Heebsters find a place to call home at the Star and Shamrock

December 23, 2011

Jason Feldman’s Star and Shamrock, a Jewish-Irish tavern in Washington’s H Street corridor, has to be the only bar in the District where battery-operated menorahs are on each table, fried matzoh balls are served with He’Brew drafts and Hanukkah has been proclaimed hip.

“My bubby would be proud,” said Feldman, using the Yiddish word for grandmother.

On the first night of the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, Feldman, 37, is wearing a backward Mets cap and eating a hot pastrami on rye at a carved wooden bar.

Feldman is the grandson of Holocaust survivors, “but I was born in Brooklyn, raised in Jersey and my father is now in Boca,” he laughs. He moved to Washington in 1999 and worked as a bartender for several years.

With the opening of his own bar, Feldman has become Washington’s best-known Heebster — a contraction of Hebrew hipster. It’s a term that was probably coined in Heeb magazine, a subversive online publication aimed at young urban Jews. “Heeb” is an ethnic slur the magazine’s founders hope to reclaim in much the same way the word “queer” has been reclaimed by some gays.

Feldman’s irreverent take on secular Jewish life includes taking the iconic and famously oversweet kosher wine and making “Manischewitz sangria” to serve at the pub. His shtick is part of a larger mind-set that is — not surprisingly — prevalent in and around Brooklyn. But manifestations of the Heebster vibe can be spotted in Washington, too.

Like all subcultures, this one is getting a boost from the Internet. “Heebsters who move to D.C. now get involved in 30 seconds because of a Google search, instead of spending three months to find out about each other,” said Michael Karlan, 43, president of Professionals in the City, which organizes the long-running Gefilte Fish Gala in Washington on Christmas Eve.

The new D.C.-based Web site Gather the Jews, taking its name from the Book of Esther, is also bringing young Jewish professionals together. “The young Jewish scene here has seen a real rebirth. It’s really robust. And we want to help people navigate that,” said site director Stephen Richer, 26. Started just last year, Gather the Jews already has 2,600 people in the Washington area reading its weekly newsletters.

The newsletters list groups such as the newly formed “Not Your Bubbe’s Sisterhood,” an effort by the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington to “reinvent traditions and culture in a way that resonates with young women in their 20s and 30s,” said Jackie Leventhal, 28, director of cultural programming and communication at Sixth & I. The group has a “no-boys-allowed” rule and discusses topics like J-Date and Jewish guilt, she said.

“There’s so much more going on now around Washington for the nonreligious Jewish hipster,” says Jed Ross, 31, of Georgetown. Ross started manufacturing and marketing his “18 Vodka,” its name a reference to a lucky Jewish number, in 2009. Feldman uses Ross’s vodka to make martinis and serves them with menu items such as Guinnness-soaked meatballs in challah roll and “Latke Madness,” a platter with three potato pancakes, hot corned beef and grilled sauerkraut.

Like many “Jewish-style” delis, Star and Shamrock is not exactly kosher — but it takes breaking the rules to the extreme with offerings such as the “Clogger,” hot beef brisket on a kaiser roll with provolone and bacon.

The uptick in interest from a younger demographic has sparked several competing events this year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when Jews typically celebrate not celebrating.

For the first time, Sixth & I will host a Christmas Day event during what it’s calling the “Jewltide season.” It will offer all-you-can-eat kosher Chinese food, a sampling of three kosher beers from Shmaltz Brewing and screenings of “Spaceballs,” “The Princess Bride” and “The Big Lebowski.” (In “Lebowski,” John Goodman’s character refuses to go bowling on Saturday, famously proclaiming, “I don’t roll on Shabbos.”)

In addition to the Gefilte Fish Gala and the Matzo Ball, which has been going on for 25 years, there is a slew of new Christmas Eve events, including the Falafel Frenzy, which started last year.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Jewish Community Center hosted its first Hanukkah candle-lighting for young gay Jews. “There’s been a real shift around Washington where the young Jewish community wants to find fun things to do,” said Halley Cohen, director of GLOE, the Kurlander program for gay and lesbian outreach at the JCC.“There’s a wonderful visibility in putting up your menorah and lighting it.”

In other words, “Judaism doesn’t have to be a drag. It can connect to youth culture and it can be a powerful connection,” said David Kelsey, publisher of Heeb, the online magazine that champions Heebsterism. (This week, for instance, Heeb suggests wearing an ugly Hanukkah sweater, “just because it [stinks] to be left out.”) Kelsey, who grew up in a small Jewish community in Frederick, now lives in Manhattan.

There have been Heebsters throughout history, he says, reeling off a long list that includes Jewish socialists in the 1890s, bootleggers in the 1920s and, in the 1950s, poet Allen Ginsberg, whose autobiographical poem “Kaddish” introduced Jewish ritual to Beat Generation culture. Many young Jews, Kelsey said, associate their religion with “an awkward coming-of-age period during puberty last seen during their bar/bat mitzvah.”

But that’s changing as they enter their 20s. Edgy performers such as Sarah Silverman have made it cool to be Jewish and funny in the post-“Seinfeld” era. The patron saint of Heebsterism? Actor Seth Rogen, who is often spotted wearing a “Super Jew” T-shirt. Such books as “Bar Mitzvah Disco,” and “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe,” build Jewish pride through humor. And Heeb magazine has spurred the emergence of Heebster-friendly (read: ironic) products such as Spinagogue, which is played on a Star of David-shaped board and awards gelt as prizes, or “Texas Dreidel,” a cross between dreidel and poker.

Feldman said he got the idea for an Irish-Jewish bar when he came to Washington and couldn’t find any good Jewish delis. “I wanted to find a way to feed myself,” he said. “Plus, I wanted to be irreverent without being blasphemous.” His Irish wife, Tricia, who calls herself an honorary Heeb, explains that her husband wanted a place “to drink Guinness and a cup of matzoh ball soup.”

On a recent weeknight, boisterous groups of young Jewish friends from Silver Spring and Capitol Hill arrived at the Star and Shamrock primed for dreidel-spinning drinking games and stacks of potato latkes. “If we knew how big this Jewish thing was going to be,” said Feldman, “we may have skipped the Irish theme.”

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