Portnoy’s Revenge

By Joshua Zeitz ’02 PhD / November / December 2004
June 14th, 2007

With his dark, unruly hair and geek-chic, horn-rimmed glasses, Josh Neuman ’94 seems at first glance innocuous. But in the small, intimate world that is the organized American Jewish community, he is turning heads. An adjunct philosophy professor at New York University, Neuman is also the editor in chief of Heeb, a magazine aggressively aimed at the young urban hipster who happens to be Jewish.

Depending on whom you talk to, Neuman is either plying his irreverant wit in the noble service of Jewish continuity or bringing shande on the family. Not since Philip Roth’s 1969 classic, Portnoy’s Complaint, has an American Jewish literary phenomenon provoked such a heated and polarized debate.

Now in its fourth year of publication, Heeb dubs itself “the New Jew Review.” Most Heeb readers readily identify as Jewish but center their Jewish identity around a rich and iconclastic blend of left-wing politics, culture, religion, and art. The magazine proudly defines itself as a Big Tent and rejects doctrinaire ideas about the price of admission to the larger American Jewish congregation.

With its cutting-edge photography and sharp prose style, its arresting blend of Borscht Bowl humor and its edgy political commentary, Heeb has blossomed from a homegrown affair run out of Neuman’s living room to a quarterly with a devoted readership of 100,000. It has new offices in downtown Manhattan and advertising revenues respectable enough for Neuman to hope to become less dependent on foundation grants in the coming years.

To be sure, this isn’t your grand­father’s Yiddishes Tageblatt. Over the past year, Heeb has published such provocative pieces as a film review by the comedian Sarah Silverman of four porn flicks (“As I watch her getting it in the tokhes, it’s like Bubbie giving Zadie a peck on the cheek”); a ten-page nude pictorial titled “Crimes of Passion” that reinterprets Mel Gibson’s controversial blockbuster; a “Dress Up and Fess Up!” Joe Lieberman paper doll, complete with S&M outfits; and a revealing shot of Lindsay Vuolo, the first openly Jewish Playboy playmate, wearing (only) a small piece of surgical tape across her nose.

Neuman boasts that Heeb is “an idol-smashing magazine” with a strong ideological commitment to “Groucho Marxism.” But he isn’t referring to the nudity or even to the oddly compelling advertisements that conjure up fond memories of eighth-grade lunchroom humor. If anything, Heeb’s signature brand of wit masks weightier political and social missions. The magazine is avowedly left-wing and Zionist—a rare combination these days—and more devoted than its editors might admit to a tradition of serious intellectual inquiry.

Recent issues include thoughtful and provocative interviews with Cornell West, Tony Kushner, and Noam Chomsky; a strikingly beautiful and moving pictorial essay on young Israeli expats living in New York City; and some sharp criticism of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. This has earned Heeb the tsk-tsk censure of prominent leaders of the organized Jewish community, including Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

The critics have good reason to be concerned.

Recently, Neuman met with a national organizer for the college outreach organization Hillel, who explained that young Jews could be divided neatly into three categories: those who will attend services and identify strongly as Jews no matter what; those who would like to lead a more Jewish lifestyle but need incentive and direction; and those who couldn’t care less about being Jewish and never will. The Hillel official wanted help in reaching the second group. Neuman politely declined. His target audience, he says, is the third cluster.

And he may be onto something. Jews are more secular and more liberal than any other American ethnoreligious group. But their leading organizations, like the ADL, and their most prominent publications, like Commentary, are more traditionally religious, more politically conservative, and more reflexively and unconditionally supportive of Israel than the Jewish population at large.

According to a Heeb survey, its readers aren’t self-loathers, doctrinaire secularists, or lost Jews. They represent a large cohort of young American Jews who find much to celebrate in their heritage but crave alternative outlets of Jewish affiliation and identity.

So Heeb is staking out a Third Way in American Jewish politics. When the New York Times referred in passing to the magazine’s “earnest anti-Zionism,” Neuman openly wondered where they got such an idea. “Maybe,” he says, “they heard that we were strongly opposed to the Israeli occupation of the East Village.... Please. We answer to the U.J.A. [United Jewish Appeal], not the U.N.”

Heeb prides itself on asking the tough questions all Zionists should be asking: Is evangelical Christian support for Israel in the best, long-term interests of the Jewish state? What are the moral consequences of the occupation? Is there a rising tide of European anti-Semitism, and what can be done to stem it? How does one strike a balance between Zionism and cosmopolitanism?

The magazine is striking a chord with the young Jews community elites seem prepared to write off. Shana Liebman ’96, Heeb’s arts editor, has been organizing Heeb storytelling events—a cross between stand-up comedy and prose readings—that have drawn crowds of five hundred, and not just in New York City. Heeb storytelling evenings and launch parties have attracted similar crowds in Kansas City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and Berlin.

Whether Heeb is good for the Jews or bad for the Jews is entirely a matter of personal opinion. But if you like Philip Roth, Mad Magazine, Airplane!, the New York Review of Books, Woody Allen, your grandmother’s matzo ball soup, Friday-night services, hip-hop, and photography—or any combination of these things—you’ll probably want to take a look at Heeb.

If not, as they say, ukh un vey. Tough luck.

Joshua Zeitz teaches U.S. history at Cambridge University. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Republic, the Washington Post, American Heritage, and Dissent.

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