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She’s Building a Little Jewish Magazine On Big Ideas

On a nippy morning, Arielle Angel and her fellow editors at Jewish Currents, a small but influential journal of ideas, were walking toward Union Temple, a synagogue in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, where they were putting finishing touches on their winter issue.

At a crosswalk near Eastern Parkway, accompanied by Ms. Angel’s Shih Tzu, Lola, they braced themselves against a stiff December wind. Just then, a man in traditional Hasidic garb approached them with a question that may be familiar to New Yorkers who have run into members of the Chabad Lubavitch group.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Are any of you Jewish?”

The group burst out laughing.

“Not a single one of us!” one of the editors replied.

Although the encounter struck them as funny, questions about the complexities of identity — political, social, cultural, religious, ethnic — surface in any number of articles that have run in Jewish Currents. They include an analysis of racial ambiguity in Toni Morrison’s novels, a round-table discussion of representations of Jewishness in the Josh and Benny Safdie film “Uncut Gems,” and an essay on what it means for Jews to love other Jews.

As with so many Jewish texts, clear-cut conclusions are rarely the point of these pieces. The publication’s thoroughgoing examinations of knotty questions simply lead to more questions. It’s all about the layers of debate.

Ms. Angel, 38, who has led Jewish Currents since its relaunch in 2018, has never been one to shy away from debate — as befits a millennial who has frequently challenged the Zionist American Jewish establishment. Under her watch, the publication has exploded in heft and ambition.

The 76-year-old magazine, which was founded by communists, no longer identifies with any specific party but is still firmly on the left. Jewish Currents covers the diaspora and also the policies of Israel’s right-wing government. Recent articles include everything from a searing critique of the Biden administration’s policies on Israeli aid to a rollicking discussion of marking Christmas as an American Jew.

“We’re trying to stay curious,” Ms. Angel said. “It’s not like, ‘This is the party line.’”

Ms. Angel and members of her staff were raised by a generation worried that young people had lost interest in their Jewish identity. Now those 20- and 30-somethings are positing that they were never offered versions that they liked — and are forming their own.

Ms. Angel, sitting on the floor with her dog, Lola, was surrounded by the Jewish Currents staff, as they put together the next issue earlier this month at Union Temple.Credit…Christine Ting for The New York Times

The story of how Ms. Angel wound up trying to shape this identity, through Jewish Currents, starts partly with an acid trip and a once Orthodox boy she dated. She wrote an essay in 2017 for the arts magazine Guernica, describing the seven years she had spent working on an unpublished novel about a small-time drug dealer who joins the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, a group that believes it can hasten the arrival of the Messiah through the successful recruitment of secular Jews. The essay also described her experiences with drugs, including the insights she said she had absorbed from her first acid trip at age 15.

Ms. Angel’s novel seemed to baffle literary agents, but the piece in Guernica caught the eye of Jacob Plitman, who had just taken over as the publisher of Jewish Currents and was looking to remake the magazine.

“Anybody writing 12,000 words on psychedelia, messianism, loss of faith, writing a novel and dreaming of a Judaism that reflects our values is of interest to Jewish Currents,” said Mr. Plitman, who stepped down as publisher this year.

Ms. Angel now leads a publication with 5,200 print subscribers, more than 1 million online readers annually, 12 full-time staff members and a budget of $1.6 million that comes primarily from individual donors, foundations and a $1 million endowment, according to the new publisher, Daniel May. There is also a Jewish Currents podcast, “On the Nose,” and a regular dating feature for “lovelorn leftists,” Red Yenta.

Jewish Currents is growing while the greater community around it is engulfed in battles — especially over the breach between Zionist American Jewish institutions and a growing community of progressives. The Jewish Currents team asserts that young Jewish leftists have a sharper vision than the establishment they’re jostling to replace. All of which means that Ms. Angel’s job goes well beyond running a small-circulation intellectual journal.

“We’re doing a really crazy thing, which is taking on the power structure in the Jewish community, which is extremely entrenched and extremely well funded,” Ms. Angel said. “We’re serving a communal need.”

Recent covers of Jewish Currents.Credit…Jewish Currents

“I remember this moment where we were like, ‘Oh, are we just going to be like the Jewish n+1?’” she continued, referring to the New York literary journal that got its start in 2004. “And Jacob basically being like, ‘I think we have something really different.’”

The appeal of Jewish Currents was evident shortly after the relaunch, when its first party drew some 400 guests to a bar in Gowanus, where people broke out in an impromptu hora.

While holding its own during a challenging time for little magazines — rest in peace, Bookforum and Astra — Jewish Currents has published investigations of sexual dynamics on Birthright trips to Israel and the embrace of Donald Trump in the ultra-Orthodox community. Senator Bernie Sanders published his antisemitism policy platform on the site. The gender theorist Judith Butler has written for Jewish Currents and joined its advisory board. Peter Beinart, a former editor of the New Republic, came onboard in 2020 as an editor at large.

“It was a phenomenon I’d been imagining or speculating about, and here it was in the flesh,” Mr. Beinart said. “It’s the kind of thing my generation of American Jews did not produce.”

Ms. Angel’s upbringing makes her a prime example of the type of young Jew the magazine is trying to reach: hungry but skeptical. She grew up in North Miami Beach, where most people she knew were Jews; driving directions went something like “make a left at the Christmas house,” because only one family put up lights, she said.

Judaism was woven into the fabric of everyday household conversations. But sometimes her family’s faith was tinged with fear. Ms. Angel’s grandmother, a Greek Jew, was a Holocaust survivor who told Ms. Angel bedtime stories of concentration camps, leaving her with night terrors.

Writing, too, came to feel like a source of risk. Ms. Angel kept a journal when she was in a rebellious partying phase. Her mother, now a retired judge, read the diary and called the parents of Ms. Angel’s friends to report what their kids were up to on weekends. Ms. Angel was mortified. She partly blamed the journal itself and more or less stopped writing for a while.

In her 20s, she worked on the novel and painted. She got involved in political activism, and at an Occupy Wall Street spinoff group she met Michael McCanne, a writer whom she later married; they now live in Flatbush. She started dreaming of somehow raising $5 million and buying a Brooklyn building where she would create a center focused on Jewish culture and progressivism. Then she met Mr. Plitman, who was looking to expand Jewish Currents.

“I was like, ‘I feel like I’m manifesting this out of my dreams,’” Ms. Angel said. “I felt like I was for once in the right place at the right time.”

The editors who work at Jewish Currents share Ms. Angel’s sense of kismet. For years the publication had been schlepping along under its prior editor, Lawrence Bush, who had relied on boomer writers. One longtime contributor, Mitchell Abidor, 70, compared the magazine’s former iteration, even before Mr. Bush’s arrival in 2002, to “friendship clubs in Miami Beach, where old Jews would sit around and play canasta and moan.”

A little more than five years ago, Mr. Bush, 71, decided he needed someone younger to take the reins, so he paid a millennial a couple hundred dollars to invite friends to a gathering at the National Writers Union. Mr. Plitman, then a labor organizer, heard there would be beer and showed up with no great expectations. But he was moved by Mr. Bush’s speech — about a magazine that had hung in there for more than seven decades and whose former editor, Morris Schappes, had at one point been jailed for his communist ties.

Jewish Currents editors at work at Union Temple in Brooklyn.Credit…Christine Ting for The New York Times

Mr. Plitman lay awake that night, texting people about Jewish Currents. He said he had rarely been in a Jewish space that seemed to capture his beliefs and those of the like-minded people he had gotten to know during the time of Occupy Wall Street and at protests against the Israeli settlements. He interviewed with Mr. Bush and eventually became the new publisher.

“He was like ‘Hey, kid, here are the keys,’” Mr. Plitman recalled.

Mr. Plitman, Ms. Angel and the incoming staff had at once an irreverence and a reverence for the magazine they had inherited, as well as the larger tradition of New York literary and policy journals that punched above their weight.

Some of those who joined the staff read the 2010 book “Running Commentary,” about the history of Commentary, a Jewish publication that began as an outlet for critical essays by Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin. Under Norman Podhoretz, it became an anchor of neoconservatism. Although the views of Commentary and Jewish Currents are miles apart, Ms. Angel and her team drew lessons from the elder publication. “It was a little magazine that was trying to change the balance of power,” Ms. Angel said.

When Jewish Currents wants to challenge the Jewish establishment, the staff writes editorials that they call “responsas.” Such was their mission on that December morning at Union Temple. After having spent days together while working on the issue, they were feeling “loopy,” Ms. Angel said, but energized. The process of reading and rereading, scribbling and squabbling, is her version of a religious ritual.

Back in 2017, Ms. Angel ended her Guernica essay describing an encounter she had on the street with some Hasidic boys who asked her: “Are you Jewish?” She said yes, and they blew the ram’s horn for her. Walking away, she wrote, she felt newly awake, touched by their desire to share a thing of beauty with strangers.

“Uncovering the parallels between religious and creative practice — the necessity of returning to it, relying on it, even without faith — drew me through,” she wrote.

Then, citing the unpublished novel that had indirectly led her to her current post, she wrote: “In dim light, we make things: small, misshapen, and incomplete.”

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