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Loss of JDub Is a Blow to the Jewish Community

Proudly unorthodox, org. kept young Jews interested

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It’s been a sad week at Tablet Magazine as JDub Records, our office-mates—as well as strategic partners, who have helped get the word out about Tablet and Nextbook Press—announced they are winding down after nine years. Rabbi Andy Bachman has a wonderful tribute to JDub and the special genius of founder and CEO Aaron Bisman; New Voices posted videos of several JDub artists.

A perfect way to describe what makes JDub so great is to explain what is so wrong with this post on Commentary’s Contentions blog. Instructing us to “Shed No Tears for the Death of JDub,” author Matthew Ackerman lazily lumps it in with Heeb, the alternative Jewish magazine that recently lost most of its funding was forced to scale back significantly due to financial difficulties, and crows, “The turn against these outfits by their funders should be welcomed as a potential indication of growing seriousness in American Jewish priorities. It is no doubt true there is nothing wrong with innovation in itself. Yet we should be wary of the enthusiasm generated by unsustainable appeals to passing whims about the nature of Jewish commitment.” I know what Ackerman is saying. I’m inclined to agree about Heeb, which too frequently places its highest premium on shock and defines Judaism so broadly that it defines it out of existence. But that is not what JDub was ever about. It was about using media—primarily music, but Jewcy, which it owns, is also a good example, as was its consulting with Birthright’s alumni organization—to connect to Jewishness young Jews who would otherwise have no day-to-day, or week-to-week, or even year-to-year link to this aspect of their identities. While I’m sure JDub would be happy to have, say, Baby Boomers listening to Balkan Beat Box, Girls in Trouble, or any of its acts, that was never the demographic that JDub spoke for, or to.

When you are growing up in a Jewish household, it is easy to feel Jewish and participate in Jewish activities and institutions; once you are old enough to create your own household, if you have managed to make it there while maintaining a connection with your Jewishness, then this is once again easy. JDub aimed for that middle spot, a time of life when it is very easy for young Jewish people, living perhaps far away from where they grew up and in a very different milieu, to stay Jewish. Bachman notes that JDub brought “together countless young Jews in the altneuland of their own identity project,” and the reference to Theodor Herzl’s novel of Zionist utopia feels apt.

But how to answer Ackerman’s concern about JDub’s lack of “seriousness”? By asking in turn: Would it be better if young Jews just had no connection with Judaism at all? Better there be fewer of them who, when they get older, are members of congregations and other Jewish institutions? Fewer who marry Jews and raise their kids Jewish? If this is a trade-off Ackerman is willing to make, that is his right, but to my mind it makes him the only slightly more lenient (and much more secular) cousin of the ultra-Orthodox. More likely, though, this is just a case of lazy thinking, and in an honest, sober moment, Ackerman and Commentary would admit that they would gladly have 20-somethings relate to Judaism through indie rock bands so that these same people, when they are 40-somethings, relate to Judaism via more traditional—Commentary would say “serious”—institutions. They’d never admit it, but the fall of JDub means fewer future Commentary subscribers.

JDub To Close Up Shop [JDub Records]
JDub and Aaron Bisman [Water Over Rocks]
Shed No Tears for the Death of JDub [Commentary]
JDub Records, A Music Video Eulogy [New Voices]

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Yair says:

Well said, Marc.

Dave says:

Hmmm…

Tabletmag has no ads and no obvious internal source of money.

Nextbook has no e-books.

When do you folks run out of cash?

Heeb Magazine without the jokes,

Tick, tick, tick…

Ezekiel says:

I don’t get it.

Matthew Ackerman’s post is oddly mean spirited. What fault can one find in the promotion of new Jewish bands? My personal musical taste is very different than the Jdub fair, and yet the closing down of the label greatly saddens me; it seems like a very big loss.
In all the many words, however, positive as well as negative, what is left unexplained by either Mr. Tracy, Rabbi Bachman, or Mr. Ackerman is how come? Jdub has several very popular acts, isn’t there a way to sustain it? Shouldn’t someone ask Aaron to explain this?

I agree with the author that the inreach/outreach debate is tiresome. Tablet itself–funded with money from the late Zalman Bernstein, no stranger either to assimilation or to a life of serious Jewish commitment, reflects that creative and organic tension. It honors the idea of serious Jewish ideas and behaviors, though it treats these as aspects of “culture.” The real question is what will work over the long haul–the equally tiresome conversation about “Jewish continuity.” But it is true that it seems hard to have Jewish life without boundaries and content, reflecting our tribalism and our religion. And at present the only Jewish communities that practice boundaries and content, in serious fashion, are the state of Israel and Orthodoxy. Betting on anything else seems a bit of a long shot.

Expanding on what David wrote: when a Jewish-cultural sensibility has essentially been adopted by America’s educated urban elite (call it the Seinfeld/Daily Show -ization of America), what is left to distinguish young Jews from their contemporaries other than religion and, maybe, attachment to Israel?

Naomi says:

Marc got this one exactly right.

K Roseman says:

Greetings: I am a music journalist based in Silver Spring, Maryland and have attended performances by and reviewed recordings of, JDub artists. (Golem, Hip Hop Hoodios, Sway Machinery, Deleon). Liked them all.
I will turn 60 in October. My politics are more or less “Green”– I am not married and do not have children. I support, to the limited degree that I can, alternative Jewish institutions like New Israel Fund and The Shalom Center.
JDub did not only reach twenty and thirty somethings, but also older folks like myself, who really do not relate to conventional Jewish organizations and structures.
I am really sorry that JDub decided to shut down and am wondering if there is any way for them to continue.
Peace– Ken.

Listen very carefully. I am a young Jew in my 20s. I went on Birthright as did the vast majority of my friends. Some of us hung out in Hillel, a few more participated in Hillel activities on Campus but most didn’t. My network of friends is large, but no larger than most people age. I am a Jewish media junky and am familiar with Tablet (obviously), JDub, Jewcy, Heeb, Jewlicious etc. Please allow me to put this “disaster” into context. Only a handful of my friends know of JDub’s existence. Only a handful ever visited Jewcy. This isn’t a disaster for most of us. Most of us were never affected by JDub and Jewcy and the 6 Points Fellowship. Don’t believe me? Please ask any young Jew under thirty who isn’t a Jewish hipster living in New York. Ask them how saddened they are by the death of JDub. Ask them if they ever visit Jewcy. Ask them how much their lives have been enriched by the 6 Points Fellowship. I look at all the support JDub has received and I am horrified that the grand poobahs and those that speak in my name and in the names of my friends and generation ever thought that a mere record company could do all that they had hoped it would do. JDub was paid to consult Hillel and Birthright Next? Is it any wonder Hillel sucks and Birthright Next, despite all the goodwill generated by Birthright, is a totally moribund organization that isn’t even a blip on our radar?? Please spare me the tears and the accolades. Those that funded JDub wasted their money. Those that promoted JDub, like Slingshot, have zero credibility. Once again, I urge you not to take my word for it. Ask anyone my age.

Yoni says:

well said pea.

Ezekiel says:

To Pea, and to Yoni, I don’t get the resentment. What is it that you didn’t like about Jdub? The musical choices? The attempt to cater to people of “your generation”? Also, considering that half of America’s Jews live in NY, the cultural tastes of the “NY hipster” would seem rather significant to Jewish culture in general. Also, what is your alternative? What music, culture, press, etc do you identify with? Is it the Jewish thing in general you object to, or just the NY-centric hipster type? I am really interested in understanding.

Denise says:

Really sorry to see jdub go away. And, I was also a subscriber to Heeb. What a pain to hear people rejoice in a loss of diversity. One of those days that I’m glad that I don’t live in northeast where people seem to be constantly slamming each other.

Ohhh, I am sad to hear this.

Of course no record company is going to change the face of American Jewry. But as Ken said, JDub introduced us (including us OLD PEOPLE) to a lot of terrific acts — I loved Girls in Trouble, Balkan Beat Box, Shotnez, the LeeVees and the Macaroons (as a parent, I’m particularly interested in non-sappy Jewish music for kids) in addition to the bands Ken named. They’ll be sorely missed.

Aaron, I’m so sorry.

Out of curiosity, Pea and Yoni, what suggestions do the two of you have for fomenting continuity, that push-pull of tradition and evolution within the Jewish community? I’m not asking as a swipe at Pea’s critique; I’m interested in reading constructive thoughts on the subject.

I’m in my early 30s — with a rapidly depleting stock of “hipness” — and I’m more drawn to Tablet and Azure than I am to Heeb or Jewcy, but few of my Jewish friends younger than 40 have much interest in reading or consuming any Jewish media; in fact, they have virtually no interest in Judaism or Jewishness beyond an occasional conversation about Israel.

There has to be some way to connect a younger demographic to Jewish identity. Sometimes I feel as though it’s my role, as a ger, to encourage engaged interest in Jewish culture and folkways, Judaism, Jewish institutions, and Israel among my contemporaries. But, in order to do that with any success, you need Jewish media to share and discuss. For my part, then, any loss (even of those outlets that I don’t frequently make use of) is a set-back.

Dear Marc,

First of all, Heeb is a for-profit if I am correct.(Ask them?) Heeb has never had abundance of funding, access, and darling of the establishment status that JDub enjoyed. Yet, Heeb is still going, irreverent and controversial, even if you don’t love it (do we need to love something to appreciate what they do?)

JDub Records was the Oracle of Jewish Engagement. Whatever they said was taken as the Truth. But all their figures and facts are SELF generated. They may have helped discover Matisyahu, and include his numbers and his concerts and CD’s etc in their “stats”. But we all know Matisyahu left JDub years ago (acrimoniously).

What have they done since? Develop bands that are not mainstream and young Jews are not hip to. Really not hip to. Shemspeed is more hip, doing as much if not more and they are run on shoestring budget with almost no communal funds.

With all that, i’m sad that the idea of JDub is dead.
I mourn the loss of a good idea.
But as a wise man told me, not all good ideas work out in the end.

— Ben

PS did they really sell 1.5 million records?

PPS They will likely be resurrected by Big Phil.

PPS Jewcy now has died not once, not twice, but three times. How many lives does a website get?

Carrie says:

Young Jews don’t care about JDub, or Jewcy. That’s the truth. Pea is right. 9 out of 10 probably never heard of them. The only reason I ever heard about Jewcy was because a friend of a friend was a founding father. I visited the site once.

Too much money is poured into these wasteful projects that are supposedly meant to unite Jews but winds up being offensive and controversial and actually divides Jews and turns off others.

JDub’s demise is consistent with most other attempts by big Jewish funders (Federations, Foundations, etc) to try and be “cool” and attract young people. Young people see right through this facade. peas’s comment was a blast of reality amid the sentimental mourning.

I have a bias in this, as I was a musician on JDUB (my band Can!!Can was one of the last bands that JDUB signed). For all you Jewish media and non-profit people, ask yourself this question: how come NO MEDIA OUTLET has interviewed Balkan Beat Box, Girls In Trouble, DeLeon or any of the BANDS on JDUB? Jewish media just keeps reprinting that same press release and journalists who AREN’T IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS are giving their “expert” opinion. That’s our label!!!! TALK TO US! You can find Alicia from Girls in Trouble or Dan from DeLeon on Facebook. They’d LOVE to talk. Oh…wait…that’s the problem: Jewish media doesn’t think of JDUB as a record label, but something else different entirely. Though I’m not sure what. I mean, it was Jdub RECORDS, not Jdub-non-profit-that-runs-Jewcy-and-markets-other-Jewish-non-profits-with-larger-budgets. Last thing: 90% of records released do not recoup the expenses that it costs to put them out. That’s an industry fact. Labels shut down all the time. Business is business.

Time to respond…
Ezekiel queried: “I don’t get the resentment. What is it that you didn’t like about Jdub?”

Well Ezekiel, you may not know this, but most young American Jews, in and out of New York, are not hipsters. I don’t resent JDub at all! As a niche indie Jewish record label they put out and promoted some good bands, as well as some bad ones, but that’s part of the business. But Jewish music or music by Jews is not substantial enough to engage a big chunk of my generation. What were we expected to buy CDs and go to a show of a band that wasn’t world class just because they were ostensibly Jewish? And then what about after the show? Was I expected to become more engaged in my Jewish identity because Balkan Beat Box (who I adore btw) were on my iPod? What I resent is that the otherwise smart people in charge of communal purse strings kept sinking cash into an enterprise that could not deliver on its promise of significant young Jewish engagement. Simply look at JDub’s Compete.com stats. Hardly anyone ever visited their web site. And did none of these funders ever do their research? Did they ever ask someone in the target demographic for their opinion? No. They just bought into the whole thing based on the passion, good intentions and shmooziness of the people at Jdub. Some more research also shows that Jewcy’s numbers have plummeted under the stewardship of JDub. All of this info is easy to find and yet funders kept throwing money at them. No. I do not resent Jdub. They were a great little record label. But they distracted the heck out of all the money folks and wasted a whole lot of cash on Jewish engagement that wasn’t so Jewish and not that engaging. I’m close to my 2000 character limit so I will continue in “Pea’s Rant Part Deux”

Marjorie wrote: “JDub introduced us (including us OLD PEOPLE) to a lot of terrific acts” Yeah but thing is, they didn’t get all that community funding to service folks like you and Ken did they?

Christopher Orlev asked “what suggestions do … you have for fomenting continuity, that push-pull of tradition and evolution within the Jewish community?” That’s a great question Chris. Here’s the thing about Judaism. It isn’t about bagels or Seinfeld or Balkan Beat Box or Woody Allen. You don’t have to be Jewish to love any of those.

Instead I would ask you to think about why we have any Jewish identity at all. Think about this legacy that has been passed onto us – the values and ideals that our forefathers fought so hard to pass on to us, often times despite the great peril involved. Now we have this dry, washed out Judaism that turns off so many of us. It either has all the outer trappings without the actual substance, or it is based on a reaction to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Where’s the joy? Where are the great values that helped define Western civilization? Where is the love?

Some organizations have succeeded in bringing some of that back. AJWS and Repair the World have engaged countless Jews in Tikun Olam. G-dcast has given us a taste of Torah study that is fun, innovative and inspiring. Challah for Hunger blows me away. Even Birthright and MASA have demonstrated the importance of Israel in Jewish continuity and leadership. The Jewlicious Festival in California is a stunning demonstration of Jewish unity, substance and fun. I could go on. But that character limit beckons. There are lots of Jews doing lots of cool and important things out there, and some even receive significant support. But the lesson we should take from JDub is that Jewish culture devoid of any context is not enough of a hook for significant Jewish engagement. Nest, it is shortsighted to penalize good projects because their principals can’t shmooze. Finally, DO YOUR RESEARCH!

david says:

The loss of JDub is something to be mourned for sure. But pea is right-on in so many ways. The throwing of money by big donors for whims based on “schmooziness” and hypothetical outcomes shows how the Jewish community today is devoid of truly big ideas.

The ways for the Jewish community to authenticate culture that is Jewish and is also good culture is to be able to launch through the same organizations and venues that all arts and culture has to be vetted — through regular record companies or museums or small developmental theatres — even if they cater to niche markets. Klezmer became the amazing phenomenon it is because groups like the Klezmer Conservatory Band went to Vanguard label and got it into the folk/jazz world-music genre. Great Jewish theatre is being done all the time by people like Tony Kushner and Donald Margulies. Lookingglass, who just won the Tony Award this year, recently produced a very Jewish play called “The Last Act of Lilka Kadison”.

Jewish culture must be supported in a new model for funding that gives start-up money for projects that can make it in the world-at-large and not just in the “cliquey” Jewish world that is looking for self-congratulations at helping their Jewish children make it, so they marry other Jewish children, or hipster Jews who support Israel even with a piercing in their body parts (not that there is anything wrong with that).

Rinaleh says:

David Starr writes, “And at present the only Jewish communities that practice boundaries and content, in serious fashion, are the state of Israel and Orthodoxy. Betting on anything else seems a bit of a long shot.” How I wish that were true. The idea that belonging to an Orthodox synagogue and sending your kid to Jewish day school, Jewish camp, Jewish youth group, Yeshiva, and Israel somehow guarantees that they won’t become disaffected, alienated, assimilated, and ultimately intermarried may be reassuring, but isn’t necessarily true. As a parent with a son in his mid-twenties. I see how many of my son’s peers participated all those activities and today they are not in any way meaningfully engaged in Jewish life or the Jewish community. I see their parents — who did what conventional Jewish wisdom taught was all the “right things” — hovering at the fringes of other people’s simchas. While I cannot quote statistics, the notion that young Jews who become disaffected, marginalized, and alienated from Jewish life are “someone elses’ kids” (i.e., children of uncommitted and unaffiated families) and not from the homes of committed and observant Jews is contradictory to the anecdotal evidence. The recent article in the Jewish Week about Orthodox teens and text messaging (“For Many Orthodox Teens, ‘Half Shabbos’ is a Way of Life”, June 22, 2011) is but one example of how technology and modern culture (and the values associated with them) does indeed permeate the lives of young Jews at all levels of observance. There is so much shame and stigma involved when young Jews leave the observant Jewish community that they tend to disappear without a word or a sound and are never spoken of again except in hushed whispers. It is no longer the periphery of the Jewish community that is falling away, it is the committed core. My generation spent far too much effort teaching our kids how to be Jewish, instead of teaching them why to be Jewish.

Lurking behind the comments that disparage JDub for not reaching enough people to warrant the support they apparently got is a sadly typical American distrust and devaluing of art and culture. As one who chose, nearly 35 years ago to identify as a *Jewish* artist who speaks primarily to “unaffiliated” Jews, I’ve experienced the full gamut of responses — from grateful appreciation for helping provide a point of engagement with Jewish culture to resentment for not meeting various expectations to an internalized self-rejection (any so-called Jewish art can’t be as good as generic art). Performing off-off B’way in NYC to largely Jewish, mostly young audiences in the 70s and 80s was a high point. But performing in Jewish venues (JCCs and Synagogues) was always problematic. The American Jewish community, not unlike Israel, has never really understood the value that diverse, rowdy, inquisitive, self-defining Jewish artists bring to the tribe. Yet every thriving Jewish community in our history had a vital bunch of Jewishly identified artists in their midst — from Moorish Spain to 19th-early 20th century Poland.

And the lower east side for a while, as well, just to name a few…

david says:

corey’s post is also right on. When is the Jewish community going to accept art by Jews about the Jewish experience on its own terms and not as a way to do “outreach” and prevent intermarriage?

David: I think you’re onto something there. Art by Jews is indeed worthy of support by the Jewish community. But the art people figured something out very quickly – that if they sold their art projects as a way to do outreach then they’d get a lot more funding for it. That’s what JDub did with their talk of vibrant connections to Judaism. That’s what the 6 Points Fellowship (created by JDub) is doing right now – their $250,000 2010 cutting edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of LA states that one of their purposes is to “develop fellows’ skills to assume leadership roles in the Jewish community” The SPF is in fact “based on the realization that popular culture (film, music, television, books and magazines) is a powerful connector and mechanism for strengthening Jewish identity among young unaffiliated Jewish adults.”

What a bunch of twaddle. Don’t get me wrong. I totally support the arts and I rather enjoyed several JDub acts. But so did my non-Jewish friends. I have a Catholic friend in Paris who loves, LOVES, SoCalled. None of JDub’s awesome music or 6 Points compelling art projects is going to connect me to my Judaism in any significant manner. It’s nice but it’s not going to compel me to marry a Jew or donate to my local Federation.

What these people have done and are still doing is a disservice to the Jewish art world. Jewish artists deserve support on their own terms and I’m afraid that there’s going to be a communal backlash against future arts funding as a result of JDub’s failure. I hope not but can one really expect nuance from a bulky, seemingly clueless organized Jewish community? How can so many smart people continue to act in a manner that is so seemingly clueless?

You want to reach to young Jews who are out of touch with the Jewish world ? Why don’t you look how other Jewish communities do it ? Because some are more successfull that the US one, and maybe, maybe they had some good ideas you could implement ?

What do South African Jews better than you ? Or even Canadians ?

How is it that for example in France, the diaspora’s second Jewish community, the young Jews are much more committed than the older generation ? It’s a stunning example because I can tell you what the Jewish community did in this case to reach them: absolutely nothing. On the contrary, the official French Jewish institutions do whatever they can to push young people away.

So what did happen ? Simple: they grew up in a place where Judaism is still Judaism and not some weird “Tikkun Olam” leftwing Reform thing. Where the rabbis are real rabbis who don’t try to be politically correct but tell the truth as they see it. Where the link to Israel is strong, and they visit Israel all the time. Where being Jewish makes you proud because it is real and authentic.

You want to keep the young Jews ? Emulate this model.

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Loss of JDub Is a Blow to the Jewish Community

Proudly unorthodox, org. kept young Jews interested

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