January 9, 2006

by Andrew Silow-Carroll
About those crazy kids...

My response to this article in the NY Jewish Week, which alleged a "backlash" against the Jewish hipster thing -- although it was more like a handful of negative comments from a few people who can be counted on to throw cold water on such things. I write that:

In truth, the backlash against the scene is not nearly as strong as the Jewish Week suggested it is, nor have the 20-something Jews managed to transform Jewish culture in the ways they keep predicting.

And I suggest that:

Those veteran Jewish leaders, meanwhile, need to let go of their obsession with “authenticity” and “depth” if they expect to tap Jewish energies beyond an observant elite. Steve Bayme, American Jewish Committee’s director of Contemporary Jewish Life, was characteristically critical of the hipsters in the Jewish Week article. “Being Jewish isn’t whatever it is that Jews happen to be doing,” he said. “It’s speaking a language that has some degree of connectedness to Jewish people and Jewish values.… Pop culture is no substitute for serious Jewish learning.”

Except, of course, when it is. The problem here is one of analogy. If you compare everything in Jewish life to a Platonic (or is it Mishnaic?) ideal of Torah, prayer, and acts of loving-kindness, no wonder a lot of new projects are going to come up short. Those attracted to the hipsters aren’t looking for a synagogue, at least not yet. They are drawn to pop culture, exactly the way most Jews in my parents’ generation were more likely to read Leon Uris’ Exodus than the Book of Exodus. Was “serious Jewish learning” ever a majority Jewish choice?

Fully assimilated young Jews, who grew up outside of the social ghettoes that encircled their parents, are trying to recreate the ethnicity that came easily to those earlier generations. We can scoff at a Jewish life built around Manischewitz, mezuza necklaces, Allan Sherman records, and Woody Allen films, but these pop artifacts were and are daily, living reminders of what kept Jews Jewish.

Hipster Judaism will come of age when those initially attracted to Judaism’s pop surface find themselves with a desire to look beneath it. And I’m guessing many of these same folks now on the entrepreneurial margins will be leading — and reinvigorating — “mainstream” Jewish organizations when they do.


Andrew, our mutual friend Rabbi Hirschfield could not have said it better.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch at January 9, 2006 7:35 PM

At least pop Judaism in the old days (1880s-1980s) was premised on pride -- in peoplehood, in true populist experience, in language, in knowing. Today, though, Hipster Judaism, as typified in magazine names such as Guilt & Pleasure and Heeb, isn't Judaism, it's Steppen Fetchit Judaism, Judaism in blackface, ignorant and illiterate about most anything Jewish -- including real life experiences of real life young Jews. It is not written from within, or even cleverly from without, but by ideological, theological and cultural drifters. Nothing in the last century has dumbed down Jewish culture as much as these so-called hipsters. "Hip" once implied a knowing, a searching, an escape from spiritual and cultural laziness, an edginess based on really pushing our finest possibilities, not just pretending. None of these virtues are evident in the current so-called phenomenon. They fascinate only academics, journalists, idiots and each other.

Posted by: Jonathan Mark at January 11, 2006 5:21 PM

I think the Hipster Judaism is ultimately a joke on the likes of Steven Bayme, who can be counted not to distinguish between something like Hebe -- which is the ultimate mau mau job, a story that worthy of Tom Wolf (Imagine! Being paid money. By rich Jews. By philanthropists! To write about sex. About sex. And to make it dull! Not dull like Harold Brodsky a generation ago, with his famous oral sex scene that went on for page after pulsating, quivering, adverbial page, not dull like porn, but dull in a WHOLE NEW JEW way of full-color, illustrated, ironic-yet-not-funny dull! And being paid to do it! -- and between various other "hipsterisms" which reflect young Jews being creative young Jews, whether literarily (Zeek), ritually (Storahtelling) or even comically (Sarah Silverman).

The question is, a generation later, whose reputation was most tarnished: Leonard Bernstein? Or the Black Panthers? Or does it make no difference?

But I do venture to say that Yossi Klein Halevy's embarassment over his New Jewish Times juvenalia is *nothing* compared to what the Hebe tribe will find themselves with 20 years hence.....

Posted by: Reb Yudel at January 12, 2006 10:21 PM
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