Arts & Culture

Hip-Hop Heeb Jumps the Shark

Never has so much been invested in being a hip Heeb, both financially and culturally. For those outside the New York metropolitan area, though, the specific patterns and emphases of that hipness may not have been made clear over the … Read More

By / August 25, 2008

Never has so much been invested in being a hip Heeb, both financially and culturally. For those outside the New York metropolitan area, though, the specific patterns and emphases of that hipness may not have been made clear over the past six years since Jenn Bleyer founded the flagship of kyke kool, Heeb magazine. Lisa Alcalay’s Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe is an indulgent guide to every nuance of that burgeoned cool along exactly the same lines as Heeb, but without the glossy production values or the topical articles. Genius might be 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration but “cool” is 10% inspiration and 90% presentation. Cool Jew is enjoyable, engaging, informative and a grab bag of both fun (“When do you swing a chicken over your head?”) and funny (Jewish Gangsta Tags) stuff. However, it is worth noting that although there is a plenty of new material here – especially valuing women, Sephardi culture, and traditional Jewish texts – all of it is in the easily recognizable pre-existing styles of the people Klug rightly credits as the originators of the trend for which she is providing the guide. Klug seems to have three agendas: to highlight many of the important elements of the New Jew Cool; to make elements of Jewish religious and cultural observance seem hip (“Real life Talmudic Riddles”); and to add some more Heeb-like hip Jewish-pride things – (“Sheebster, meet Heebster”) turning the Jew=Cool vibe into the form of a parodic life-guide. She achieves these things admirably, but there are scant new concepts for those people who are Jewish enough to grab a copy and few apparent reasons for anyone else to buy it. Especially with its carefully happy explanatory notes designed to make it accessible to everyone, Cool Jew is in grave danger of being distinctly uncool. Indeed, it’s in danger of being a book that sits on the Judaica shelf at Barnes and Noble for bubbes to buy their pierced and tattooed grandchildren as a follow-up to that great “so, you want Hitler to win?” line. The kabbalistic Shiur Komah outlines, among other things, the exact dimensions of God. The apparently earnest attempt to carry out this impossible, and absurd, task is a virtuosic attempt to underscore the absurdity of such projects of measurement. Cool Jew, by attempting to be an encyclopedic guide to everyone and everything that is, was, wants to be, or might have been fashionably Jewish, faces a similar, although perhaps less deliberate, self-defeating struggle for the credibility of its own project. By deliberately absurd and parodic appropriation of everyone and everything possible, the book generates plenty of amusement, while simultaneously undermining the concept – and possibly even the desirability – of Jews qua Jews as emissaries of the zeitgeist. It is unclear whether, through her frequently implicitly ridiculous judgment on Jewish/not Jewish, hip/not hip (“parsnip ; Jewish ; just has that ring to it: snip, snip”) Klug is deliberately undermining the connection between hip-ness and Jewishness. Are we laughing at “Top Seven Reasons Jews and Japanese are Related; 1. They got Buddha, we got Judah” because it’s meant to be such a patently absurd comparison or because it just IS an absurd comparison? Klug’s inclusivity is clearly over-the-top – a page listing where Jews live in 23 North American cities sits opposite a page explaining how to recognize if you are a long-lost Latino Jew. On one level this counter-productive inclusivity (Elvis?!) might suggest to Zeek-readers that Judaism and Jewishness, with their deep religious, human, and cultural responses to the challenges of life should have, at best, contingent intersections with the superficial and ephemeral judgements of what is hip and what is popular. It seems rather, that Klug takes an irreverent approach to the syncretic and appropriative impulses of contemporary trendsetting and includes material for logical, historical, comedic, aesthetic or polemic reasons, however tenuous. As well as potentially removing its own raison d’etre, there’s the danger that this relatively traditional Hanukah-type of gift book might remove the raisons d’etre of the artists it quotes or emulates. Like a Thai beach getting included in a Lonely Planet guide, a book like this might spell the end to the cutting-edge trendiness of anything included. For, despite its bubbly and eager tone, Cool Jew is as earnest a collection of Hebrew Hammer, JDub-y, Heeb-y, Jewcy-y, things as any establishment Co-ordinator of Jewish Life could want. In intention it is less Heeb and more like a cross between the Worst Case Scenario series, Lonely Planet guidebooks, and the Shulchan Aruch: it is not cool itself, it is merely a key to a cool foreign cultures real and imagined about which the readers need guidance. But, since it’s not for the cool, who is the target audience? Klug invites anyone who is “a strongly-identified Jew, more Jew-ISH, an Honorary Heeb, an ally, or a [jewishly] deprived Midwesterner” to dip in but why should they? Cool Jew has the high energy Jewish pride that marks Heeb at its best, but it sometimes falls into the trap that Heeb occasionally and its imitators to a greater extent do, namely the stereotypically kitsch. Big noses, circumcision, manischewitz, “oy vey” (or other frequent yiddishisms), herring, kibbitzing, rapping Rabbis, Jewfros – even retro forms of them – are just not funny on their own any more. The hip forum for guides like this is the Internet where reference, cross-reference, and intertextuality are only a hyperlink or a twitter away. The New Jewish Cool and, for better or for worse, pretty much anything hip in 2008, is either an event or online or both. The Borscht Belt’s dead and has been successfully exhumed already once this young century. Heeb’s been there, done that, Jonathan Kesselman made the movie, JDub recorded the soundtrack, featuring Matisyahu and Good for the Jews, Jewcy’s got the t-shirt and panties. And, if you want it, it’s all online. Who, under the age of 30, still needs the book?