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The New Jew Is Who?

Now that anti-Semitism has receded in America, young Jews are looking around and wondering what it means to be Jewish if being Jewish no longer means being persecuted.
 
 
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The Yiddish word galut means exile, and for thousands of years it defined the Jewish experience.

Jewish identity has historically been rooted in a sense of otherness, if not outright oppression. In America, at the very moment Jews started moving en masse into the middle class and dominating the intelligentsia, the holocaust reminded them that their survival was a mere accident of geography, that their freedom was and perhaps always would be precarious. As Irving Howe wrote in "World of Our Fathers," his monumental study of Jewish immigrants to the US, "Haunted by the demons of modern history, most of the immigrants and many of their children kept a fear, somewhere in their minds, that anti-Semitism might again become a serious problem in America."

As Jews assimilated into the American middle class, it was negatives that held them together: lingering anxiety about anti-Semitism, speechlessness before the horror of the holocaust, alienation from the gentile mainstream.

Yet if the idea of galut is central to Jewish identity, what happens while the exile ends? For a new generation of Jews, it no longer makes sense to define themselves by the hostility of the goyim. Younger American Jews have largely grown up unscathed by prejudice. No neighborhood, university or profession is closed to them.

"I think anti-Semitism is still an issue to a lot of people, but it was the motivating factor of many Jewish people's identity for the last fifty or a hundred years," says Jennifer Bleyer, founder and editor of the freshly-launched magazine Heeb: The New Jew Review. "It kind of gave them a reason to be. Especially in this country, where Jews have enjoyed an incredible upward class drift over the past fifty years, and have become virtually entirely assimilated into the mainstream upper-middle class and upper-class culture, very little of that paranoia about anti-Semitism is warranted."

In other words, anti-Semitism defined Jews externally. Now that it has receded in America, young Jews are looking around and wondering what it means to be Jewish if being Jewish no longer means being persecuted.

Clearly, it's about more than religion. Jewishness is an amalgam of ethnic, cultural and spiritual identity. After all, there's no such thing as a Christian atheist or a Muslim Buddhist, but you can scorn the idea of god or join a Himalayan monastery and still be Jewish.

So if a Jew can be anything, what is a Jew? That question, with all the historical tensions and progress it contains, is animating what some are calling the new Jewish renaissance. Even as orthodoxy flourishes in America, a new leftist Jewish movement, or a confluence of new movements, is swelling on both coasts. A group of audacious activists are, in the words of one writer, "heating up the core of Judaism."

You can see it in Heeb, which speaks to hip, urban Jews and seems to reinvent Lower East Side Yiddishkeit culture for the hip-hop era, with its Jewfro pictorial and profile of "The Last Yiddish MC." It's in books like Lisa Schiffman's "Generation J", a 1999 memoir of a pork-eating, intermarrying agnostic's search for Jewish identity, and in the anthologies like the recent "Yentl's Revenge" and the forthcoming "Joining the Sisterhood," both about young Jewish feminists.

It's in Jewish groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which fought the racial profiling of Arabs in the wake of 9/11, and in centers like Makor, a new Manhattan community center that features Yoga classes, jazz performances and presentations like "Jews, Muslims and Interfaith Utopia."

The new sensibility is reflected in the boldness of "Mirroring Evil," the hugely controversial exhibit set to open this Spring in Manhattan's Jewish Museum. Instead of predictably focusing on concentration camp victims, "Mirroring Evil" takes a look at the Nazis themselves, using techniques of irony and pastiche that spurn the hushed reverence usually accorded the Holocaust. In mainstream Jewish culture, the Holocaust is regarded as almost metaphysically unique and incomparable. But the artists in Mirroring Evil, like other newer Jewish thinkers, tend to see it as part of a whole century of brutality, one that we're all culpable for.

Rather than focus on the persecution of the Jews, younger Jews feel a responsibility towards groups that are, at the moment, far more discriminated against. "We're just not the underdog in American society right now," says Dina Pinsky, a 29-year-old doctoral student writing a dissertation called Personal Identities and Political Lives: Jewish Identity Among American Second Wave Feminists. "I'd feel guilty if I spent too much time focusing on anti-Semitism and not looking at people who are disadvantaged in this country because of their class and their race."

This refocusing of attention requires young thinkers and artists to slough off the pieties and anxieties of their elders. "A lot of people today are rebelling against the Jewish establishment," says Danya Ruttenberg, editor of the new anthology "Yentl's Revenge" "Part of it is that in the Jewish establishment, to make a hideously sweeping generalization, there's still a lot of talk of vicitimhood. Many of the structures of institutional Judaism were set up when they really were out to get us."

Bleyer concurs. "I'm very critical of the Jewish community harping on this fear of anti-Semitism," she says, "because it has diverted them from focusing on real issues of social and economic justice that affect everybody."

Of course, none of this is to say that anti-Semitism no longer exists in America. The Anti-Defamation League scrupulously documents neo-Nazi Web sites and anti-Semitic attitudes, and plenty of young Jewish writers recall Jew-bashing in their schools. Generation J author Schiffman notes the rumors circulating in the wake of September 11 that Jews had been warned to stay home and that the bombing was an Israeli plot. "I began to think if public opinion starts turning against Jews again, it will be much harder to continue with this Jewish cultural renaissance that's been going on," she said.

Yet if a lot of people still don't like Jews, very few of them are in a position to hold anyone back. As a child growing up in suburban Detroit, writer Ophira Edut was teased about being Jewish, but the teasers were people with less education and fewer options than she had. "If you think about anti-Semitism as racism towards Jews, it's a little bit tricky, because we're not without power in the world as we have been many times throughout history," she says. "Yeah, there are ignorant fools and maybe they are brewing up explosives in their tool sheds, but I don't feel threatened by them on a daily basis. I don't go to sleep in fear that some guy is going to roll up in a four by four and put a pipe bomb in my Manhattan apartment."

Distance from anti-Semitism, both historical and geographic, has bred the impish heresy that dominates new Jewish culture. Jewish renaissance writers have reclaimed epithets like "hebe" (Heeb changed the word's spelling for design reasons) and "kike" much as gay activists have adopted "queer." They've embraced ideas about Jewish power too sensitive for their elders to utter -- Ruttenberg notes that, according to an essay called "Jews, Money and Social Responsibility," one third of the multimillionaires in America are Jews, while Heeb's Web site says, "We are doing our best to locate those vestiges of the tribe who are said to control the media, the government, Hollywood and international finance, and convince them to support this endeavor."

Their parents' paranoia has become the stuff of comedy. See Tim Sommer's mordant, hysterical "Under The Twisted Crust" in the debut issue of Heeb, a faux-expose of the embedded Nazi symbolism in a new Pizza Hut product. "The Twisted Crust Pizza is the primary feature in a recent Pizza Hut advertising blitzkrieg, a public relations assault executed with a mixture of the cruel efficiency of the Waffen SS and the Golem-worthy scorched-earth strategy of Stalin's Red Army," he writes. Sommer proceeds to draw our attention to the disturbing parallels between the words "Twisted Crust" and the German word for Swastika, "Hakenkreuz," which literally means "Twisted Cross." Sommer decodes it all for us, "Twisted Crust = twisted cross = chewy and tasty little swastika = the bad ol' days weren't really that bad."

Not surprisingly, this sort of thing doesn't amuse parts of the Jewish establishment. "Some people have been livid and others just disgusted," says Bleyer about the older Jewish community's response to the title Heeb. Sure, some old-school Jews are delighted by the resurgence of Jewish identification among the young -- J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Jewish newspaper The Forward, has called Heeb "delightful," and The Joshua Venture, an organization partly funded by Steven Spielberg which aids Jewish entrepreneurs, gave Bleyer $60,000 to start her magazine. But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Jewish watchdog group The Anti-Defamation League, has publicly excoriated Heeb.

"It's counterproductive, silly, infantile and insensitive" to try and get attention by "using an epithet that is insensitive to Jews," he says. He's also complained that "Mirroring Evil" is a "slap in the face" to Holocaust survivors like himself, one that he says is especially repellent coming from a Jewish institution. "I expect a certain level of sensitivity, understanding, reverence from the Jewish museum," he says.

But this only underlies the fact that for younger American Jews -- particularly urban Jews -- their conflict is less with gentile society than with the Jewish old guard. "There is definitely alarmism," Edut says about old-school Jewish watchdog groups. A contributor to "Yentl's Revenge" and a consultant for Heeb, Edut also maintains the Web site Ophira.com, which is full of saucy slogans like "The Jewess is Loose!" While she has gotten a "couple of freaky neo-nazi emails," she has also received missives from "angry rabbis calling me a self-hating Jew."

While neither message really threatened her, she saw the rabbi's responses as emblematic of a suffocating strain in traditional Judaism. "The fact that my site was irreverent in any way meant that I wasn't having the proper respect for the culture," she says. "I went to a Yeshiva for kindergarten and part of first grade. They teach you a lot of fear. They taught us to fear the outside world. A lot of Jews, they don't want to lose Judaism, but they don't want it to be so boring and stifling of expression and individuality. It can be so joyless."

Joy is perhaps the cornerstone of the attempt to craft new Jewish selves. Because anti-Semitism no longer imposes an identity on them, young Jews today have the immense luxury of self-definition. Awash in options unknown to immigrant ancestors, liberated from the garish grasping of the suburbs, they're able to make a Jewish culture that borrows from the past -- the raucous anarchism of the Lower East Side, the creative lunacy of Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg, the traditional Jewish passion for social justice and civil rights -- that are newly relevant and totally contemporary.

Judaism is no longer inseparable from notions of being lost, rootless, adrift. Jews are finally at home, and not only in Israel. "My music editor went to Israel a few times when he was young and he really wanted to feel some intense connection there, but he just didn't feel it," says Bleyer. "He feels more connected when he's walking around the streets of the Lower East Side. This is the promised land. Here it is."

Michelle Goldberg is a Brooklyn-based freelancer whose work has appeared in Salon, The Industry Standard, Shift, Speak, the National Post and newspapers nationwide.