'On the verge of an explosion'
Successful magazines that present a lively, creative, sexy, vibrant and desirable sort of Judaism are a familiar reality today. At least in the United States, where the Jewish community enjoys an impressive selection of reading options, such as the print magazines Heeb and Zeek, and a large variety of local Internet sites - which, for example, have lately been carrying on an extensive discussion of Israeli model Bar Refaeli's appearance on the cover of the 2009 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
These days, there are probably few people who remember the magazine that paved the way for all of this: the New Jewish Times. According to an article published recently in The New York Times: "In its seeming failure, however, New Jewish Times had, in fact, anticipated a later generation of edgy and hip Jewish journalism. It was the wheel that magazines like Heeb and Zeek and Web sites like jewcy.com and jewlicious.com have reinvented in the 21st century."
"We looked for dreams, lost and found, Jews with stories to tell," Jonathan Mark, a former editor and now a columnist for The Jewish Week, explained in an online essay. "Into the pages of New Jewish Times came coverage of Jewish murder cases; accounts of homeless Hasids; Russian Jews who were beat up in Kiev; yeshiva dropouts; Satmar loan sharks."
The magazine folded in April 1981, eight months after its inception, due to financial problems. Yossi Klein Halevi, currently a senior fellow at Jerusalem's Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Israel correspondent of the New Republic, was a 26-year-old with a journalism degree when he founded the magazine with friends in a loft in New York's East Village. The establishment and brief life of the New Jewish Times cannot be divorced from the context of the times, he agrees. In the 1960s Klein Halevi and his friends were children who watched free love and flower power in San Francisco and at Woodstock with envy. Then came the alienated 1970s; in the 1980s, when they were 20-somethings, the wheel turned once again.
The early 1980s, he explains "were years of awakening. There was a feeling, in New York at least, that [what happened in the '60s] could be done again - without the same naivete and with a little more edge. There was a more sophisticated and gutsy atmosphere; it was the period of punk. I and a few friends arrived in the East Village, which is almost trendy today, but at that time was poor, full of strange characters and junkies."
Aside from punk, there was an almost apocalyptic spirit at the time, Klein Halevi says. A deep fear of nuclear weapons arose then, along with a feeling of existential threat in the homes of many Jews who survived the Holocaust. It turns out that this had a creative effect.
"In my neighborhood someone sprayed graffiti saying 'Ground Zero,'" recalls Klein Halevi. "An atmosphere of fear characterized the period, which couldn't be compared to any other era. We were a generation living under the threat of extermination. My friends and I all grew up with parents who were Holocaust survivors. I lived with a sense of threat and thought it was a 'Jewish' feeling. Suddenly, the entire world was confronting it. From within this tension, the apocalyptic atmosphere in New York and the atmosphere of fear from home, our monthly magazine was born."
"It was the beginning of the decade, we were all living in the East Village, with many creative things happening around us," recalls Israel Lemberg, who is now a senior producer at CNN's Jerusalem bureau, and was an associate editor back then. "We wanted to create something for members of our generation who were interested in Jewish identity, but who also understood and were interested in what was happening around them at the time."
What were you trying to do?
Klein Halevi: "The idea of the New Jewish Times was to be controversial. We wanted to be 'in your face.' We didn't even think of explaining the first cover: a mushroom cloud and the question 'Next year in Jerusalem?' [an illustration by Art Spiegelman]. Inside the issue there wasn't a single word about it, because for us, as Jews, the second generation of the Holocaust living in the East Village, there was no need to explain. That typified our way of thinking."
What interested you? What was the agenda?
"There was no specific subject. We were interested in the Jewish periphery. We wrote about the Ethiopian Jews long before they came on aliyah to Israel. About a Chabanik who had become homeless and lived in the New York subway. We weren't right or left. If there was an interesting story, no matter from what angle, it belonged in our magazine. We felt American Jewry was too normal, too rich and too confident. We were on the verge of an internal explosion and were searching for a means of expression. We thought the Jewish story was powerful, not a quiet and polite thing."
"We wanted to create something different from what our parents read," adds Lemberg, "something that would document the creative atmosphere in which we were living, to turn Judaism into something cool."
That is actually the first time Judaism was presented that way.
Klein Halevi: "That was definitely in our minds. We wanted to create a place that at the time we called 'hip" - something that someone from outside would want to belong to, because it had its own energy and its own dynamic. There was no other such place in the New York of those days. If you were creative, with a Jewish identity and a sense of disgust for the Jewish establishment, this was your place. There was no other one, and we're talking about New York: three million Jews in modern Babylon. There was a boring atmosphere and we rebelled against it. That was our success, if we can refer to it that way, because commercially and in terms of distribution, we failed."
The atmosphere at the magazine spawned several outstanding names, including illustrator Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic narrative about the Holocaust, "Maus," and Candace Bushnell, creator of "Sex and the City."
"Candace worked for us as an office administrator," says Klein Halevi. "And to refer to what I said before, it was precisely this atmosphere that attracted her. She loved the unconventional and unstable atmosphere there."
"It seemed so in line with the energy of New York," recalled Bushnell about New Jewish Times. "There was the punk scene, and 42nd Street was 42nd Street. The city was so much more dangerous than today, but it also felt so creative. People would be on the street with boom boxes dancing to disco in the middle of the day. It was an exciting, eye-opening time."