That Roth Punk


Never Mind the Goldbergs is possibly the only book to include both the word shockeling and the word straightedge. Shockeling, author Matthue Roth writes, is “that back-and-forth motion of swaying your body above your hips. It’s like dancing to your prayers.” Straightedge is the no-drinking-no-drugs philosophy which kids embraced at the dawn of punk by marking X’s on their hands at shows.

The star of Roth's young-adult novel, Hava Aaronson, has no need for definitions: she is as versed in the language of punk music as she is in Gemara (Talmud), her favorite subject at her Orthodox high school in Manhattan. When a call comes through to the head Rabbi requesting her presence on the set of a new sitcom about Modern Orthodox Jews, Hava heads out to Los Angeles, the inexperienced “token Jew on this ship of goyishe professionalism.”

An Orthodox performance poet who attended George Washington University and then moved out to San Francisco, Roth has created in Hava's Los Angeles world a dreamy, spiritual, alterna-universe that moves at frenetic sitcom speed, where all a Jewish girl has to do is open her mouth and she can be a star. (Full disclosure: Roth is an old friend, and a silly joke I made up on a snow-day in 1994 appears in Chapter 15.)

Roth discussed his ideas about the book and his religion via email.

How did you come up with Hava?

I've always had her character in my head. People ask who she's based on, if she's secretly a friend of mine or a cousin or something, but she isn't. On the other hand, she's a real person in my head—I can tell you where she'd be right now, which movies she'd go to and which ones she'd hate.

How did you develop the idea for the Goldbergs? Were you aware of the radio show/sitcom The Goldbergs from the ‘40s/’50s?

[I didn’t know about the show.] The name sounds Jewish, but not too Jewish. My mom pointed out that I went to school with this girl Heather Goldberg who starred on a Trix [cereal] commercial...but really, the name was pretty arbitrary. Or, if you believe in coincidences, maybe not.

Did you know much about making TV shows, or did you mostly make it up?

I knew some things about sitcom production, about TV production in general. I altered a few facts to fit my story—sitcoms often operate on a five-day schedule, but very rarely, for instance, is it actually Monday to Friday.

Hava seems like a pretty normal person who seeks out all these weird people and places in order to feel like she's living a good life. She’s the center of attention, but can’t understand why.

It's curious that you say she's normal. A lot of the reaction I've been getting from people is that she seems normal, but her lifestyle's so crazy. I think there's a part of Hava in everybody—she’s just more upfront about things she does and things she likes. That's the whole idea of TV—of any good story, really—that any regular Joe is really Superman, once you get inside that person's boundaries.

Why does she do the show but always want to escape from it?

She doesn’t always want to escape! She doesn't always agree with what the producers make her do, but she's fundamentally happy with her job.

What's the most autobiographical part of the novel?

Definitely the getting lost in Hollywood on Shabbos part. And when they go to Berkeley and discover all the crazy-art-Jews—they’re all real people, more or less, the film director, the Orthodox rebbitizin rapper. It really was a religious experience when I found this community, a huge realization that there are other people who are also Orthodox and also cool.

Is there a contradiction in being religious, observing rules and traditions, and being cool?

Not at all! There's this story about a very pious rabbi who always went to Switzerland to go skiing for two weeks. Someone asked him why, and he said, “because we need to rejoice in the pleasures that we are allowed.” Every morning we say blessings for everything—sight, health, food. And part of loving God is loving creation, and really exploring it.

What do you think about all the Orthodox fiction that's coming out recently? Do you read it?

It's like anything else—there’s a lot of good stuff, and a lot of garbage. There's a whole trend of non-Orthodox people writing about the Orthodox lifestyle, which is really annoying—we’re more than a metaphor, dammit!—especially when it's vague or incorrect. I loved Wendy Shalit's line about Nathan Englander in the Times, when she says "he's as much a product of the shtetl as John Kerry."

What else are you working on now?

I have a book about becoming observant and moving to San Francisco coming in October from Cleis Press. And I'm working on another memoir about growing up in Northeast [Philadelphia], becoming Orthodox, and then dropping out—well, temporarily. I joined an Orthodox youth group when I was 13, then got really into religion and then dropped out when I was 14.

And when did you go back?

When I was 20.

Have you had any notable responses from the modern Orthodox you portray?

The most gratifying thing is the emails I've been getting from people who say "I don't think anyone but me will ever get this book, but I’m glad I have it." A girl from Baltimore emailed to tell me about a performance [group] of people in their teens and '20s who were doing all-woman punk-Orthodox plays. A guy in DC who I'd gone to Hebrew school with told me he thought he was the only one in our youth group who listened to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. It's all really, really incredible.

[On the other hand] the first person to review the book on Amazon was a 40-year-old non-Jewish guy who said he loved it. If I can make a connection with someone who's that fundamentally different than Hava, but still finds things in common, then I think we—Hava and me—are gonna do just fine.