Jewlicious: Celebration of Jewish Cool

Letter From Long Beach, CA

By Gordon Haber

Published February 23, 2010, issue of March 05, 2010.
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I’ve just spent my entire weekend at the sixth annual Jewlicious Festival in Long Beach, Calif., and I’m exhausted. Between sundown Friday and Sunday afternoon, I have eaten Jewish food, exercised with a Jewish boxer, laughed at Jewish comics and listened to Jewish music. I have talked about the Jewish past and argued about the Jewish future.

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I have met Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews, Persian Jews, African-American Jews, Sephardim, Hasidim and people who converted to Judaism. All weekend, every single conversation was in some way related to Jews, Judaism or Jewishness. I feel like an over-stimulated child, or maybe like I’ve spent 48 hours in a mikveh.

Which is exactly how the festival’s organizers wanted me to feel. Not the exhaustion, but the metaphorical immersion. Jewlicious, which ran from February 19 through 21, is designed to touch on a huge variety of topics and to appeal to young Jews with a wide range of backgrounds and interests. All this sounded great to me. But I must also admit that beforehand, I felt a little dubious.

A glance at the event’s Web site, with its ’70s-style scripted logo and picture of a cute girl in an “I ♥ Hashem” T-shirt, suggests a certain packaged irony, an attempt at a more religious version of Heeb magazine’s hipster Judaism. This is not the end of the world (after all, I’ve written for Heeb), but the organizers of Jewlicious. What was their aim or agenda, other than getting Jews to meet other Jews and talk about Judaism?

But first, the experience. Although I wasn’t really there to participate, I loved mixing with Jews who came from all over and have different kinds of observance. (It’s not every day you get to hear about Adorno from a Canadian Breslover Hasid.) And I’d have to be hard-hearted indeed to grumble about Jews enjoying themselves in a

Jewish setting. Two moments stand out in my mind. The first was on Friday night, when the festival director, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, was introducing Yuri Foreman, the WBC super-welterweight champion, and Matisyahu walked in. Suddenly it was like a frum celebrity harmonic convergence. And the second was on Saturday night, when I stepped out of the concert for some air and met a youngish Persian Jew from the Valley, who was practically glowing with happiness. “The musicians are amazing,” he said. “And it’s unbelievable, the diversity.”

But how diverse was it? While Bookstein told me that his organization’s surveys showed a neat divide between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and “unaffiliated” Jews, my own (admittedly anecdotal) survey suggested that the attendees were mostly observant. The audiences for the bigger shows — the concerts and comedy — were a sea of yarmulkes, and all weekend the hallways resounded with the swishing of long skirts. So instead of broad diversity, it might be more accurate to say that there were all kinds of observant Jews.

And although according to David Abitbol, a blogger, the festival has grown “edgier,” that’s a relative term. Yes, at the Saturday night show some of the comics got pretty raunchy, but I would have loved to have seen what a really edgy Jew, like Heshy Fried of, would have done with 15 minutes. And yes, there was a panel on Queer Jews, and another on medical marijuana, but I wonder if that was more about the sheer unavoidability of these topics. Observant Jews can no longer pretend that issues like homosexuality and drug use do not exist. Especially the latter: I had a lovely chat with one nice young bearded man while he got high in the parking lot.

Back to the question of why Jewlicious is doing this. On Sunday morning, I managed to corner Bookstein, and I asked him. “To help prevent a generation from opting out,” he said. “From disassociating themselves from Judaism and leaving the Jewish community behind. My philosophy is that this is a great way to build a dynamic and creative Jewish future.”

Now, let me say without reservation that I am all for a dynamic and creative Jewish future, and that Bookstein practically radiates positivity and good will. But most of the kids who showed up at Jewlicious reminded me of that anonymous quotation, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I did meet a few attendees who were secular, and a few who were interested in, or in the process of, becoming more religious. But I met many more who were already religious and looking to meet a nice Jewish boy or girl, or learn some Torah, or just hang around and have a good time. In other words, rather than saving the Jewish people from the Horrible Fate of Assimilation, Jewlicious seems to be reinforcing the cohesiveness of the existing community.

Over the course of the weekend, I was irritated many times. The application of tech buzzwords to religion (Open Source Torah! Judaism 2.0!) got on my nerves. As did the resolute belief that the Internet would save Judaism. As did the subtle but persistent message, “You’re great the way you are, but wouldn’t it be more great if you were like us?” As did the ferocious networking on the part of the some panelists, who could not go three steps without hocking something. Finally, I wish Jewlicious (and everybody else) would stop trying so hard to make Judaism seem cool. It’s our heritage, not a vintage T-shirt. For all these reasons, next weekend I’m going out for a beer with a buddy of mine who was raised Christian and is now a diehard atheist. But next year, you can bet your life I’ll be back at Jewlicious, if they’ll let me.

Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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