In November 2004, I sat in Rabbi Yonah and Rachel Bookstein’s kitchen. They are a young couple with three children, and together they run the Cal State Long Beach University Hillel (he is spiritual adviser; she is program director).
Apple laptop on hand, Rabbi Bookstein talked of a dream about a conference for young Jews, where they could hang out and learn. No agendas, no gimmicks.
I jokingly labeled it a conspiracy. But with the collaboration of a Web journal, or “blog,” known as Jewlicious.com, the conference “Jewlicious @ The Beach” launched in April 2005.
Parents don’t understand why 300 young Jews packed the Long Beach Alpert JCC for the Jewlicious sequel on Feb. 17. We came for food and song, complete with banging on the tables and exuberant dancing wherever there was room. At the Sunday night concert, “Jewbilation,” you could see the look of shock on the older generation’s faces as we jammed to Hebrew heavy-metal songs by the Maccabees. This was not your mom’s “Oseh Shalom.”
Jewlicious included panels on everything from “Kabbalah and Madonna” to “Jews Who Protest.” There were workshops, musical jams and tons of food. It was attended by young Jews in the spotlight, such as writer Ruth Andrew Ellenson, editor of “Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” and Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae superstar my dad refers to as “the hip-hop hoo-hoo.” But most of all, it was everything that the Booksteins hoped for: a celebration of being young and Jewish and alive.
What many people don’t realize is that a new Jewish youth culture is coming to the surface. For us, it’s old school meets new school-klezmer with a hip-hop beat (brought to “Jewbilation” by the amazing DJ So Called and Beyond the Pale).
We are of all ethnicities and levels of observance, and we include some in the process of conversion. Some young Jews have become more observant, much to the shock of less traditional parents. Orthodoxy is no longer old-fashioned, but a source of fascination.
We have faced anti-Semitism in all forms. At a women’s session, one girl told us that when she was in high school in Glendora, swastikas were carved into her desk and she was beaten up-twice. Anti-Israel activities on campuses these days often turn hateful against “Zionist Jews.” Many of us have been told to accept Jesus before we go to hell. Our response is Jewish pride.
We love eating, wine tasting, the beach, dancing, movies, fashion and long conversations. We’re activists, writers, musicians, artists, vegans, nonconformists, Shabbat-observers or just attracted to big noses. If you like being Jewish, you are an MOT, or Member of the Tribe.
And what do MOTs do? We rock out to Matisyahu and Israeli hip-hop. We wear shirts that say, “Eat me, I’m kosher.” We like poking fun at ourselves, with examples ranging from the movie, “The Hebrew Hammer,” to Rav Shmuel’s cutting jibes in his song, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
We love Israel, although some of us are more willing to criticize its policies than others. We’re glued to our computers, and use them to connect to other Jews. We understand that there are many people in the world who still hate us, and in order to prevent them from bringing us down, we have to come together.
Sometimes it worries me that the pendulum will swing back. Yes, we have come very far in our Jewish youth culture, but for how long will the Los Angeles Times refer to Matisyahu as a Jesus-figure, as it did after the Ragga Muffins Festival in Long Beach? For how long will we be cool and not have to respond to the world outside?
Luckily, Jewlicious @ The Beach was my answer. Between musical jam sessions and henna tattoos , we had created something very important: a community, a safe haven where we could express who we are and learn. The Jewish youth culture was creating a home — a home we have desperately needed.
Judaism is changing as youth takes over the reins. It’s us taking our Judaism away from what others tell us it is and transforming it, letting it grow and making it into our own.
I guess it is a conspiracy after all.
Reina V. Slutske is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.