Reading As a Jew

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Last week I read from my novel Losers at the Brooklyn Public Library. We had an awesome time. It was a weird reading for several reasons — one of which is that the book’s about a Jewish kid, and pretty much the entire audience was composed of kids, sixth to ninth grades, who’d lived in Brooklyn all their lives and had never met a Hasidic Jew before. Three minutes into my speaking, a girl put up her hand. “You’re the first Orthodox Jewish author I’ve met,” she said.

I replied that that was cool. “What other types of Orthodox Jews have you met?” I asked. She shook her head, and I pressed on. “How many other Jews have you met?” I said.

She thought about it, taking the mental census in her head.

“You’re the first of that, too!” she cried out jubilantly.

There was a murmur of agreement from the room.

The weird part for them was, I think, separating the person in front of them from the character in the book they’d all read. Losers’ protagonist, Jupiter Glazer, is a Russian Jewish immigrant whose affiliation with Judaism is mostly based on the reason that his family was kicked out of Russia to start out with, and the Federation that helped them get settled in America. Whereas I — the person, the author, the dude who was taking the space of the protagonist in their minds — was a Jew of a pretty much completely different stripe.

They were pretty perceptive, of course. Even if they didn’t know exactly what an Orthodox Jew was (they hadn’t visited MyJewishLearning’s page on the subject, of course), they were still aware that Jupiter was Jewish in one aspect, and I was Jewish in another.

And, yeah, it’s probably pretty apparent in the book. When I started to write Losers, I wrote it from the point of view with the main character, trying to stay out of the way of the story as much as I could. Most of the time, it was easy. Jupiter was a great character to write — he’s awkward and blundering and the type of person who gets into socially sketchy situations naturally and spends most of the time with his foot in his mouth. A few times, though, the difference between a character who’s basically me at the age of 14 and the person who I am now came up. Such as the instance of the party that occupies the better part of three chapters, which takes place on a Friday night.

I wasn’t doing it to be defiant. (Or, who knows — maybe my subconscious was?) But it was a weird, totally distinct, totally necessary part of life: Friday nights, I celebrate Shabbos. And Friday night, the night after the first week of school, Jupiter needed to party. (And meet the most popular girl in school, and hide his still-fresh bruises from getting beaten up that afternoon…but that’s another story altogether.)

“So what made you become Orthodox?” someone asked.

Instantly, I felt daggers from all ends. Not just from the eyes of every kid, librarian, and adult chaperone in the room, but also because we were in a public library, with kids from a public school, where you’re not allowed to talk about religion. On the other hand, they were also asking about my culture — and, in a very raw way, culture was the way I ended up there in the first place. These were kids who lived around Hasidic Jews, who saw us every day on the way to work and on the way home from work, who probably knew more about Hasidic Jews than most non-Hasidic Jews know — all this just from living around us — and yet, they’d never spoken to a Jew before in their lives.

Here’s what I said. The answer I gave was one that would get me in trouble in any Jewish setting. It’s not P.C., it’s not sensitive, and it’s not even one that I 100% agree with all the time. But, paradoxically, it might have been the only answer that saved me from the public-school conundrum.

“Because I grew up going to synagogue when I felt like it, and we’d have Shabbat dinner on Friday nights but we’d watch TV or go out with friends and do non-Shabbaty things. And when I decided to get serious about being Jewish, I decided that I didn’t want to do it half-baked.”

There was a low murmuring from the kids, and then a not-as-subtle nodding. They might not have understood about God, or halacha or why we have to follow certain laws all the time or dress a certain way, but they got that. And that was cool.

Posted on January 11, 2010

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