Saturday afternoon on the upper deck of the Queen Mary, six young Jewish adults were engaged in a heated discussion. The topic: Men or women-- who's hornier?
I overheard it, and marveled at the participants-- a group of people you wouldn't ever expect in the same room: a svelte dark-haired woman in skinny jeans and tight top; a man with the long beard and knitted kippah of a Chasid; a couple of guys of the buff, secular Israeli type; a blond-haired woman in a modest skirt; and a man whose tzitzit spun about his waist as he gestured while making his points.
Women have a much stronger sex drive, the man with the tzitzit said, but society forces them to suppress it. Then, as if to answer the unasked challenge — How would you know? — he added, “What happens at Jewlicious, stays at Jewlicious.”
Jewlicious is an annual gathering of Jews, ages 18 to 36, that celebrates and explores all the different ways of being Jewish. There are reggae and rock bands. There are at least five kinds of religious services. There is Torah-inspired yoga, and a guy promoting the healing properties of marijuana, and talks about serving the poor, and about why “Jewrotica” is better than erotica, and kabbalah, and at least 60 other topics, speakers and activities.
I’d never been to a Jewlicious conference before — I graduated from that demographic during the Clinton administration. But I drove down this time to lead a discussion on Israel with Consul General of Israel David Siegel, and once I came on board, I didn’t want to leave.
If you cross a summer camp with a senior seminar, add a waft of 1 a.m. college dorm room and toss in some scotch and a tent revival, you get Jewlicious.
You also get yet more evidence that Judaism continues to defy all predictions of its imminent demise, despite, it seems, the unconscionable, half-hearted support Jewlicious gets from the self-appointed guardians of Jewish continuity.
About 400 people attend Jewlicious. The mix has varied over its nine years of existence, but this year it was 40 percent Orthodox, 30 percent Conservative and Reform, and 30 percent who-the-hell-knows?
But the labels don’t do justice to the energy. Many “cutting-edge” Jewish groups tend toward the homogenous — same practice, same age, same politics. At Jewlicious, identities and ideologies combine, conflict, merge and blend. During my evening at Jewlicious, I met with two Orthodox brothers who make their own label of kosher wine in Thousand Oaks; a single 30-something woman, quite secular, looking for a love connection; a Marine just back from Iraq trying to figure out his place in the Jewish community; and an Iranian-Jewish lawyer who called herself “Traditional, But.” That’s my pick for Best New Jewish Denomination.
For the past two years, Jewlicious has been held on the Queen Mary, the massive circa 1930 ocean liner now permanently docked in Long Beach. The setting adds to the sense of discovery: I wandered to the upper deck to find the impromptu debate on female sexuality, then into a hallway so packed with boisterous 20-somethings, where I had a flashback to the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ “Monkey Business,” and then into an art deco ballroom where a band was setting up for a concert that would start at 10 p.m. and go all night.
“You missed last night’s Torah study,” one young man told me. “It started at midnight.”
“What time did it end?” I asked.
While we were speaking, I was eating a Florentine-style cookie from the overflowing dessert buffet. It was excellent.
“Rachel Bookstein made it,” the man said.
“All the desserts.”
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and his wife, Rachel, are the guiding force behind Jewlicious.
Rachel Bookstein also programmed the entire event, while her husband, who created Jewlicious in 2004, ran the proceedings. They run it on insomnia, elbow grease and a few shekels.
I’m not exaggerating. Just two paid staff and 40 volunteers pull off the event, relying on vendor discounts, in-kind donations, free presenters — and homemade desserts. Four families cover 70 percent of the budget, and participants pay according to their ability. Despite the hardships, the Jewlicious winter and summer festivals have created a turned-on alumni network of some 7500 souls. But major Jewish foundations, like overexcited children, often drop things that actually work for the next shiny idea.They have all discontinued their support for Jewlicious, forcing the Booksteins to turn away at least 200 potential attendees this year. In comes whatever’s new, out goes whatever works.
Jewlicous could attract thousands. It could run parallel programs for the baby boomer or even the alter-kacker set. It is scalable and proven, and it is constantly starved for institutional support as mainstream organizations go off in search of some way to do what the Booksteins already excel at.
They run Jewlicious with a kind of effortless inclusivity and acceptance. At the Havdalah ceremony on deck under the stars, musician Sam Glaser sang while circles of participants swayed back and forth — some separated by gender, others mixing it up. You picked your shoulder to hold on to.
People might scoff at the idea of such “cafeteria Judaism,” where people just select what suits them, whatever they’re comfortable with. Guess what: we all do that anyway.
At least at Jewlicious you also come face to face with Jews and Judaisms that make you uncomfortable. And you can feel free to try them on, or not: After all, what happens at Jewlicious, stays at Jewlicious.