January 13, 2005
Heeb Crosses the Pond
Does edgy Jewish humor translate? The New York-based magazine Heeb is coming to England -- but whether the United Kingdom's rather reserved Jewish population will appreciate the magazine's offbeat urban style remains to be seen.
The magazine's British launch was held recently at a plush theater in north London during a Jewish film festival, organized in association with the Jewish Community Centre for London.
The four-day festival saw a succession of innovative Jewish films that, according to publicity materials, trod "the line between the holy and profane, the particular and the universal, the earnest and the irreverent" -- sentiments that equally could describe Heeb.
The magazine's cheeky title alone -- a self-conscious attempt to reclaim an ethnic slur -- guaranteed it mounds of publicity before its February 2002 debut in New York. Its iconoclastic style soon brought it into conflict with mainstream Judaism, most notably when the Anti-Defamation League reacted with outrage to Heeb's parody of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which depicted Jesus wearing a tallit as a loincloth and a bare-breasted Virgin Mary with body piercings.
Nevertheless, by melding popular culture with controversy and kitsch -- covers have included a disc jockey spinning a record-shaped matzah and an ultra-Orthodox Jew in a Superman costume -- the publication had a distribution of around 35,000, with an estimated readership of 150,000, according to Joshua Neuman, Heeb's editor in chief and publisher. Most readers are in the United States, though the magazine also has subscribers in Canada, Australia and the Caribbean.
Bringing the magazine to England seemed to be the next logical step.
Given the size of the U.K. Jewish community -- less than 300,000 -- Heeb is aiming for a small niche.
Lawyer Darren Braham, 27, likes Heeb's "out-there topics," but believes most U.K. Jews won't see it the same way.
"The north London Jewish attitude is different than the New York attitude," he said. "We're a lot more muted over here."
His journalist friend Alex Sholem, 26, agreed. A few months ago, Sholem ordered a T-shirt from Heeb's Jewcy clothing line. He liked the shirt -- emblazoned with a picture of a bearded figure holding the Ten Commandments and the logo "Moses is my homeboy" -- but he's unsure about the magazine itself.
"By its nature, it uses a lot of pop-culture references that will go over the heads of a lot of London Jews," Sholem said.
While it's refreshing to read a Jewish publication that isn't obsessed with communal wrangling, anti-Semitism or Israel, he said, "I'd be surprised if it took off or had more than a very small cult following. There isn't the audience for it. The majority of Jewish youth here is just so homogenous and mainstream in their taste."