March 22, 2007
Celebrating Jewnity the Jewlicious way
"It's become cool to be Jewish," says comedian Eric Schwartz, a.k.a. Smooth E., before he quotes one of his own songs, "Jewish is trendy, Jewish is fun, it took 2,000
years, but it finally caught on!"
Schwartz is on stage dressed in a flat cap, brown tweed jacket, jeans and a big bow tie during Jewlicious 3.0 at the Beach, a three-day exploration and celebration of all things Jewish that drew approximately 400 people to Long Beach's Barbara and Ray Alpert Jewish Community Center from March 9-11.
The young, hip Jewish college students are exactly the kind of audience Smooth E. wants to reach. The Saturday night crowd grooves and laughs to his witty comedic beats, such as "I Am a Crazy Jew," sung to the tune of Outkast's "The Way You Move." He surfs the crowd, but not before making sure there are enough people below willing to carry him (possibly taking a cue from 30 Seconds to Mars front man Jared Leto, who broke his nose days before in Texas when no one caught him after a stage dive).
Later, the entertainer says he doesn't limit his subject matter to Judaism: "Religion is not all that I am about, but it is a big theme in my comedy."
For most of the participants here, Judaism is a big part of what they're about. When a recent online survey asked registered Jewlicious attendees what "they are into," the top three answers were, in order: Judaism, Israel and spirituality.
Love and music tied for fourth place. Jewlicious attendees represent the spectrum of Jewish faith. Young women from more liberal streams walked around in shoulder-baring tank tops, while many men covered their heads with kippot.
Here people are comfortable "wearing their Jewish identity on the outside," said Rachel Bookstein, director of the Long Beach Hillel and program coordinator for the Jewlicious festivals.
The annual gathering seeks to create a forum for celebrating Jewish identity, values and traditions. Along with celebrating in the traditional sense -- loads of good food, wine, raucous music and dancing -- participants also delighted in late-night talks about kabbalah, kosher wine tasting and for one girl, meeting a great guy she wants to set her sister up with.
Most of the crowd was under 22, evenly divided between men and women. And the number of people attending the 60-hour weekend has grown tremendously since the first gathering in 2005 drew roughly 100 people.
There were attendees who came to meet new people, and there were those who came to reunite with old friends from Camp Ramah, NFTY and Birthright Israel. Most of the students were from nearby California colleges, like Jordan Antonoff, 21, from Cal State Long Beach.
Antonoff played his guitar as part of an impromptu parking lot jam session on Saturday afternoon, and during Sunday night's Israeli Shuk Dinner, the Starbucks barista made use of his drink-serving skills by volunteering to hand out soda bottles. At some point during the weekend, just about everyone contributed to the kibbutz-like atmosphere.
Layah Barry, 24, came not knowing a single person.
The Long Beach student remembered walking past the campus Hillel booth when someone handed her a bright pink, green and blue flier that read: "Jewlicious 3.0 at the Beach, 'Good for the Jews!'"
Barry had just moved to the area and was looking to make Jewish friends, something she never had growing up.
"I knew right away I would go," said Barry, whose hand was covered in intricate henna designs from a popular festival booth.
Barry arrived alone Friday afternoon and wandered into the "Jewlicious Cafe," a lounge stocked with self-serve coffee, tea and other drinks available around the clock.
"I sat in the empty cafe and a big group of girls from Sonoma walked in. They sat down next to me," said Barry, who added that to her surprise the girls asked her name and struck up a conversation.
In addition to the local contingents, college students and presenters came from such places as Seattle, New York, Las Vegas, Toronto, Israel and Uganda. Encouraged by the new director of their campus Hillel, Jenna Weinberg, 20, and five other students from the University of Oklahoma decided to attend Jewlicious 3.0. Her favorite part of the weekend was baking a challah on Friday afternoon that included chocolate chips, peanut butter and sprinkles.
For the instructors, Jewlicious was an opportunity to reach a receptive audience.
Tahli Miller shared her knowledge of Jewish intimacy with a capacity crowd of fascinated women and men. The 26-year-old wife of reggae star Matisyahu attended NYU's film school and made "Can't Touch This," a film about shomer negiyah, the Jewish practice of not touching any member of the opposite sex except for your spouse, children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents.
Doug Miro from DreamWorks gave tips on how to write a screenplay. Guru Lee taught Jewish-style meditation.
Rabbi Daniel Leibish Hundert and wife, Dena, have been to all three Jewlicious festivals. In Montreal they run the Ghetto Shul, a grass-roots Orthodox prayer house. At Jewlicious, they led prayer services, sang Shabbat melodies, taught "Shvitz and Shine" aerobics, participated in a women's discussion group on body image and generally added fervor and enthusiasm to the group dynamic.
For some, Jewlicious 3.0 was an opportunity to showcase their talents.
Evey Rothstein, a local designer and founder of Glamorous Rebel, displayed her latest feminine rock creations on a trio of talented dancers. Golem, a six-piece folk-punk band with a very unique sound, performed songs in Yiddish, Russian and Romani. Eyal Rob and Ronen Sabo, half of the Soulico Djing crew from Tel Aviv, blended their original creations with Israeli folk songs, religious tunes and American hip-hop.
At the center of this "Jewnity" is Rabbi Yonah "Rabbi Yo" Bookstein, 37, and his wife, Rachel, 34, director of the Long Beach Hillel. Rabbi Bookstein is "the greatest guy ever," said David Abitbol, one of the founders of the blog that started it all, jewlicious.com.
Rabbi Bookstein discovered the popular site back when blogs were still cutting edge and quickly became a fan.
The group of friends blogged about many topics relating to Judaism in a humorous, honest and positive manner that appealed to young Jews. Rabbi Bookstein "wanted some of that," Abitbol said.
So the bloggers and Rabbi Bookstein joined forces in 2005 and created a brand aimed at Jews between the ages of 18 and 26.
But the Booksteins are both quick to point out that they didn't do this all alone. A planning committee of 19 students and alumni from 11 different colleges and numerous other volunteers put in hours of work to pack the weekend full of activities and entertainment. In addition to funding from local philanthropists Deanna and Allen Alevy, Barbara and Ray Alpert, the Breslauer-Soref Foundation, and Brian and Sarah Chisick, two-dozen sponsors and partners also contributed to the weekend, including StandWithUs, Heeb Magazine, Birthright Israel, American Apparel and Trader Joe's.
This financial support made it possible to keep the cost of attendance low.
Students paid $36 for the entire weekend, which included all meals, activities, concerts and lodging, if they chose to camp out in the separate men's and women's sleeping quarters.
Although the festival aspires to be an "international conference" that draws students from across the country, a more immediate goal for the organizers is to take their model and offer it to other regions.
"Lots of people know about us," Abitbol said. "They are aware of what we are doing out here, but they can't come. We want to replicate this festival in places like northern Florida, Boston and other areas without a cohesive infrastructure for young people."
"Jewish youth are misunderstood," Rabbi Bookstein said. "They are not just looking for a party. They are interested in so much more."
More Smooth E at Jewlicious. Yes, we know it's sideways. Deal.
Photo credits: 1st photo: Comedian Smooth E crowd surfs during three-day Jewlicious 3.0 celebration in Long Beach. Photo courtesy of Jewlicious Festival 3.0-Dov Viramontes
2nd photo: Jewlicious 3.0 participants during Saturday night concert in Barbara and Ray Alpert Jewish Community Center. Photo courtesy of Jewlicious Festival 3.0. 3rd photo: Jewlicious 3.0 participants make challah. Photo courtesy of Jewlicious Festival 3.0.