Logo for Jewcy, which sells Heebster lifestyle products and events.
In the mid-1990s, a confluence of several factors came together to create a network organizations, artists, culture brokers, and activists all aimed at reenvisioning Jewishness for Jews in their 20s and 30s. This network spearheaded a burst of socio-cultural activity, particularly in New York City and San Francisco, that leveled a strenuous challenge to the boundaries of mainstream Jewish identity. Young ambitious Jews experimented with different forms of expression often considered to be “edgy”: artistic (drama, film, music, print media, web design, fiction, etc.), political (environmentalism, feminism, peacework, antipoverty work, etc.), and religious. Well-endowed philanthropies and mainstream Jewish organizations underwrote some of these efforts through application-based programs; while empowering artists and activists, these organizations held their own agendas: specifically aiming to energize Jewish populations perceived as disenfranchised.
Some insiders refer to the participants of this emerging social network as 'Heebsters.' The term blends the title of the magazine that remains one of the most visible media expressions of the 'movement' -- Heeb Magazine -- and the generic 1950s-based epithet 'hipster,' betraying the scene's focus on artsy, urban youth. Mediated practices (performances, posters, web sites, demonstrations, magazines, etc.) lay at the core of the Heebster scene. Self-consciously using these media to attract audiences they often described as reluctant and cynical, artists, entrepreneurs and activists attempted to use their politlca capital to secure funding for furthering their social and political agendas. From these initiatives, Heebsters have created commercial products, organizations, programs and activities that, for them, share a coherent political and aesthetic sensibility. Ultimately, it is these mediated practices that help Heebsters articulate their challenge to normative conceptions of Jewish identity.
This unit aims to provide a conceptual framework for the Heebster scene and the way its cultural producers used media. For the sake of clarity, we have divided this material into distinct 'artistic' (link to topic) and 'political' (link to topic) productions. However, in reality, the artistic, political, and religious aspects of Heebsterism are intertwined and inseparable. For instance, a 2002 Storahtelling Purim Spiel -- the cleverly titled TransgrEsther -- worked both as theater and as a religious ritual. A drag show co-sponsored by the New Generations branch of the New Israel Fund, TransgrEsther incorporated information about Palestinian civil rights in Israel and a genderqueer political vision into the performance.
Heebsters in Historical Context (live link) explores earlier examples of youth-centered, 'radical' Jewish cultural movements in America. It compares the Heebsters' use of media with the ways in which the 1960s and 1970s Jewish counter-culture mobilized media to imagine a coherent political, religious and social identity. A historical comparison of Heebsters and 1920s and 1930s socialist radicals would also be a promising area of analysis.
The Maps and Blueprints (live link) section traces the various registers that link different Heebster enterprises and organizations into a distinct social scene. These ventures share sources of funding, co-sponsor events, draw from a similar pool of artists and performers, and attract similar audiences. However, the consumers of Heebster culture are by no means homogeneous culturally, religiously, or even ethnically (plenty of non-Jews sport on the scene.) Those scenesters who attend Heebster events and consume Heebster products may or may not be aware of the administrative links between these organizations. What attracts them is a recognizably 'hip,' 'kitch,' or 'camp' aesthetic that expresses a Jewish identity more performative than received, more ironic than earnest, more playful than natural, more contemporary than timeless.
Questions to Consider:
1. What sorts of media do Heebsters use to express their aesthetic and political visions? What impact do these media have upon their messages?
2. How do political and aesthetic concerns intersect in Heebster media?
3. Why is it important for these cultural producers to claim that their practices are 'unique,' 'new,' or 'radical'?
4. How and why do Heebsters incorporate kitch, irony and reappropriation into their media productions?
5. How does this moment compare with other Jewish youth movements in the past?