Cool for the kugel crowd: Local author showcases whats hip in Jewish pop culture

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To get an idea of why Lisa Alcalay Klug is qualified to write “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe,” it’s best to start by listing her nicknames … and she’s got quite a few.

“I am what you could call an Ashkephardic, neo-Chassidish, Carle-bachian, shomeret Shabbat, post-labelficationists Sheebster,” she says.

It should be noted that recognizing the inner “Sheebster” or “Heebro” (for the guys) is no easy task. To help Jews search their souls for awesomeness, Klug compiled expressions of “Jewish creativity, irreverence, schmaltz and pride” and put them into the “Heebster Handbook,” her nickname for “Cool Jew,” her first book. She will speak about her book Oct. 26 as part of the Contra Costa Jewish Book and Arts festival.

Klug talks products like Mashuga Nuts and He’Brew, cites the differences between the “Jewish and goyish” (Jews have noodle kugel, non-Jews have tuna casserole), introduces the “Heebster Food Pyramid” complete with gefilte fish, bagels, chicken soup (then seconds and thirds of everything) and squeezes in so many Yiddish words, it will make your head spin like a dreidel.

“There was no book that catalogued everything happening in Jewish pop culture,” says Klug, a U.C. Berkeley graduate and resident of a Bay Area city she doesn’t want to disclose. “This book expresses its own voice about enjoying being Jewish, taking pride in who we are and celebrating our culture with unprecedented enthusiasm.”

Klug has collected “Cool Jew” material for the past 15 years. During that time, she grew in her religious practices. Studying Torah and classical text and being part of an active Jewish community, she says, also played a role in writing the book, which was published in August.

Spanning 250 pages and including nearly 400 images, “Cool Jew” decodes contemporary Judaism and its hippest forms of cultural expression. It’s kitschy, yes, but at the same time, packs so much information, you can’t help but learn a new fact or 50 about all things Jewish. Local artist Amos Goldbaum, whom Klug discovered on Craigslist, contributed original illustrations.

Each chapter tackles concepts in the “Jewniverse,” namely culture, identity, life cycles, ethics, food and celebrities. Klug is especially proud of the illustrations marking the beginning of each chapter: the seven-branched menorah, the Torah scroll, the color blue and Hebrew letters. The letters are used in place of numerals to count the chapters, echoing an ancient Jewish practice.

After reading “Cool Jew,” readers can flip to the last page for a special ritual — the “book bris.” The tear-out “Certificut of Circum-cision” acknowledges that the reader has removed all self-hatred.

“The book bris really sums up in many ways one of the central messages of the book, which is take pride in who you are,” Klug says.

Klug wrote “Cool Jew” in two and a half years and says the book wouldn’t have been the same without her years of studying Hebrew, her travels to Israel and her family background. Klug’s father is an Ashkenazi Holocaust survivor; her mother is a descendent of a Sephardic rabbinic family.

“My parents are very proud to be Jewish,” she says. “My father’s legacy during my childhood was always never, ever be ashamed that you’re a Jew.”

But non-Heebsters shouldn’t feel left out. Klug says “Cool Jew” is not just for members of the tribe; in fact, she’s met people who said the book is a fun resource for non-Jews who want to learn more about “meshugahs.”

“I’m very glad that it’s a helpful resource for non-Jews,” Klug says. “But my hope for the book is that people will enjoy it, laugh and share it with their friends and family, and take it as a launching point for exploring their Jewish identity further.”

“Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe” by Lisa Alcalay Klug (256 pages, Andrews McMeel Publishing, $12.99)

Lisa Alcalay Klug will speak as part of the Contra Costa Jewish Book and Arts Festival at 7 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Contra Costa JCC, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek.

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