Moshe Kasher is a stand-up comedian and the author of Kasher In The Rye: The True Tale Of A White Boy From Oakland Who Became A Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient…And Then Turned Sixteen This is a story of a Passover miracle. Or something. Readers should be advised of strong language and total immaturity…although it’s got a pretty great ending.
It is said that whoever finds the afikomen on Passover is granted a wish that cannot be refused by the master of the house. That wish, no matter how extravagant or unusual, must be fulfilled and until the lucky discoverer is satisfied that his wish has been granted, the seder cannot continue. This is the story of the night that went quite wrong.
It was the first night of Pesach and Shmulie slumped down at the head of his Seder table with a great relieved sigh. The week was finally over. He’d been running around all week, shopping for matzah and matzah meal and matzah-based beverages and other assorted constipation aids. Shmulie was exhausted.
“Why are you sitting down!?!” Pessy yelled from the kitchen, “Get the door!”
How his wife even knew he had just sat down was beyond Shmulie’s grasp. Pessy had a kind of second sight that tuned right into Shmulie’s attempts at rest. Anytime he took a deep breath she would yell, “Don’t breathe!” He didn’t know how to comply.
Pessy was the boss, always had been. Mostly, Shmulie accepted it, as she seemed able to know all of the things that he didn’t quite know how to do. She was his queen and it didn’t matter to him if she only rarely treated him like a prince. For her, he would be a pauper — he would be a page.
“GET THE DOOR!!!” Pessy shrieked from the kitchen.
“Pessy, no one is at the door!” Shmulie tried to sound reasonable.
Just then the door bell rang. How had she known!?!
Shmulie ended his one-breath-long vacation and got himself up and sauntered into the hall to welcome the Pesach guests. One step at a time the plastic runner in the hall buckled beneath his big feet. He made his way to the door.
One by one the guests trickled in. Shmulie didn’t know any of them, but he greeted each of them with a big fake smile and a warm “Chag Sameach!”
He’d done this before. This was the seventh year in a row they’d hosted a seder for the neighborhood. A sea of strangers washed into their dining room and ate as much as they could then leaked out into the streets. Shmulie hated it. He hated strangers and it was odd to him that some of the people Pessy invited were non-Jews. Why would they be invited to Passover? Sure the Hagaddah says “Let all who are hungry , come and eat!” but they couldn’t have meant let all who are hungry, right? Hungry goys too?
Oh well, Pessy knew best. Shmulie repeated this to himself for the ten thousandth time and got to the business of beginning the seder. At the far end of the table was a Laotian family who clearly didn’t even know what they were doing there. Confused looks were exchanged when Shmulie dipped the parsley into the salt water and splashed the water on his face to show them that they were tears.
“Tears get it? Like boo hoo?”
“Why are they tears?” Bok, the youngest Laotian boy, asked.
“ Because we remember the tears our people shed in the desert , toiling for the Egyptians in the hot sun,” Shmulie recited, as if from a script.
“ In Laos, we cried too… do you want to know why?” Bok asked.
“Not really, no.” Shmulie just wanted to get through this meal.
“Shmulie! Don’t be rude.” Pessy turned to the seder guests. “Sorry about him, he’s been emotionally off lately. We think its gluten. Thank goodness for Passover, the original lo-carb diet!” She shrieked disgustingly and turned to Bok and said, “ We’d love to know why you cried.” Pessy’s face scrunched up in compassion in that singular way that only white women sympathizing with brown people can manage.
Bok spoke, “In Laos we cried because we didn’t have a floor. Our hut was lined with dirt…”
“Well that’s horrible, sorry about that Bok, back to Passover…” Shmulie couldn’t stand stuff like this.
“I’M NOT FINISHED! We ate worms and grubs. We had one well, but it was filthy and we had to drink it anyway. My father died of dysentery.”
“Is that everything?” Shmulie was losing his patience here. He hadn’t signed on for an address at the United Nations. He just wanted to eat that f–king afikomen and be done with this thing.
“No. It is not everything.” Bok then began a 45 minute speech about that hardships of life in Laos that was so painful to listen to that Shmulie imagined he now knew exactly how it felt to be a slave in Egypt, or in fact, a boy in Laos.
Eventually Pessy gave up on the ritual aspects of the meal altogether and just started serving the food in between Bok’s exaggerated sobs, never once betraying any annoyance or a lack of interest in hearing Bok’s tale of woe which was superseding what was supposed to have been the tale of the woe of the Jewish people. Goddamn it, this Laotian kid was stealing Passover with his sad little life. Shmulie had had about enough of this.
“Ok, that’s it. We are doing Afikomen now.” Shmulie’s voice was terse and annoyed.
“Shmulie! We have to finish hearing Bok’s story!” Pessy snapped back.
“I’m almost done.” Bok smiled.
“No! No, I’m putting my foot down. I’m sorry Bok, I am. Laos sounds sh-tty. I’m sorry your father is dead and I’m sorry you had dirt floors and I’m sorry there is a sauce in Laos made of cow shit. It really sounds bad but right now, it’s Passover. And it’s midnight and we are moving on to the afikomen and then I’m going to bed and then I am going to have sex with my wife!”
“No you aren’t,” Pessy sneered.
“Then I’ll have sex with myself!” Shmulie had never spoken to Pessy like this. It felt really, really good.
Bok frowned, sad. “Alright. I’m sorry. I apologize. I didn’t mean to ruin your holiday with my sad story. Lets move onto the Afi…what did you call it?”
“Komen. THE AFI-KOMEN. Let’s do.”
Shmulie cut the awkwardness in the air with an uninspired speech about the Afikomen and the rewards it wrought. Then he screamed “Go!” and began the hunt. Nobody moved.
Slowly, at the end of the table, Bok stood up and calmly walked directly over to the spot where Shmulie had hidden the Afikomen earlier, underneath a copy of Bob Marley’s album, “Exodus” which Shmulie had felt to be a great joke but , watching Bok flip it over and grab the Afikomen without emotion or recognition had taken all the joy out of it. Bok lifted the Afikomen up.
“Great Bok, you win. You got the Afikomen. What the hell do you want for it.”
Shmulie knew. He got it then. Anger surged into him. This was a set up. A con to peel a couple grand from him. Somehow Bok knew all about the Afikomen and had set this up to ruin his Passover. All the joy he’d felt when he’d stood up to Pessy was now gone. He looked over at her, frowning, her glare accusing him – HIM! – of ruining the seder. At that moment, Shmulie knew one more thing- he hated his wife.
“What do you want? Let me guess a grand? Five thousand bucks? Just say it and let’s end this fucking night.”
All the guests got silent and shifted uncomfortably. Everyone wanted to leave.
Bok looked up, smiled and said quietly, “I want your life.”
Shmulie looked back, confused.
“And,” Bok continued, “I want you to have mine.”
And that was how Shmulie and Pessy Bornstein moved to Laos. Since then, Shmulie has made his living repairing old sneakers at the market in town and Pessy caught tarantulas in traps she made and set in the woods. She would sun-dry them and sprinkle garlic, soy and MSG on them and sell them on sticks to travelers.
Their home was small, and the floors were dirt and when the rains came, they hoped that the leaks wouldn’t make too much mud. They’d tried to have kids but something in the drinking water seemed to have turned Pessy’s womb. But mostly, they were happy. Pessy had softened. Shmulie had found his voice. When the afternoon suns came and the pale streams of light stole through the lattice of the hut they lived in and shone on her brow, she glowed, radiant, pure and perfect. And, one afternoon as that Laotian sun danced on her face, Shmulie looked over and realized that he loved his wife. He loved her very much. Crowned with a crown of pure sun, once again, she was his queen.
At that very moment of realization, the postman came, squeaking down the dirt road that led to their village on a bike so creaky and rusty – it defied the laws of logic to see it’s wheels turn. The postman, Chantos, handed Shmulie a letter. The letter , thick papered and tied down the middle with a single red ribbon, held in place with a red wax seal, sat , heavy in Shmulie’s hands. It seemed to vibrate there, singing with an invisible music. Shmulie realized his hand was trembling when he broke that seal and he called Pessy into the hut as he opened the letter. It read, in a simple script:
You can have your life back now.
Elijah The Prophet
To whoever is reading–
I’ve had some complaints regarding my recent appearance on Conan, promoting my new book, Kasher In The Rye: The True Tale Of A White Boy From Oakland Who Became A Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient…And Then Turned Sixteen. Some Jews (I’m assuming here) were a little offended by my poking fun at my experiences with childhood Haredi life. I said they looked like fat Amish penguins and that they were weird. But seriously, I mean is any of that in dispute?
Now, normally, I try and pay anonymous complaints no heed as I have long since come to terms with the fact that when you make jokes, especially sharp prickly ones, you will invariably bruise the tender sensibilities of someone and that the anonymous and instantly accessible nature of the internet gives those bruised peaches an instant platform to lodge their grievances. But I’ve been thinking about it and I thought, since I’m being asked to blog for MyJewishLearning and Jewish Book Council, that I might try and clarify myself and my jokes and my Jewishness.
I grew up in a bifurcated existence, floating between the supernatural realms of Chassidus and the concrete pragmatism of secularization. I’m an anomaly. A rare breed that is both “frum from birth” and “off the derech” in sharp strong veins that ran, right next to one another, interweaving themselves into a confusing rope almost long enough to hang myself with.
My father moved to Seagate, and married into a Satmar family when it became clear that my mother — who took us on a “vacation” to Oakland early in my life — was not going to return. He was a unique man, a brilliant dynamo who painted and performed in the Lower East Side and according to family legend was asked by Marcel Marceau, seeing his pantomime genius, to join him as a “mime in training.” All the messy blurs of the art world were turned into sharp edges when he found Chassidus and returned to the shtark world of frumkeit.
My mother, who stole us away in the night, kept that mess and turned it into kindling for a bright jumbled fire that illuminated our home and kept us warm. Her relationship with Judaism was casual and ambivalent, no doubt poisoned a bit by her rocky marriage to my father.
I was born in the middle ground. To my left was modernism, to my right was minhag. The runoff of both experiences was churning white water that I had to learn how to paddle down, desperate to keep my head above water. Eventually, I learned how to make jokes about all of it and those jokes became flotation devices. They buoyed me and kept me breathing.
And though, if you read the book you will see how deeply and severely I sank later on, I used those jokes to keep me as afloat as I could be, even as I got smacked around on the rocks. Kasher In The Rye is a book where I expose my soft underbelly to the world and tell the tale of my teenage descent into drug addiction, violence, insanity and crime. But it’s a comedy. How can such dark fodder be funny?
My God, how can it not?
If I hadn’t learned to laugh at it, all of it, it would have swallowed me whole and I’d probably not be your blogger this week. I’d likely be dead. So you’ll forgive me if I laugh at you. I’m really just laughing at myself. It never occurred to me that my childhood wasn’t my own to joke about. But I see now that, when bringing that childhood into the public for everyone to enjoy, and hopefully to relate to, that I’m joking about your childhood too. If I offend anyone with my gallows humor, please know that I was born on a gallows and and I’m telling jokes to stave off execution. If you’d like to take my place up here you are welcome.
This isn’t an apology. God forbid. I’m not sorry at all for turning my experiences into jokes, it’s what I do. This is a clarification. I love Jews and Jewishness. I love Chassidus and tradition. I love it sincerely and I love to make fun of it too. Honestly if you don’t think there is anything hilarious about living in 21st-century America but pretending fashion wise that its 1820’s Hungary, then you take yourself too damn seriously. I think the Baal Shem Tov would probably agree with me but who the f*ck am I to speak for him? I’m just a clown. But I think we need clowns as much as we need rebbes.
I went to a Modern Orthodox elementary school. For eight years I learned Hebrew (Modern and biblical), participated in Shabbat onegs and wrote and performed Torah-related songs and plays. I learned every Jewish prayer by heart, wore only below-the-knee skirts and painstakingly studied Talmud in Aramaic in a rabbi’s study. I was impressively Jewish. And then I went to a secular high school and, except for going to temple on the high holidays, attending Passover Seders and lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, I became unimpressively secular. It wasn’t until I met my Catholic-raised husband that I started actively observing Judaism again.
On our first date I told him that if we were to ever have kids, raising them as Jews was nonnegotiable. That’s right, our first date. Religion had come up in previous relationships and I had learned to be firm about what I wanted at the start to avoid surprises later. He nodded and said he would be comfortable with that. Ben believed in the general ritual and ethical guidance of religion even more than he believed in the specifics of his religion. Apparently the extent of two people’s religious belief can affect compatibility more than the religions themselves.
The first thing we decided to do was learn about Judaism together. We signed up for a four month Union for Reform Judaism course. I joked that I could teach it, but once it started I was surprised at how little I already knew. Reform Judaism was everything I had sifted from my Orthodox education without the orthodoxy that had felt so oppressive to me. The liberal politics, reverence for nature and inclusiveness of the community paralleled my own belief system, and Ben and I marveled at how time and again, the laws of Reform Judaism were laws we would create for ourselves if we were creating a religion from scratch. Our class was white, black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay and straight. We were all there, not by obligation, but by spiritual choice.
Perhaps because of my Orthodox background, I had always been dismissive of other branches of Judaism. I had also become so fixated on the technicalities of being Jewish (matrilineage, for example) that I forgot that religion is a philosophy, and we don’t automatically know or believe in a philosophy just because we’re born into it. If I had simply married another unobservant Jew, we wouldn’t have had to earn our Judaism, it would have already been part of our identities. But Ben and I worked for it, reading, debating and journaling every topic, theme and ritual, from the holidays, to the state of Israel, to the afterlife. I had always assumed that if I were to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish he would take on my religion as his own, but I never realized that in that process of learning about Reform Judaism I would take on a new religion as my own too.
Yesterday, I put out a Twitter call: What should I write about? The always-dependable dlevy asked, in reply, “have you talked about responses to your work from non Jewish readers?” I haven’t, not yet — but I also haven’t really talked about my response from Jewish readers. (And, sort of on that subject, I could also puzzle why I’ve gotten such amazing Amazon reviews from readers I don’t know — because, as you know, all Jews know each other — but the one review that I know is from a friend is, well, nice, but so short.)
Weirdly, if you want to keep a scorecard, I’ve written two books that are about Orthodox Jews, my first two, and then two books (and a movie) that have nothing to do with Orthodox Jews. I say it’s weird because, as I’ve become more and more fundamentalistly Hasidic, I seem to be writing less overtly about Jews.
What does it mean? And why does my new book Automatic straddle the boundary, telling stories about me in high school, back when I had no idea I’d ever become Orthodox, but sticking in a blurb or two of wisdom from the Vilna Gaon and kabbalah? Here, let me show you:
Every day I remember I’m alive I feel guilty. Some days I sleepwalk through the day and don’t even remember that much. There are kids starving in Africa. There are kids starving a couple blocks from where I live.
The Vilna Gaon says that, if humans weren’t blessed with the power to forget, we would learn all there is to know in two or three years, and there would be no further reason for us to remain alive.
I’d like to think, in my self-assured way, that everyone (Orthodox people, non-Orthodox people, non-Jews) can float with my weird, Paulo Coelho-like digressions, and that they still understand what I’m saying in the first place. Back when I was going to poetry slams every night, people thought of me as “the Jewish guy,” even though this was Berkeley and half the room was Jewish — because I was the one who did poems about being Jewish. I talked about Judaism like the black kids talked about being black, and the Sri Lankan kids talked about being Sri Lankan, and the Palestinian kids talked about being Palestinian. And all my most popular poems were the ones that included the most weird things about religion, and the most Yiddish words:
One night I said to this gay Arab poet, who’d had to leave his country because they wanted to kill him, that we were both in exile, and he said back, Baby, the whole WORLD is in exile. It was the most Jewish thing I’d ever heard. And one of the truest.
Maybe that’s the meaning behind Automatic — it’s my little book about my friendship with my Christian best friend, and how Jewish the whole thing was. Or how Irish Catholic it was. Or maybe we’re all just talking about the same feelings, and using different metaphors to drive it home. And by “metaphors,” I don’t mean in that puzzling poetry way. I mean languages. And gods. And ways to digest the whole thing of our lives.