This is what vibrant religious life looks like in one corner of American Judaism:
* A T-shirt that says "W.W.B.D.?" above a sketch of Barbra Streisand.
* A man in drag teaching Torah.
* A Web site called Mazal Tov Cocktail (www.mazaltovcocktail.com), a self-described "encyclopaedia of Jewish radical culture" represented by a flaming rag in a bottle of Manischewitz.
A marriage of hip and Jewish that emerged in the late 1990s has redefined religious identity for irony-loving Jews in their twenties and thirties from New York to Los Angeles and beyond. They flock to all-night multimedia celebrations of Jewish holidays; fill nightclubs where Jewish storytellers are the headliners; and start magazines, journals and Web sites. They also wear a wide array of irreverent clothing. Among the edgier items is a bra made out of yarmulkes.
Traditional Jewish leaders who for years have been wringing their hands over declining religious observance among young people and rising intermarriage rates are hardly rejoicing at the trend. For them, it is a superficial fad as welcome as a Hanukkah bush.
"I've heard many off-the-cuff comments that are quite critical," said Steven Bayme, an expert on contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee, a nearly century-old advocacy and social service group.
But the young thinkers spearheading new cultural ventures say their elders should look beneath the kitsch. There, they say, Jewish leaders will find the modern-day answer to the question that has vexed every generation: how to keep the religion alive.
"Our mission is to promote Jewish literacy and to empower people to take it on their own terms," said Amichai Lau-Lavie, 36, president of Storahtelling, whose shows are an explosion of traditional ritual and contemporary performance. He sometimes goes onstage dressed as a woman, Hadassah Gross, a motivational speaker and widow of six prominent rabbis whose motto is "a little bit of irreverence is very good for battling irrelevance."
"We use edu-tainment. We make them laugh. It's 95 percent humor, culture, radical fun, and 5 percent meaning. If they want more, they'll come back next time," Lau-Lavie said.
Jewish groups have spent millions of dollars researching how they can prevent young people from abandoning their faith, as studies have found they are doing in increasing numbers. Community leaders have started outreach programs -- including free trips to Israel, singles dances and hip cafes -- aimed at trying to hang on to the younger generation.
Those efforts have achieved some success but haven't come close to the popularity of the outlets young people have devised for themselves. Storahtelling is booked around the country. Heeb, the quarterly magazine most identified with the trend, printed 25,000 copies of its latest issue and is trying to diversify into other media. Its sold-out literary events have expanded from the United States to London and Berlin.
"What we're doing is creating Jewish experiences where there otherwise weren't [any]," said Heeb editor Josh Neuman, 33, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. "I wouldn't be surprised if it led to Jews marrying more Jews. I wouldn't be surprised if it led to Jews becoming more Jewish. But it's definitely not the goal. This audience feels so comfortable because people feel they're not being manipulated for some larger agenda."
Traditional leaders say it is difficult to see what the happenings provide other than a good time.
Roger Bennett, 36, vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and a leader in supporting innovative programs for young adults, said the Web sites, clothing and performances are not an end in themselves. They are a "distribution point" for experiences that lead to deeper exploration of what it means to be Jewish, he said.
Bennett is co-founder of Reboot, a nonprofit that seeks to "reboot" Jewish traditions through film, discussion salons, a quarterly journal and music. Reboot has reissued the 1959 album "Bagels and Bongos," a Latin-Jewish music recording by the Irving Fields Trio. Bennett is co-author of "Bar Mitzvah Disco," a book of photos and essays about the coming-of-age rituals in the 1970s and '80s.
Reboot holds meetings that have inspired faith-oriented projects by young Jews. The IKAR worship community in Los Angeles was formed last year by Rabbi Sharon Brous, 31, who is also involved with Reboot. The group is religiously traditional, worshiping in Hebrew, but makes volunteer work and social justice advocacy a central activity of the community, among other innovations.
Some leaders of older Jewish organizations are starting to acknowledge these efforts. But very little funding has followed, and many youth-led projects are struggling financially.
"I think what the Jewish community has basically done is said: 'It's impossible to reach those people. We've been trying. We've put all this money into them,' " Brous said. "In some ways, it's much easier to give up on this population than to look at what changes need to be made."