Orthodox and Undercover


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 shtetl-fabulous.

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 brain.

And that's how I started writing a novel about a secular Jewish kid in the ghetto.

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.