jewlicious Abitbol 224.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Back in the early days of the new millennium, the "cool Jew" movement was just warming up, thanks to ironic, self-deferential, post-traditional brands like Heeb magazine, JDub Records's flagship recording artist Matisyahu, a big-screen release called The Hebrew Hammer and the Jewcy line of cheeky apparel. The elder generation decried the movement's rejection of dogma, but mainstream pop culture was amplifying the buzz, and Jews in their early 20s were finding new tongue-in-cheek ways to express their cultural identity.
Smack in the middle of the generational gap was Montreal-based web designer David Abitbol. He was both excited and turned off by the trend. "At the time, in order to be a 'cool Jew,' " he says, "you had to be dismissive of traditional Judaism and unduly critical of Israel." Now an uncool 43, and enjoying an iced coffee at a downtown Jerusalem bar, David continues to nurture his concept of a Jew who is "edgy" but who has deeper knowledge and love of his or her heritage and Jewish nationalism.
David got going with some friends by going after Mel Gibson. Concerned by the popularity of the Passion of the Christ movie, they launched www.christkiller.net, a now-defunct site that sold T-shirts with "Christ Killer" logos and featured photo essays of people of all races wearing the shirts. "The idea was to point out that if Jesus truly had died for everyone's sins, why give the Jews a bad rap?" says David, who still goes by the Internet persona "CK" in deference to that initial project.
Emboldened, he launched the Jewlicious blog in July 2004. Thousands were soon reading his daily posts about vegetarian chicken soup, the King David Bikers and the 75th anniversary of the Hebron Riots.
As a brand, Jewlicious diversified beyond the blog relatively quickly. David's team hosted the first Jewlicious Festival, co-sponsored by the Hillel House of Long Beach, California and featuring Israeli reality TV star Eitan Schwartz, twisted rock band the Makkkabees, and West Coast rap act the Hip Hop Hoodios. A few months later, Jewlicious ran its first birthright trip, staffed by Jewlicious bloggers, the first of 10 such trips. It has also co-sponsored parties in Jerusalem, at New York's Sephardic Music Festival and at a recent Tu B'av event in Los Angeles.
Jewlicious's influence puts David in a position to help shape the character of the Jewish blogosphere. This August, he sat on a panel at the first-ever JBlogging Conference in Jerusalem, and he has helped like-minded blogs like Oleh Girl, My Urban Kvetch, Jerusalemite and South Jerusalem to take off.
With so many projects, it's only natural that David ends up delegating healthy amounts of the work - some 35 people are involved in the Jewlicious Festival alone. The blog itself has about a dozen regular contributors, based in Europe, Israel and all over the US; they range from a Hasidic rabbi to an atheist philosophy professor. But David's love of the site means he ends up writing half of the posts - all while maintaining his "day job."
Jewlicious is the flag David flies most prominently, but he confides, "income from the site pays only for web hosting and some beer." Active as a web designer and online publicity agent for a diverse client base, David confirms that he's worked with American Apparel, the Shalem Center think tank and the Stand With Us advocacy organization, as well as for certain straight financial firms.
In the early days of Jewlicious David lived in Old Montreal. "I couldn't have asked for better. I loved my apartment, and it was just a few minutes' walk from my office - a great loft space." But then, ironically, a group of Israeli entrepreneurs bought the building to develop it into condos, and relocation was called for. "It seemed like a good excuse to make aliya," he says. "So, I went Bedouin" - a reference to an appropriate analogy that Wired magazine uses as a nickname for the web professional's paperless, nomadic lifestyle.
Transition to life in Israel was relatively smooth, David says. Professionally and socially he already had a network here, and three years ago he moved to an apartment in the heart of Jerusalem's landmark Mahane Yehuda market. The shuk has been enjoying a renaissance, with galleries and boutiques setting up stall alongside the fishmongers and produce stands. "The gentrification curse followed me here," he quips, though he loves Mahane Yehuda's location which allows him to walk all over central Jerusalem to blog the city's myriad goings-on.
David takes great pride in the idea that many recent immigrants have likely followed in his footsteps in part thanks to Jewlicious. He also knows of marriages that started when strangers met at Jewlicious-sponsored events. But since the whole enterprise goes out of its way to be as provocative and snarky as possible, CK doesn't want to take his pride too seriously. "We've built a nice little community," he reflects. "We have a strong sense of purpose: injecting a little bit of Jewish literacy into everyday lives. Our goals are modest, so it's actually easy to reach them. There's no specific platform - just that you gotta be informed."
Despite, or perhaps because of, Jewlicious's lack of a cohesive editorial policy, those interested in tapping into the Jewlicious community run the gamut. Ultra-orthodox yeshiva Aish Hatorah, aliya organization Nefesh B'Nefesh and progressive charity The New Israel Fund are part of a rare roster that's approached Jewlicious for advertising or partnerships. "The Left says we're right, and the Right says we're left. Well, they're wrong and they're right," CK shrugs. "So we're clearly doing something right."