NEWS FEATURE: Mixing Kosher and Erotic _ Hebrew Language Cosmopolitan Launched

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c. 2003 Religion News Service

TEL AVIV _ In a country where both women and men are drafted into the military, where terror attacks occur on an almost weekly basis, people appreciate anything that can provide a little diversion.

Perhaps that’s why so many Israelis have given the recently launched Hebrew edition of Cosmopolitan magazine such a hearty welcome.

In September, thousands of smartly dressed locals thronged to the glossy’s coming-out party, which featured not only scantilly-clad erotic dancers but gourmet kosher finger food. The premiere edition’s 50,000 copies sold out within days, a nifty achievement in a country with just 6.7 million people.

Like the glitzy gala, which took place in Tel Aviv, Israel’s most liberal and least religious city, the magazine itself is an eclectic mix of Israeli and international norms and culture.

The cover of the first issue sports a sultry-looking Angelina Jolie and suggests “99 Ways to Drive Him Crazy.” The articles within _ most of them translated from overseas editions _ reflect American Cosmo’s tried-and-true mix of sex, relationships and fashion.

Yet here and there, something distinctly Israeli manages to shine through. One original article depicts the lives of local models who have managed to dodge a stint in the army to pursue international modeling careers. In another piece, the girlfriend of a young man killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber describes her feelings of loss and recovery. On the gossip pages, Israeli heartthrobs and thespians share the limelight with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Lea Kantor Matarasso, the editor-in-chief, says the Hebrew Cosmo is intended to give Israeli women a much-needed emotional boost during these especially difficult times.

“The Jewish woman is renowned for taking care of everyone else but not herself,” Matarasso says. “Israeli society always stresses what’s going on around a woman _ children, family, current events. We put women in the center. It’s me, me, me.”

Capturing Cosmo USA’s saucy flavor and translating it into the language of the Bible, modernized though it is, hasn’t been easy, Matarasso admits.

“Do you know there’s not a single Hebrew word for `indulge’? There’s no equivalent for fun words like `beautilicious.”’ For the second issue, she says, the editors created “a whole new vocabularly.”

While people abroad tend to view Israel through the narrow prisms of religion and politics, in reality “we are extremely progressive,” Matarasso says.

“Israeli women dress very openly, like South American women. We’re not afraid to show our cleavage.”

Nor is the average 25- to 35-year-old Israeli woman shy about discussing sex with her girlfriends. “It’s not the sex they’re afraid to talk about, it’s when there are sexual problems. In Israel,” Matarasso notes, “you wash your laundry inside, not outside.”

If anything, she theorizes, “Americans are more conservative. Look how Americans debate abortions. Here, even religious women sometimes have abortions.”

The editor sees no contradiction between publishing a sexy magazine in the Holy Land, in the holy Hebrew language.

Not long ago, Matarasso relates, “a Hassidic woman came to me and said, `You’re doing a mitzva (a good deed).’ She said that in her community it’s taboo to talk about sex, even with other women. She said that when she read Cosmo, she realized she’s not crazy. She realized she’s normal.”

Matarasso hopes the magazine will have a positive effect on the most conservative sectors of Israeli society, which she categorizes as “the small towns, the religious communities, Arab communities.

Such expectations would appear to be unrealistic, at least with regard to fervently religious Jewish and Arab Israeli women _ no one has exact statistics as to their number _ who live largely removed from mainstream society.

Unlike their secular or traditional counterparts, who comprise the vast majority of Israeli women, the very religious marry young and are expected to remain virgins until they do. Some Arab women are betrothed to relatives. Some Jewish women do not own a television and read only rabbinically sanctioned newspapers.

“I wouldn’t want it in my house for my husband to see. The women aren’t decently dressed and the articles don’t do anything to strengthen the concept of marriage,” said Chevy Weiss, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman who acts as a professional liasion between religious organizations and the Israeli public.

Weiss, who grew up in the United States and sometimes perused Cosmopolitan prior to immigrating to Israel, said purchasing such a magazine creates an unhealthy temptation.

“As Jews we should always strive to reach a higher level and move closer to God. When we bring other things into our lives it only hurts us. Smoking a single cigarette can start an addiction.”

Other, less religiously observant women, give the magazine mixed reviews.

“When I heard Cosmo was coming out in Hebrew, I thought, wow,” said Tehila Shear-Yashuv, 22. “But when I saw the magazine I thought it was pathetic. Once again it’s an American important rather than something originally Israeli.”

“It’s fun and stylish,” said Tehila’s friend Avigail, 21, a recently demobilized soldier, “but it feels strange to read articles about terror in a magazine like Cosmo. I get the feeling that the writers, who are obviously writing from abroad, don’t know what’s going on here.”

Despite the criticism, George Green, the president of Hearst Magazines International, says he is not surprised that the Israeli Cosmo has sold a lot of issues.

“Women everywhere want the same thing. There is a common denominator, whether the magazine is in Hebrew or Chinese,” he said.


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