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.