Five years ago today, the website Jewlicious stopped redirecting to dead air and became a living, functioning blog. Founder David Abitbol — who, on Jewlicious, goes by the name “ck” — is outspoken, charismatic, snarky and in-your-face. Like the blog world itself, he’s one part schmoozer and one part deep-digging investigative journalist. (When I finally asked him what his Internet handle meant, he gave me a look of disbelief and said, in the most innocent voice imaginable, “It stands for Christ-Killer!”)
Abitbol is fiercely pro-Israel and unapologetically opinionated. Yet he still finds his gospel embraced in the strangest corners of the Jewish community. To celebrate their anniversary, Abitbol stopped over to MJL to talk about the site’s history and future, and to answer a few of those unanswerable questions…like, who’s the real bad kid of the Jewish blog scene?
MJL: How did Jewlicious come into existence?
David Abitbol: 5 years ago things were different in the blogosphere. There weren’t as many Jewish blogs and blogging was still the almost unique domain of the young and the wired. Blogging well required tech savvy and an innate understanding of Internet culture. I guess you kind of had to be cool. In the Jewish world, the blogs I started reading were Jewschool and Protocols. Protocols was mostly about Luke Ford but Jewschool really pissed us off on a daily basis.
To hear Jews erroneously use terms like “apartheid,” for instance, to describe the situation in Israel, rankled us. The general tone was also dismissive–if not outright insulting–towards traditional Judaism. And yet Jewschool was considered the leading blog at the time.
We felt that there needed to be a voice for the silent majority of young Jews — those that were not unduly critical of Israel and not outright dismissive of traditional Judaism. So we created Jewlicious, and the site skyrocketed to prominence almost immediately. Something that we were saying resonated with a lot of people.
It always seemed like Jewlicious was the gung-ho USY kid, and Jewschool was the rebellious sibling who wanted to poke holes in the system. Did you start out thinking, “We’re going to be the good kids”? When did it stop being a hobby and start being a full-time job?
The notion of us as the “good” kids is really funny. We’re all outsiders for the most part. None of us is a community macher and the machers are kind of scared of us. For good reason. We have laid down scathing critiques of the organized Jewish community. I think the difference is that we encourage reform from within, whereas others want to destroy or supplant. I think the proof is in the pudding — Jewlicious, while now larger, is still constituted much as it was in the early days. Jewschool, on the other hand, well, you have the founder in the pay of the establishment, and some of their writers have gone on to innumerable gigs paid for and controlled by those same organizations we’ve critiqued. [Full disclosure: Matthue Roth, the interviewer, is a Jewschool writer, and works for MJL.] So yeah. We’re bad kids, and we WILL cut you.
So does that mean I sold out?
Getting an establishment job does not necessarily mean you or anyone in your position sold out. It really depends on who you work for and what you do. The Establishment is pretty powerful and they are self perpetuating. Once they have you they will try to mold you into what they want – a cog in a top down hierarchical organization. Someone’s gotta take care of the old and feed the poor. There are some people doing amazing things within the confines of the establishment. And there are others that Just Don’t Get It.
As for Jewlicious being a full-time job, some days it sure feels that way. However, given that the blog gets no funding from anyone, ever — all of us have other jobs.
Oddly enough, though, what money we do generate comes in the form of banner ads from a wide variety of Jewish organizations. Pretty much every major North American Jewish organization in existence, from Aish to the URJ, from Nefesh Be Nefesh to Birthright to the New Israel Fund. They may not like us, per se, but they sure want to access our audience!
But running Jewlicious has definitely created opportunities for you, like your role in ROI-120 and
Of course Jewlicious has increased the profile of many of those involved. We’ve run Birthright trips, we helped a little with ROI — but believe me there were a few individuals in Birthright who were not pleased with our involvement and we no longer work with ROI. Most of the work we do with Jewish entities are smaller, independent projects. The most satisfying work we do is the Festival and smaller events and co-sponsorship of other events.
So yeah, we realized early on that real life interaction is where it’s at. The blog is good but if you want to create a real community, I don’t know… you can’t have a minyan on the Internet, you know what I mean?
So how do you handle that — the balance between wanting to reach a wider audience and not wanting to piss off or alienate too many of them?
We WANT to piss people off! Well not piss them off per se, but challenge them and have them engage in conversation. And we don’t handle anything. Once we decide someone is going to write for Jewlicious, that’s it. They have carte blanche access and can write whatever they like. And if anyone disagrees, we slug it out in the comments — which we do often.
Has your idea about what’s slug-out-able or what should just be left alone changed since you started Jewlicious? Do you think your purpose is the same as it was 5 years ago?
I think our purpose is the same. There’s almost nothing I can think of that we wouldn’t address. Well, nothing that I wouldn’t address. We are a diverse lot!
What’s your traffic like? Has it changed, in numbers or demographics, between your initial audience and the people who are reading today?
We get about 220,000 uniques a month. As for our demographic, I really have little idea other than what Quantcast tells me — 59% female, 79% bw 18 and 49, 70% no kids. 45% over 100k in income.
Can you send me the link to your first post? I’ve been trying to find it, but I can’t…
Look at the archives drop-down list on the right.
Oh. It was about how Eminem might play [Orthodox Jewish boxer] Dmitriy Salita in a movie?
Not the best way ever to think about your legacy and successfulness. Unless it’s still in production?
Heh. That’s a good question. I don’t know!
OK, seriously: What post (or posts?) are you most proud of?
Gaaah. My favorite posts are written by my coauthors. Every time they write something cool or thought provoking or challenging, it confirms everything I believe Jewlicious stands for. The funnest post I ever wrote was probably the Temple of the Ephemeral Jews post.
What will Jewlicious will look like five years from now? What do you think ck will be writing about?
Well, ideally I’d like to professionalize the whole thing in order to guarantee continuity. I’ll step aside and let others take the helm. We’ve already expanded into a Russian version of the site and we have a French and Spanish version in the works – coming soon! All that presupposes a need. The second people stop visiting the site and coming to the Festival, well the people have spoken and we’ll be done.
And you’re talking about making the Jewlicious Festival bicoastal, right?
We’re going to do modest events wherever we can, but we’re also talking to folks on the East Coast to make it happen there too. Ideally it would be in New York or DC, but money is always the issue. Not demand or will but money.
We’re a modest operation and we run the Festival on a budget that makes Jewish community professionals gasp. We have Camp Jewlicious coming up at the end of August, a 3-day music fest of sorts in Jerusalem, tweetups everywhere (We’ve
already done one in LA and one in DC). We don’t do these things out of a desire to dominate. We have a community. They demand these things. So we do ‘em.