New generation of publications seeks ‘users’ to engage Jewishly

BY SUE FISHKOFF, JTA

NEW YORK — Ariel Beery is leaning over his espresso in a noisy coffee bar on East 44th Street, talking so fast about the Jewish magazine he’s just launched that it’s best to sit back, close the notebook and let the words fly.

“PresenTense is a transdenominational marketplace of ideas,” he begins, explaining that the articles, essays, poetry and artwork in the 48-page glossy that marked its first issue in late October are all created by young volunteers around the world.

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The 26-year-old Beery doesn’t write a thing himself, he says, so he can give others the chance to express themselves. That’s a risky step for a new magazine, particularly one that is depending on advertising, subscriptions and vendor sales rather than foundation grants. Not to mention one headed by such a young guy, who, like everyone else in the operation, is not being paid.

But that’s all part of the aesthetic of this new, fast-growing crop of Jewish publications created by and aimed at the twenty- and thirtysomething market. There are a half-dozen print magazines and many more online ventures, all newer than five years old, all billing themselves as a new way to engage young Jews and — to borrow an old phrase from Hillel — to get them to “do Jewish.”

The fact that these alternative publications are proliferating speaks to the dynamism and energy of today’s young Jewish writers, and puts them in good historical company.

“Every generation of American Jews creates publications that reflect the reality of its life,” says Columbia University journalism professor Sam Freedman, who likens the current Jewish media explosion to the emergence of the Jewish Daily Forward a century ago, and to alternative publications of the 1960s.

“There’s something happening at the grass roots.”

Like those earlier publications, the new young adult-oriented Jewish magazines and Web sites have created a community of writers and activists who know one another, read one another and often write for one another.

“The fact that it’s so incestuous speaks well of the holistic aspect. It’s part of the overall exploration of Jewish identity,” says Esther Kustanowitz, who in addition to being senior editor at PresenTense, runs two blogs, contributes to others and freelances for a host of Jewish print publications.

To critics from the organized Jewish community who complain that young Jews aren’t affiliating, the purveyors of this content counter, “We study, we read, we pray, we blog, we create Jewish music, we fight for social justice, we’re very affiliated — just not with your organizations.”

Israel is front and center in these new publications, if not always in the usual packaging.

The most recent issue of Zeek, a highbrow journal of essays, art and literature, features the musings of a newly religious gay man in Jerusalem.

Sometimes the Israel focus is straightforward. PresenTense scrapped its entire first issue, which was going to be about holiday cuisine, to focus on the summer war with Hezbollah, which it covered via first-person essays from Israeli soldiers, students and visitors.

“When Israel’s at war and our people are dying, it didn’t seem appropriate” to do otherwise, Beery says.

Jewish values, particularly social justice, charity and environmentalism, are very popular topics, as is Jewish history and religious life.

Culture, humor and the arts, especially books, film and music, take up a lot of space: Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, the Balkan Beat Box, Borat — whoever’s pushing the Jewish envelope.

But they differ from the mainstream Jewish media in their willingness to engage the world outside the Jewish community, their lack of interest in Jewish establishment organizations and their focus on people on the communal margins: gays and lesbians, Jews of color, Sephardim, left-wing politicos, non-halachic Jews, the intermarried, even non-Jews, who these magazines hope are among their readers.

And even when the tone of an article is breezy or sardonic, serious issues are being discussed.

“The Jewish people are smart enough to want content,” Beery says. “Jewish youth are not surface dimwits. Jewish funders think they’re these idiots that have to be shepherded towards the goal with sweets.” And that, Beery says, is insulting as well as wrong.

The biggest difference, however, may be that these new publications position themselves as discussion forums rather than finished products. We’re not talking at you, they say, we’re a conversation you can join. To prove it, they often write in the first person, they maintain Web sites and blogs where readers are encouraged to debate or berate each other, and they sponsor salons, lectures and other events to create communities of like-minded young Jews who share their concerns.

It’s a new vision of what a magazine can do.

“We want users, not readers,” says Tahl Raz, the 30-year-old editor of jewcy.com, an online Jewish publication that was launched Nov. 15. The site is experimenting with “wikis” and other interactive media formats that allow readers not only to comment on what they’re reading, but to change articles written by others — online, permanently — from the comfort of their home computers.

Raz says his staff will monitor the changes for spam or pornography, but other than that, it’s democracy gone wild.

Laurel Snyder calls the FaithHacker blog she writes for jewcy.com “a conversation, not a column.”

“I expect people to come back and correct me, to have that interaction,” she says. It’s an interaction she believes is sorely lacking in the mainstream Jewish community as well as its publications.

Most of the new Jewish media ventures acknowledge Heeb, the “New Jew Review” founded in 2002, as opening the door to a new kind of Jewish writing — clever, sardonic, knowing, brash and proudly, openly Jewish.

“It’s a model for us all,” Beery says.

“If we inspire them, then that’s cool, I guess,” says Heeb editor Joshua Neuman. “But we don’t think we’re the original Jewish publication. Hell, Moses was an editor-in-chief if you think about it.”

Many are also following Heeb’s lead out into the world. Heeb holds parties, sponsors film festivals and runs “Heeb Storytelling” evenings in cities across the continent.

“Heeb is creating a new kind of community among Jews 18 to 34,” Neuman says.

Unlike Heeb, however, these newer publications are consciously linking the conversations they hope to generate among young Jews to the articles in their magazines.

Guilt and Pleasure, an arts and culture quarterly launched early this year, started as a salon that editor Mireille Silcoff ran out of her Toronto home. The magazine’s front cover proclaims its mission as “making Jews talk more,” and offers readers tips on running their own salons. It refers to its articles as “salon fodder.”

PresenTense, which held a recent living-room discussion on “Jews and Money” together with students from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, is setting up three salons that will run monthly in the New York area, to generate conversations on the topics addressed in its publications.

But while Heeb is seen as a model in some ways, several of those involved with these second-generation “New Jew” publications want to encourage deeper Jewish engagement than they see Heeb doing, with its emphasis on sex and the shock value of images like the pig on the cover of its recent food issue.

Benyamin Cohen, founder of jewsweek.com and now editor of American Jewish Life, an Atlanta-based for-profit magazine, says reading Heeb “provides a few fun minutes, but at the end of the day it’s very unfulfilling.”

Jewish publications should aim higher, he believes. “OK, so they wear an ironic T-shirt, but what happens next? Do they go to a class in the synagogue? Do their kids go to summer camp?”

Snyder, the FaithHacker blogger and a former campus Hillel director, agrees: “If we don’t show people what’s significant and beautiful about Judaism — religiously, historically, culturally — there’s the danger” that all readers will take away from the publication is: “Jewish tattoos, wow!”