The Arty Semite

Why Branding Judaism Is a Bad Idea

By Gordon Haber

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I blame Heeb. Launched in 2001, “The New Jew Review” iterated a sharp, satirical take on Jewish culture. The idea was to edify through mockery: Thus a 2005 cover featured Sarah Silverman displaying her cleavage through a hole in a sheet. Although it can try too hard to shock (remember Roseanne Barr as Hitler baking “Jew cookies?”) Heeb is usually funny — and kind of cool.

Courtesy Aharit Hayamim
Israeli band Aharit Hayamim, one of the recent performers at Jewlicious Festival.

That is to say that the magazine is cool (or was — the print version folded last year). But now, perhaps emboldened by Heeb, a number of organizations are attempting to brand Judaism itself as cool.

For example, there’s the Jewlicious blog and its attendant festival, which I covered for the Forward last year. The festival (which took place February 24 to 27 in Long Beach, California) features Jewish music and Jewish comedians and Jewish panels talking about Judaism. The blog is strongly Zionist, with articles like, “Egyptian Riots… but is it good for the Jews?” [sic]. And blatantly supportive of sex between Zionists, with articles like, “The Unofficial Guide to Sex on Birthright Israel.”

It’s a little much for me, the strained attempt to connect Zionism and casual sex. It calls to mind a settler girl buying her long skirts at American Apparel.

A somewhat tamer approach is evinced by Tribefest, “an entertaining, interactive and educational celebration” coming to Las Vegas March 6 to 8. Its promo video is a montage of youngish Jews in sunglasses, showered by animated playing cards, while “Viva Las Vegas” plays in the background. Its website’s graphics — the distressed typeface, the vaguely Eastern illustrations — suggest a 72-hour ecstasy-fueled rave. But the events schedule suggests more bourgeois Jewish concerns: networking, politics, “food justice.”

One session is entitled, “Do You Have to Love Israel to be a Good Jew?” As it’s sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel, I’m guessing that the answer will be, “Yes, you do.”

Now, what annoys me about all this is not the idea of Jews getting together or getting it on. Nor am I that annoyed by the unquestioning Zionism (although I am irritated by how everyone at Jewlicious.com seems convinced that more democracy in the Middle East is bad for Israel).

What annoys me instead is the branding. It’s disingenuous. Both Jewlicious and Tribefest are essentially conservative. They want you to support Israel, to hang out with other Jews, and to marry a Jew. Which makes them just like your parents. And even though your parents know what’s good for you, that doesn’t make them cool.

More important: branding cheapens Judaism. It’s not a lifestyle or a product. It’s a faith, a culture, a tribe — however you want to define it, it’s something infinitely more precious and complex. Granted, these organizations need to promote themselves somehow. But maybe there’s a better way than sex and Matisyahu.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Tribefest, Sarah Silverman, Roseanne Barr, Jewlicious, Jewish Agency for Israel, Heeb, Gordon Haber, Birthright

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