Hip, young Jews make their elders uneasy

They wear irreverent clothes, marry outsiders. Youngsters say they are keeping the faith alive.

This is what vibrant religious life looks like in one corner of American Judaism:

• A T-shirt that says “W.W.B.D.?” above a sketch of Barbra Streisand.

• A man in drag teaching Torah.

• A Web site called Mazal Tov Cocktail, a self-described “encyclopaedia of Jewish radical culture” represented by a flaming rag inside a bottle of Manischewitz.

A marriage of hip and Jewish that emerged in the late 1990s has redefined religious identity for irony-loving 20- and 30-somethings from New York to Los Angeles and beyond. They flock to all-night multimedia celebrations of Jewish holidays; fill nightclubs where Jewish storytellers are the headlining act; start magazines, journals and Web sites — all while wearing a wide array of irreverent clothing. Among the edgier items is a bra made out of yarmulkes.

Traditional Jewish leaders who for years have been wringing their hands over declining religious observance among young people and rising intermarriage rates are hardly rejoicing at the trend. For them, it is a superficial fad as welcome as a Hanukkah bush.

But the young entrepreneurs spearheading these new ventures say their elders should look beneath the kitsch. There, they say, is the modern-day answer to the question that has vexed Jews for generations: how to keep the religion alive.

“Our mission is to promote Jewish literacy and to empower people to take it on their own terms,” said Amichai Lau-Levie, 36, president of Storahtelling, whose shows are an explosion of traditional ritual and contemporary performance. He sometimes goes onstage dressed as a woman, Hadassah Gross, a Jewish motivational speaker whose motto is “a little bit of irreverence is very good for battling irrelevance.”

“We use edu-tainment. We make them laugh. It’s 95 percent humor, culture, radical fun, and 5 percent meaning. If they want more, they’ll come back next time,” Lau-Levie said.

The significance of this debate within the community cannot be overstated. Jewish groups have spent millions of dollars researching how they can prevent young people from abandoning their faith — which studies have found they are doing in steadily increasing numbers. Community leaders have started programs ranging from free Israel trips to singles dances to hip cafes for the younger generation.

But these efforts, while achieving some success, haven’t come close to the popularity of the outlets young people have devised for themselves. Storahtelling is booked around the country. “Heeb,” the quarterly magazine most identified with the trend, printed 25,000 copies of its latest issue. It’s also trying to diversify into other media and continuing to sponsor sold-out literary events that have expanded from the United States to London and Berlin.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
AP, via the Detroit News, USA
Nov. 13, 2005
Rachel Zoll

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday November 15, 2005.
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