Jewlicious: Celebration of Jewish Cool

Letter From Long Beach, CA

By Gordon Haber

Published February 23, 2010, issue of March 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

  • Image 1
  • Image 2
  • Image 3
  • Image 4
  • Image 5
  • Image 6
  • Image 7
  • Image 8

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.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.