Geek Camouflage

Hasidic Jews might not be the number one most-fetishized religious group by the media – my Muslim punk-rock friends would probably win that particular medal – but, dammit, we get our fair share of attention.

Living in Crown Heights for the past few years – a kind of Hasidic ground zero – it’s weird to see your local laundromat and breakfast place and synagogue served up as a portrait into an idyllic yesteryear. It seems like every other week, the New York Times serves up another feature on Hasidic life.

(Virtually all of these features are about Lubavitchers in Crown Heights – even though they’re frequently written with these fake-Olde-Country pretensions that have about as much in common with real-life present-day Crown Heights as, well, the Pope – because Lubavitchers don’t mind being the poster-children of Judaism. They figure, if being written about gets more Jews interested in doing Jewish stuff, they figure, then rock on.)

I have a strange position in my neighborhood. I’m one of the only non-Lubavitchers in a Lubavitch area, someone who didn’t grow up Orthodox but married into one of the oldest Hasidic families that exist. I’m still a Hasid, but a Hasid of my own stripe, I guess.

And, in this revolution of people who aren’t actually Orthodox who are writing about Orthodox Jews, I’m moving in the exact opposite direction — I’m an Orthodox Jew who’s writing about being a geek.

Nathan Englander
Nathan Englander

I saw Nathan Englander on his first book tour – almost ten years ago, now – shortly after I’d first started becoming observant, and a couple of years after he’d stopped being observant. The audience was asking him all these questions about how religious people felt about his books. He tried to explain to the crowd how these characters were from a long-ago childhood, and now he was basically (his words) a long-haired hippie who didn’t deal with many Orthodox people.

I raised my hand. “Do you think you’ll start writing about long-haired hippies?” I asked him.

I was twenty, thought I knew everything, and probably sounded like it. The question, which I’d aimed to be probing and ironic, came off as hopelessly assholic. But what I’d meant is: Don’t you want to write about the person you are, not the person you were?

Flash forward. I stayed Orthodox, and a writer – although, hopefully, I grew into less of an asshole about both. I wrote a book about being Orthodox and punk, Never Mind the Goldbergs, which my editor named, in spite of being neither. The book was about a teenage Orthodox revolutionary grrrl who, in spite of her punkacity, is cast to be a docile, soft-spoken Orthodox girl on a TV sitcom. It’s the basis for her quarter-life crisis: she’s Orthodox, but that’s not all she is.

I was wary about writing someone I wasn’t – that is, a woman – and even though I’d been the only bio-boy in my college’s women’s issues group, and played a poetry show with Le Tigre (sort of), it was still, like, there’s no substitute for being one. (Why was my protagonist a woman? I’ve gone through a bunch of answers — girls are cooler than boys, books about women sell more, it’s more radical to be an Orthodox woman than a boy — but the truth is, I could see her in my mind, and she was a girl.)

It was the opposite of the Nathan Englander paradigm: I wasn’t writing about where I’d come from, or where I was now. I was writing a story that was amazing and beautiful and which was how I wanted my life to be.

Now we’re in the present. It’s few years later, and everyone in the freaking universe is writing books about Orthodox characters. Into this strange alternate universe, my new book comes out. It’s called Losers, and it’s about Russian immigrant geeks.

You’ll notice the lack of the all-important “Jew” in the description.

It’s not like the main character, Jupiter Glazer, isn’t Jewish – he is, of course, or he might be. But, as impossible as it is to cram every detail about a character, his theological preference didn’t make the cut. Any book is a Venn diagram between an author and his or her fantasies, I think. The parts of myself that made it in? The website I made when I was nine years old. The obscure Doctor Who episode name dropping.

It’s been a really weird reading tour. When you look like a Hasidic kid, big bushy beard and payos that might as well be alien antennae, people don’t expect you to start talking about the suckiest X-Men mutant powers to have – or, worse, the girls you want to make out with. (Jupiter is 14 years old. It’s legit. I promise.)

On the other hand, I was speaking to 200 junior-high kids in Brooklyn, and all the other readers were white suburban chicks reading about white suburban chicks. There was a line in my book that was stolen (no, we call it “sampled”) from a Ludicris song. I read the line of dialogue spoken by the most popular girl in school – “When I move, you move” – and Jupiter’s reply, “Just like that?”

Two hundred voices shouted back together with me, “Just like that.”

It was a good feeling. And in that moment, it didn’t matter what kind of facial hair I had. We were all on the same page.

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