The Rise of the Jewish 'Hipster'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you might be missing out on a whole world of Jewish craft beers and, um, artisanal hair gel.
By Zara Stone
Amy Kritzer makes rainbow bagels that are more likely to be Instagrammed than eaten, going by the 18,000 hashtag results for #rainbowbagel. “They’re the perfect snack before you ride off on your unicorn!” she says. They pass the taste test too, fluffy bites great with a dollop of cream cheese. The Austin-based chef also makes rainbow challah for Shabbat and posts the recipes to her food blog, What Jew Wanna Eat. Kritzer’s part of a new wave of Jewry — one that combines liberal values with avocado latke tacos.
When Tumblr blog Hasid or Hipster launched in 2012, it was a lone voice in the blogosphere. It featured Jews straddling the hipster line, bearded, clad in plaid and drinking craft beer. But now it can be seen as the foreshadowing of today’s cool Jew. In April, a New Yorker cover illustration riffed on this theme, and a 2014 Pew Report on U.S. attitudes toward faith revealed that Judaism was considered the coolest religion — even though 60 percent of those surveyed had never met a Jew. The “Jewlicious” movement is moving mainstream, and consumerism is one of the outlets for the growing goodwill. This doesn’t mean there are more conversions, or that synagogue attendance is up — membership has steadily declined for years — but that Jewish culture has been monetized and successfully marketed to hipsters.
For a religion that makes up just 2.2 percent of the American population, Jews are killing it at PR.
“There’s an overlap between cultural millennial hipsterness and Jewish culture — and where they meet, you get creative friction,” says Yoav Schlesinger, director of Hello Mazel, a subscription box startup that delivers “more Jewish to more people.” Randi Zuckerberg — sister to social-networking giant Mark — is a mentor, helping Schlesinger curate products for each $50 package. An example Passover box might contain artisanal matzoth, saltwater taffy (to represent tears) and coffee for bitterness — must-haves for a hipster-like seder.
When I meet Schlesinger at Philz, a trendy San Francisco coffee chain, he’s wearing a pressed plaid shirt, Vans and Prada sunglasses, with a Hamsa tattoo on his left forearm. He tells me he used to have a beard but shaved it because his wife didn’t like it. The business is a nonprofit, and his goal is to create a community within the diaspora. He crowdfunded it to surprising success. “Their project comes up as the most-funded [Jewish project],” says Julie Wood, communications director at Kickstarter.
There’s clearly a demand for playful, non-preachy products, and it’s boom time. Those with unruly tresses can buy Kosher Kurls hair products — there’s even a butter-yellow leave-in “schmear” conditioner — and festivalgoers can decorate their talons with Midrash Manicures nail stickers (best-sellers are High Holiday and Ten Plagues). The fashion forward can purchase Unkosher Market T-shirts with phrases like “Shvitz It Out” and “Jewchella.” The shirts are 100 percent cotton and “Made with 100% chutzpah.” But it’s the grocery arena that’s seen the most gains — currently around 40 percent of all foodstuffs produced are kosher, according to Mintel, up from 27 percent in 2009. This makes for around 35 million non-Jewish kosher consumers, according to Lubicom.
For a religion that makes up just 2.2 percent of the American population, Jews are killing it at PR, and the popularity of ugly Hanukkah sweaters — a twist on the ugly Christmas sweater trope — illustrates this nicely. Unheard of a couple of years ago, you can now buy such sweaters at Nordstrom (slogans include “Happy Llamakkah!” and “This Is How We Jew It”), and they were featured in Seth Rogen’s The Night Before Christmas. In fact, they’ve achieved so much market penetration that smaller brands have stopped producing them, because, according to Carin Agiman of GeltFiend, “Hanukkah sweaters are a thing now.”
As a whole, “hipster” Jews reject the label but aren’t averse to having “hipster” qualities — namely, being liberal, independent and creative. “If that makes us hipsters, bring it on!” says Kritzer. And, as a rule, these Jews are far more inclusive. Last year, 90 percent of Kritzer’s seder guests were non-Jews; she believes sharing her religion with others is important as it allows for broader discussions. “Viewing G-d as mandatory equals failure,” agrees Schlesinger. “Modern life needs flexibility. You could be Santa, but if you’re on the Jewish bus, that’s OK.”
Millennials are more likely to browse the Hot Dudes and Hummus account on Instagram or to sing along to Drake’s “Bar Mitzvah” than to spread hate speech. And shows like Orange Is the New Black demonstrate how appealing kosher food is, with inmates attempting conversions in order to upgrade their meals. This took a real-life spin recently, when more than 100 Scottish inmates said they were Jewish to change their diet. But this Jewish connection is clearly contrived — less about commandments, more about matzo ball soup.
But will some Jews take offense at this glib reconstruction of their culture? We reached out to Hillel’s International Center for comment, but they said they “don’t have anyone who can address these questions.” On the shopping end of the spectrum, views are mixed. “I don’t find it outrageous, but I do find it expensive,” says 27-year-old Hannah Dahan, referring to Unkosher Market’s $48 tank tops — “Totes Koshe” is a particular favorite.
So sit back, grab a bottle of Leikam or Shmaltz (Jewish craft beers) and relax. As Drake would say, “You don’t worry bout fitting in when you custom made.”