I was 16 and tripping on acid at a Grateful Dead show in Ohio, my brain thoroughly blown into another dimension, when a bearded face swirled in front of me, a man who wore his tzitzit under his tie-dye. His smile was gentle and his eyes intent. “Sister, if you ever go to New York City, you have to go see Shlomo Carlebach,” he said, pressing a business card into my hand with an address on West 79th Street. Delirious and hallucinating, I stuffed it in my pocket.
I held onto that business card for two years. My first semester at Columbia was mostly spent drinking 40s at punk shows on the Lower East Side and making ‘zines, but eventually I decided to seek out this mysterious rabbi. The synagogue was plain: pink walls, rows of metal folding chairs, a simple ark for the Torah, a disorganized bookcase, and a lace-curtained divider separating men and women. At the back near the door, a cherubic older man rocked and prayed. Turning, he asked my Hebrew name. Reb Shlomo smiled, kissed my forehead and said, “Chaya Sarah! I am so happy to see you.”
I had grown up in congregations where the aisles were used as catwalks during the High Holidays. Here, worshippers were freaks, geniuses, outcasts, and eccentrics—more like members of the tribe to which I imagined myself belonging. One was a former yeshiva student who now favored various Hindu gurus, but still kept Shabbat. One was a Kahanist alcoholic from Transylvania. One got arrested for aiding a runaway teenager and other congregants rallied to help bail him out of jail. Reb Shlomo referred to all of them as “holy schleppers.”
Years passed, and I continued to fiddle around in the liminal spaces between Jewishness and everything else. I met others who seemed to do so as well, consciously or not, and became sort of fascinated by how many other Jews there were like me. “Like me” meant someone who had hitchhiked across the country a half dozen times, traveling up the Pacific Coast highway with surfers, along Route 66 with Cherokee women, and across Interstate 80 with a shoe salesman. It meant someone who had been in and out of relationships with a punk boy from Memphis, an Ecstasy dealer from Toronto, a chain-smoking sculptor, an activist saxophone player, and a self-fashioned motorcycle adventurer. It meant someone who had glimpsed the divine at Sufi zikrs, Hindu kirtans, Buddhist meditations, pagan equinoxes, and Native American peyote ceremonies.
Like me also meant someone who had been reared on Solomon Schechter Day Schools, Shabbat dinners and bat mitzvah lessons. Someone who was second-generation American, named after a great-grandmother killed in Auschwitz, and who had grown up in an atmosphere thick with accents, foods, and melancholy. It meant someone who had studied in an Orthodox women’s yeshiva, and who felt maybe there is a Divine Source who expects something more from us than intellectual appeasement and Western liberalism.
For some, I began to think, being Jewish was the main-course brisket on their identity dinner tables. Everything they do, everyone they know is Jewish. Maybe they have a couple of side-dish identities—being a woman, a litigation attorney, from St. Louis—but by and large, they are Jews. But then, there were people for whom identity itself is more of a dim sum, and their Jewish part like one small, tasty dumpling amid a variety of other yummy treats. I was a dim sum Jew, and so were most of my friends. I had the idea one autumn day to make a magazine for us. This magazine, I decided, would be called Heeb.
It took about a year and a half for me to get my magazine going—to procure funding, cobble together a volunteer staff, set up a little office in my apartment, solicit and edit content, and find a designer who would work for nothing. I got a rudimentary website up, figured out how to accept online subscriptions, made a subscriber database, printed T-shirts in my living room, and organized a launch party. I had been working 80 hours a week and was just short of losing my mind.
Finally, the first issue came out. It had some funny pictures of Jewfros, hip-hop reviews by the grandmother of one of our editors, and a Neil Diamond centerfold. It had a dryly hysterical analysis of the connection between Nazis and Pizza Hut, a memoir of one young writer’s teenage affair with Allen Ginsberg, and staged photos of a sexed-up wedding. Nothing too declarative or definable. It was an attempt to capture what was Jewish by sideglance rather than head-on.
There was an odd publicity blitz. In a flash I was interviewed by the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant, CNN, ABC, New York Magazine, the Village Voice. It was disembodying, and the press generally either adoring, mocking, or fascinated. But through it all, the magazine clearly became a symbol that young Jews had arrived—and weren’t afraid to make fun of our ourselves. I found myself to be the movement’s unwitting spokesperson, and thought I was done with it until a call came one afternoon from Howard Stern’s show.
An NPR kind of gal, I had never heard Howard Stern before and didn’t know what to expect. It was like being stuck in a room with a bunch of fourth-graders for 40 minutes, more bizarre than insulting. Howard railed against my magazine, commenting on the unforgivable offensiveness of its name (what it must take to offend Howard Stern) and making tangential remarks about gas chambers. He also got me (under truly irrefutable pressure) to show him my ass. The show finally went to a commercial break. Howard leaned over, shook my hand, and said, “Sounds like a great magazine. Good luck.”
In many ways, Heeb was exactly as I’d intended it: secular, irreverent, political, and funny. It was my own subconscious writ large and distributed at Barnes & Noble. Therapy probably could have afforded me a less revealing sphere in which to work out my questions about what the hell this Jewish thing meant, but the train had already left the station.
As it turned out, it was a train that other people wanted to get on. Emails and letters came in from everywhere—Montana to Missouri, Long Island to Las Vegas—saying variations on the same thing: “Finally.” They wrote in about dating angst, neurotic families, and seders. They wrote lurid tales of what happened to them at bar mitzvah parties, summer camp, and Hebrew school. Some wrote about having been the rabbi’s daughter, or having shtupped the rabbi’s daughter (on the bima, no less). The cumulative effect spoke to some deep longing that people seemed to have—to be cool in their otherness, to belong to a subculture that was theirs alone.
But as more people got into Heeb, the more disconnected I felt. After a while, it was like I was putting out a magazine for people with brown hair. Sure, I have brown hair. I like having brown hair. But I can talk about it only so much until it feels irrelevant, not to mention self-indulgent. Being the poster girl for hipster secular Judaism wasn’t really me. And although I was glad for Heeb‘s success and worked very hard for it, the popular message was, roughly speaking, that being Jewish is cool.
Being Jewish, cool? Um, dork factor: ten.
It’s not cool now, it never has been, and it never will be. But, this was the message taken by many people, and I was its mortified messenger.
I preferred the definition of Jews as ultimate outsiders. That I bore this ridiculous message of coolness made me want to crawl under a rock. I finally felt true Jewish guilt, having created and unleashed a monster against my core beliefs. I didn’t want to be a “cool Jew.” If anything, I wanted to be a holy schlepper.
So after four issues and almost three years, with an easy exhale, I left.
Not long after I was having coffee with my friend Moishe, who grew up Hasidic in Brooklyn, had been a talmud chohem, sent to the most prestigious yeshivas. From a young age, the rabbis predicted he would be among the greatest minds of his generation. He loved learning Torah and was very good at it. Except he couldn’t find proof that God existed. He attacked the idea from every possible angle, but nothing could help him overcome his persistent doubt. So at 27, Moishe shaved his beard and went to live in the secular world, which he found terrifically cold and alienating compared to his Hasidic community, but at least there, he felt he was no longer living a lie.
Moishe and I were talking at a diner. At some point, he told me this story:
Once, there was a young rabbi. People came from near and far to hear this young rabbi speak, because the way he spoke about Torah made them feel like they were flying through the air. And when the rabbi spoke, he himself felt like he was flying, such was the enjoyment he received from teaching Torah. Once he met with his own rabbi in the privacy of his study. There, he confessed that he didn’t believe a word that he said. He didn’t believe that the Torah was true.
“Oy,” said the young rabbi, “how can I go on like this? They hang on my words, and I enjoy teaching them, but this is hypocrisy!” The great rabbi looked at him and replied, “So you enjoy it, and they enjoy it. You get joy from it, and they get joy from it. The only one it’s bad for is hypocrisy!”
I thought of how far I had drifted from the 18-year-old who hung out at Carlebach’s synagogue between acid trips and punk shows. Back then, I had my own weird little search going on for a place within Judaism. It was something I tinkered with in a quiet, personal way. When the tinkering turned public, it ceased to be mine anymore.
Moishe and I looked at each other, he who had left his prodigious study, and I who had left Heeb‘s hipster posturing. They were things we were good at, that gave others joy. But they were lies of a sort, and the guilt of hypocrisy was too great to brush aside. It felt more truthful—more Jewish, even—to be outsiders.