25 November 2008

The People of the Magazine

The new Jewish magazines came all at once in the first years of this decade. September 11 formed their background more than it informed their contents; further back and more explicit was the breakdown of the peace talks at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and the start of the Second Intifada that September.

A certain period of confidence for American Jews began in 1967 with the Six-Day War, as people watched on television the reuniting of Jerusalem and thousands of Israelis streaming for the first time to the Western Wall. (Those television-watchers ignored the acquisition of the West Bank and Gaza.) The period of confidence ended in three stages: July 2000, when Arafat and Barak could not reach a settlement at Camp David; September 2000, when Sharon walked atop the Temple Mount; and September 2001, when Islamic terrorists attacked the United States. The proximity of the Intifada to the terrorist attacks made something clear, finally, to younger American Jews. Israel was not a metaphysical abstraction. It was a country with a particular politics (which happened to be a bad politics). It was not the only place where Jews lived, and it was not the only place where Jews could die. The attacks meant that the Holocaust was suddenly toppled from its status as the national trauma par excellence. Almost immediately the production of Holocaust literature ceased. It was as if American Jewry had been called into history once again, not as a successful group looking backward to a historical catastrophe and sideways to a troubled distant country, but as contemporary actual living Jews. And what was our response? A restructuring of secular young Jewish life around religion was no longer an option for an urban and suburban middle class one or even two generations removed from orthodoxy. So we got the rise of JDate, the triumph of Birthright, and a group of lavishly funded Jewish magazines.

Heeb is the most professionally produced of these publications, with the highest circulation, and the most aggressive sense of its mission, which is to insult, desecrate, and otherwise trample the feelings of religiously observant or just simply liberal Jewry—while always insisting on the possession of an essential Jewish identity. The old-style Jewish magazines carry ads with photos of attractive young Jews on their Birthright tours of Israel. Heeb, with its photos of even more attractive young Jews, argues that you can find them here at home. The old Jewish magazines carry long essays on the fate of the Jews, Israel, and anti-Semitism in Europe. Heeb profiles Joan Rivers. The old Jewish magazines are written by octogenarians. For Heeb, no one over 40 exists, and no one over 30 gets to be photographed naked.

Heeb‘s natural progression seemed like it would lead into the field of Jewish pornography. The most notable advertisement in the spring 2008 issue was for the Israeli porn site Assraelis.com. In summer 2008 they put out a swimsuit calendar, or half of one, with six glossy photos of blondes in bikinis. The injunction had once been to marry Jews. Now it is merely to masturbate to them. Or is it also to masturbate to them—so that even your sins are Jewish sins, forever circumscribed, and underwritten, by this unalterable essence? Heeb—and this is why older Jews, and advertisers, tolerate it—is conservative as only the truly self-satisfied can be, pretending to be victims while giving up none of the prerogatives of the dominant. To those who want to encourage the young toward “Jewish continuity,” which is to say, not marrying shiksas and shaygetses, the Heeb writers are useful idiots. Eventually they will grow up, the old can safely presume, and “return to Judaism,” which for them will mean donating to a reform synagogue and sending exactly the same party photos they now print in their magazine to the Temple Brotherhood newsletter.

Guilt and Pleasure, a publication of Reboot, an energetic group that organizes desert retreats for successful young American Jews to discuss their cultural Jewishness (explicitly defined to exclude religion), arranges its issues according to theme. There is the Fight Issue, the Health Issue, the Magic Issue. At the front of each issue we get neat factoids about Great Jews: “Great Jewish Boxers”; “Greatest Yiddish Insults.” (These straight out of the Hebrew School Chanukah gift catalogue.) The essays follow a pattern—identify a problem, subject it to stereotypical Jewish analysis, overcome the stereotype. The stereotype to be overcome in the Health Issue is that Jews are unhealthy, neurotic hypochondriacs. And yet Guilt and Pleasure, like Heeb, includes photos of its contributors at the front of the magazine, and every single author looks attractive, fit, and healthy. In the Fight Issue, devoted to the exploits of tough boxing Jews and Harry Houdini (a Jew of great fortitude), some actually wounded people—with limbs missing—suddenly make their appearance in a photo essay about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These photos are brutal. Equally brutal is the photo of the beautiful Israeli photographer who took them. You think of the line from the Health Issue, in an essay about being diagnosed with a brain tumor: “As luck would have it,” writes the author, “my cousin was the head of neurology at Sinai.” As luck would have it—ha! The position of G&P is that it’s the fate of the Jews to think of themselves as slouchy and neurotic, however glamorous they really are; occasionally they will “luck into” a post as the head of neurology at a New York hospital, as if this were not the achievement of generations of striving. In a publication that commands such resources; that attracts some real talent; that photographs the sufferings of maimed Israelis and Palestinians and can’t figure out what to say about them, this represents a refusal to take responsibility for the talent, perseverance, and courage of the Jews—who once had to build our own hospitals so as to employ our own doctors, who in times of trouble in the Pale of Settlement organized our own militias against the pogroms, and who built, both for better and for worse, the state of Israel. In 1969, in Portnoy’s Complaint, such suburbanized forgetting and refusal of the “world of our fathers” represented confusion, exhilaration, pain, and freedom. In 2008 it’s straight-up bad faith.

Nextbook.org, a web magazine about books, is an online resource for Jewish book lovers—like a more serious, more engaged version of Jbooks.com. It runs a very successful Jewish-themed reading series in various cities in the US. It publishes substantial essays about writers of the Jewish past and sometimes of the Jewish present. But the magazine has a basic identity problem. Highly conservative Jewish funders handed a mandate to highly liberal Jewish editors, courtesy of several million dollars from Keren Keshet—The Rainbow Foundation. The editors could run essays as excellently written and brilliantly conceived as they wanted, as long as they were only about Jews. The articles could be by anyone the editors liked—Jews and non-Jews alike—as long as the products pretended that only Jews have contributed to Jewish thought. But Jewish intellectual life since the fall of the Second Temple has not taken place in a vacuum. To create a venue that pretends it ever could have is to betray intellectual conscience. The money is a golden straightjacket.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Heeb, Zeek is the only other new Jewish magazine without an identity crisis. Cheaply produced, terribly laid out, Zeek is straightforwardly a (grad) student literary magazine filled with essays on Jewish themes. Many of these are straightforwardly boring; some are very good. In fact it seems that by allowing itself to be dull, nonprescriptive, and nondescript, Zeek opens itself to the possibility of being lively, controversial, and intelligent. (It is also the only one of these magazines to take religion seriously.) A recent Music Issue highlighted some of the problems of the other new Jewish magazines—is one supposed to care what is on Sasha Baron-Cohen’s iPod because he’s a celebrity, or because he’s a Jew?—but also had an interesting discussion of the Eurovision scandal surrounding the Israeli rock band Teapacks. One of the two essays on Teapot was by an Israeli artist who took a moment to look into the national situation: “Openly or secretly,” he wrote, “fears of an Iranian nuclear holocaust have seeped into the Israeli psyche. Last summer’s failed war in Lebanon shamed us, and the continued missile attacks from evacuated Gaza have frustrated and confused us, but the Iranian threat is something else.” You would be hardpressed to find these sentiments in the hyper-self-conscious pages of any of the other new Jewish magazines—or, for that matter, in the old Jewish magazines. “Shame” is not a word they allow themselves to associate with Israel. But the artist went further still. “Israel,” he wrote, “is a country whose true European roots are not in song contests, but in the Holocaust. The Holocaust, not Herzel, offers us the real founding narrative of Israel.…In Israel ‘Never Again’ is not a rally slogan, but military policy.” This, too, you would not read in Heeb, or Guilt and Pleasure. In Nextbook.org it would have to hide in a book review.

Compared to the Jewish magazines of previous generations—Commentary, founded in 1945 and now a stalwart of the neoconservative movement, or Tikkun, founded in 1986 and still a stalwart of Jewish progressivism—all these magazines are either silly or unfocused and confused. Compared to the very Jewish-inflected but non-identitarian magazines—Irving Howe’s and then Michael Walzer’s Dissent, Martin Peretz’s (and Leon Wieseltier’s) New Republic, Robert Silvers’s and Barbara Epstein’s New York Review of Books, William Kristol’s Weekly Standard, and even, for God’s sake, David Remnick’s New Yorker—they are just provincial.

And we began this essay with the intention of denouncing them. But to read them all through is to sense that even if their proximate cause is the easy availability of gobs of money from wealthy men who decided, in their declining years, to do something for the Jews after betraying tikkun olam for their whole working careers, they are nonetheless associated with a real historical situation, and a generational one: that of a group of young people raised on simplistic fairy tales about the Holocaust as the core of Judaism and then suddenly placed into a real world for which the Holocaust is no longer a useful analytical tool. It’s interesting to note that the one political intervention carried out by the website Jewcy.com (founded in 2006) has been not on behalf of Jews, but Armenians. When Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Discrimination League fired an employee for saying publicly that the Armenian genocide (by unrepentant Turkey) should be acknowledged by the Jewish organization, Jewcy.com organized a protest in New York. For years, some Jewish charities and even some Jewish intellectuals have said two incompatible things simultaneously about the historical position of the Holocaust—on the one hand, the Holocaust must be studied and taught in American schools because it was a tragedy with a universal character; on the other, it was an utterly unique event, to which no other mass murder should ever be compared. The campaign by Jewcy.com was not really directed against the conservative hysteria of the ADL, or of a Holocaust/Israel lobby more generally; it simply asked that the lessons taught in Hebrew school be given their logical, moral application. If you say “We must not forget” for one mass murder of a people, why is it fair to forget another one? It was an extremely effective point to make.

Likewise the pornography of a Heeb, the feeble “conversationalism” of Guilt and Pleasure, the bookish earnestness of Nextbook.org—all represent the laying bare of previously buried contradictions in the mind of the young American Jewish community. “Here is your Birthright tour to visit—the Assraelis!” says Heeb. “Here is the watereddown third generation of your victimization,” says G&P. “Here is how you hobble yourself when you look at intellectual history from an exclusively Jewish perspective,” says Nextbook.org.

The result of all of the money poured into Jewish “cultural” programs is a stifling, undeniable sterility. A people does not reproduce itself from such bad faith. “The greatness of this people was once that it believed in God, and believed in Him in such a way that its trust and love toward him was greater than its fear,” Hannah Arendt once wrote in her reply to Gershom Scholem over the Eichmann affair, during which Scholem had accused the great philosopher of lacking ahavat yisrael, a love for the Jews. “And now this people believes only in itself? What good can come out of that?”

No good can come of it, but maybe this: That our nationalism—racism, even—finally allowed unfettered expression on these American shores, will burn itself out as its contradictions become clearer. No one can look at Heeb, or the “Superjew” and “Yo Semite” T-shirts, without feeling ashamed—even if that magazine and those T-shirts are themselves products of that feeling of shame and are meant as a rebuke to it. The greatness of this people was also that it once believed its experience of oppression to be a universal one, and its fortunes tied to all those who are oppressed. There are many ways back to that belief, including through ethnic particularism, if one wants to find that way. Otherwise secular Jews deserve to become like people of Scottish descent: to wear yarmulkes twice a year like kilts, and toot shofars like bagpipes, calling no one back to righteousness.

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