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Tattoos and Taboos 

A new quarterly magazine claims to promote a "cultural revolution" among young Jews

Wednesday, Mar 6 1996
You'd think that the Jewish community would celebrate the day when its young return to the fold, embrace their ethnic heritage, and speak out against anti-Semitism. But is it cause for celebration when the young are purple-haired, tattooed, tongue-pierced lesbians juggling knives while reciting poetry about circumcision?

Davka: Jewish Cultural Revolution, a new San Francisco-based quarterly, poses that question. It seeks to "promote Jewish cultural revolution" among members of "Generation J" -- a generation of young Jews "who put on tattoos without thinking about tattooed numbers," and who, in the words of its founder, Alan Kaufman, are "more at home in mosh pits than in shuls."

Davka promises "to present the current upsurge of 'Yiddishkeit' in the arts: new stars rising in spoken word, poetry, hip hop, comics, performance art, visual arts, drama and fiction." Its premiere issue features poetry by Allen Ginsberg and Marge Piercy, an interview with Village Voice movie critic J. Hoberman, and a photo essay on rabbis by "Rock 'n' Roll pho-tographer" Marcus Hanschen.

By name and cover photograph alone, the first issue of Davka gives a firm "up yours" to anyone who believes that Jewish culture lies solely within the province of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Saul Bellow. Its name is a defiant Israeli/Yiddish term meaning "to do something in spite of being warned not to." Its cover is the Jewish visual equivalent of the Virgin Mary in bondage: It mocks Halakha, Jewish law prohibiting tattoos, body piercing, prayer shawls on women, and displays of female flesh.

Editor in Chief Kaufman, an acclaimed performance poet and Beat revivalist, calls the magazine "a cross between MAD magazine and the Paris Review with some element of Rolling Stone." No Jewish magazine, he says, "has ever been so brash, so in-your-face, and so openly defiant of convention." Convention has been stirred, but mainly in the cover image. Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce of San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El sees the photo as highly staged -- an attempt to shock and sell rather than to express any point of view. Overall, Pearce sees Davka as "pushing the boundaries of taste," rather than breaking new ground politically or culturally. Davka supporter Hinda Langer, wife of Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Langer, believes that the cover lowers Davka's message by unnecessarily resorting to pandering.

Davka grew out of the success of a special issue of the underground literary magazine Long Shot devoted to the "new Jewish vision." A reading at Place Pigalle in Hayes Valley billed as "It's the Jews" packed several hundred people, many of whom had never attended a poetry reading.

This energy sparked Davka, which Kaufman publishes from a room in his apartment overlooking Leavenworth Street where his desk shares space with a mattress, a weight bench, the works of Milton and Faulkner, and the Torah. Davka, he says, is a response to "a global resurgence of fascism, and an evolution of acceptability of anti-Semitism and racism." It seeks to "empower young Jews with the courage to face the challenges of the next century through laughter, insight, and discussion."

To the young end of its target audience -- Jews from 13 to 40 -- Davka is more about Jewish identity and its expression through art and less about politics or empowerment. "When," asks Josh Kun, Davka's 24-year-old music critic, "does anti-Semitism start being one of the issues and not the whole issue?" A 21-year-old Jewish woman professes to have "absolutely no interest in the Holocaust," finding it "too negative." Young Jews, says Stacy Laveson, a 32-year-old rabbi of a Reform congregation in Marin County, need "to be motivated by embracing something positive rather than by fear of annihilation."

Though graphic Holocaust images appear in Davka's poetry and photography, Davka staff intentionally chose personal expression over didacticism. Davka provides, says Kun, "the only forum for fresh perspectives on Jewish cultural involvement," and responds to the "dearth of places addressing Jewish culture in ways meaningful to young Jews." At Davka, you can be a black Jewish gay rapper and get no cold stares. Davka's message, says Kaufman, "is we don't care if you have tattoos and a nose ring. To us you are a Jew."

Identity is a theme that runs through much of the poetry and fiction residing between Davka's provocative covers. While Jewish identity may be suppressed long enough to struggle through yet another dinner with a Catholic girl, as in "Advice to the Jewish Lone Wolf" by Steve Goldstein, it surfaces and summons the conscience into action when confronted with racism and hatred. In Tsaurah Litsky's short story, "Sleeping With the Enemy," a young Russian Jew finds that the skills that have enabled her to suffer her lover's sexism and personal arsenal fail her when he walks through her door with a metal swastika around his neck.

When Kaufman was a boy growing up in a rough part of the Bronx, his mother gave him a cross to carry in his pocket so he could claim he was Catholic. Josh Kun recalls the "age-old debate" with his grandparents: Why emphasize being Jewish when being Jewish was what got us persecuted?

Like "Cafeteria Catholics," Generation J members define for themselves what it means to be Jewish. Jill Bressler, the magazine's art director and its self-proclaimed personification, says Judaism is less about religion and more about culture. "Judaism is open for discussion," says the 29-year-old feminist.

Kun agrees: "Jewish identity is in flux and is self-defining." Davka brings together people on the "edges of Jewishness" to celebrate it in a sort of "coming out" -- a phrase Davkanians repeatedly use. Its defiance is a "sneering at expectations of what a good Jew is supposed to be," says Kun.

Coming to terms with your ethnic identity; grappling with your parents' values; claiming your heritage and your religion on your own terms; realizing racism sucks ... sounds a lot like growing up. But where's the "cultural revolution"?

Responses to this question were often preceded by long pauses or reference to an article appearing several weeks ago in New York magazine by Philip Weiss that lectures that Jews must quit kvetching and accept their place in the mainstream.

Editor Kaufman identifies "Jewish cultural revolution" as a movement in the arts "to be openly expressive of Jewishness, to openly articulate the feelings and thoughts of Jews today." Hinda Langer sees Jewish people "more strongly, positively identifying with being Jewish and more actively pursuing Jewish communities." Others suspect some marketing influence at work in the use of the term.

Since most revolutions involve taking bold action at substantial personal risk, one wonders what risk Jews face in carrying Davka in their back pocket to synagogue. Or even prancing about naked in a prayer shawl. Censure? Reprimand? Excommunication? Actually, Kaufman concedes, the last Jew to be excommunicated was probably Spinoza in 1656.

Nestled between Davka's tattoos and taboos one still finds chicken soup and and potato latkes, making it, as Kaufman says, a "kind of yearning to be among fellow Jews expressing shared cultural assumptions sometimes as elusive as the fragrance of challah bread."

Who else could appreciate an ode to a flat, dry piece of bread?
Flat you are as a door mat
and as homely.
No crust, no glaze, you lack
a cosmetic glow.
-- from "Matzo Poem" by Marge Piercy

About The Author

Susan Vogel


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