The Search for the Great Jewish Magazine

Is It Even Worth Looking?

There are three types of great magazines, in print or online: those that uniquely interpret the historical moment for their readers, those that enable a circle of writers to interpret the historical moment, and those that do both. The third sort of great magazine isn’t necessarily greater than the first two. For instance, it didn’t matter that the edgy hipster magazine Vice-a great magazine of the first sort-had local editions around the world. Its role as the stylebook for a generation of young urbanites had little to do with any specific set of writers. Similarly, it doesn’t matter that The Partisan Review-a classic example of the second sort of great magazine-was hardly read in its day. If Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Lionel Trilling and the rest had printed only enough copies of their little magazine to send to each of their grandmothers, the ideas that took shape there still would have made it among the greatest American magazines of the century. Great magazines of the third sort are often marquee names. The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harpers and others have fallen within this category from time to time in their august histories, and have learned in turn that greatness can be fleeting.

It should go without saying that a magazine need not be great to be worthwhile. MAD, to choose one of hundreds of examples, hasn’t been great since our dads were in elementary school, but when I was eleven I checked the mail for it every day. Under normal circumstances, magazine editors who worry about greatness should be considered wildly presumptuous, even hubristic. But for those of us whose magazines operate at a significant financial loss, “worthwhile” doesn’t begin to justify our efforts to our donors, our investors, and ourselves. So we tell donors and investors that we’re publishing a great magazine, and we come to believe it ourselves. And then the recession comes, and the money dries up, and we cut back, and we wonder if anyone misses us.

Which brings me to the Jewish magazines. It’s been an exceptionally bad year for our little industry. American Jewish Life, the glossy Atlanta-based monthly, shut down abruptly in June, the irreverent Jewcy.com closed its office and stopped paying its staff when investors pulled out in January, the culture magazine Nextbook.com has been on hiatus since March, the extravagantly printed Guilt and Pleasure hasn’t published since last spring, and New Voices (that’s us!) merged its March and May issues into a single issue.

Most of these magazines aren’t gone forever. Nextbook is slated to relaunch soon under a new name. Guilt and Pleasure’s publisher (see “The Quiet Cabal Behind the New Jewish Culture” in our February 2009 issue) says that new editions are on their way. We’ve heard rumors that Jewcy.com has secured new funding, and New Voices will be fine. But the sudden collapse of so many similar titles calls for some reflection.

The Jewish magazine boom of the first years of the 21st century was instigated in no small part by the early success of Heeb, the hipster Jewish magazine that launched in 2001 under the (quickly jettisoned) tagline “The New Jew Review.” The incongruity that was at the core of the magazine’s concept (we’re Jewish but we’re also cool!) titillated the press and garnered massive coverage. Judging from the wave of Jewish magazines that emerged in the following years – AJL, Jewcy, Nextbook, Guilt and Pleasure, PresenTense, Zeek, and others-scores of would-be editors had approached Jewish philanthropists in 2002 and 2003 with proposals to create publications that were “Like Heeb but more serious,” or “Like Heeb but more Jewish.”

It was, in retrospect, an odd time to launch a Jewish magazine movement. It’s easy to argue that even a single Jewish magazine is redundant today. Analysis from a Jewish perspective can be found in Dissent, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and even the New Yorker. Community news comes from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the various local Jewish newspapers, and often from mainstream publications. Jewish culture is covered in the New York Times‘ Book Review, the culture pages of The New Republic and the Nation, and intellectual journals like n+1. Among the fruits of assimilation has been a diffusion of Jewish writers and Jewish interest throughout the intellectual apparatus. The Jewish press has lost any monopoly on the explication of the Jewish historical moment. In the early 21st century, is greatness even possible in an American Jewish magazine?

***

Perhaps the greatest American Jewish magazine was Commentary. An unlikely statement in these pages, I know, but at its peak, Commentary was undeniably a great magazine of the third sort. Founded in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee, edited first by Elliot Cohen and later, most famously, by Norman Podhoretz, Commentary‚Äòs current neo-conservative radicalism represents a progression from a pre-1968 pose that was largely liberal. In a 1981 article in Dissent, the Israeli American intellectual Bernard Avishai argued that Commentary reached a sort of zenith in the mid-1960s. He writes, “The magazine succeeded brilliantly as a force for American Jewish life, especially from 1963 to 1968, because its gifted editor [Podhoretz] consciously charged it with the eclectic voice to which, he knew, thousands of educated, ambiguous American Jews could respond. [W]e keenly awaited Commentary every month as if it were a public realm in which Jews were permitted to live on the questions.”

For Avishai, Commentary‚Äòs greatness was a product of the confluence of American liberalism and Judaism. The magazine spoke to a Jewish community that identified closely with the Civil Rights movement and an Israel that they imagined as a socialist paradise. “If you are going to be writing eulogies to American liberalism,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “where would you rather be than in the Jewish community, and how could you protect American liberalism better than in the protection of American Jewish interests and the celebration of its literature?”

Commentary‘s content at the time was notable for its variety, and for its unwillingness to cohere to an explicitly Jewish center. “Commentary was not a Jewish magazine, but a human magazine writing about human affairs from the inevitable perspective of the Jews who formed it,” says Avishai. “What made it a great Jewish magazine was its inability to draw a bright line between what was American and what was Jewish, what was emancipation and what was Judaism, what was enlightenment and what was the Jewish mission, or Jewish culture. If you looked at the articles that they were publishing, you couldn’t always tell why they appeared in a Jewish magazine.”

Avishai argues that Commentary changed irrevocably in 1968, when the fallout of the Six Day War combined with tensions between middle class Jews and African-Americans to produce a major shift in the magazine’s editorial perspective. “It’s not that Commentary went right,” he says. “The people who ran Commentary suddenly bought into a deep sense of betrayal, because they felt that the Civil Rights movement and the blacks were not grateful, and turned against them violently.” In response, they attached themselves to a notion of Jewish toughness that manifested in a militaristic Zionism. “Instead of thinking about Israel as this great cultural adventure, this great social democracy, suddenly Israel became this place for tough Jews to defend Jewish interests,” Avishai says.

Avishai says that an Jewish successor to Commentary has been elusive. Today, he sees little use for a Jewish magazine. “I think that American Jews have made it, they’ve assimilated, they’re in the elites of America, and their natural place is to contribute to the big, multi-voiced conversation of American liberalism,” he says. More damningly, Avishai suggest that the writers just aren’t there anymore. “The Jewish world has been suburbanized, the younger generation has become intellectually flattened,” he says. “Their parents had already made it. Volvos picked them up and took them to soccer practice. What kind of life is that for a tortured intellectual? They went to Ivy League schools and knew that their fate was to go to Goldman Sachs. They were already not trying to make it, but trying to ride the momentum of their parents’ privilege.”

***

Avishai’s pessimism poses a profound challenge to the New Jewish Magazines. Do American Jews really need a great Jewish magazine? And if we do, are we even capable of the sort of greatness that was a product of the intellectual hunger and ambition of our ghetto-born grandparents?

In the December 2008 issue of n+1, Keith Gessen, one of the magazine’s editors, co-wrote an unsigned essay entitled “The People of the Magazine” that consisted of devastating critiques of Heeb, Guilt and Pleasure, and Nextbook, and a kinder analysis of Zeek. The essay called the magazines “either silly or unfocused and confused,” noted that “their proximate cause is the easy availability of gobs of money from wealthy men who decided, in their declining years, to do something for the Jews after betraying tikkun olam for their whole working careers,” and concluded that “the result of all of the money poured into Jewish “cultural” programs is a stifling, undeniable sterility.” So much for greatness.

In a phone interview, Gessen, who is Jewish, said that his experience in founding n+1 in 2004 bore out some of Avishai’s concerns. “We started [n+1] in New York, and we explicitly referred to The Partisan Review and to Dissent,” he says. “The [writers] that have come to us over the years really believe in this tradition, this highbrow, serious, world culture tradition.” It’s a culture that has been important to Jews, Gessen says, and decades ago, such a project would have attracted Jewish writers. Instead, he and his fellow editors found that most of the writers who approached them were not Jews, but, he said, “people from India, Turkey.”

J.J. Goldberg, Editorial Director at the Forward, says that the fear of a disappearing Jewish intellectual is pervasive, but unfounded. “Malamud and Roth and Bellow were supposed to be a onetime phenomenon, and now you’ve got a whole new generation with Michael Chabon and [Myla Goldberg],” Goldberg says. “There is a new generation of great Jewish literature. And it was supposed to disappear. It keeps on showing up.”

For Goldberg, the real problem is the lack of audience. “I learned this a long time ago,” he says. “If you want to sell subscriptions to a Jewish periodical, it tops off at around 60,000. That’s the number of Jews in America that will subscribe to a Jewish publication. Everybody wants to sell to them because Jews read. The publishers keep on publishing Jewish books because they know that so many of their readers are Jewish. But they’re not reading Jewish books. Most of the Jews aren’t that interested in Judaism. There’s this assumption that you can do something great and it will succeed. You can do something great, but [that doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed.]”

It’s a grim picture, however you slice it. And yet, the urge to start a Jewish magazine remains inexplicably alluring. Even in these times, Abe Socher, the chair of the Jewish Studies department at Ohio’s Oberlin College, has secured funding from the Tikvah Foundation to launch a new Jewish magazine that should start publication early next year.

“If I were to characterize what I’m aiming for it would be more like the New York Review of Books,” Socher says. “We will be willing to discuss something at great length, and willing to find just the right person to do it. We will be willing to write 5000 to 10,000 words not only on contemporary Jewish literature, but on contemporary Kabbalah studies or Yiddish literature, and also Israeli culture or Israeli politics.”

Socher’s pitch is convincing. He says that his magazine will approach religious issues more directly than most of the current crop. He argues that as a result of the Jewish studies programs that have proliferated in the past few decades, secular American Jews are increasingly Jewishly literate. “If you look at Commentary of the 1950s, it’s not a magazine that is particularly interested in religious tradition or texts, and it presumes that it’s audience is neither knowledgeable nor interested in such things,” he says. “The editors largely weren’t, either. That’s just a sociological fact about mid-century America. But now you’re talking about a group of readers that graduated from college in the last 20, 25 years, and might have taken significant Jewish studies courses as part of their ordinary college experience. In a certain way, they are much more sophisticated Jewish readers.”

Socher’s move toward religious tradition is one answer to the loss of the Jewish press’ exclusive claim to Jewish content. No one outside the Jewish press will write on Kabbalah or Gemara, and if Socher can use that sort of content skillfully, and if Avishai and Gessen are wrong about Jewish intellectual talent, then Socher’s magazine-tentatively titled The Jewish Review of Books-may have a shot at greatness. But what about the rest of us? New Voices will never run religious disquisitions, and it seems unlikely that Jewcy or Nextbook or Heeb will, either. Should we just pack it in?

Perhaps. Or perhaps there is another option, one embodied by Heeb, which is notably absent from the list of troubled New Jewish Magazines. While its publishing schedule is still irregular, Heeb continues to splash along. This past year, the magazine has been in top form, publishing a swimsuit calendar and running a fake Holocaust memoir contest. Unlike its peers, Heeb‘s intended audience is exceedingly narrow. Jewcy.com is for younger Jews, Nextbook.com is for Jews who like reading books, AJL was for Jews who read Rolling Stone, and so on. Heeb, on the other hand, is for a small sliver of Jewish kids in Brooklyn and San Francisco. The historical conditions it attempts to explicate, in its irreverent and often inane way, are those of a narrowly defined cohort. It can speak to them directly, even more so than any mainstream non-Jewish publication. It’s not a great Jewish magazine on the scale of Commentary, but it’s still kind of great.

And today, maybe that’s all we need. Perhaps the only historical moments left to interpret are the most specific and narrowly defined. The national magazine market is crowded, and small magazines for small readerships, magazines like Heeb and Zeek, may have a tight enough focus to achieve greatness on their own terms. The Commentary precedent is a daunting one, but the Commentary ideal of a broadly Jewish magazine serving as a natural extension of every thinking Jew’s Jewishness is probably no longer achievable. Greatness in a magazine does not require comprehensiveness, only insight. Not every Jew needs to read the same magazine.

Grand projects to create great Jewish magazines are thrilling, but their eventual failure is damaging. Failed Jewish magazines give the appearance that the Jewish conversation is over. Those who don’t know any better look elsewhere, leaving the discourse to the extremists. Instead of launching the next fancy Jewish quarterly, let’s think about filling the niches with magazines that have a shot at real greatness.

5 Older Responses to “The Search for the Great Jewish Magazine”

  1. David Zarmi
    May 26, 2009 at 12:40 pm #

    It’s shocking (okay, not so shocking if I think of where this comes from) that Commentary is not even mentioned as existing anymore, much less as being a great Jewish magazine (as Avishai put it, some of the articles make you wonder why they are even in a “Jewish” magazine, as they could be in any magazine). Commentary may not be as flashy as Heeb (and thank the good Lord for stultifying boredom), but for its fiction and non-fiction pieces, it certainly deserves admirable recognition. The fiction especially speaks to a Jewish audfience and would nto be published elsewhere. The author’s political biases should not blind him to reality, even if he would wish reality to be different.

  2. Michal Goldstein
    June 15, 2009 at 12:48 pm #

    Well-written article, Josh. I do agree with Mr. Zarmi’s wonderment at Avishai’s metaphoric funeral of Commentary, which is, by all means, still a good place to go for literary analysis, even if it has swung far to the right in more recent years. That said, Bernie’s assessment of cultural climes is always well-worded if somewhat less universal than he often believes (See his blog posts on his belief in a majority left-leaning Israeli culture, for instance).
    Now, that said, I would like to note that the notion of a disappearing Jewish American intelligentsia is somewhat misleading, given that the number of academics currently emerging from PhD programs worldwide is at an all-time high. Serious, scholarly, Jewish readers abound everywhere, which is why, I think, on the one hand, modern Jewish literature is so steeped in itself (which is to say, it’s metafictional), and on the other hand, why there really are so many well-received Jewish authors writing for apparently Jewish audiences in the last decade. These academics have found themselves integrating into the non-academic social fabric–heads of and teachers in ‘popular’ study programs around the US, for example–and are working to create a very strong Jewish cultural base, indeed. Even as we do see higher levels of Jewish integration (via intermarriage, leaving organized religious life, etc), we’re seeing a complimentary shift that values Jewish culture to a high degree.
    Now, as for Heeb, I never really know what to make of it, which is part of the reason that it is, in your words, “kind of great”. It is very brazen and provocative. It has articles that are, often enough, downright offensive (For example, this large spread they did about Shabbos Goys euphemistically referred to me as the “best friend” of one of the people interviewed for the article–I was the one who wanted to be a rabbi, at the time, even though I’d never asked the friend to function as a Shabbos Goy, finding the practice irreligious and frankly, appalling). Heeb is to the contemporary Jewish magazine what Isaac Bashevis Singer was to Yiddish literature: not very representative of the bunch, but so loud in its movements that people take notice and more importantly, take what they read as representative of a greater whole. Sure, Heeb will never win the Nobel Prize, though Bashevis himself never understood why some of his stories received the acclaim that they did. He adopted an impish social posture that allowed him to say and write any number of things that others of his generation never could. And Heeb, weirdly enough, does the same thing: carrying that absurd title and doing some ridiculous exposees on the modern Jewish psyche, Heeb manages to push buttons without being strongly derisive. Oddly, it is a magazine like n+1 that fills that role: while not pompous, their editorials are filled with a “snarkiness” that belies an insecurity in their public stance. As it happens, n+1 also publishes fairly empty articles (like a recent and lengthy musing on Internet dating) that aren’t going to win them any prizes for investigative journalism any time soon.
    The Jewish magazine phenomenon is similar to other Jewish organizational phenomena that we’ve seen in the last century. Jon Stewart recently referenced an oft-quoted maxim of Jewish group organization: when a Jewish person isn’t accepted by a group, s/he simply starts his/her own. So, when the folk at n+1 found themselves alone in terms of their intellectual standards, they simply created their own space, which in the digital age, is infinite, easily gotten, and with a few loyal friends and investors, relatively easily maintained. We see this sort of social behavior among the ultra-Orthodox, the “culturally observant”, the young Jewish groups who are religiously “unaffiliated” or “post-denominational” but maintain high levels of Jewish involvement in one way or another. The continuous outgrowth of (sometimes short-lived) Jewish magazines actually reflects a fairly healthy Jewish culture, one that is dynamic, and, unexpectedly, growing.
    Do we hope, then, that Socher is correct in his aims and goals? I think that for Socher’s desired readership–university-educated, religiously knowledgeable (if not necessarily practicing), patient, and not looking for sound-bites–his magazine will be a great success. But I don’t think it’s going to garner any new readers or turn heads in the way that Heeb can, and does. Oddly–and I suppose it would have been difficult to work the angle in this context–it’s a magazine like New Voices that engages in a broad swathe of issues and manages to touch on many aspects of Jewish culture, engaging a pluralistic politic that allows for a diverse readership.

  3. JBH
    July 9, 2009 at 2:30 pm #

    Jewcy is still running buddy – new content, new ads, new money.

  4. Sergey Kadinsky
    August 4, 2009 at 8:39 am #

    You forgot to mention Tablet.

  5. j
    September 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    the non-religious Jewish liberal magazines that are not sfw are dying, yes. but the frum, Jewish family weekly is booming. every week a new magazine, newspaper or ad publication is released, and there’s enough business for them all. families read family magazines, and they also read ads.

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