Fringe Voices Ricochet Coast to Coast

By Nacha Cattan

Published October 24, 2003, issue of October 24, 2003.
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Adam Davis was frustrated with the Jewish singles scene in Chicago. Gatherings organized by the Windy City’s local federation and Hillels were either too pricey or populated by the same circuit of clean-cut urban professionals taking reckless advantage of the events’ only entertainment — an open bar.

“You’d see the same faces every time,” Davis said. “There’d be a lot of business cards changing hands, the latest cocktails mixed with the highest-end vodka. It was a sort of dress-up-and-see-who’s-doing-what event.”

A theater actor, Davis, now 31, wanted more from his Jewish nightlife. So in 2001 he started Tzitzit: Voices from the Jewish Fringe. A concert series that bills itself as an “alternative cultural conduit,” Tzitzit features musicians who splice together klezmer and funk, Yiddish melodies and reggae, Ladino folk and American blues. The sponsor of Tzitzit, Davis’s Kfar Jewish Arts Center, is also planning a Jewish theater project.

Nearing the West Coast, the pickings for alternaJews were just as slim — until recently. So says Jason Ruby of Denver, Colo., a longhaired, 27-year-old drummer for Trash Can Fetus, a local hard-core metal band. That’s right, Trash Can Fetus. At Sabbath potlucks and “Matzah Ball” parties, Ruby had little to say to the single women floating past him.

“I remember attempting to hold a conversation at one of these events with a woman,” said Ruby, who is also a freelance architect. “I mentioned hard-core music. It didn’t last that long.”

Ruby took matters into his own hands. Last year he rallied some friends and founded Jews on the Edge. A thinly veiled attempt to meet a like-minded woman, Jews on the Edge fills a void for artist types overlooked by the organized Jewish community. As many as 50 people now gather for the group’s jaunts through Jewish cemeteries, art-house screenings, architectural tours of Denver and even dumpster dives for trash-art materials.

Voices from the Jewish Fringe and Jews on the Edge are just two examples of what appears to be a coast-to-coast explosion of self-styled Jewish fringe activity. Whether a testament to the acceptance enjoyed by Jews in American society or a protest against the mainstream community’s stodgy image, this proliferation of cultural collectives has spread beyond the hubs of New York and San Francisco. Loud, young and often irreverent, these trendsetters proffer Jewish culture to the disengaged, distinguish themselves from their parents’ Judaism and, to varying degrees, eschew establishment Jewry.

The Atlanta-based webzine offers a healthy dose of Jewish movie-star gazing, oblique looks at religious practice and spiritual thought and snappy coverage of envelope pushers. Benyamin Cohen, now 28, founded after being lulled to sleep for years reading about “shul politics” in his father’s Jewish newspaper, he told the Forward.

Paul Zakrzewski of Brooklyn has culled the works of 25 writers in the anthology “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge” (HarperCollins). Billed as an exploration of sexual fetishes, conflicted identities and the troubled legacy of the Holocaust, the anthology includes stories and excerpts by Nathan Englander, Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Safran Foer and Ellen Umansky. Zakrzewski is also joining the team working on Nextbook, an ambitious national campaign to boost “Jewish cultural literacy” using the Web, public libraries and museums.

Then there are the veterans: Heeb magazine, whose fourth issue is due out this month; Hub, a pan-ethnic art program in San Francisco; StorahTelling, a traveling Jewish ritual theater, and Jewcy, a clothing line and Jewish comedy night in Manhattan, to name a few.

“Being Jewish in and of itself no longer makes us on the outside,” said Zakrzewski, who is also an editor at Heeb. “When you have a very wealthy Jew running the city of New York, when you can’t go a day without hearing a Jewish reference, it’s the opposite. We’re as mainstream as you get.”

“There’s a fearlessness,” Zakrzewski continued. “You could have something like Heeb magazine come out, and you know there won’t be a pogrom down the street because of it.”

“What we’re seeing here is a natural evolution,” said Cohen of Jewsweek. “Jewish culture has gotten so narrow and cheesy that when you see something like Heeb or Jewsweek or ‘Lost Tribe’ crop up, nothing else could’ve happened. It’s not the same gefilte fish and Catskills your parents came up with.”

But a larger American trend may also be responsible. At a time when social and artistic boundaries are being pushed to extremes, it’s no wonder that young, intrepid Jews are experimenting with their own culture. On the flipside, radical elements are often absorbed into the mainstream. Bat-biter Ozzy Osbourne has somehow made his way into the living rooms of middle America; indie rock is often bought out by major labels and the Nodance Film Festival — an alternative to SlamDance, itself an alternative to Sundance — has become a major media event.

Jews on the fringe are no different. Even though their monikers are cheeky and provocative, most of them frankly crave the widest possible audience. In fact, almost all of these groups receive support from a Jewish organization. After all, if they truly wished to be off the Jewish map, they wouldn’t splash their Jewish identity across their product. David Lee Roth would never have worn a Jewcy T-shirt.

“Even though we are not a religious magazine, people gravitate toward us with religious-like fervor,” said Joshua Neuman, Heeb’s publisher and editor, who took the helm when Jennifer Bleyer stepped down this month. “An alternative movement is tapping into something a lot more mainstream than one would originally expect,” said Neuman, 31.

Yet a debate is simmering among these innovators over the value of producing content that critics say is only tangentially Jewish and whether certain philosophies are beyond the pale.

Media critic Douglas Rushkoff dismissed many of these groups. “I don’t think there’s anything real going on here for the most part,” said Rushkoff, a communications professor at New York University and the author of, most recently, “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism” (Crown).

“When I look at efforts of people taking spray-paint imagery from the 1980s, black subway-graffiti-art culture or turntable culture or, whatever, black penises, they’re appropriating imagery and cool from other cultures because they don’t feel cool themselves.”

Declining to name names, Rushkoff contrasted today’s Jewish subculture to that of the past: “The alternaJew of the ’70s was pot-smoking at a Zionist sleep-away camp, which still seemed to be communicating Jewish culture, kibbutz culture, socialism, some sort of resonant Jewish values. This culture seems to be promoting not values but the surface conventions of MTV and hip-hop.”

Cohen of Jewsweek retorted with a critique of his own: “For Judaism to be special and important to me, I have to fit it to modern-day society.”

“The problem arises,” he added, “when you have people like Douglas Rushkoff, who is too far out on the edge, who says, ‘Who needs God?’ That’s jumping over the cliff and hitting the rock at the bottom. The Jewish fringe is about being proud of Judaism.”

Despite disagreement over what constitutes the Jewish fringe, it has nonetheless struck a chord with charities. Heeb has received a grant from the UJA-Federation of New York; Amy Tobin’s Hub is housed in San Francisco’s Jewish community center, and Jews on the Edge is advertised on an online Federation-supported singles newsletter, L’Chaim.

The most visible fringe funder is the Joshua Venture. The San Francisco-based organization seeds the innovative and offbeat projects of young Jewish “social entrepreneurs” between the ages of 21 and 35. A partnership of various family foundations, the Joshua Venture gave Heeb its start and counts the Hub and Storahtelling among its fellows.

But groups like Jewsweek and Tzitzit have been left out in the cold. Foundation officials say the community has yet to catch up with these groups. “We are only beginning to identify what is an absolute explosion of grassroots cultural projects created by American Jews,” said Roger Bennett, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

Bennett is a cofounder of Reboot, a series of Utah-based seminars that allow creative types to brainstorm about new ideas of Jewish belonging. He said the main challenge is putting mostly older funders in touch with these groups and convincing them to experiment with noninstitutional models.

“The organized community needs to wake up and smell the coffee,” Davis of Tzitzit said about fundraising practices. “These grassroots groups are achieving the results that the organized community wants. We’re reaching the unaffiliated, culturally savvy young adults who fall through the cracks.”

Davis organizes concerts from his home, attracting 200 to 300 people per gig. Last Chanukah he promoted a festival at a Chicago alternative-rock venue, the Hideout, in which local bands played original songs written for the holiday. Eric Roth and the Silver Shmateez performed “Don’t You Want to Touch My Hanukah” to a raucous crowd.

As for Ruby of Jews on the Edge, his ruse worked. He met Barb Segal, and they’ve been dating for a year now. Will he continue to gather fellow nonconformists for dumpster dives now that he’s found his match? Of course, he said, “there’s more out there that interests me.”

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