Topic: Heebster FuturesThe round of cultural activity that peaked around 2003-2004 has led to a number of defunct groups, and the emergence of others. As time has passed, moreover, new issues and questions have arisen surrounding this phenomenon. Here we cover just a few of them.
The Wrath of the Mainstream
After a meteoric career leading to album cosponsorship first with Or Records and then with major label Sony/EPIC (also Shakira's label), Matisyahu left JDub Records, for other (for-profit) management. His third album, Youth, debuted at #4 on the Billboard Top 200, and became a featured item on iTunes. He even branched out to do guestwork on Christian Metal/Punk group P.O.D.'s latest album Testify, and reports stated that he could be heard over the loudspeakers in such places as the Olympic half-pipe competition in Torino, Italy.
At the same time, the mainstreaming of Matisyahu opened him up to additional, sometimes withering criticism. In the two weeks surrounding the release of Youth, Kelefa Sanneh of the New York Times accused him of appropriating Reggae from more "authentic" Jamaican performers, and Jody Rosen of Slate called him a "minstrel."
Although adored by the press as the product of Jewish niche culture, Matisyahu gained an entirely different symbolic significance once exposed to the mainstream world. The very same discourses of race and authenticity that had buoyed him as rising artist within the new Jewish cultural scene quickly became the source for critique within the mainstream world.
Philanthropic organizations routinely relied on two models for their funding patterns: either they gave grants for one-time projects (such as films or a festival), or they provided an organization with seed money in the hope it would become self-sufficient over a few years. While some organizations continue to rely on philanthropic funding, many simply folded when its leaders either ran out of money or left to pursue other ventures. A few organizations, however, have fulfilled the boilerplate expectations of the funders, and thus moved beyond the regulatory sphere.
One of the most notable of these "successes" has been Heeb Magazine: fully supported by advertising revenue since at least 2005, the magazine still teams up with Jewish organizations for its events; but its mostly volunteer staff operate freely on their own. The subject of controversy most recently with its 2005 "Sex Issue" (#9), the magazine has become a paradigm for those Jewish culture organizations that have escaped the regulatory orbit of Jewish foundations and emerged into the open market of advertising and sponsorship.
Although never really outside the Jewish heebster scene, Los Angeles had its own patterns of cultural adaptation and innovation that ran parallel to those in New York, but sometimes remained separate from the major media coverage. As early as 1997, the group M.O.T. (Members of the Tribe) released one of the first mainstream label "Jewish" rap/hip-hop albums; and in October 2004, professional Jewish-oriented musician/producer Craig Taubman teamed up with producer Jeremy Goldscheider to release Celebrate Hip-Hop on Taubman's Celebrate Series sublabel. In 2005, moreover, veteran actor George Segal and music producer Tor Hyams created Chutzpah, "The World's First Ever Jewish Hip-Hop Supergroup," which updated the formula with an album and mockumentary of its own.
Los Angeles has also spawned its own philanthropic subculture, most notably with Reboot. Although officially based in New York, Reboot relies heavily on writers, artists, funders and entertainment industry professionals from the Los Angeles area, who have helped create their own philanthropically-fueled "media empire": from the record label Reboot Stereophonic, to the Jewish-oriented zine Guilt & Pleasure, to publications such as Bar Mitzvah Disco, to self-funded studies highlighting Jewish youth's feelings of disenfranchisement. In the past few years, Reboot has gained momentum and today often creates its own spheres of activity both separate from and complementary to those of the Jewish Heebsters.
Continuity or Confluence?
Although rapturous reports (usually produced by or for the funding organizations) celebrate the ability of the Heebster scene to "engage" young Jews in Jewish oriented activities, other indicators suggest that the availability of resources might be as much a reason for sustenance as a genuine desire for "Jewish" involvement.
Case in point: 50Shekel/Aviad Cohen. One of the first Jewish rappers highlighted as a part of the Heebster scene, 50Shekel quickly became the subject of derision in Heebster oriented circles, with critics dismissing him as inauthentic, derivative, and untalented. His first album, announced on his website in 2004, became more and more delayed, and eventually accompanied increasingly vocal requests for donations.
Finally, in Spring 2005, 50Shekel officially announced his new identity as a Messianic Jew, causing ripples of shock throughout the Jewish press and an additional round of even more explicit criticism throughout the blogosphere. As of May 2006, 50Shekel had reverted back to his birth name, Aviad Cohen, and reinvented himself as a Messianic Jewish artist.
50Shekel's story offers a particularly pointed example of the fragility of the Heebster scene. Though assembled through a confluence of resources devoted to Jewish activity, and people with ideas for using such resources, the results may address different questions entirely.
Many of the funding organizations providing artist and organizational grants require recipients to document their use of the funds, as well as show (when possible) their success [or "impact"] in terms of Jewish involvement or participation. In addition, several organizations have hired outside researchers to justify their allocations. Generally, these studies provide a scholarly veneer for Jewish "cultural" support, often highlighting the same "trends" of Jewish youth away from institutions and toward intermarriage circulating in the Jewish communal world since at least the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, and exploring how to "engage" as many Jews as possible. Invariably, these studies conclude that the activities the organization sponsors may help in the process.
Yet the realities behind these studies may be harder to divine. A recent study by Ari Kelman and Steven M. Cohen for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, for example, notes that the attendees at a selection of Heebster events were themselves already multiply engaged in Jewish life, even though they had not affiliated with synagogues (often the determining factor for involvement to many Jewish communal groups). Such results suggest that the intentions of the Heebster funders, artists, and event attendees remain at cross purposes to each other; to justify their cooperation, however, they have developed a mutual language of interaction that maintains each group's presence and productivity.
1. What will happen to the Heebsters in the coming years? What, if anything, will take their place?
2. What does the Heebster phenomenon say about the relationship between Jewish philanthropies and their recipients?
3. Since the end of 2005, the New York Jewish Week has more than once announced the end of the Heebster era. What motivates this kind of coverage?
4. What does this case study say about the cyclical nature of Jewish cultural activity?