown” Jews, dressed in the area’s avante-garde fashions.

Most Jewish events in New York City attract yuppie Jews who are fairly involved in Jewish issues and live among the synagogues and Jewish institutions on the tony Upper West Side, said the observer — herself a 20-something, Upper West Sider.

Aside from Simchat Torah, when the Upper West Side is flooded with dancing drunk Jews until the wee hours of the morning, the woman couldn’t recall another Jewish event with such high turnout and energy.

Heeb’s backers are hoping the magazine will tap a new market.

The magazine is slated to be stocked next month by Barnes & Noble, Borders books and Tower Records, along with major independent bookstores across the country, Bleyer said.

It also is being distributed by a major bookstore chain in Canada. And Bleyer hopes to expand into the Israeli market soon.

Bleyer said she is confident the magazine will take off outside New York, where “so many Jews feel isolated from their local Jewish federations and are so hungry for something they can connect to,” she said.

She also thinks it will strike a chord with non-Jews, telling the crowd at TalkBack Live that anyone who’s ever eaten a bagel or watched Seinfeld is “Jew-ish,” so to speak.

In fact, a subscription advertisement for Heeb reads, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Heeb,” showing an elderly black man reading the magazine and smiling.

Bleyer, 26, who has published underground punk magazines since her teens, hopes Heeb will continue the tradition of the “old Yiddish muckraking publications” that were able to “discover new Jewish literary voices, intellectual voices, political voices and create a cultural artifact, as much as a really vibrant media venture.”

The magazine was started a year ago with a $60,000 seed grant from the Joshua Venture Fellowship, which encourages young Jews to pursue community-building, entrepreneurial projects. Steven Spielberg is one of the fellowship’s funders.

Bleyer is still working without pay, as is her staff.

The “exciting thing” about “being part of a vanguard” publication is that staffers still are determining the magazine’s shape, according to Heeb’s music editor, Joshua Neuman.

Heeb “will try to keep surprising people,” he said, saying its signature is in its “irreverent tone.”

“I’m sure the Jewish Week or the Forward has had articles about Allen Ginsberg or Neil Diamond before, but they probably haven’t written” with “the kind of attitude we do,” he said.

All of the content will somehow relate to being Jewish, Bleyer said, but she is “casting the widest possible net” over what is Jewish. She described it as “holding up a mirror to culture at large and seeing all the myriad ways Jewish life is reflected there.”

Bleyer, who described herself as a “post-denominational Jew,” said Heeb is “a lot about my pride and love of being Jewish and wanting to create something that would express that and resonate with my peers.”

As Neuman put it: “We’re the kids that used to suck the helium out of the Bar Mitzvah balloons.”

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