Jewish Journal

Adam Gopnik: Doctor, Doctor! There’s a joke in my Judaism

by Susan Freudenheim

April 19, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Adam Gopnik. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Adam Gopnik. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

It all began with a Purim spiel. Seven years ago, the much-loved New Yorker magazine writer Adam Gopnik was living in a kind of secular New York Jewish limbo.

Then he got an invitation from the Jewish Museum to serve as Purimspieler -- the one who tells the Purim story. That single invitation was the catalyst for an investigation of a whole lot of topics, not least "The Rise and Fall of Jewish Comedy," which Gopnik will address in Los Angeles at a festival sponsored by Nextbook this Sunday.

In other words, if it weren't for Purim, Gopnik wouldn't be coming to UCLA this weekend. He wouldn't be talking about Jews and comedy or, for that matter, about being a Jew himself.
He might not even be giving any of those subjects a second thought.

Gopnik was born in 1956 in Philadelphia and raised in Montreal. To those who follow his writings, it would seem that he is curious about just about anything, and one small incident in daily life can lead to 47 books perused, a world of sideline distractions and anecdotes and colorful detail. Anyone who knows his work, which has graced the pages of The New Yorker since 1986, knows that he easily blends discourse on the death of Anna Nicole Smith with the alleged recovery of the resting place of Jesus. Gopnik is able to weave his family's exploits -- particularly those of his lively and clearly bright son, Luke -- into his intellectual pursuits; he is both neurotically curious and genuinely and infectiously in love with today's urban life -- particularly that of New York and Paris.

But for all that, Gopnik, who would seem to be as obviously Jewish as anyone might imagine a New York intellectual to be, professes surprise at being pegged as a Jew. In his essay, "A Purim Story," which forms a chapter in his recently released book, "Through the Children's Gate" (Knopf, 2006), he describes a conversation with his wife:

"The thing that puzzles me ... is how they ever figured out I was Jewish."

She executed what I believe our fathers would have called a spit take. "That is the most ridiculous question I've ever heard. There's your name, for one thing, and then the way you use Jewish words in writing."

"What Jewish words have I ever used in writing?"

She thought for a moment. "Well, 'shvits.' And 'inchoate.'"

"'Inchoate' is not a Jewish word."

"It is the way you use it. You've got 'Jew' written all over you. It's obvious."

"It's obvious," my six-year-old son, Luke, echoed, looking up from his plate. "It's obvious." I was startled, though not entirely...."

And thus began Gopnik's quest to uncover the meaning of Purim, the meaning of being Jewish to a secular Jew and, perhaps, even the meaning of faith. Where some might seek to explore such issues in conversation with a few friends over dinner, or perhaps by taking an adult education class, or maybe by running off to the nearest bookstore only to become overwhelmed, Gopnik did his research by going on Sunday mornings to a deli with his son.

He also, as is his style, called up the leading authority, someone who would seem to have little time for novices, and, with the weight of the New Yorker imprimatur and the seeming guilessness that is his charm, got an audience. This time it was Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Schorsch discovered that Gopnik was using a Christian Bible for his research, and went on to explain, impress and, perhaps, even to elucidate Gopnik, who in the end, found his faith in Jewish humor, not God.

Nextbook.org, the hip, alert Jewish Web site, spent some time talking to Gopnik about this tale, then followed up by inviting him to Los Angeles. It's hard to resist a guy who's so curious, yet who also sets himself up as being a little, well, naive.

I called Gopnik last week to talk about his Jewishness and comedy and to see what he was really like. I'd been reading his work since he first started writing for The New Yorker about art -- he'd been a student of art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where I also attended, though not at the same time. And I'd followed the arc of his career from art critic (a role I shared at the time in a much less high-profile way) to essayist and diarist. Not long ago, he wrote at length about the death of his daughter's betta fish, Bluie, in a side-splittingly funny style, and like most parents of our ilk, my daughter had also had a betta for a short while. I felt like I sort of knew Gopnik, and, well, I'm a fan.

Gopnik answered his home phone on a weekday evening, and in the course of our conversation, he was interrupted regularly by his children, who were alternately very excited about an upcoming hockey game on TV that evening and wanting him to say goodbye to the piano teacher, who was leaving after their lesson. He excused himself each time in midsentence and with complete patience in his voice, responded to the kids and then returned to our discourse with equal aplomb. "High and Low," the name of an art museum catalog he authored in 1991 for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, could be his own middle name. So the link between humor and theology, which I'd called to ask about, seemed right up his alley.

I asked Gopnik why, as he described himself in "A Purim Story," he hadn't been more inquisitive earlier about the religion to which he was born. Gopnik started by explaining that both his parents were Jews but from very different traditions. "I have a kind of double identity about Judaism," he said. "My own parents were of that generation who, in retrospect, seem to be as Jewish as people could be, in the sense that their only values were belief in education and reading and argument. But the specific form it took was to be in rebellion against their own parents, to secularize themselves."

Gopnik's father, an English professor and dean, came from an observant Ashkenazi background, and Yiddish was his first language. He was raised keeping kosher, and, Gopnik says, is Jewish in the "classic Philip Roth sense."

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