What a ride. Some wind at the writer’s back. What else could I ask for? I’m back from a solid two weeks of touring Peep Show, my second novel, that received favorable praise from all the important folks, including People magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Kirkus/Booklist/Publisher’s Weekly.
A writer’s livelihood is based on reviews and, of course, sales. If both are good, you stand to make a respectable royalty advance on your next project. So I’m feeling upbeat about it all. Was in New York for BEA (Book Expo America) where I signed books at the Algonquin booth and threw a party at my brother Zach’s place for anyone in publishing who happened to be in town. When my brother asked how many would be coming to get a sense of the rowdiness I told him that book people weren’t the same as movie people. No one has fake boobs and most of them wear shawls. He bet me there wouldn’t be one shawl. He was right. No tally on fake boobs, though. My favorite part of the evening was being able to acknowledge all the people at Algonquin Books who put out such quality reads each year. Oh we had a rousing old time. New York is a fun place to launch a book.
I’ve read from Peep Show about 20 times. During Q&A time, I’ve heard a lot of questions about research for the book, which is partly a novel about the smutty landscape of Times Square in the 1970s but also about Hasidic life at that time in New York. While on tour for my first book, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, I met a man who came from one of the first baal teshuvah (convert from non-observant Jew to Hasidic Jew) families in Queens who wanted to share his story with me. I knew I was going to be writing about a heavily religious sect of Judaism, but I didn’t know details at that point.
So, we talked and he offered to send me his story, which involved his mother suddenly switching to a non-secular lifestyle and wearing black to her ankles in August. In his mother’s new way of life there would be no talking or even looking at girls and the TV would be removed and rock music was evil and God was watching and on and on. No secular books. No movies. No non-kosher food.
As I read my friend’s e-mails about his life, I began to get a sense of how this story might unfold. There would be a division in the family over which parent was more morally in check and, therefore, worthy of their children’s love. In the end, if the book worked, each would be wrong about the other. We’d find nobility under the wig of the woman behind the screen in the peep house. And we’d find drive under the wig of the Hasid behind the screen of the mehitza. Over the years of building the story I’d visit him in Brooklyn and we ate at the famous Second Avenue Deli just before it closed [it reopened a few months later]. He took me on tours of neighborhoods and explained the various sects of the men who walked by. Somehad high black knee socks, others had closely cropped hair save for their curly peyis. Another man’s hat was circular with soft brown fur. I was told most adult women wore wigs. There were stores around me that sold kosher toothpaste and had the words Smurfs in Hebrew in the window.
Like visiting another country, so far from home but actually just ten minutes on the L train from Union Square. We entered 770 Eastern Parkway, Menachem M. Schneerson’s synagogue in Crown Heights. The person I saw first didn’t know the name “Joshua.” He didn’t speak English. He was able to explain that he prays in Hebrew and only speaks Yiddish. The tall guy behind him spoke some and told me many, many things I didn’t understand but he told me each with a passion that lit his blue eyes to moisture. His skin was indoor pale and his beard was all over, keeping his face hidden, like at the bottom of a bag.
As he spoke I nodded, not wanting to him to feel I wasn’t listening. I heard the words “Rebbe” and then he pointed to a spot, a lectern area where the Rebbe would conduct his sermons and farbrengens. As the Rebbe would get going in Yiddish, he would at times talk of the Talmud, of life, of God and suddenly turn his words into song and start to rock his body in a particular rhythmic motion that all the yeshiva boys would emulate as they sat together against the wall, a sea of boys in black, imitating their rebbe. It was clear that these events were nothing short of rock concerts for those who prayed and lived around here. Our tour guide now had many friends around him and they were all staring at me, the guy with long, blond hair and a tiny white yarmulke bobby-pinned to his head.
“Do you wear tefillin?” the man wanted to know.
“Once,” I said.
The friend who brought me there was not interested in reliving the tefillin experience so he told the guys we were leaving. They didn’t like the news of this. They wanted something but I didn’t know what so I found myself shuffling out of the building behind my friend with the tour-guide’s grip on my arm. It seemed if we didn’t end up wrapped in tefillin straps, these guys were gonna miss out on a layup in the mitzvah world. They wrap us – mitzvah for them. I end up wrapped – mitzvah for me. Who loses?!
“Sorry, we really gotta go,” my friend said in Yiddish.
“What are you doing here?” the guide said to me with a more stern voice than before.
I said nothing. Suddenly my research seemed immoral. I was as good as a tourist in Amish country, snapping pictures of a horse and buggy. “I just wanted to see where the Rebbe stood,” I said.
And after a long pause, he let go of my arm.
When I finished a first draft of the book I sent it to my research friend. He told me he liked it a lot but wanted me to take out certain details so that no one in the community would assume it was him that helped me. That was the last time we spoke.
Back now in the SF Bay Area. Summer has arrived and it feels so good to be home for the moment. My mom just turned seventy and my ten year-old son stood up to make a speech at her party. He spoke so tenderly and with so much expression and love for her. It was amazing for me to watch. I’m so proud of my little man. I may have to write about it.
In the 3rd grade I fell in love with the aforementioned Mora Mirium. She wasn’t my teacher at the time and I remember working so hard for her to notice me the way I noticed her. If you kicked a home run at Hillel Academy, the ball would go into the parking lot of a church so, although there was glory in the trot, you then had to bend the fence back and crawl underneath to get to the neighboring lot. I kicked so many home runs to show off for Mora Mirium that I started to get to know two of the boys that went to the school at the church.
One of them, named Jose Rios, asked me if I made bread crackers out of blood, and how I felt about hell and Jesus.
Mora Mirium would always see me over there, walk toward the fence and yell my Hebrew name, “Yahashua, Yahashua come back here now.” The boys would ask me something in Spanish and laugh, pointing at her. “She is your girlfriend?” they’d ask. We’d all face her. Wavy brunette hair, those dark pantyhose, a slit in her jet black skirt.
Yes. In my head she was indeed my girlfriend. Before I left Hillel I attempted to get this yeshiva goddess’s attention by saying “amen” faster than other students after prayers and by securing my tan velvet yarmulke on the right side of my head the way Barry Meyerson did with his. And when Rabbi Tworsky let me lead the minyan in morning prayers I told the other teachers to tell her, to make sure she knows who led the thing. It was me. Yahashua. Let her know.
They say write what you know. My first novel is about a yeshiva boy who leaves his religious education to attend a public school in suburban New Jersey. I drew from my memories of a building in Perth Amboy called Hillel Academy, a place that was so ill-prepared to teach that it was torn down a few years after I left. In fairness, it was the seventies, and information on children and how to raise and teach them was not as ubiquitous as it is today. The “How To” book world would need another decade to even begin to school us on the craft of respecting children, our spouses, our neighbors.
But alas, it is important to recall the positive aspects of all periods of life, be they hard to come by or not. I used to love this teacher from Hillel named Rabbi Laloosh. The guy was probably 6 foot 11, wore orthopedic shoes and only said about six words in English.
But he knew just what we yeshiva kids needed. He would position himself in the center of the entire student body just before we were dismissed for the weekend and, during a song I forget the name of, let all three hundred of us scream OO-FARR-ATZ-TA!!! into his ears. I never learned what the word meant, but it had to be the most cathartic primal scream any of us had ever had. Even as a second grader I had the feeling Rabbi Laloosh knew our school life sort of bit the big one. He was letting us vent as the Sabbath approached, and I always admired him for it.
It took thirty plus years for me to understand why my early education left with me such skewed memories of religion. Aside from the much-taught melancholy associated with Jewish history like the Holocaust, the slavery in Egypt and some of the human calamities in the Old Testament, I always had an innate disinterest in the “push” to adhere to the suggestion that I was merely a soldier amongst many in the plight that is Zionism. To me this meant I was merely one, under God, a thistle in a forest of survivors who were forced to overcome more adversity and human loss than any culture on earth. I was thusly obliged to be a part of a larger sum as opposed to an entity unto myself in which life is dictated by both the unfolding of our individual days here, and the way one’s predisposed brain takes flight in a world fraught with possibility.
But I’ll tell you some of my most positive yeshiva memories.
My first thought of kissing a girl was in the back of Hillel Academy. At the time it held a small blacktop that offered a kick ball sized space surrounded by a chain link fence. I think of this square as the place I learned to lust for the smell of Wendy Friedberg. She was the older, fifth grade girl who preferred kissing one’s lips to slapping one’s back in “You’re it” the yeshiva version of “tag.” I would chase her cloud of pheromones around this tiny area with the ferocity of a Wild Kingdom clip, until my fingertips brushed against her ruffled shoulder.
“You’re it!” I yelled, and our eyes met amidst the haze of baking tarmac. “You’re it, Wendy Friedberg.”
You’re it, and I’m the one who made you so. I remember the pressure to kiss her. All the kids watching, egging me on, kiss her, kiss Wendy, and I knew that the only thing before me, before Talmud class, Abraham and Isaac and the Hebrew alphabet, I‘d need to place my lips against Wendy Friedberg’s cheek. But I was hesitant. Scared? Embarrassed? My teacher Mora Mirium would call us, Time’s up, recess is over.
I chickened out. She was older, okay? A fifth grader. She was just too sensual and sweaty, running around that blacktop like a gazelle and all. Her family would later visit our new house in South Orange for Shabbat because Wendy’s brother was my brother’s buddy. There was a song we sang at the end of our ceremony that required we all hold hands. I was next to Wendy and I remember pretending that I had to reach for the person to my left so hard that I couldn’t very well also take her grip. My dad called me out, “Take her hand, Joshua.”
I felt Wendy’s fingers against mine but didn’t face her for the entire song. She truly was a confusing and complicated woman. And I never would have known her without Hillel Academy.