Young Jews mix pop culture, tradition to connect with roots

Posted: Friday, July 22, 2005

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — At ChosenCouture.com, T-shirts that say ''You had me at Shalom'' are for sale, along with ''He'Brew'' pint beer glasses.

The Web site is among a growing number of nontraditional magazines, music and fashion developed by young Jews seeking new ways to appreciate their cultural and religious roots.

''There's been a change in the air,'' said Sara Schwimmer, 28, who founded ChosenCouture last year. ''There's a whole new generation that grew up with Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld.''

Aaron Bisman, 25, is among those leading the trend. He founded the Brooklyn-based record label and event production company JDub Records for Jews who weren't necessarily involved with a synagogue. He wanted to create something for people around his own age whose outlook differed from that of the more traditional Jewish organizations.

Bisman represents several musicians including Matisyahu, a Hasidic reggae star who has gained fans and attention for his blend of music and religion. Matisyahu's first record, released in the fall of 2004, sold 20,000 copies in five months. His second album sold that many within six weeks.

Sara Joki, 23, of Saratoga Springs said Matisyahu and performers like him ''make me proud of my generation.''

''Religion is not the most popular thing in youth culture these days,'' said Joki, who is Jewish. ''But people like Matisyahu going on Jimmy Kimmel and singing about God, and seeing people go wild for it, it's just amazing.''

The fate of Jews around Joki's age has been a central concern for Jewish leaders. They fear these young people will lose all connection with their religion, growing up at a time when interfaith marriage is commonplace and religious observance by many Jews is declining.

Jewish philanthropists have spent millions of dollars developing new programs for people under age 40, including free trips to Israel for college students and coffeehouse-style performance spaces where Jews can socialize.

Yet many young Jews have, on their own, created alternative ways of connecting with Jewish culture and each other.

Annette Ezekiel, a founding member of the band Golem, said her goal is to bring Yiddish music called klezmer to a younger audience that wouldn't normally listen to it. The trick: disguising it as rock 'n' roll.

''We sing these (traditional Yiddish) songs as though we're Mick Jagger,'' she said.

In performances, Golem makes fun of traditions but honors them at the same time. For example, they recently performed in drag at a mock Jewish wedding, much like those staged in the famed ''Borscht Belt'' resorts of New York's Catskill Mountains decades ago.

Ezekiel said the band bridges the generation gap by playing rock clubs as well as Jewish community centers and weddings.

Despite the popularity of these new cultural offerings, not everyone embraces the approach.

For decades, Jewish leaders have worried that too many Jews identify only with the cultural aspects of their community, not the religious ones. Rabbis complain that Jews who read Jewish novels or collect Jewish art may not ever join a synagogue or become religiously observant.

And some worry that this latest trend is just another manifestation of that problem.

Jason Brzoska, 25, director of learning communities and marketing for the Web site and organization, myjewishlearning.com, is among those who question whether buying the T-shirts or listening to the music helps build a solid religious identity.

''I don't know if it's really bringing disillusioned, disengaged Jews together,'' Brzoska said. ''The problem with pop culture is that it's ephemeral.''

He said young Jews may not necessarily make the connection between spirituality and culture, ''but its emergence may be an indication that the Jewish community is stronger than we think.''

Josh Neuman, editor of the provocative magazine Heeb, a 3-year-old quarterly that mixes Jewish and urban culture, said it's important to make the distinction between superficial trendiness and substance.

''Heeb's message isn't that it's cool to be Jewish, but to provide a setting for people to discuss what it means to be a Jew,'' he said.

Whatever the lasting impact of the trend, many in the community are happy to see the younger generation's rekindled interest in Jewish culture.

Said Ezekiel: ''There's an old Yiddish saying that goes something to the effect of 'The children go away and the grandchildren come back.'''

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On the Net:

ChosenCouture: http: 1/4 1/4www.chosencouture.com

Heeb magazine: http: 1/4 1/4www.heebmagazine.com



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