Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew

Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew

5.0 2
by Neal Karlen
Early in his memoir, Neal Karlen tells a rabbi, "I love Judaism. It's Jews I can't stand."

What he means is that he hates the parochialism and material trappings of the young Jews he knows: their new temples are gilded and the parking lots spill over with luxury cars. Religion for them is a quest for a Jewish wife from "the right" family and a big house and


Early in his memoir, Neal Karlen tells a rabbi, "I love Judaism. It's Jews I can't stand."

What he means is that he hates the parochialism and material trappings of the young Jews he knows: their new temples are gilded and the parking lots spill over with luxury cars. Religion for them is a quest for a Jewish wife from "the right" family and a big house and splendid clothes. Gone is the soulful practice of tradition that his grandparents brought over from Russia. Karlen sees communities from New York to Los Angeles of Jewish status seekers and he can't stand the thought of being identified as one of them.

Frustrated and embarrassed, Karlen stops looking for the Jewish enclave that fits him and, for the next ten years, simply rejects Judaism. He antagonizes rabbis. He becomes the token Jew among his Midwestern friends and the buffoon at cocktail parties with a shtick of Jewish jokes and imitations that cross the line. And then one day, Karlen goes too far: he marries a blue-eyed Protestant from a family with an anti-Semitic bent. The marriage is doomed.

At midlife Karlen discovers that he belongs nowhere and that the Jew he really hates is himself. He is a shanda—a shame.

Written with irreverent zest and poignancy, Shanda is Karlen's story of finding his way back to Judaism—and the Jewish community. His guide is an unlikely one: Rabbi Manis Friedman, the renowned Hasidic scholar with a beard to his chest and a fedora that makes him look like "Sam Spade about to go out in the rain." The rabbi invites Karlen to study with him. In their weekly meetings devoted to scholarship and Jewish ritual, Karlen asks the questions that assimilated Jews grapple with, such as "How do we bring meaning to the practice of Judaism?" "Where is the line between Jewish and too Jewish?" and "What does it mean to be Jewish-American and ashamed by Judaism?" Rabbi Friedman leads Karlen up the mountain to find these answers—and shows both author and reader the stunning view from the top.

Ultimately, this odd couple discovers what it means to be a good person—not just a good Jew. At its heart, Shanda is about their surprising friendship and the ways that people change—and change each other. At once hilarious and heartbreaking, it is a parable for anyone who has ever questioned his faith or has lost his way.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A shanda (a disgrace, in Yiddish) Karlen certainly was-a good-Jewish-boy-turned-bad who, even at age 40, demonstrated his alienation from self and from Judaism by telling vilely anti-Semitic jokes to amuse the goyim. He portrays himself in the opening chapters of this debut memoir in all his repugnance-but even guided back to Judaism by a warm and patient Hasidic rabbi from the Lubavitcher sect, he's not an appealing protagonist, nor do his dialogues with Rabbi Manis Friedman offer much insight into either Judaism or Karlen's struggling soul. Though Karlen rejects as empty and judgmental the Twin Cities suburban shtetl (as he irritatingly and repeatedly calls it) in which he grew up, he seems even more judgmental himself, writing, for instance, that most rabbis he'd known "were full of shit." The wise Rabbi Friedman, the real star of the memoir, asks that Karlen observe only a few mitzvoth, or commandments. These acts, along with his lessons and the welcoming atmosphere in the rabbi's home, help heal Karlen's spiritual wounds. But readers will have been alienated by factual errors (Judah Maccabee didn't fight the Romans), sloppy editing (two contradictory accounts of Karlen's first encounter with Rabbi Friedman) and a narrator who never manages to draw the reader emotionally or intellectually into his search for his yiddishe hartz (heart). (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Karlen's memoir is the story of boy meets religion, boy gets religion, boy loses religion, and boy gets religion back. He was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in St. Paul and had early plans to become a rabbi, but instead drifted from the faith and became a shanda, Yiddish for a shame or an embarrassment. Karlen offers vivid accounts of the extent to which he mocked his religion and how that stance became his identity. At the heart of the book are his meetings with Hasidic rabbi Manis Friedman. After a chance encounter during his fallen-away phase, Karlen begins regular visits to the rabbi, who instructs him in the Torah, a little Kabbalah, and, perhaps most significantly, what it means to be a Jew. The rabbi is an engaging character, and the descriptions of their visits serve as a model for person-to-person transmission of a faith and culture. The ending is touching but doesn't quite carry enough emotional weight. Recommended for public libraries, especially those with a significant Jewish clientele. Stephen Joseph, Butler Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Pittsburgh Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"[A] stirring journey with a surprising and deeply moving conclusion."

"What makes this personal account of self-dividedness so riveting is the ferocious honesty with which the author exposes his wound and the clarity and humor which seem testimony enough to its healing."
— Philip Lopate

"Shanda should be sold in a plain brown wrapper — Neal Karlen's self-examination of his internal identity conflicts is that honest and disturbing."
—Sara Nelson, New York Post

"Shanda reads much like Tuesdays with Morrie but has a wry irreverence and a seething edge. Karlen's memoir is an alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching spiritual adventure."
The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

"Poignant and original...Karlen's personal saga shows that while there is no one set way to reconnect with your Jewish heart, the journey is always rich and fulfilling."
— Stephen Fried, author of The New Rabbi

"If you like scary beginnings, Neal Karlen's memoir is the book for you...The amazing thing here is not how dramatically Karlen turns himself around but how astutely he chronicles the turnaround. Shanda is hilarious, heartbreaking, seething, wary, and joyful — in a word, a marvel."
— Stephen J. Dubner, author of Turbulent Souls and coauthor, Freakonomics

Product Details

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Read an Excerpt


The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew
By Neal Karlen

Touchstone Books

Copyright © 2004 Neal Karlen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743213823

Chapter 1: UNCLE TOM JEW

Ain't no one to place the blame

It's too smart to have a name.

-- Southern slave spiritual

In the seconds between shoving my third and fourth White Castle-sized pork sandwich down my throat, I yelled across the lavishly appointed basement toward my host. He and his wife had invited fifty Twin Cities WASPs, and me, to watch Mike Tyson's pay-per-view, main-event boxing match in Las Vegas against heavyweight Frans Botha on their wide-screen television.

I was more interested in the undercard fight for the junior cruiserweight championship belt between the Brooklyn-born Ethiopian Jew Zab Judah and Wilfredo Negron.

"Hey, Jim, call me when the Hebe's fight comes on," I said from the kitchen. I then turned toward the Minnesota crowd waiting with empty buns on paper plates for their own turns at the buffet.

"Zab Judah is the only Yid champ left!" I said loudly to no one in particular but to everybody specifically. "Naturally, they'll never make the Hebe the headline bout, the Nazi bastards!"

Someone shoved a Budweiser into my hand, my fourth of the night. "Well, I usually don't do this," I said, laughing, as I popped the top. "I'm not from a drinking people, you know. It's right there in the Old Testament, Genesis, Chapter Four in the book of Shmeckel: 'And God gave Moses the bong, and it was good. And He said if thou shalt spill the bong water on the carpet, it shalt reek for seven generations...'"

The kitchen exploded. "I missed that one in Sunday school," a blond woman said, laughing the hardest.

As usual, I was enticed by her Crest smile, the way she laughed at my jokes like they, or I, were deeper than I was letting on. The delicate little gold cross on a chain hung over her turtleneck, indicating she was as forbidden to me as I was to her.

This was my kind of woman. When asked why I went out only with non-Jewish women, I had a stock reply that further outraged or cracked up most any audience I was able to gather.

"Jewish women hate me," I said that night, as I often did. "I think I remind them of their annoying Uncle Morty, the schmuck at the Seder table with the stupid hundred-year-old Borscht Belt jokes. They want lawyers from Plymouth, not writers living in the middle of the city. As Abbie Hoffman said, 'You go for the gelt or you go for broke.' They don't want to go for broke."

In my more self-righteous moments I likened myself to an Abbie Hoffman-troublemaking Jew. I hadn't gone what I considered the easy route of suburban-bred Twin Cities Jew. I wasn't a lawyer or orthodontist trained at the University of Minnesota. I hadn't been a member of Sigma Alpha Mu, the Jewish fraternity known as the Sammies. My generation of Minneapolis Jews had almost all gone for the gelt, eventually ending up in a house with 2.3 kids in Twin Cities' suburban gilded ghetto.

I viewed them from afar as judgmental ignorants. Of course, I was the one judging, projecting my own despair and need to belong back at them. I saw how they took care of each other when someone died: the shiva, the food, the communal tears. I wondered narcissistically who would mourn me, thinking of an old Yiddish joke about a Jew so bad no one could find a eulogist. Finally, a rabbi volunteered, offering up the words: "His uncle was worse." Though I pretended not to care, I did.

Outwardly, at least, I wanted to emulate my heroic Jewish outlaws; I wanted to join the spirit of what people like the ones mystery writer Kinky Friedman and founder of a country and western band called the Texas Jewboys enumerated.

From Moses, Friedman said in the Forward, "a long line of Jewish troublemakers followed -- Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Abbie Hoffman -- who were spiritual beacons in a [gentile] world. "These among other lantzman," Friedman continued, also served as lighthouses for frightened Jews who for millennia "shun trouble, avoid at all cost confrontations...we who look in our mirrors [and] are mildly surprised that we're still here."

Now, that was me. I felt like an obsolete pinball machine whose spare parts hadn't been made. I was also a self-deluded fool. Standing here, outraging my audience, I was no Jewish outlaw like Abbie, throwing bills to the floor of the Stock Exchange. At best I was a Vegas lounge act.

Unconsciously, I threw in a joke to the crowd in the kitchen, a Henny Youngman one-liner:

"Why do Jewish husbands always die before Jewish wives?" I asked.

"Because they want to."

The room erupted and I reached for another beer.

I was shticking like Milton Berle on crystal meth, using a speed rap I'd developed at college parties to get a group of gentile women to encircle me. If they were laughing at my rap here, I figured, they couldn't ogle the sensitive guitar player singing Grateful Dead tunes in the living room. Shagetz (non-Jewish) musicians always had it easier than Jewish men in getting the girls. I'd joke in the kitchen, where everybody had to pass by me on the way to beer and food. In Minneapolis -- at concerts, ball games, dinner parties, the theater during intermission, walking along the street, or standing in a virtual stranger's kitchen eating trayf (nonkosher food) -- I delighted in outraging the gentiles. I was engaged in shtetl shpritzing, Jewish jazz.

Did my non-Jewish friends perchance want to see my horns, I'd ask, or the yellow stripe running down my back? And gee, I'd throw in, sorry about killing your Lord and all that, it was a party, things got out of hand, he didn't chip in for the Last Supper's tip. Before launching into my full-blown anti-Jewish joke parade, I half insulted them by slightly altering some of Henny Youngman's Polish jokes.

"Did you hear about the guy who was half Swedish and half Jewish?

"He's the janitor of a building, but he owns it."

"Shpritzing?" the blonde at the party asked.

"Surrounded by other Jewish wise guys, usually at a diner or deli, you just shoot out jokes as fast as you can and everybody tries to top you," I said, staring at her. "When they were young, Lenny Bruce (ne Leonard Schneider), Rodney Dangerfield (ne Jacob Cohen), Jerry Lewis (ne Joseph Levitch), and whatever Jewish comic was in town shoehorned themselves into a booth in a Brooklyn diner and shpritzed faster than Chuck Yeager flew. Shpritzing was the Jewish right stuff. Henny Youngman claimed that Jerry Lewis even shtupped a woman in the candy store's phone booth without missing the beat of his jokes. Now Lenny, there was a Jew considered a shanda fur di goyim."

Nobody asked what shtupping was, but the blond woman said, "I heard of Lenny Bruce, he was in that R.E.M. song about the end of the world. What is a...shalen goy...?"

"Let's see," I said, thinking of an example. "Woody Allen getting arrested for molesting or at least marrying his child is a shanda fur di goyim."

"I don't understand," she of the golden, dangling crucifix said.

"Let's put it this way," I said. "When Abbie Hoffman was screaming at the inept Judge Julius Hoffman at his infamous Chicago Seven conspiracy trial..."

"I studied that in college," she said. "A lot of people think that was the most important trial of the century."

I liked this shiksa. She knew Lenny Bruce and Abbie Hoffman, albeit through Michael Stipe songs and college history texts. "Yeah," I said, "well, Abbie screamed in court to the judge, 'You're a disgrace to the Jews in front of America! You're a shanda fur di goyim!' A shanda fur di goyim is the worst thing one Jew can say to a Jew -- it means you're such a rat bastard that you make all Jews look bad in front of the goyim." They all laughed. Christ, the gentiles loved being called goyim to their faces by a crazy Jew.

How could I make such a spectacle of myself and talk such trash, be such an unmitigated ass, after all that had happened, I wondered briefly, a suddenly conscious current of self-loathing making me want to crawl out of my skin. But I quickly repressed the noxious feeling that mocked who I had become during the last two decades -- a buffoon who despised who he was and where he'd come from.

Even when I was still a kosher-keeping and religious youth, studying Hebrew and ancient Aramaic harder than anyone I knew, I'd tried to get away from my ancestry and be just an American kid, as in the sit-com fantasies of gentile life, ironically almost always written by first-generation Jews, peopled by kids who couldn't fall asleep on Christmas night.

As split inside as Cain and Abel, I'd had plans to be a rabbi, yet I'd always wanted to fit in, to assimilate. I didn't want to be just a "normal" kid but rather a brave outlaw. So I was the bookie for my tenth-grade class, taking bets in the lunchroom on Friday for that Sunday's game before heading home to prepare for Shabbos.

I'd totaled four cars, been arrested for big-ticket shoplifting at fourteen, had my license suspended at seventeen by altering it to make it look, I thought, as if I were old enough to drink. The judge gave me only the mandatory one-month suspension when I told him I needed to get to the synagogue every Saturday to teach religion, which was actually true. During those four weeks, I simply hitchhiked down Minneapolis's busiest thoroughfare in my suit, John Dillinger with a tallis bag instead of a tommy gun in hand.

At school I wrestled and played freshman hockey, punching and flipping gentiles on their backs to middlin' success, but at least proving I was no weakling Jew. At forty, I hadn't known or cared for decades where my Phi Beta Kappa key was, but my framed certificate for being the 104-pound wrestling champion of my seventh-grade class followed me everywhere I lived.

Only later did I realize that my need to "prove" myself was about asserting my masculinity. I felt that as a Jew my manhood was always in question. Just as most Jewish women are revolted by the stereotype of the JAP, I was repulsed by perceptions of the weak, pale yeshiva boys Isaac Babel wrote of, "studying in fright in the shtetl, with spectacles on [their] nose and autumn in their heart."

Even when I'd believed, I'd often pulled against my Hebraic side in the great assimilation tug-of-war. At Jewish summer camp, I always had a great time with the kids who hated being there in the first place and enjoyed breaking all the rules in a race to see who could get thrown out of camp first. (I never did, but I wanted to. I imagined I would walk out of camp like Chuck Connors at the beginning of Branded.)

I'd wear a tallis, a prayer shawl, if I had to go to synagogue. It looked like a funky scarf. But as for putting on and wearing tefillin, the black prayer-box phylacteries bound at the head and arm? Kish mir in tuchus. Kiss my ass. The last time I'd donned the ridiculous-looking straps had been at camp. There, I remembered my overwhelming thought each day as I prayed, a fourteen-year-old bound into these goofy straps and boxes on my arm and atop my head: I'm glad nobody at school can see this.

Even now, when I'd make an occasional and strained effort at being a good Jew, I wouldn't put on tefillin. The idea of wearing as much an image of anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews over the centuries as they were religious objects, still made me shiver. When I got up at dawn and sat next to my father or mother at the synagogue to hear them say kaddish for my grandparents on the anniversary of their deaths, I wouldn't join my father in putting on the straps. I was there only to convey to my parents the message, When the time comes, I'll do this for you too.

The last half dozen years of attempted assimilation since my divorce had been the worst. Some people learn their life lessons by running into a brick wall once before learning to go around; I often needed to crash headlong into the stones one hundred times before I figured out what was wrong. During those moments, I never thought of the very old joke I could have used: Why are you hitting yourself on the head with a board over and over? Because it feels so good when I stop.

"I don't want to miss the Hebe," I reminded some strangers in the kitchen.

My own offensiveness -- and what it said about my lack of self-respect -- was more than counterbalanced by the flattering attention of an all-gentile, all-American crowd laughing at the outrageous goofy Jew playing the shtetl idiot for their amusement. Still soaking in the laughter, I continued to hang in back where the cohost Celeste was ladling shredded pork from a steaming silver kettle into mini-Wonder Bread buns.

"Didn't eat today, Neal? Would you like another?" she asked, but before I could say yes, she grew stricken. "Oh, God. I'm so sorry. Pork. I should have had another dish!"

I wondered if she even would have known my religion if I hadn't made such a spectacle of myself. "Don't be silly, I'm a pork slut," I responded, piling my paper plate high.

"I didn't know Jews could eat pork," said Celeste as she watched me snarf my fifth sandwich in one bite. "Don't you go to hell? No, wait -- Jews don't believe in hell, right?"

"Anybody Catholic here?" I asked, an equal-opportunity mocker. A few hands in the kitchen went up. "I think priests should get married so they'd really know what hell is."

Rim shot. I felt a brief shiver of hating myself, but everyone was laughing again. And then the tug from the other side, the long-ago-educated-in-Judaism side. "Jews have hell," I said defensively. "It's called Gehenna. And actually, Celeste," I said, pork juice dribbling out of my mouth, "I didn't taste pig until I was twenty-one. I almost became a rabbi."

"You? I don't believe it."

"No shit. Me a rabbi. Sagely telling everybody what to do. Like they need any help. My sermons every week would have been the same nine-word history of the tribe: 'They tried to kill us; we won; let's eat.'"

I was a Jewish Uncle Tom. And for almost two decades, I'd been busy reinventing myself, reinforcing the worst stereotypes of Jews and the community. I'd once taken that community to my heart like a precious birthright but then had tossed away like worthless fool's gold.

My Judaism hadn't retreated; it had evaporated.

Copyright © 2004 by Neal Karlen


Excerpted from Shanda by Neal Karlen Copyright © 2004 by Neal Karlen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Neal Karlen writes regularly for The New York Times and is a member of the adjunct faculty of the University of Minnesota journalism school. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Elle, The Forward, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and Olam, among other publications. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Shanda 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A very touching and humorous page turner. Highly recommended to people of all faiths.
Guest More than 1 year ago
SHANDA is a laugh-out-loud funny memoir that manages to convey the pain and angst of feeling empty inside and not quite knowing why. Neal Karlen -- a successful journalist who writes about pop culture for The New York Times and Rolling Stone -- woke up one day and realized that his connection to the Judiasm he'd grown up with had evaporated and he hadn't even noticed. He was approaching 40 and realized he needed to reconnect with his past. So he convinced the famous rabbi who brought Bob Dylan back to Judaism after his evangelical Christian phase to mentor him. What results is a unique, quirky, and compelling memoir of Karlen's friendship with this renowned rabbi, and Karlen's ultimate peace with Judiasm -- but on his own terms. Highly recommended for those of any religion who've lost their way or questioned their faith in our secular, fast-paced and media-driven culture. Buy this for your friends and family for the holidays!