The Making of the First-Ever Jewish Swimsuit Calendar

Back in March, Brett Ratner and I were sitting in front of his pool in Beverly Hills, trying to figure out what kind of pictorial to include in the summer issue of Heeb he was guest editing.

“We need something with Israeli supermodels,” he said. “We should do a swimsuit calendar. And we can hold private auditions right here!”

Well, we never got a chance to hold private auditions at Brett’s place, but we did hold a casting call at Creative Exchange Agency in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District about a month later. Casting was a bit of a challenge: we had little budget, our shoot was scheduled to coincide with the huge celebration surrounding Israel independence weekend where many of the Israeli models were scheduled to appear and, let’s face it, posing as “Miss Tishrei” isn’t exactly walking the runway for Chanel. Nevertheless, we saw over a dozen Jewish models that day. One nervously asked us if we thought her nose was big enough, another sat across from us in nothing but bra, panties and red kabbalah bracelet and another I recognized from High Holiday Services. Bar Refaeli wasn’t part of our kosher kattle kall: Brett actually cast her via her mother, who apparently has wanted the two to collaborate for ages.

Later that week, Brett introduced me to legendary fashion photographer Gilles Bensimon at the Mercer Hotel. I had a copy of our Fall 2006 edition with me. Brett handed it to him and when Gilles’ puzzled look (staring at a pig, then looking up at our logo, then back down to the words, “The Food Issue”) turned to a smile of comprehension—I knew we had him for “The Ladies of ’69.”

* * *

I got a lot of weird looks on route to Hudson Studios in Chelsea on the day of the shoot, not just because I was wearing more cologne than I had on the night of the Senior Prom, but because I was carrying a fishing pole. Among the seven shots we planned to shoot over the course of the day, was one in which Esti Ginzburg would be clinging to a fishing rod from which a long piece of lox would dangle.

“Lox on a fishing rod” was the first shot of the day. It’s one of those absurd moments that characterize what I think Heeb does best: tell stories which capture, in a visual way, the complex relationship that many Jews have with their identities today. Our prop stylist, Carlos de la Cruz and I discussed whether the lox was supposed to signify “the bait” or “the catch” and it struck me that those were the two ways that the calendar would ultimately be read: as an attempt to “reel” you in or make fun of the fact that you’ve been “caught.”

Casting beautiful models for “The Ladies of ’69” was necessary, but not enough as far as Brett was concerned. If it was truly a Heeb swimsuit calendar, it would need to simultaneously capture and transcend the typical, crass “T & A” one routinely finds on America’s newsstands. That each of our models was Jewish wasn’t enough—we wanted each of their representations to communicate something Jewish. I sense that this is getting lost in a lot of the media coverage about the spread so far, which has focused almost exclusively on the Jewish backgrounds of our subjects rather than the Jewish contexts we created for them.

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“Girl and the Message in the Bottle” is case in point. The week before the shoot, we frantically emailed all of our friends who knew Hebrew to help come up with something to inscribe on the piece of parchment she would pull from the bottle. We ended up with a pick-up line—roughly translated, “Is your father a gardener? I’ve never before seen a flower as pretty as you.” Our stylist, the amazing Lisa Fernandez, approached me with a bikini bottom from Lunazul and suggested a Blue Lagoon-type look. It made a lot of sense given the stranded-on-a-desert-island narrative and the fact that Esti, 18, had long enough hair to shoot her topless.

Between shots, Gilles and I sat together in front of his laptop while he pecked at a paper plate of pasta salad and discussed the next shot. His notorious Parisian accent complicated things a bit, but it beats the typical challenges we deal with at our photo shoots, like getting a model to step into a bathtub-full of borscht (“The Food Issue“), transporting an eight-foot cross across the Brooklyn Bridge (“Crimes of Passion” shoot) or explaining to the father of two toddlers, why we needed to photograph Bob Saget reading to them from The Diary of Anne Frank (“The Kids Issue”).

Gilles grasped that our shoot had to seamlessly integrate the visual languages of the pin-up calendar and post-modern Jewishness. The two languages couldn’t just sit side-by-side. It wouldn’t work to simply have Esti eat a bagel and lox on the beach or read a book written in Hebrew on the beach. That being said, it also wouldn’t be enough to have her stand on the beach in a bikini with text next to her, informing the reader that she was born just outside Tel Aviv.

The beach of course, wasn’t a beach at all, but an approximately 144 square-foot wooden box we assembled and then decorated with palm leaves, dune bushes, aloe, sea weeds, bamboo and hundreds of pounds of sand. We used three different backdrops and chose ones that “kept a straight face” as much as possible. The “joke” in each shot would come out of the activity of each model, not the scenery.

If God were our art director, then undoubtedly the cover would have depicted Bar Refaeli walking majestically through a parted sea, but even omnipotent re-toucher Pascal Dangin had no idea how to capture the Red Sea narrative in post-production. So ideas that didn’t require us to suspend the natural laws of the universe were a must.

“Girl and a Sand Castle” was one such idea—a simple joke about the relationship between Jews and beachfront property. We needed a model who was nubile and innocent and Neta Bell-Silber was the perfect fit. “Girl and a Sand Castle” is to property what Moran Atias‘ “Girl with Metal Detector” is to spare change. This one is probably my favorite shot. It’s so simple, so iconic and I feel like everything (casting, style, composition, lighting, props) really came together in it. I’ve always been amused by the little old men you see wandering around beaches in baggy shorts, mismatched socks and sneakers searching for treasure with their old metal detector. How much do they hope to find? What’s considered a productive day?

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“Girl and Phillip Roth” is about how the image of the Jewish woman in American culture has changed during the past generation. The idea was to juxtapose Donna Feldman‘s image with the image of the book that introduced the word “shiksappeal” into Jewish-American vernacular. We looked hard for copies of Roth’s books that seemed to come straight out of another era and that yellow Portnoy’s Complaint hardcover (which ended up coming from my grandmother’s book shelf) was the perfect prop.

Since we couldn’t figure out a way to capture Bar Refaeli walking through a parted Red Sea, we went with our second favorite concept. (NOTE: No lobsters were not harmed during the creation of this pictorial. They were, however, boiled and eaten afterwards.) It was our last shot of the day—models were already on their way home, the crew was packing up and Heeb photo editor Mike Garten and I were polishing off the remainder of the buffet table. I walked over to the sandbox with a plateful of chickpea salad and watched Bar shifting positions beneath Gilles’ camera who had saved the cover for last.

Something wasn’t quite right. I asked Mike if he thought it would be rude if I stepped in and took things in a different direction. After all, in front of me was arguably one of the world’s most important models and fashion photographers and I was a dork with a mouthful of chickpeas. Mike encouraged me to speak up.

“Instead of sexy,” I said, “Try looking scared.”

“What’s my motivation?” Bar asked me.

“It’s like a horror movie: The Attack of the Killer Lobsters. The most un-kosher creature on earth is about to feast upon the most kosher.”

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And with that, the cover of our “Notorious Issue” was born.

What do you think?

About The Author

Josh became an editor-at-large after accruing exorbitant legal fees as the publisher of Heeb in his efforts to trademark the word "irreverent." Follow him on Twitter @joshuaneuman.

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