The Very Latest in Biblical Shtick


By Jonathan Goldstein
256 pages. Riverhead Trade. $15.

In the Bible, things happen to Adam: he is created, praised, given companionship, and then chucked out of the Garden of Eden. In Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible!, the latest musings of author Jonathan Goldstein, Adam is conjured back to life with a few deeds of his own. “In the beginning,” writes Goldstein, “when Adam was first created, he spent whole days rubbing his face in the grass. He picked his ear until it bled, tried to fit his fist in his mouth, and yanked out tufts of his own hair.” Adam, in this tale, is not just the First Man, he's the consummate village idiot.

So devolve our biblical heroes in this petulant, snarky, yet somehow tender take on some of the Old and New Testaments’ most enigmatic characters. Goldstein, author of Lenny Bruce is Dead and a contributing editor to PRI’s This American Life, collapses the emotional and temporal distance between Joe Six Pack and such old-time luminaries as Jacob, Abel, Jonah, and King David. The result: a campy biblical world that could slide right into a post-dinner television slot. 

The book opens with a Jewish family eating in a kosher-style restaurant called the Grey Derby. “By anyone’s standards their family was Jewish, but they played by their own rules,” Goldstein begins. “While they did not keep the Sabbath, they did go to synagogue on Yom Kippur. They begged God to forgive their sins and inscribe them in the Book of Life. They did so while glancing at their watches every ten minutes.” Their traditional Friday night dinner of “boiled chickens, stewed chickens, chickens in baskets, flanken, kishke, and a spicy fat called ‘speck’ that has since been made illegal,” is framed by a “wall-length mural of David in the midst of slaying Goliath.” Thus enters the bible, a visual token hovering above a glutinous meal prompting a lighthearted fencing match between father and son. “Didn’t Goliath have friends to avenge his death?” the son asks. “What friends?” retorts the father, “Goliath was a bully and a blowhard.”

From there, Goldstein moves on to Adam and Eve. In this one, Eve is the bully and Adam the buffoon. Then on to Cain and Abel, Jacob, Esau, and concluding with Joseph (of Jesus, not the Technicolor Dream Coat). Between winning descriptions of Jonah’s matching seaweed ensemble in the Big Fish and a cacophonous blur of Pig Latin at the Tower of Babel, Goldstein places the utterly endearing Gomer, the savvy creator of the desert’s hottest selling idol: The Golden Calf.

Gomer is Goldstein’s biblical incarnation of a go-getter immigrant pioneer. When Gomer started in the idol business “it was all cows”; he “saw that as homes got smaller there was a need for an idol that could fit more neatly into a corner—something you could drape a caftan over and prop your feet on when you weren’t worshipping…. And thus,” quips the narrator, “the mini cow, or ‘calf,’ was born.”

Equal parts theologian, entrepreneur, and free-market evangelist, Gomer stubbornly resists change until his son, Ian, challenges his father and asserts his belief in this “New God.” Gomer, now the plaintive dad, responds to his son, “I didn’t realize I was embarrassing you…. What is there for a father to pass down to a son if not his god?” In this story Goldstein ably writes the fear of losing the tradition back to a maligned-but-well-intentioned idol worshipper. The reader in this oh-so-modern midrash empathizes with the jilted father, not the socially conscious son. In a hysterical and poignant conclusion, Gomer makes do by remolding his “gold into long, thin wands with pointing little index fingers at the tip” for “commandment pointers.” Ian, on the other hand, remains caught, torn between his desire to worship the New God and the persistent image of a “golden man-headed cow” or a “cow-headed man.”

Despite relishing affectionate tales like “The Golden Calf,” “Jonah and the Big Fish,” and “Samson and Delilah,” at times, I felt like I was time traveling into my brother’s adolescent bedroom while his lanky pre-pubescent cool-kid crew tried on various topics of importance: sex, marijuana, and their bar mitzvah portions. “Dude,” I can hear them saying as I transport this book back into that fusty den, “Goldstein thinks Noah’s a jerk.”

In “Noah and the Ark,” Noah, who thinks everyone, literally everyone, is stupid, is painted as a mediocre-to-bad parent and a disdainful-to-hateful man.  As a tyrannical father and the CEO of the contracting firm “Noah & Son & Son & Son,” this self-absorbed miscreant is thrilled when he hears about the impending flood. In a family gathering he announces, “I was just talking with the Lord… And you know what? He regrets having made his children, too. ‘They are all dummies, dear God,’ I pleaded in the world’s defense…. Then He says to me, He says—and He says it just like this—‘I will blot them out.’”

King David, a few stories later, is depicted as a failed comedian, a man who tries but simply never succeeds in being funny. Goldstein presents David’s off-color humor with the slaying of Goliath. “David had a different take on what comedy could be. He believed you could achieve a humorous effect by killing someone simply, too. The time was right, he believed for a honed-down, deadpan kind of murder/comedy. He believed a simple stone-to-the-head killing could be a comedic statement as well as a political one—a challenge to the decadent pageantry of Philistine giant murder.”

The stories in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! are of two kinds. Some claim boisterous readings of biblical protagonists through sensitive portrayals of father-son mishaps, sibling play, and romantic love, while others too easily sacrifice complexity and moral nuance for dull one-liners. Too many of these tales have a “just like us” patina reminiscent of Sarah Palin’s vice presidential campaign and the rise of Joe the Plumber.

In interpreting these biblical heroes for our own quick-and-easy-kosher-style proclivities, Goldstein robs them and us of our differences. It is not that these stories aren’t funny—they are. In fact, many are laugh-out-loud funny. But the result of this callow attempt at engagement and relevance is also somewhat sad. It is the book equivalent of a Shabbat dinner spent bantering over leftover challah rolls and who will pay the check at the Grey Derby.