Stripping for HaShem, Heeb-style

It’s safe to say that something unprecedented and never before attempted in the history of Judaism took place at “Heeb Storytelling” on Sept. 23: During her 7-minute Jewish stand-up routine, writer Emma Forrest performed a burlesque strip-tease to Craig Taubman’s L’cha Dodi. There she was—on stage in a knit wrap dress, telling a story about self-loathing and her Jewish looks, when in a burst of bravery she lifted the dress over her head and kick-lined around the stage clad in a red-fringe two-piece. It was like Ziegfeld’s Follies transplanted to M Bar in Hollywood—set to the music of Friday Night Live. 

“Shed your leaves in winter,” she said. “And you come to bud in spring.”

Forrest wasn’t the only entertainer that evening, just the scene-stealer. The warm British accent, the hot little number and a coterie of fans that included actresses Natalie Portman and Kate Beckinsale as well as her latest flame, Irish-actor Colin Farrell, sporting a Star-of-David dangling from his neck. He looked pleased with her rapturous performance.

Call it racy or raunchy, but this is the kind of Jewish-is-cool Heeb Magazine, the evening’s sponsor, is all about. As publisher Josh Neuman said in his introduction, “The magazine pushes the notion of what constitutes a Jewish story.” The irreverent, tongue-in-cheek quarterly, more than being artsy or literary, promotes a social element that reframes the way in which young Jews can gather together as a community. 

“Heeb Storytelling reinforces the central drama of the magazine—it provides a context to explore the wide spectrum of modern Jewishness and a place for those who may not have found a home in institutional Jewish life,” Neuman said.

About once a month, Heeb hosts storytelling events in cities across the country (including New York, L.A., Miami) attracting a diversity of Jews (and non-Jews) to a non-religious, cultural forum. They congregate at hip venues, with ample food and alcohol, a countercultural vibe and serve to stoke excitement for an upcoming issue. They give Heeb the opportunity to showcase the talent pool featured in their ‘zine. 

At the Los Angeles event, a sold-out crowd squeezed into red-velvet booths for the 3-hour show featuring a varied line-up: Adam Busch on religious fundamentalism; Liz Feldman on (not) relating to her Grandmother; Nikki Glaser on (not) being Jewish; Naomi Harris on photographing “swingers” and (not) making her parents proud; Dave Nadelberg on anti-Semitism at a Vegas diner; Alessandra Rizzotti on auditioning to be a female Moses; and lastly, L.A. Times columnist Joel Stein, on trying to persuade his (marginally) racist Grandmother to vote for Obama. 

If there was a common theme woven through the colorful storytelling of eight edgy young people—it wasn’t Judaism. 

Desperate for material, Glaser, who said organizers assumed she was Jewish by name, turned to her Jewish roommate for advice and exclaimed, “I don’t know anything about Judaism!” To which her friend replied, “Neither do Jews.” 

While Heeb’s secularist, cultural attitude towards Judaism has ample room for overbearing Grandmothers, the self-hating Jew shield and shallow Jewish pride, it doesn’t much comment on the shared values implicit in such a community. 

Instead, it offers a different vision: Forrest, who could have danced to any old song, was inspired by the experience of returning to temple for the first time since she was 10. And it was singing a Hebrew prayer that moved her to dance.