February 25, 2009
“Where are you from?” is a simple enough question. But when I asked Lisa Alcalay Klug the other day, she did everything she could not to answer. At first she tried to change the subject, and then she just smiled and said, “Right outside of Los Angeles.”
“But where outside of Los Angeles?” I wanted to know. What was she trying to hide? Was her coyness connected to her new coolness? Many of you might know that for the past few months, Klug has been traveling the country promoting her new book, “Cool Jew,” which has put her right up there on the Jewish hip-o-meter. So, was her hometown not in keeping with being a cool Jew?
Apparently so, because she finally blurted it out: “San Bernardino.”
Ouch. Is there any place less cool than San Bernardino? No wonder she kept stalling. Out of sympathy, I mumbled something about San Bernardino having a cool Chabad rabbi, but that didn’t get me far.
Eventually, after our long morning conversation at Delice café last week, I discovered the real reason why Klug was hiding the identity of her hometown. It wasn’t because San Bernardino is not a very hip place. Rather, it was because that was the place where she was introduced to that ancient malignancy called anti-Semitism, where, growing up, the attacks of “dirty Jew” she heard in school had to compete with the teaching of “proud Jew” she heard at home.
Both sides left a mark on her.
It’s clear that the “dirty Jew” side is not something she enjoys talking about. The subject is way too dark, and this woman is seriously happy. She’s been on a career high for most of the past year. After a steady few years in Jewish journalism, she hit the jackpot last year with a book that has struck a nerve with a new generation of Jews.
At first glance, her book, “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe,” represents everything I lament about the modern marketing of our faith. It feels like yet another attempt to dumb down Judaism in order to attract the casual Jew. What it seems to be saying is, “Connect to your faith not because it’s deep and meaningful, but because it’s cool like you.”
It takes anything remotely connected to Judaism and tries to “coolicize” it — all around the “Heebster” culture. In Klug’s book, you’ll find all kinds of Heebster stuff, like the “Heebster Bling,” the “Heebster Food Pyramid” and the “Heebster Lexicon.” Here, for example, is some of what they teach you at “Heebster School”:
“Kabbalah dates back to ancient Israel. Kabba Lah Lah dates back to Lah Lah Land. Rumor has it that Kabba Ha Ha is a forthcoming half-hour sitcom on Comedy Central.”
If you keep reading, though, Klug brings you to a more meaningful place. Kabba Lah Lah, she explains, is “infused with ancient wisdom. The stronger side represents love and giving. The weaker side represents restraint or discipline. Heebsters harmonize kindness and love over restraint and discipline. Both are important but love conquers all.”
In another section, she connects Shabbat to the foibles of being single:
“So you’re single. Heebsters don’t let this get them down. Besides, they’re not really alone. God is single, too! And according to the Talmud, so is one day of the week. Every day of the week has a partner except for one: Shabbat. Shabbat is single, just like you. So who is Shabbat’s date? Millions of Yiddelach around the world. “
Klug has hundreds of similar “hooks” throughout her book — lighthearted, sometimes-kitschy ways of grabbing your attention to get you to a more serious place. This is a book with an agenda. Klug wants you to buy into the thing she loves most in the world: her Judaism. She says the “cool” part is just to get you to the “Jew” part.
It helps that Klug herself hardly fits the cliché of the Heebster Jew. She’s Torah observant. She’s shomer Shabbat. She dresses stylishly but modestly. She studies Torah. So where did she learn all this cool stuff? She traveled the country and did years of research. It was the only way, she said, to get through to the disenchanted generation. Make them laugh, make them think, make them do.
Maybe this is what makes her book stand out from other attempts to “coolicize” Judaism, which are often hip for hip’s sake. Klug is full of substance, and she’s anything but apologetic.
She’s also a walking paradox. She’s not into the modern-day fashion of being overly self-conscious. She’s more into the old-school idea of just “doing your Judaism” without having to constantly comment on what you’re doing.
So she leads a double life. When she’s in her “Cool Jew” mode, talking up her book that was just named a finalist in the 2008 National Jewish Book Awards, she has no choice but to be self-conscious about her Judaism. But when she goes to her favorite shul — The Happy Minyan — she surrenders to her true self, the joyful Jew who simply “does her Judaism.”
Her wish is that the substance inside “Cool Jew” will win out, and that the “cool hooks” of the book will become sparks that ignite a deeper connection to the faith. The title is ironic, she says. She doesn’t really want anyone to be a cool Jew. She just wants you to “do Jew.”
Klug does more than “do Jew.” She does infectious enthusiasm. I can see why the old calls of “dirty Jew” from San Bernardino have turned into a hazy memory. They might have served to light a fire under her soul, but today, the words that define her Jewish journey are more like proud, devoted and incredibly joyful.
In other words, anything but cool.
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