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When Is a Heeb a Heeb?

Until recently — what with the daily synagogue attendance, kids in day school, and assorted fringes, yarmulkes and whatnot — I had considered myself fairly religious. Then I read Jonathan Sarna’s essay last week on Washingtonpost.com, and found out that, as a Heeb magazine editor, I was not merely secular, but, in fact, a Jewish secularist.

According to Sarna, Heeb — which, I was gratified to see, he does call “smart, sassy” — is part of a movement geared to regenerate the kind of secular Jewish culture that thrived in the first half of the 20th century. With all due respect to the professor of American Jewish history, his essay — kind words regarding Heeb notwithstanding — served to remind me that mastery of the past is no guarantee that one has any great skill at predicting the future, or interpreting the present.

Indeed, it can at times hinder one’s powers of interpretation, since those who know history are at times condemned to see it repeating itself, where the less informed may simply see the manifestation of a new phenomenon.

Woody Allen noted that one may hate oneself and be a Jew, but that doesn’t make one a self-hating Jew. By the same token, one may be a Jew and be secular, but that doesn’t make one a Jewish secularist.

The historical movements that Sarna refers to were just that: movements. They were connected with ideologies and goals, and were products of their era. And part of that era was a belief in organizations, so much so that even the anarchists formed them. By contrast, young Jews today, like most young Americans, are less inclined toward group identity and more likely to think of themselves as individualists, even when they are being individualists just like everybody else.

“Jewish secularists” in the early 20th century were not just free agents running around throwing metaphoric pies in the face of tradition; they were ideologues who, for better or worse, hoped to transform Jewish life and culture by secularizing them.

And Heeb magazine? Well, it is certainly Jewish, insofar as it’s all about you-know-who, but secularist? That would imply that Heeb has some sort of overarching view of the role of religion in Jewish life and culture, and that definitely isn’t true.

Heeb’s editors represent a broad spectrum of Jewish thought. Some of us are shomer Shabbat, some are post-Orthodox, some are irreligious, some may be antireligious and most are some combination of all of the above. Individually, we have our own ideas about Judaism and what we’d like expressed in the magazine, but collectively, when we put an issue together, I can honestly say that the impact it has on the religious life of the Jewish people is not at all a concern of ours.

That may sound like secularism, but let’s place it in a larger historical context. When the Workmen’s Circle held a party on Yom Kippur, they were making a statement. When Heeb throws a party, it’s just a party. If there are people out there who confuse Heeb for Judaism, that’s kind of pathetic — though, as a quarterly, it does require twice as much devotion as going to temple two times a year.

David Deutsch is the humor editor of Heeb Magazine and co-author of “The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies” (St. Martin’s Press, 2005).

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