As the Middle East continued to rage last week, the Canadian writer and editor Mireille Silcoff suggested an unlikely prescription for Jews trying to wrap their heads and hearts around the conflict: magic. "When people are suffering and when people are in places where they feel the world is intolerable, that's when they turn to magic," she explained. "The world has become intolerable, there's horrors of horrors going on. It might be a good time for a bit of escapism."
Silcoff's idea of escapism, however, isn't exactly fluffy. As the primary theme of the new issue of Guilt & Pleasure, a quarterly journal she edits aimed at Jews in their 20s and 30s, magic is a complex force with some very dark undercurrents. The writer and teacher Eddy Portnoy kicks things off with a two-page roundup of Jewish superstitions that are primarily concerned with warding away evil spirits. Lisa Crystal Carver writes about the mysticism she experienced while considering a conversion to Judaism and caring for her terminally ill mother and ailing baby boy. Mel Gordon recounts the story of Erik Jan Hanussen, a Viennese-born Jewish mystic who aided Hitler's sweep to power.
A mix of memoir, fiction, essays, illustration and reporting launched last winter, G&P has attracted a lot of notice in New York and elsewhere for offering a forum where leading writers and artists have the freedom to explore unusual subjects related to Jewish identity or culture. Working out of Montreal, Silcoff is assisted by designers in Toronto and an editorial board and publishing staff in New York. The first issue, which explored the theme of "home and away," carried a story by Gary Shteyngart ( Absurdistan) and a Ben Katchor comic. The second issue, on fighting, featured a spread on forgotten Jewish boxers, illustrations by Seymour Chwast, and stories by Aimee Bender and the Canadian writer and radio host Jonathan Goldstein.
Young Jews have been experimenting in recent years with a nervier form of engagement with pop culture, like the rapper Matisyahu and his record label JDub Records, and the ironic and iconoclastic Heeb magazine. Like NextBook, the literary on-line magazine, G&P brings a mature but giddy voice to the emerging field.
"It's a complicated time, and there isn't a community that young Jews, or Jews of my age or younger find in large part satisfying," says Silcoff, who is 33. "In all of the obsession with what happened in this past century to Jewish people, and all of the obsession about whether Jewish people are going to survive this century, people have forgotten that there are hundreds of thousands of young Jews living in America right now who need a culture."
To that end, G&P is actually the centrepiece of a much larger project. Its motto, printed in the top right-hand corner of each cover, is "Making Jews talk more," and Silcoff and her publishers want people to use the magazine as a launch pad for salons they can organize in their own homes. No purchase is necessary, either: Each issue carries a call to go to Guiltandpleasure.com, where people can download articles to talk about and pick up detailed tips on how to organize a successful salon.
The salons actually began in Toronto about a couple of years ago, curated by Silcoff. They've now spread to cities around North America including Chicago, Montreal, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta, usually involving Jews who neither identify with any of the three main denominations (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform) or even belong to synagogues. "I think people want to up the intellectual quotient of casual conversation sometimes, and not everybody's comfortable doing that, so the salon gives a format for doing that," said Ari Kelman, a 35-year-old academic who organized a trio of salons on the Upper West Side.
The author Minna Proctor, whose last book Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father dealt with her upbringing by a Catholic father and Jewish mother, organized a salon in Brooklyn. "Do Jews need to talk more? My impression is Jews are enjoying talking more about being Jewish," she suggested. "I think there's just a higher comfort level. You can talk about it and it doesn't mean you're a freak or a fanatic. Now we know what a fanatic looks like because they've got a more prominent position in current events, you know what a fanatic looks like and you know you're not one."
Silcoff says the magazine has received hundreds of e-mails requesting help organizing salons, often from university students, and from professors wanting to use articles as springboards for classroom discussion. With only the third issue now rolling out to bookstores, circulation is already at 20,000: not enough to break even, certainly (the magazine is funded by a battery of foundations), but enough to grab attention in the right circles.
"Every writer I contact in the U.S., no matter how storied or how many National Magazine Awards they have, they know exactly what the magazine is, and that they want to write for it," says Silcoff.
"I can't believe we had the idea to start a young intelligentsia magazine for Jews, and that it actually worked," she reflects, "especially coming out of Canada and working so long in the Canadian magazine industry, and seeing so many magazines go through many different permutations and not work and have budgetary problems, and go under. It's the first time I've worked on a magazine in North America where there doesn't seem to be any chance of it going under any time soon, which is a really nice feeling."
Maybe the success of G&P offers a lesson for the secular rest of the magazine industry which, like other media, is struggling with reader loyalty and intensifying competition. By making the magazine the centre of an interaction, by promoting it as a tool of discussion, the G&P crew is encouraging a relationship rather than mere consumption. Sure, in an echo of the magazine's title, there is a whiff of guilt involved, a sense of: This will be good for you. But once people hit their 20s -- and certainly once they slip into their 30s -- they often crave something that's good for them. Guilt can lead to pleasure.
Other publishers would do well to follow the G&P example. Of course, you might be hard-pressed to organize a salon around the latest issue of US Weekly.