June 30, 2005
Once Upon a Heeb
I couldn't see much when I walked into the cavernous bar at Three of Clubs in Hollywood last week, but after my eyes adjusted,
I noticed the crowd in the adjoining room.
A couple hundred literary-artsy-hipster types were schmoozing before the L.A. premiere of the Heeb Storytelling series, which had already made stops in New York City, where Heeb magazine is based, and four other cities. Like a live stage version of the irreverent magazine -- or what TimeOut described as "one part cabaret, one part Catskills" -- the show features a half-dozen writers who tell a Jewish story.
According to Heeb's 33-year-old editor-in-chief Josh Neuman, "Jewish story" could be interpreted loosely. But when Neuman phoned from New York and asked me to perform, he did make certain stipulations. First, the story could not exceed seven minutes. In fact, he said, at six minutes, Schmelvis (the Jewish Elvis impersonator) would begin playing an accordion, and at the seven-minute mark, Schmelvis would play continuously in order to drown a performer out. If that wasn't bad enough, no notes could be brought on stage. No exceptions.
Huh? What kind of Jew can keep a story down to seven minutes -- especially without notes to prevent a barrage of genetically programmed tangents? Can any Jew tell a linear story, unscripted?
But Neuman was adamant, so I put my neuroses aside until I arrived at Three of Clubs and encountered what he called "a who's who of Yid-erati," people like Jon Burman, international general manager of The Hollywood Reporter; Francesca Segre, whose piece for the Washington Post has been optioned by Goldie Hawn and will be turned into the book "Daughter of the Bride"; New York Times Styles contributor Strawberry Saroyan (half-Jewish, but still); director Rachel Samuels; David Nadelberg, producer of the "Mortified" series, which has been featured on public radio's "This American Life"; and several members of this year's "Heeb 100" list of influential young Jews.
Clearly I was out of my league, but other than the Jewish standby of faking digestive problems (Oooh, I must have had some bad matzah ball soup), I didn't see a credible way to bail 10 minutes before the show. Even worse, the story I planned to tell was about my asking a guy I'd met at an Ivy League mixer to be my sperm donor (he said yes, then "pulled out" right before I ovulated), and suddenly I worried that my sperm donor guy might be in the audience.
I went on anyway, after hosts Randy and Jason Sklar, the twins from ESPN's "Cheap Seats" (Jason wears the glasses), and Stephen Glass, the former New Republic journalist played by the decidedly goyish actor Hayden Christiansen in the film "Shattered Glass." Glass, whose non-Jewish girlfriend, Julie Hilden, sat near the back, told a hilarious story about his first shiksa love interest in high school.
Hilden, the author of "3" and "The Bad Daughter," said later that she's different from the girlfriend Glass described in his act.
"That is one extreme shiksa!" Hilden said. "I mean, I never went to church camp. I'll even give up the Christmas tree. Who needs pine needles sprinkled all over the floor? I'll stick to pine-scented air freshener."
Although Hilden's accustomed to being surrounded by Jews, she did feel a bit left out at the Sklar brothers' string of Yiddish words.
"I know basic and intermediate words like shpilkes, and I'd just heard the word haimish at a dinner party," she said. "But once they went beyond 'Yiddish for Gentiles,' I was lost. Otherwise, the show was very accessible."
Aimee Bender, the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt," told a story about a different linguistic misunderstanding -- a priest who mistook the word "kite" for the offensive slur "kike." It didn't sound so jarring after I'd bemoaned the lack of a sperm bank equivalent to JDate, asking, "Why is there no JSpunk?"
"There's a high level of humor appreciation in the Heeb crowd," Bender said, "so that felt a little daunting. But then fun, because it was a really responsive audience."
"It felt very comfortable," Jason Sklar said. "Like Foxworthy talking to a bunch of rednecks, or Dice talking to a group of misogynists -- we were in our element."
Wendy Spero, who has appeared on Comedy Central's "Premium Blend" and is writing a pilot for HBO, read outrageous letters from her boyfriend's crazy Jewish landlord. (I guess the "no notes" rule doesn't apply to people writing pilots for HBO.) Director Jon Kesselman and TV writer Eric Friedman both made it clear in their performances that they're single -- and available.
"I can't understand why this hot Jewish piece of a** hasn't been taken off the market," Friedman said on stage at the event, which was co-sponsored by The National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
While all Heeb shows share a similar sensibility, there was, Neuman said, an L.A. vibe to the evening: "L.A. is the Tel-Aviv to New York's Jerusalem." He added that certain references were quintessentially local: my sperm donor asking whether, like a script submission, I was out to other men or this was an exclusive offer; Friedman's riff on geographically undesirable dates living outside a 10-block radius near the Grove.
"This being L.A., there was still some business being done," The Hollywood Reporter's Burman said, "but it was low-key, warm and inclusive."
Kesselman agreed: "The evening opened my eyes to the fact that Heeb isn't just a magazine. It's become its own community."
Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is the author of "Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self." Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.
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