Mag that gives you the Heeby jeebies

The Jewish Chronicle

When I was a student, a standard item of J-Soc wear was a discreet badge with three small, lower case letters: ujs. It was just subtle enough not to be noticed. If by some chance it was spotted, and its wearer submitted to interrogation, the option of non-disclosure remained open. We could always say, "Oh that! That's my badge from the Union of Jacket Stitchers ? one of the oldest trade unions in the country, you know."

A few years later, I noticed the garb had changed. Now UJS members wore T-shirts with the word 'union' at the top, 'students' at the bottom and an enormous JEWISH sandwiched in the middle ? in letters a foot high. From a distance, the 'union' and 'students' became invisible. All that was clear, slapped across the chests of a generation of young men and women, was the unambiguous identifier: JEWISH.

I mention all this only because I have just been sent the latest edition of HEEB, the American quarterly which styles itself as The New Jew Review. Heeb is so in-your-face it takes its name from an ethnic slur (albeit one that has fallen into disuse). It's like calling a magazine for gays Pansy.

That spirit runs through the magazine, all the way to the retail page. (Shouldn't that be wholesale?) On sale are T-shirts which make the UJS redesign look demure. Besides those which bear the word Heeb itself, there's the top that declares 'Moses is my Homeboy,' complete with a sketch of the patriarch bearing tablets of stone and a suggestive wink. Another, aimed either at women or gay men, asks WWBD: What would Barbra Do? The picture of Streisand is, inevitably, from her Funny Girl period.

Everything about the magazine is unapologetic and eager to shock. Whether it's a feature headlined Why Do So Many Goddamn Jews Love Billy Joel?, a semi-naked photo of the first Jewish Playboy "Playmate" or a plug for the Yarmulke Bra ? "sacrilegious lingerie at its finest" ? Heeb is keen to explore the side of Jewish identity your mother wouldn't like.

The latest edition has a theme: Guilt. The lead article on the topic has this introduction. "Go ahead and don't read this article. That's fine...It's not like I spent countless hours writing this piece or anything." Later a pictorial essay on guilt includes a portrait of a melancholic Jewish mother staring at an unringing phone and a shot of a plate of uncooked mincemeat ? garnished with cream to form the three Hebrew characters of the word Kosher. The piece is entitled "Milk and Meat."

Chances are, even the most liberal-minded reader will be offended by the magazine eventually. It might be the picture of the scantily-clad Filipino girl draped across a sofa with a come-hither look (Caption: "What Will Your Family Say?") or it could be the interview with the Jewish prisoner serving time for killing the wife of his local rabbi. (It turns out that the rabbi paid the killer $30,000 to commit the crime).

You can't help but feel uncomfortable. You find yourself thinking: "Should they really be saying that? Or showing that?" Underneath is a more familiar anxiety: "What would the gentiles think?"

I suspect this discomfort is the point of Heeb. It's to take Jewishness out of the realm of bagels-and-Billy-Crystal cosiness and locate it somewhere more dangerous and forbidden. Closer, in other words, to the edge.

That a new generation of American Jews feels able to enter this discomfort zone says something paradoxical about them: that they clearly feel truly comfortable. Only a Jewish woman with a Jennifer Lopez figure and no fear of anti-semitism would want to wear a T-shirt whose slogan is Jew-Lo. Only a Jewish man with tremendous tribal confidence would feel relaxed in a Jews Kick Ass shirt (available in Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jr and Jesus versions).

American Jews have clearly reached a level of ease rare in our people's history. The trickier question is: have we? This is not a purely academic inquiry. Heeb's publishers are hoping to break into the UK market but they wonder if, in their words, "Anglo-Jewry is ready for such a magazine."

My guess is that plenty of young Jews would love it ? just as their predecessors enjoyed the not-quite-as irreverent New Moon magazine a decade or so ago. But the New Moon example is instructive. For one thing, our community proved simply too small to sustain such a niche product. (Heeb needs to grab no more than one in 50 American Jews to have a 100,000 circulation.)

More importantly, New Moon always chafed against the established politics of the community. And I fear that's what would happen with Heeb here. Imagine the Anglo-Jewish organisations who would fall over each other to condemn that Milk and Meat photo. You could write the letters to the JC already. How dare they set such an example to our children! Don't our young people suffer enough anti-semitism on campus! This will lead to intermarriage and assimilation!

Before long, one of Anglo-Jewry's deep-pocketed funders would buy out the magazine ? ensuring that from then on, it would feature nothing more threatening than travel pieces on Israel and a feature on J-Dates.

I like Heeb. But the truth is, we're probably not ready for it. Which, I fear, is a worse reflection on us than it is on the magazine.