Jon Stewart is. Adam Sandler is. Superman and Spiderman are. Even Curious George is.
“When you’re a Heebster, you don’t have to work hard to be cool, you just have to be proud to be a Jew,” says journalist Lisa Alcalay Klug, the author of “Cool Jew” (Andrew MacMellis Publishing), a new how-to-book that is a cross between “The Preppy Handbook,” “The Jewish Catalog” and the Dummies/Idiots Guides.
“People come up to me now and say, ‘My name is Mordechai Lefkowitz, am I a Cool Jew?’ or ‘I’m Moroccan, am I a Cool Jew?’ and even, ‘I’m a shiksa, and I love knishes, am I a Cool Jew?’”
But defining who is or isn’t a Cool Jew isn’t Klug’s main interest. What she hopes to do with “This Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe” — the subtitle on the cover beneath the diamond-studded “Cool Jew” title — is to “inspire people to enjoy being Jewish, to be more informed and explore beyond the book,” Klug says.
The book can be seen as part of the wave of hipster Judaism that has produced the irreverent Heeb and Guilt and Pleasure magazines, JDub Records and reggae singer Matisyahu, “Challah Back” and “Yenta” T-shirts and HeBrew Beer. “Cool Jews,” however, also seeks to catalog the trend.
Klug’s interest in the topic began in 2005 when she saw evidence of Cool Jews all around the Bay Area, where she lives. She wrote an article about it first for the San Francisco Chronicle and later for the Forward — or The Forvertz, as Cool Jews would call it according to her “A Minyan of Ways You Know You are a Heebster” list.
“After I wrote those two pieces, I was convinced there was something bigger, and I wanted to write a book that reflects what’s happening in Jewish culture, with the love of Judaism and celebration of Judaism,” says Klug, wearing a fuchsia T-shirt embossed with the Heebster logo — an aleph-like H in a Superman logo.
In her matching brown hoodie and long flair brown skirt, Klug is much like the “Sheebster” illustration in her book of the cool Jewess, who also wears a T-shirt with a logo (“Ladino Rocks!”) and has “hips genetically programmed for childbirth.” The Sheebster, though, has curly “hair with a life of its own,” while Klug’s brown locks lie straight under her cool brown shades.
As for age, all Klug will say is that “a true Heebster is ageless.”
While the 235-page soft-cover book, with its spot-blue illustrations and crowded layout, may not be as slick as other publications in the genre, it is much denser and intense than its title suggests. It includes cute lists such as “Jewish vs. Goyish,” “Heeb vs. Dweeb,” the “Heebster Challah Fame” and “Super-Powered Heebsters.”
But it also goes beyond the humorous, with detailed illustrations of lifecycle events, like an explanation of “Betrothals According to the Laws of Moshe and Yisrael,” a list of kosher certifications or a competitive look at women’s hair coverings throughout history.
So does this mean Cool Jews are religious? For Klug, who was raised traditional but now considers herself an “Ashkefardic Neo-Chasidic Carlebachian Shomeret Shabbat Heebster,” the answer is yes.
Perhaps that’s not such a surprising answer coming from a descendant of the famous Zionist Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai of Sarajevo. But in the broader Cool Jew movement — one that extends beyond Klug’s book — the answer is generally no, or not necessarily.
Cool Jews, after all, may sport a tattoo of the Shema or a hamsa on their body, as per The New York Times article this summer titled “Hey, Mom, the Rabbi Approved My Tattoo.” Or they might be a JAP who knows a few words of Hebrew, like Norah Silverberg in the new teen comedy “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” where actress Kat Dennings explains the concept of tikkun olam — repairing the world (a favorite concept of Cool Jews) — to the character of Nick (played by Michael Cera, a Cool Jew if ever there was one).
But what exactly does it mean to be a Cool Jew?
That’s the million-dollar question for the established (read: older, moneyed) Jewish community. When community leaders ask, “How do you promote Jewish continuity?” and “How do you encourage Jewish engagement?” and most often, “How do you involve the next generation?” what they are really asking is: What speaks to people about Judaism?
For the older generations, it often meant identifying with Israel, remembering the Holocaust and fighting assimilation and intermarriage. But “the focus on Jewish continuity isn’t a motivating factor,” says Tobin Belzer, a research associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.
(Amy Klein is a JTA staff writer.)