Jewish Life, Passover, and Pop Culture

The premiere issue of Jewish Family & Life includes a recipe for Matzah Brei.

You need six eggs, beaten, two cups of half and half, four matzahs and four tablespoons of vegetable oil. The rest is simple: soak the broken matzahs in the milk and cream for two minutes, then remove and soak in the eggs. Fry the results until golden and you have what amounts to Jewish french toast.

This is rather standard fare for a Jewish publication during Passover, which began Tuesday at sundown. However, this isn't just any Matzah Brei -- it's Steven Spielberg's recipe.

"We're not going to turn this into the Jewish version of People or something," said editor-in-chief Yosef Abramowitz. "But face it, most Jewish magazines are boring. ... Our younger readers know who Stephen Spielberg is. While they're reading about his Jewish life we can pull them in and start talking about their Jewish lives."

That sounds simple. However, this is the 1990s and both Abramowitz and publisher Susan Laden know it will take skill to publish a breezy magazine called Jewish Family & Life! amid raging debates over the very definitions of words such as "Jewish" and "family." Thus, their advisory board includes well-known Jewish names from across the theological spectrum.

"What we care about is rejuvenating homes and helping them become Jewish homes," said Abramowitz. "It isn't in our interest to try to define Judaism for our readers and to say what is and what isn't a family. We're interested in promoting Jewish life, not Jewish arguments. ... We'll be working with everybody except Jews for Jesus."

One statistic looms in the background. As the '90s began, the intermarriage rate between Jews and non-Jews stood at 57 percent, up from 40 percent in 1980, and those who intermarry are much less likely to raise their children as Jews.

It's impossible to avoid the intermarriage issue, said Laden. However, the magazine will try to focus on how this affects homes, not Jewish institutions. The goal will be to help parents learn to say bed-time prayers, handle grandparents who celebrate Christmas or advise a teen who wants to date a non-Jew.

"We want to talk about the spirituality of daily life, the kind of issues that come up when children start asking real questions and parents try to answer them," said Laden. "I think young families are searching. They don't know where to find help. ... So we'll start at that point, instead of trying to impose some kind of rigid structure from on high."

The magazine's target audience consists of parents between the ages of 25 and 49. Surveys indicate that readers in an initial controlled circulation of 200,000 are "an advertiser's dream," said Laden. Ninety percent have college degrees and 90 percent own computers. (Yes, the magazine has an Internet address: The average household income is $112,000.

Starting next fall, the quarterly magazine will offer a few longer reports about some events and trends. However, Israeli court decisions don't have as much impact in urban homes as new World Wide Web sites offering Jewish computer games, said Abramowitz.

"We're not going to apologize for our approach," he said. "We accept that mass media and popular culture are a powerful part of life and it wouldn't make sense to ignore that. That's just the way it is. ... So we may offend a few people, from time to time, but we know this is going to get the attention of younger readers."

For example, the first issue's "LIFE!Cycles" column included a chatty item about Roseanne Barr Arnold Thomas' new baby, Buck. Since he is the product of in vitro fertilization, the editors modestly suggested that he be given the Hebrew name "Binyamin," or "son of my right hand." After the issue came out, the staff heard from Roseanne's rabbi in Brentwood, Calif. Sure enough, the baby had already been given that very Hebrew name.

"What can I say? Warped minds think alike," said Abramowitz. "We must be on the cutting edge."