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Jewish Journal

Bad Jews

by Naomi Pfefferman

June 7, 2001 | 8:00 pm

At one point in Gerald Shapiro's acclaimed short-story collection, "Bad Jews," an artist named Kenneth Rosenthal is having a Philip Roth moment.

In the story, Rosenthal has painted a controversial series, "The Twelve Plagues," which adds to the biblical 10 the modern scourges of Call Waiting and Lack of Available Parking. The piece wins a prize, which is administered by a Jewish community center. The contest's judges, who are artists and academics, love the work. But one of the center's wealthy donors -- a self-proclaimed art maven -- has a different point of view.

"I know why you did it," she tells Rosenthal, with an imperious arch of her eyebrows. "You did it to be a bad boy. You did it because you hate the culture that produced you.... Mr. Spite. Mr. Vicious."

The woman knows good art when she sees it: "Chagall -- there was a person, a mensch," she proclaims. "It's like 'Fiddler on the Roof' on canvas."

"Bad Jews" is Shapiro's critique of what's wrong with contemporary Jewish life -- and the Philistine is high on his list. So are Jewish organizational professionals who fawn all over donors and inept rabbis who perform eulogies just for the money.

But most of the characters aren't so much bad Jews as they are lost Jews, says Shapiro, who'll be in town for a June 12 New Short Fiction Series spoken-word performance of "Bad Jews" at the Lankershim Arts Center. His Shifmans and Suskinds are secular American Jews, cut off from their roots, wandering through the Diaspora in spiritual and physical exile.

They grasp at all the wrong things to satisfy their spiritual hunger: Shifman, the callow ad exec, for example, lusts after an anti-Semite who calls him a schwein. "Who needed mumbled, unintelligible prayers ... when you could get genuine firsthand persecution?" he gushes.

Shapiro, 50, suggests, "It's his misguided way of trying to reconnect with the shtetl. He's trying to go back and experience what it was like to be a Jew when that actually meant something. It's the need to in some way reconnect to what it means to be really Jewish."

Shapiro, editor of the recent anthology "American Jewish Fiction: A Century of Stories," has felt like a Jew in exile his entire life. He told The Journal he was one of only a few Jews at his public school in Kansas City, Mo., where his primarily Baptist classmates regarded him with "morbid curiosity."

"At Boy Scout camp, nobody would tent with me," he added. "I ended up with the guy who wet the bed, because we were the pariahs of the troop."

The discomfort Shapiro felt about being an outcast prompted him to become a writer during his undergraduate years at the University of Kansas. Eight years in the advertising business fine-tuned his blackly comic sensibility. "I was fired from almost every agency I ever worked for," he said. "The general complaint was that I was laughing at the product."

The fictional ad men of "Bad Jews" teeter on the edge of sanity, and Shapiro, too, battled psychic demons. "I was in therapy most of the time I was in the ad business," he confided. "Of course, my doctor slept through most of our sessions, but that felt OK to me. He'd wake up at the end and say, 'Time's up,' and I really would feel better."

Shapiro felt much better after he went off to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts and began his first collection of short stories, "From Hunger," which also skewers modern Jewish life. Like the fictional Rosenthal, he won a Jewish award for his work -- and got into trouble with the donors who had endowed the prize.

One of them picked him up from the airport and remarked that maybe his language wasn't so good for the Jews. "At dinner that night, his wife told me, 'You're just like that Philip Roth. You're a self-hating Jew,'" Shapiro recalled. "And I was trapped at their house without a car. I couldn't escape."

Shapiro, an English professor at the University of Nebraska, said he usually doesn't believe in writing as an act of revenge. "But in this case I thought, 'I'm going to get those people,'" he said.

Yet, he added, after he had completed "Bad Jews" in the late 1990s, he was a "nervous wreck." Had he been a "bad boy," Jewishly speaking? Would his father, who was then still living, take offense?

"In a way, I was relieved when he died without reading the book," Shapiro said.

But the author stands by the right of all Jewish artists to critique the community. "It's a tradition that goes all the way back to the Bible," he says. "Just look at the story of the golden calf. Why throw that in, except to make Jews look like absolute shtunks?"

Actors will perform excerpts from "Bad Jews" at The New Short Fiction Series, Los Angeles' only live literary magazine, 8 p.m., June 12, at the Lankershim Arts Center, (323) 662-7900.

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