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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

September 18, 2019 by

This Woman-Owned Business Has Everything You Need to Dress for Activism

If you like to wear progressive politics on your sleeve—or maybe on your coffee/tea/matcha mug or cell phone case—check out HeedtheHum.com, a queer, Jewish, woman-of-color-owned company created and run by Brooklyn activist Rachel Levin. 

Heed the Hum’s nearly 2000 products sport a variety of messages, from the word RESIST to Eve & Esther & Miriam & Deborah & Ruth, a celebration of Biblical sheroes. Other products promote world peace or provide a way to declare one’s identity: Black and Brazen; Nasty Woman; Feminist Zionist, among them.

Levin, a professional graphic and web page designer, sat down with reporter Eleanor J. Bader in early September to talk about the challenges of being a feminist entrepreneur.


 Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start with the name of your company, Heed the Hum. What does it mean?

Rachel Levin: I’ve always been an activist and prideful about being queer, Jewish, and of color. But growing up I had deep moments of unhappiness and feelings of loss. I had been adopted at two months old by a straight, white, Jewish couple in Chicago. I was born in Chile, and for a long time kept my shame over being adopted private; it was always on a back burner of my mind though.

I was raised in a very safe, but sheltered, bubble, surrounded primarily by Ashkenazi Jews. They treated me beautifully, but in my gut, I felt like an “other.” I knew I was Chilean, at least by blood, and even though I had food, shelter, and an incredibly loving family — the best parents and a wonderfully supportive and inclusive older brother who was also adopted—there was always this hum that something was a bit off. For many years, I ignored it.

 As I got older, I wanted to live fully, out in the open as a queer person, as a feminist, and as a Jewish person of color. To do this, I literally started to heed the hum, to listen to the signs around me. I began to pay attention to what I was feeling both personally and politically. A bit later, when I was in college, I realized that I wanted to help other people become visible and become empowered by what made them an “other.” I also wanted to do something that would start conversations about political issues. 

I started Heed the Hum in May of 2017. In the past two years I’ve sold several thousand t-shirts for adults and children, as well as mugs, hats, pillows, posters, pieces of jewelry, flags, totes, and phone cases. The proceeds of The GIVE Collection benefit organizations I support, like the Red Cross and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. It’s work that I think makes a difference.

 EJB: Many of the products sold by Heed the Hum boast explicitly Jewish messages. Are Jewish consumers your target audience?

RL: That was not my initial plan but Jewish-themed merchandise just sort of evolved. I’ve certainly never been ashamed about being Jewish, but I recently made a shirt with the words Feminist Zionist in response to comments I’d been hearing. I’m part of several groups including the Jewish Multiracial Network and Being Jewish During A Trump Administration. They’re great outlets for conversations and debate, but in the last many months I’ve encountered a lot of people who’ve reported feeling unwelcome as “out” Jews in liberal or progressive settings because of their support for Israel.

This crystalized for me this summer when the Washington, DC Dyke March banned people from carrying rainbow flags with the Magen David on it. I knew I had to be more visible as a queer feminist Zionist. I started by creating my own take on the commonly seen rainbow flag with a Jewish star in the center. My updated design incorporates more colors, including brown tones, and a bolder white Magen David with a thick purple outline. It was carried at the New York City Dyke March without a problem.

For me, Zionism is not black and white, but is on a scale, a continuum. There are some extreme Zionists who don’t think Palestinians have a right to their own land and who support Netanyahu. There are also other Zionists, like myself, who believe Israel has a right to exist, but who also support a homeland for the Palestinian people. We want a two-state solution with respect and fairness for everyone.

I lived in Israel for a year when I was eleven. My dad left his job at IBM in 1995 to train to become a rabbi and we left Chicago for Jerusalem so he could study. We were there when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. I believe Rabin would have brought peace to the region and I still believe that peace is possible. I have a sticker from that period that says Shalom/Salaam/Peace and I refuse to think that we need to be at war and live in constant fear.

People are beautifully complex, and I want to publicize the fact that liberal Zionism exists and can be a cogent political force to promote lasting Mideast peace. 

EJB: What are Heed the Hum’s biggest sellers?

RL: The Women of the Bible t-shirts and the Rainbow PRIDE t-shirt. Trans merchandise—the wordless trans flag t-shirt, specifically—is also a big seller.

EJB: Do you print the shirts and send them out yourself?

RL: Thankfully, no. I pass most orders on to a company called Printful in California. They are a drop-shipping company and they basically print shirts and send them out for me so I don’t need to keep a large inventory in my Brooklyn apartment.

EJB: How do you decide which messages you’re going to promote?

RL: Actually, I started making t-shirts as an undergraduate at Pratt Institute long before Heed the Hum existed. It was my way of responding to things that were happening in the world. It’s just something I do.

As I said earlier, I responded to the DC Dyke March incident by making two shirts: Feminist Zionist and Things Will be Better—Yihyeh Tov. I also have products urging folks to address climate change and elevate feminist power and respect for diversity. These are issues I care deeply about. I’m also thinking about designing something to promote Kamala Harris for President. I feel like she’s a kindred spirit and I may make some stuff to support her campaign. 

I also made three anti-NRA shirts after seeing a man wearing a pro-gun t-shirt in the pharmacy. Seeing him made me want to create something with the opposite message. My design depicts a gun dripping blood. It’s an unpleasant image. But I’m glad it exists and has been posted on social media. As for sales, apparently people don’t want to walk around with this on their chests! The shirt has not sold well.

EJB: There are no explicitly anti-Trump products. Why is this?

RL: This is deliberate. I certainly don’t shy away from bashing his policies but I simply don’t want him to be the focus of what I produce and sell. 

EJB: What’s ahead for Heed the Hum?

RL: I’d love to see Heed the Hum get a little bigger. I’m the artist and creator but I’m not the savvy businesswoman the company needs. Still, I do what I can, tabling at events like Brooklyn PRIDE and advertising online and through social media. I hope my little company helps people make peace with themselves.

 

Eleanor Bader is a freelance writer living in New York City.