Alternative magazine pushes boundaries of Jewish law, taste

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Alan Kaufman grabs a postcard of Marc Chagall's 1923 cubist rabbi from a pile of family photographs on his desk.

"Jewish artists have always flirted with heretical ideas, to expand ideas about Judaism," he says.

That enduring image, says Kaufman, "is the reason for this." He shows off a glossy photograph of a purple-haired, nose-and lip-pierced woman wearing only an embroidered tallit and skulls tattooed on her arm.

She adorns the controversial cover of Davka, the first Jewish magazine from the Bay Area to hit the nation's newsstands since Michael Lerner launched Tikkun in 1986.

Says Rabbi Stephen Pearce, of San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El, about the magazine's content, "Some of it is not in good taste at all."

Taste isn't the only question: Many traditional Jews will object on grounds of halachah (law). Jewish bodies are considered desecrated if tattooed.

While Tikkun was the Jewish left's intellectual answer to the neoconservative Commentary, Davka is rebelling against more traditional Jewish media and mainstream culture. It draws inspiration from Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsberg, Rolling Stone and punk rock 'zines.

"We're trying to create a Jewish cultural revolution," Kaufman says. "Young Jewish people have tattoos, green hair, and they feel more at home in mosh [punk dance] pits than in shuls. They feel rejected."

Enter Davka, a Hebrew word that Israelis spit out as a verbal equivalent of an extended middle finger. Says Kaufman, "We thought of it as [doing] something in spite of being told not to.'"

Even before its official launch Thursday, Feb. 15 (with a San Francisco party dubbed "Challahpalooza"), Davka is stirring up Jews. Pearce, an early supporter and advisory board member, changed his mind about the magazine after seeing the premier issue.

"If they're trying to reach the fringe of the Jewish community, they'll reach it," he says. "But if they're trying to reach the mainstream, they're missing it."

Another early adviser, Rabbi Gerald Raiskin, of Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, says Davka — which is subtitled "Jewish cultural revolution" — is "not my cup of tea." But he believes it could be good for the Jews.

"They are trying to reach an audience that wouldn't ordinarily pick up a Jewish journal," he says.

Gathered in Kaufman's downtown San Francisco apartment, Davka's staff, a group of Jewish hipsters with goatees and earrings, say they see the magazine's audience as a sort of "Generation J" — younger Jews like themselves who crave the company of other Jews but are turned off by traditional avenues to Jewish communal life such as synagogues and major organizations.

Davka's first issue proclaims: "We come from the margins of Jewish sensibility, which today encompass a great majority of Jews who have no affiliation with official Jewish culture. Yet despite this widespread disenfranchisement, a great many have begun to feel stirrings in our Jewish souls…"

Davka aims to speak to those souls. "We just wanted to create a forum that wasn't there before for Jewish expression," says Gadi Meir, a senior editor.

The forum began taking shape last year, when Kaufman, a pioneer of the spoken-word and beat-poetry revival scene in New York and Los Angeles, joined with Danny Shot of Hoboken, N.J., to create an anthology of underground Jewish works titled "It's the Jews." Shot, like Kaufman the son of a Holocaust survivor, wrote that he resented hearing other Jews speak for him in the media.

"It's like the old joke about locking two Jews in a room for an hour and they emerge with three opinions…I hate to be told what to think."

The anthology, whose provocative cover showed a naked man and a Chassid standing together on a beach, spurred a jammed New York publication party, and drew a bigger crowd of several hundred to an artsy club in San Francisco's Hayes Valley section.

Soon after, Kaufman called some friends to discuss what they had experienced. Twenty-five showed up and agreed they had tapped into a new Jewish energy. Gary Rand, an unaffiliated Jew, was among those who went to the "It's the Jews" event unsure what he'd find.

"Coming into this [poetry reading], you're with all these other Jewish people," says Rand. "It was a good feeling."

The group decided to give that feeling a voice, and held scores of sessions over the next five months to plan Davka. Kaufman, with his literary background, became the magazine's editor-in-chief. A friend in publishing, David Shelonko, became managing editor and led distribution; another friend, Jill Bressler, with her own local graphic arts design firm, became art director.

On a budget Davka staffers say would barely buy coffee at most magazines (they won't say just how small it is), the group worked out of Kaufman's modest downtown apartment and used Bressler's Macintosh computer. Without any focus-group research, major investors or much advertising, they sent the first Davka to press this month.

"This is not George," says Shelonko, referring to John F. Kennedy Jr.'s slick new ad-filled magazine mixing pop culture and politics. "Everybody here was operating from their kishkes [guts]," Kaufman adds.

Davka's glossy pages offer a surrealistic menu of graphics and text: monologist Josh Kornbluth's "Haiku Tunnel"; Beat poet great Ginsberg's "C'mon Pigs of Western Civilization East More Grease"; Village Voice movie critic James Hoberman on Yiddish films; a photo essay of Bay Area rabbis; and Tsaurak Litzky's short story "Sleeping with the Enemy."

A first run of 3,000 copies ($5 apiece, $18 a year) has gone to newsstands around the Bay Area and East Coast. Booksmith on Haight Street in San Francisco recently dubbed Davka its "magazine of the week." But even without such promotion, Vol. 1 No. 1 screams for attention at first glance.

It's the girl on the cover.

She's also on the back, which shows her bare back bedecked with an intricate tattoo of a naked woman. She also wears a Balkan-style kippah, a tallit embroidered with the Hebrew commandment to wear a tzitzit (fringed garment), and a black velvet skirt.

As they had hoped, Davka's founders say the cover has generated mixed but strong reactions from rabbis, rabbi's wives, and Jews in general. Some readers have voiced outrage, others have decided to subscribe.

"There's been incredible love and hate," says Kaufman. "But nobody has shrugged."

"This is all about drawing the line," says Davka senior editor Judy Penso about the cover — and about "who draws the line."

It was Bressler who directed the cover shot in a tiny South of Market studio late one night.

"Why shouldn't a woman not be able to wear a prayer shawl or have tattoos?" Bressler asks. "We weren't trying to offend anyone or get anyone's approval. It is a statement about what the magazine is."

Davka's aim, says Kaufman, is "to cop an attitude, break traditions, push the envelope and expand definitions."

But for Pearce at Emanu-El, the cover not only shatters traditions, it's misleading and "inappropriate."

Pearce, who says he backed the magazine thinking it would be a Jewish poetry journal, blasted the cover because the woman in the photo is not Jewish.

If she were, he says, she would have been "expressing her Judaism in some way." But when Pearce learned she was a non-Jewish model, he felt the picture was deceptive.

"It was designed to sell magazines," Pearce says of the cover. "It was a put-up."

Kaufman won't discuss the model, calling her identity "privileged information." But he and Meir say this is irrelevant. The cover could have shown a man wearing a tallit, Meir says, and few would question his background.

"We are pushing the definition of what it means to be a Jew," Meir adds.

Raiskin at Temple Sholom says he showed Davka to several people. Some predicted it would shock the public; others said it would foment debate about Judaism, he says. Raiskin sees a silver lining in the taboo-breaking tallit-and-tattoo cover.

"The fact that they're trying to ask questions…means they're thinking," he says.

Meanwhile, Davka is planning future quarterly editions, including an issue on black-Jewish relations and underground Jewish art, possibly featuring "Maus" cartoonist Art Spiegelman and black-Jewish rock 'n' roll singer Lenny Kravitz. Kaufman also hopes to expand the magazine from its current 48 pages, and wants to add no-holds-barred journalism that he calls "Hunter S. Thompson with a yarmulke."

"People can sign on for this or drop it," Kaufman says of Davka. "Our job is to walk this cutting edge. We are going to stir up controversy, no doubt about it."