Joshua Neuman, editor and publisher of Heeb: The New Jew Review, said that many readers treat the magazine - an irreverent quarterly that on its last cover featured a woman sniffing Gold's Prepared Horse Radish as if it were cocaine - as a "sacred Jewish text."
Sporting a green T-shirt, jeans and a corduroy hat, the 33-year-old Neuman addressed how he thinks the magazine speaks to a young, hip Jewish audience during a Center City event attended by 100 or so people, and sponsored by the Renaissance Group of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
"We are looking for the inadvertently Jewish, the tangentially Jewish.We want to move beyond narrow interpretations of what constitutes a Jewish issue," said Neuman of Heeb, which has put out seven issues since its debut in 2002 and has an upcoming sex issue, "much to the chagrin of our High Holiday advertisers."
Neuman said that the magazine - which has two paid staff members, and just opened its own office after operating out of the editor's Manhattan apartment for several years - circulates 125,000 copies of each issue, and that 80 percent of its readers fall between ages 18 and 35.
He explained that the publication's name, which the Anti-Defamation League considers inappropriate (the group also blasted the magazine's "Crimes of Passion" issue), represents the reclaiming of an ethnic slur, like the term "queer" for gays and "the 'N' word" for blacks.
"Heeb sees a significant shift taking place within the Jewish community. Our audience may not be very observant, but they feel very Jewish," said the New Jersey native, and graduate of Brown University and the Harvard Divinity School.
"There is tremendous fluidity between Jewish and secular culture," he continued. The Heeb community "is only marginally affiliated with the organized Jewish community, but strongly affiliated with almost everything else."
He said the magazine's goal is to create a kind of community for young, "culturally savvy Jews." He stressed that it's not in any way an outreach tool to the unaffiliated and, in fact, predicted that in a generation, the Jewish landscape will be wholly divided between culturally secular Jews and what he dubbed "religious fundamentalists."
"If there are any Reform rabbis here, I'm sorry," he offered.
A number of audience members said they thought the magazine was helping to create a new kind of conversation about Jewish identity.
"I really respect what he's doing," said 33-year-old Rachel Eskenazi, who nevertheless said she felt slightly uncomfortable with the magazine's latest cover. Despite the image's humorous nature, it was still glamorizing drug use, she added.
Glossing the Matter Over?
That same issue also happened to feature an article about a failed attempt to turn the book of Exodus into a musical, written by Stephen Glass, the disgraced former journalist who was fired from The New Republic after it turned out that he was fabricating stories.
While Glass' exploits were alluded to in the contributor notes, the question remained about the writer's tainted credentials, and why any magazine would make use of his services, except to be purposefully provocative.
Several days after the speech, Neuman was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.
Janet Neuman, the magazine's spokeswoman and, as it so happens, Joshua Neuman's mother, returned the call.
"I don't think it's condoning what Glass did," she said. "It's more about what he had to say that Heeb deemed worthy of putting in there."