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03/10/2009

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Lisa, being cool and Jewish

In 2005, Lisa Alcalay Klug wrote two articles about being Jewish. One for the San Francisco Chronicle about how cool it is to be a Jew in the Bay Area, and another for The Forward about eight nights of Chanukah kitsch. “These two stories had something essential in common: a pride in being Jewish, an embrace of kitsch and a reverent irreverence—an irreverence based on a real love of being Jewish. When I thought of a concept to encapsulate that, the word Heebster lit up in my brain like a neon sign,” Lisa says.

She already had some early ideas for a book mapped out. “But once I came up with the book’s alias, The Heebster Handbook, that idea fueled the project. My non-Jewish editor Christine gets it. She grew up on Long Island.”

Oy! talked with Lisa about cool stuff, Jewish stuff and how her book tour and Barack Obama inspired her new project.

Oy!: What, in your mind, is a cool Jew?
Lisa: There is so much that makes Jews cool. Perhaps the most important is knowing where you come from, celebrating being Jewish and taking pride in your identity. When you're a Heebster, you don't have to work hard to be cool. You just got to be Jew!

You have a diverse Jewish background; how does that impact your writing?
My father is an Ashkenazi Holocaust survivor from a modern Hasidic, German-speaking Jewish family who lived in Danzig. Before World War II, Danzig was an independent city-state between Germany and Poland. My dad grew up speaking German, Yiddish, Polish and studying Hebrew. After the war, my dad recuperated in France. My mother is from Panama and her Israeli parents descend from Ladino-speaking Jews from the Balkans. She spent part of her childhood in Israel.

My parents met and married in California, where I grew up. We followed most of my father’s minhagim (traditions), and ate a lot of my mother’s favorite tropical fruits. Sometimes my school lunches were wacky combinations, like gefilte fish and coconut.

My parents inspired me to experiment with language, culture, travel and sometimes cuisine. And that has influenced the diversity reflected in the pages of my book. Cool Jew isn’t autobiographical but between the lines, you can see how my roots come into play. My parents had very rich Jewish experiences in other countries and cultures. And my book grew out of all the ways I’ve sought to create meaningful Jewish experiences of my own.

What has surprised you about people’s reactions to the book?
The kindness, generosity and heartfelt response of audiences has really surprised me. All around the country, the feedback I receive to my presentations is "inspirational, fun and poignant." Audiences share their own stories with me, in person and in emails, including many converts, and that has been very moving, beautiful and humbling. I've also been delighted to receive several honors. That's been a really fun surprise!

Your new blog,  Tolerant Nation , was inspired by what you saw on your book tour. What are some of the things that happened on the tour that made you step back and say, we need this?
I am thrilled by the tremendous support and enthusiastic response to Cool Jew. But I was also dismayed by the ignorance and bigotry I sometimes encountered from "shock jocks," radio show hosts during live radio interviews on my tour.

I reported the most offensive of these to the ADL, which followed up with the station directly, but in the weeks preceding the inauguration of President Obama, I wanted to do more. Watching the first person of color ascend to our country's highest office inspired me to create an online forum for cross-cultural dialogue and to increase awareness of multiculturalism.

Tolerant Nation launched the first Erev Shabbat following the inauguration. And each Friday since, I edit and post a piece from a guest blogger that discusses multiculturalism, cross-cultural dialogue and tolerance. It's been a great eye-opening experience and I've learned a lot. We welcome submissions and comments so please get in touch.

When I was writing my book, it was very important that it reflect that we are a diverse people. As a result, Cool Jew includes tons of information about Jewish multiculturalism, an entire chapter about Jewish languages and another chapter about Jewish diversity. This includes what we share with other people: Japanese, Hawaiians, rappers... Cool Jew highlights various Sephardic customs, foods and other references and it also encourages involvement in Tikkun Olam, social justice. So, in all these ways, Tolerant Nation is an extension of my book.

What's next for you?
I really miss Israel so hopefully a good long stay in Jerusalem.  Before that can happen, I have speaking gigs at colleges, shuls and Hillels around the country. I'm continuing writing freelance pieces and helping others with their projects as a writing coach. And I'm working on my next book, a sequel of sorts. Stay tuned!

Check out Lisa’s tales from the road in Living Jewishly!

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