When she was 25, Jennifer Bleyer - freelance writer and a graduate student in journalism and social studies - decided that the world needed a cool magazine that defined being Jewish in the most elastic and flexible way possible. With a $60,000 fellowship and a team of volunteer editors, Jennifer realised her vision and started Heeb magazine: a venue for alternative conception of Jewish identity and also for young Jewish media people - journalists, writers, photographers and artists - to participate and do their work in a Jewish way that isn┬┤t institutional. Published in Brooklyn, New York City, every six months Heeb has gained a lot of attention in each of its four issues so far. And not just because there┬┤s a wild party in New York City every time this slick, glossy magazine comes out ...
AVIVA-Berlin: Why did you choose the name Heeb?
Jennifer Bleyer: I chose "Heeb" because in English, in America, It┬┤s a rather derogatory term for "Jew" and I have heard kids who I knew who were Jewish mostly from like New Jersey and Long Island, very Jewish suburbs of New York City, who had become Hip Hop kids, like a lot of white kids in America have in the last ten years. Instead of referring to each other as "Jews" they would call each other "Heebs" as a term of endearment and as a sort of reapropriation of the word. I don┬┤t think they really thought of it as a reapropriation but it was sort of something slang and acknowledged in a way that they were Jewish. And still make it somehow sound cool, `cause "Jew" is kinda loaded and sounds just uncool. There┬┤s nothing cool about saying you┬┤re a Jew. So, calling themselves "Heebs" sounded really cool, slang and underground. And so I just decided to call the magazine that. There was a good amount of controversy and anger in the Jewish community when it first came out because people didn┬┤t really understand. Even though people understood that we were not using it in a derogatory way but reapropriating it in the way that gay people use the word "queer", "dyke" and It┬┤s not derogatory. But it offended people.
AVIVA-Berlin: Do you want to provoke reactions like that? If so, why?
Jennifer Bleyer: I, as the editor for the past four issues of the magazine certainly never wanted to or did anything to provoke reactions. Often when people would write to us and say we just trying to be controversial, I would feel very, um, not offended, but I think It┬┤s kind of ridiculous. You know, It┬┤s like saying because you┬┤re offended by something, it doesn┬┤t mean It┬┤s trying to offend you. It┬┤s your issues. I certainly think we never shy away from being provocative or from challenging people┬┤s ideas of what it is to be Jewish, Jewish writing or Jewish art or photography. We don┬┤t try to be controversial although to some eyes we have been.
AVIVA-Berlin: But wouldn┬┤t you say that this cover is provocative?
Jennifer Bleyer: It might provoke people but that doesn┬┤t mean that its intention is to provoke. There┬┤s a difference. None of us find it provocative or controversial, we just think It┬┤s creative.
Michael Schiller: I find it very mild, actually. You see some atrocious things in the world, this is pictures of people with barely any nudity or foul language in it. It┬┤s interesting to me that people perceive it as controversial. If it wasn┬┤t perceived that way, we wouldn┬┤t have the success we have now.
AVIVA-Berlin: So, if you don┬┤t do something which feels provocative in one way or the other, It┬┤s boring?
Raven Snook: It┬┤s one of those words that is in the eye of the beholder. I think a lot of journalism uses that word when they actually mean it as a compliment. If someone called me provocative, I┬┤d say "Thank you."
Michael Schiller: It┬┤s really a very boring magazine (all laugh ... ).
Raven Snook: Yeah, It┬┤s a really boring magazine for really boring Jews (all laugh ...).
AVIVA-Berlin: So how would you describe Heeb, then?
Jennifer Bleyer: I would say more that we┬┤re fearless. We are controversial and provocative just by virtue of people feeling that It┬┤s controversial and feeling provoked by it, but from our perspective I think we┬┤re just fearless about this is what the official Jewish party line is, how Jews are, how Jews feel and what Jews can put out to the world and we kinda like take it further. Not for the sake of taking it further but just on an exploration ...
AVIVA-Berlin: How do you define being Jewish? Or is that a boring question?
Michael Schiller: No, It┬┤s been the topic of conversation since we landed. (all laugh ...) Since I┬┤ve been in Berlin I have never talked more about Jewish identity than in the past five years.
Jennifer Bleyer: I┬┤m neurotic, he┬┤s paranoid.
Raven Snook: What am I?
Jennifer Bleyer: You┬┤re ...
Michael Schiller: ... the Diva. (all laugh ...)
Tamy Ben-Tor: I┬┤m Israeli.
Jennifer Bleyer: She┬┤s very Jewish. (all laugh ...)
Michael Schiller: But I think you can get more mileage out of your question, though. I don┬┤t want to be dismissive, you know, because it is an important question obviously connected very much to the magazine itself because It┬┤s not a general culture magazine. It is a Jewish subculture magazine.
AVIVA-Berlin: The new Jew.
Michael Schiller: Yeah, exactly. You know, we all have our own definitions obviously and I think that in some ways the definition you can find in the pages of the magazine. It┬┤s not so simple that you can put it in a sentence but there┬┤s the constant debate about: Is it a religion or is it a culture? Or is it both? Or is it neither? It┬┤s one of those things where the total is greater than the sum of the parts, you know, where It┬┤s all of those things. I think what makes the magazine great is that each of us defines it in a way that┬┤s quite different. But each of us has a strong tie to the culture and to the heritage to which we all identify, except Tamy who identifies as Israeli. (all laugh ...) But in terms of the magazine, I think it is a strong cultural identification. Whereas some of our editors are religious, orthodox people and some are totally secular and I think that we provide a nice cross-section of that identity.
Tamy Ben-Tor: I think that the HEEB magazine is not like a commemoration. It┬┤s not a museum for Jewishness. It┬┤s like really the "new Jew review" which means something completely new. And in fact, I think It┬┤s more to do with what everyone is trying to remember because It┬┤s the life. Everyone recognises it because it is new.
AVIVA-Berlin: So, you┬┤re creating a whole new world again.
Raven Snook: We┬┤re like tapping into something like that. This was out there, there just was no venue for it.
AVIVA-Berlin: What is the idea of the Heeb parties?
Jennifer Bleyer: We┬┤ve done one for each issue that┬┤s come out so far. They┬┤re just big release parties and a lot of people come. We have had performances at the parties.
Raven Snook: Tamy plays Starlight. She┬┤s a singer who does this character who┬┤s supposed to be like a Christian evangelist singer who┬┤s trying to convert us all to Christianity and It┬┤s very funny. The thing about it being tangential Jewish, I mean like for example, I┬┤m Jewish, I write for Heeb and I┬┤m also a performer and my performances always have Jewish elements so because I am Jewish It┬┤s going to come out. But I do a lot of stuff about gender, like I had show called "How I became a drag queen trapped in a woman┬┤s body" and it was all about being a drag queen and not being a woman, but also starting out as this nerdy Jewish girl. So is the performance really about being Jewish or about being a drag queen or is it just like about me having issues that I don┬┤t want to go to my therapist for? I don┬┤t know. So sometimes the performances don┬┤t have a direct link. But that┬┤s the thing, like being culturally Jewish and identifying with it, is going to form everything you do, particularly as an artist. I think that comes through.
AVIVA-Berlin: Could you say something about the relationship between American Jews and Germans?
Jennifer Bleyer: A lot of Americans usually remember. This is very typical thing in a way, for people, especially these friends who are affected by the Holocaust. You know they say, "My father would never set foot in Germany. My grandmother would never come here. We would never buy a German car". I remember actually my parents just built a new house recently in Ohio where they live and they were getting wallpaper. They found this amazing wallpaper - and they┬┤re also like very suburban Jews - but when they wanted to buy this wallpaper, they told me it was made in Germany and so they weren┬┤t going to buy it so they went to some other wallpaper manufacturer and took a sample and had this wallpaper company copy it. They weren┬┤t going to buy it from Germany. It┬┤s a typical American Jewish thing.
Michael Schiller: But you know, you don┬┤t want to support a corporation that did damage to your family. You know what the truth is? In the society that we live in, everything you touch or wear - someone was enslaved to make this shirt and I┬┤m not proud of it but that┬┤s ...
Tamy Ben-Tor: It┬┤s more complex. It┬┤s more the older generation in Israel who say I would never step into Germany. But now It┬┤s different. It┬┤s more real I think, like because we have so much in common and then to deal with the past and not to shut it off.
Raven Snook: Would you buy a German car?
Michael Schiller: If It┬┤s a good car.
Raven Snook: And It┬┤s cheap.
Jennifer Bleyer: How about German wallpaper?
Michael Schiller: Look, I feel like, yeah, people saying they would never travel here - I feel like we┬┤re here doing important work. Maybe I┬┤m inflating it. Maybe that┬┤s more grandiose than it really is, but I feel like a lot of people go, "Oh, be careful, over there. Anti-Semitism." And I feel like, "Look, It┬┤s important to say I┬┤m not afraid to travel here. I┬┤m not going to be so caught up in the past. If that┬┤s your attitude my response is like OK, so there was this attempt to wipe our culture off the face of the earth but it didn┬┤t go away. It┬┤s back, It┬┤s stronger than ever and I┬┤m going to bring it back to Berlin." That┬┤s my feeling about it. I┬┤m not afraid.
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