A Kaddish for Jewish Zines

By Jason Diamond

Gawker’s proclamation of the “Heeb Magazine Deathwatch” got me thinking again about “radical Jewish culture”, but this time in terms of it’s short life, possible death, and whether the tag really means anything other than getting donors to contribute to off-kilter non-profits.

Of course, I find that there have been valiant attempts to get the old gears of Jewish thought turning again. From what I can gather, John Zorn coined the phrase with his marvelous Tzadik label, and no matter your opinion of Heeb, it’s my belief that these projects came about with nothing but the best of intentions.

And while I flirt with the idea that I’m a sappy realist (and my name is also on the masthead of the same magazine Gawker claims is slowly dying), I admit that I could just be making all of this up, but in all honesty, I don’t think that to be the case.

Beyond the pictures of Roseanne dressed like Hitler, and the ads showing a tefillin-wrapped arm with a needle plunging into the vein–which even as a non-observant Jew made me pretty uncomfortable–my time with Heeb has brought one incredibly positive change into my life: it’s helped me become comfortable with my place in the “Jewish world.”

Okay, so let me straighten that out a little: I’ve always been more than proud to be a Jew. I’ve never been one to hide my background, and while I have been critical of some of Heeb’s content in the past, my association with the magazine has helped start conversations with people who I assumed would rather not talk about their Jewish backgrounds. These conversations helped me realize that my own criticism of organized religion, and my discomfort with taking part in many of the rituals associated with Judaism, is totally OK. It also made me realize that I’m not as much of an outsider amongst a people that have traditionally been outsiders. No matter what happens with Heeb, I’ll always be thankful for that.

With all that said, something started to change when I read the N+1 essay, “The People of the Magazine“. This came a few months after working for a Jewish non-profit, and after my brief flirtation with “getting religious”. While I didn’t demand change from Heeb, having hit it’s groove covering what it chose to cover, I realized what I truly missed was the struggle to have your Jewish voice heard. As mentioned in the N+1 article, Jewish magazines (including Heeb), alongside other arts organizations, have been dependent on Jewish interest groups to help fund their “vision”. And no matter how far you try and “push things” in an attempt to “stick out”, it would seem that bread tastes better with butter, and butter costs money.

Specifically, I missed Jewish magazines, and in some cases, blogs, that helped me realize that while the history and traditions of my people were special, those traditions weren’t what made me special, no matter what any Chabad rabbi wants to say. Jewish hipsters, Jewish coolness, or Jewish superiority are all terms that seem miles away from what I began searching for when I picked up the first issue of Heeb. Maybe I’m still in the wilderness, but at least I’m still searching, and using the same approach I took back when I first began trying to figure out “my place”.

I don’t know if Heeb magazine is dying. Josh Neuman, a friend and the publisher of Heeb, denies it, and until the time comes for the next issue to hit stands, I’m not going to bother playing the guessing game, nor will I join in the chorus of people putting in their two cents about what led to the “death watch”.

In terms of the Gawker piece, I will say that one comment in particular rubbed me the wrong way, from commenter The-Littlest-Hobo, saying “…Heeb always seemed like a pale imitation of the excellent zine Plotz.” Hobo is talking about the zine written by Barbara Rushkoff, which if memory serves me, lasted until right around the early days of Heeb. I read Plotz a few times, and it had a profound impact on me (also, her hubby Douglas has done the same a few times), but to say Heeb was a “pale imitation” seems wrong. Sure, Plotz might be the first zine that was unabashed about it’s Jewishness, but I remember around the same time I saw Plotz for the first time, I also heard of future Heeb founder Jennifer Bleyer’s zine, “Mazel Tov Cocktail”. While I can’t recall much of the content of Bleyer’s one-off project, I do remember the involvement of Bloodlink Records founder (and guy who seems to be up to a bunch of other things now), as well as something about 80’s hardcore stalwarts Murphy’s Law. My memory usually doesn’t betray me, and I remember a year or so ago, looking at a copy of the zine that a friend had held onto, and thinking “this is the obvious blueprint for Heeb.”

Post-Plotz, Mazel Tov Cocktail, and Heeb, there have been others of note. Around the time Bleyer handed control of Heeb over to Neuman (an essay Ms. Bleyer wrote as to why she did this can be found here), “T/F” emerged. While this magazine didn’t fly any Jewish flags per se, it did have two incredibly interesting articles with heavy Jewish slants. The first one written by Brian Lipson about a rabbi affiliated with the anti-Israeli hasidic group, Neturei Karta, and another interview with a rabbi titled, “Punk Rock and the French New Right”. Whatever happened to this zine past the first issue, I’m not sure, but the one I own, I cherish. (Also of note in issue #1, is the artwork by Jeffrey Lewis).

Other dispatches? I earlier made mention of Barbara’s husband Douglas. His book Nothing Sacred was a source of inspiration for me at a critical time in my “Jewish self-discovery”; and for a period, the blog Jewschool.com was an extremely useful tool (although I admit I haven’t read it since founder Daniel “Mobius” Sieradski left), and then there is the always-dependable Aaron Cometbus. While not usually thought of as one of the “great Jewish writers” of the last 50 or so years (CRIME!), to paraphrase something he once said, “Jews and punk rockers are both extremely nostalgic”, and it’s my background in both of those things that make me yearn for the days of DIY Judaism.