Orthodox and Undercover
By MATTHUE ROTH
A few years ago, I had a bright future as a Young Orthodox
Novelist—surely you know the type. A little bit disgruntled, a little bit
smarmy; a bit of an idealist, a bit of an exhibitionist. If Nathan Englander
and Shalom Auslander
were the literary world's reaction to Orthodoxy, then I was the reaction to them. I was a punk-rock kid who'd grown
up as a Saturday-morning Jew, going to Hebrew School at my Conservative
synagogue when I couldn't get out of it, and sick of the half-baked theories of
God that were Xeroxed through three generations of crappy old textbooks. That's
the way Judaism felt to me—like a smudgy third-generation bootleg of something
that, to my great-great-grandparents, was crystal clear. Whatever that
crystal-clearness actually was, I imagined it was God.
I'd almost been born disenchanted. I was disenchanted with leading a secular
lifestyle, sick of the hypocrisy of going to synagogue Saturday mornings and
then baseball games Saturday afternoon, and of all of that coming to a dead
halt after my bar mitzvah. Like Hella Winston's book Unchosen, I
was sick of Jewish culture. Only, I was sick of the other Jewish culture, the secular American kind. I wanted something
legitimate. I wanted something real.
And that's what, eventually, I chased. Six years after my first punk show (The
Dead Milkmen, at the Trocadero, $6 if you were under 21) I showed up at a
synagogue one Friday afternoon, wearing jeans that were ripped at the cuffs and
the only sweater I owned. I stopped checking my email for 24 hours once a week,
spent my Shabbos nights reading in the dark of my apartment's living room, and
that was it. They say you're supposed to become Orthodox slowly, like wading
into a cold pool. I jumped in over my head, and only started sinking deeper.
Not that I was losing my individuality or anything—my t-shirts were still geeky
and tight, I was still at the gay clubs and the punk-rock shows; I just made my
Thursday nights longer and took the next night off.
I don't know what I could have been the poster child for, but I was the poster
child for something. When all my
other friends who wrote moved to New York, wrapped themselves tight into
graduate writing courses, I moved to San Francisco and started teaching myself
to write at open mics with a bunch of lesbians, all of whom I had crushes on,
and none of whom would look my way. They were the best senseis of all. Michelle
Tea, who had about as much in common with me as I had with a hamburger, told me
to write about what I was obsessed with. She said to write about whatever I
goddamn well wanted to write about.
"Even if it's not my life?" I said.
She shrugged. She told me she was writing about being a lesbian prostitute. At
the time, she was in a monogamous relationship with a male hip-hop M.C.
I did. Two years later, I sold my book. It was a novel about an Orthodox punk-rock girl—which
was, admittedly, a small niche within a niche market—and it was fairly
well-received, and did well for what it was supposed to do.
For a while, I resented it. I couldn't look at the cover to The Yiddish Policemen's Union without
feeling the urge to chop away at its columnal totem poles with a hacksaw, or
smash the Manischewitz bottle on the jacket to Elisa Albert's How This Night Is Different. I love both
books, but why, I asked, do they
deserve to be the Jewish Book of the Moment, and not mine? I was hard core.
Three hundred years ago, they would have passed for goyim. I was
Months passed. People asked me about a follow-up. Was I going to "go
Jewish" again? Write the same book twice? If I'd sold a few thousand more
units, that would have been expected. In a way, selling respectably-but-not-fabulously
was a blessing. I didn't want to walk in my own footsteps all my life. I'd
spent years wishing there was an Orthodox punk manifesto in the world, and now
there was one. As a writer, I'd moved on. Something else was tugging at my
And that's how I started writing a novel about a secular Jewish kid in the
I hate reading the Jewish-book websites. No matter what, three-quarters of the
stuff on there is about Orthodox people. Most of it's written by people who
either hate Orthodoxy, hate Orthodox people, or have never met an Orthodox
person, unless they count a hairy dude on the subway who wanted them to light
Shabbos candles or something. I'm no big advocate of the "write what you
know" school—as Dara Horn, one
of my absolute favorite writers, told me, most writers are boring people who
hate to leave their houses, and nobody wants to read about that—but I do believe that you should write about what you love.
And, yeah, Orthodox punk-rock kids are one embodiment of what I love. But being
a working-class kid whose best friends are all comic-book characters, that's
another thing I love.
It's not exactly where I came from. Jupiter, the main character of Losers, is Russian, and though we are
both geeks, we are geeks of different orders—he's more X-Men, and I used to be
more Doctor Who. The neighborhood where I grew up is the sleepy, dying Jewish
borough of Northeast Philadelphia, half ghetto and half suburb (although there
are, to be sure, elements of both).
I love Jupiter. That's not to say I am
Jupiter. In many ways, he's an idealized version of me—he speaks multiple
languages, says whatever is on his mind, and he never, ever gets laid.
That last part might sound strange, coming from someone twice Jupiter's age and
with (thank the good Lord) a partner, a satisfying sex life, and a clean
American accent that doesn't solicit Yakov Smirnoff jokes whenever I'm in line
at the ShopRite. In a lot of ways, I'm blessed.
But blessing does not give birth to conflict. And when we talk about delayed
gratification, the interesting part, the part that shows our agony and our lust
and all the gross, gnarly stuff that makes us human, is the delayed part, and not the gratification.
Again: writing what you love, not what you know. Dara Horn, of course, does
both—the cornerstone of her new novel is an exhaustively-researched plot, 150
years old, that historians have only been able to make the barest conjectures
about, but which she explores at length. Her point, too, remains valid: that,
with the leisure of hindsight and from the comfort of our writing space, we can
imagine and fantasize all sorts of horrible things.
In that way, I almost wish I wasn't having regular sex. While most of my
high-school career was spent in a number of awkward moments where I didn't
think a girl wanted to kiss me—and then, 12 years later, I realize that she was
probably waiting for me to do just that—Jupiter doesn't hesitate. Sometimes he
leaps into action, and leaps headfirst into the girl in question, and all
manner of chaos bursts loose. (One of the advantages of writing geeks: you can
always pull out a pyromaniac character, or someone who builds homicidal
androids.) And sometimes he totally freaks out, and runs away—which also
fulfills a big part of my first non-kissing fantasies: the part where I'm too
scared to, and wanting to bolt the hell out of there, but I was too nervous to
do that, either.
I think my favorite part of being a writer is that constant feeling of being
forced not to stand still. I think that's also my favorite part of being
religious. It isn't something that you'll learn about from Losers—at least, not explicitly—but I'm sure, somewhere, someone is
writing a book about Orthodox Jews who are disgruntled about all the books
being put out cataloguing Orthodox Jews. Hell, maybe someday I'll write it.
For now, though, I'm just letting myself run wild.