Posted by Ryan Torok
A profile on Big Sunday founder David Levinson, author of the new book, “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins,” which blends memoir with handbook - offering useful advice for any person, family, school, faith group or business interested in giving back – appeared in the latest issue of the Jewish Journal, the week of Oct. 15-21. Read below for an excerpt from the interview.
Jewish Journal: You use the phrase, ‘It’s all good,” a lot in the book.
David Levinson: I wanted to call [the book] that actually. But someone else had already used that title, for something else. But I actually do believe it’s all good. I think people get…sure some things are more valuable than others, like it’s more worthwhile if you’re clearing landmines in Cambodia than if you spend an hour talking to an old lady to keep her company, yes. But it doesn’t mean there’s no value in spending time with the old lady who needs a visitor. And I think people get moralistic and judgmental, and I have no idea why.
JJ: Were you hesitant about writing about your friend who comes up to you and says, “I just can’t deal with Darfur…I’m overextended already, and it just doesn’t speak to me.”
DL: No, I applauded her for it. It was honest.
I really wanted to write a book that said, ‘You know what, if you can’t do Darfur, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.’ We always see Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. Yeah, sure, they’re amazing. But I’m not going to be Martin Luther King [laughs]. I’m not going to be Mother Teresa. These are extraordinary people, but most people can’t do that.
JJ: Actually, reading the book, I saw you as a mix of Mother Teresa and The Dude.
DL [laughs]: Alright, if that works, I’ll go for it. That’s very funny. I don’t think Mother Teresa was ever quite as cranky as I was. But maybe she was.
JJ: Well, who do you look at as role models?
DL: Um, that’s a really good question. I’m trying to think of a non-political example. I always thought Paul Wellstone was an incredibly cool guy, the senator from Minnesota.
I try to be non-political when I have my Big Sunday hat on. Although I will say, I really admire Jon Stewart. He’s a smart guy and despite his couching it all with a lot of humor, he really is outraged by some of what he sees in the world and is trying to make a difference in a positive way.
Q: How was the writing process? Was it ever like 3 a.m., you pulling your hair out?
DL [laughs]: When you get to my age, you want to leave as much hair on your head as you can—no, it easy and fun to write. It was just sort of jogging my memory. If I have any regret about the book, there were certain people I wish I could have told their story more because they inspired me. I’ll tell you one thing, can I go back to something else?
JJ: Yeah, absolutely.
DL: I’ll tell you something I found really inspiring. I thought that after the tsunami, when Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. hit the road together, to raise money for people, I thought that was incredibly inspiring. Because it was my impression that these guys really didn’t like each other personally. And that they put that behind them, presented a united front—I thought that was really cool. I really admired them both for doing that. I think that made a big difference for people to see something like that.
JJ: On another topic, do you don’t think that there’s sort of an issue of self-absorption with twenty-to-thirty-year-olds? Do you think they’re getting our there, volunteering?
DL: You know what, people have complained that twenty-to-thirty-year-olds are self absorbed—it drives me crazy. People talk about kids now, how they’re only on Facebook and texting—I have three teenagers, two teenagers now, one of them is twenty—these guys are so much more involved and committed than people in my generation were. I think this generation is incredible, actually.
David Levinson will read from and sign copies of “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins” at Barnes & Noble at the Grove, Third Street and Fairfax Avenue, Oct. 20, 7 p.m. Free. (323) 525-0270.
12.28.11 at 1:38 am | A member of the paparazzi, Adam’s a freelancer. . .
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10.14.11 at 3:04 am | Brain cancer survivor Judi Kaufman has suffered. . .
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August 6, 2010 | 5:36 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
The footage was taken in Jerusalem and posted on vosizneias.com on Aug 5, 2010.
To see full article, click here.
From nkusa.org, “Neturei Karta opposed the establishment of and retain all opposition to the existence of the so-called ‘State of Israel’”
Read more on the group here.
June 21, 2010 | 12:31 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
A sold-out audience of approximately 500 people, either by invite or by coughing up dough for a pricey $250 ticket, attended “Knock out Addiction,” a fundraiser featuring live celebrity boxing between actor Tom Arnold and Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Beit T’Shuvah.
The event, held on June 16, 2010 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA, raised funds for Beit T’Shuvah, an L.A.-based residential treatment center for various addictions and a full-service synagogue.
Beit T’Shuvah treats its residents for addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling and more. 125 people currently live there, between the ages of 18 all the way up to 70.
Nina Haller, major gifts director at Beit T’Shuvah, joked that there were people in the audience – Beit T’Shuvah residents mostly – who “wouldn’t mind seeing a punch thrown at Rabbi Mark” due to his confrontational methods of speaking with residents of the rehab center. “He’s controversial in his approach, sometimes too real for people to handle and it makes people uncomfortable,” Haller said. “But it’s very effective. Many people will you tell that Rabbi Mark saved their lives.”
Other celebrities at the fundraiser included prolific boxing figures Sugar Shane Mosley and Jackie Kallen and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” star Kristen Bell.
Late in the evening, the main event featured “overweight” class fighters Tom “The Hebrew Hammer” Arnold and Rabbi Mark “The Holy Thief” Borovitz (Borovitz’s memoir of late in life rabbinical redemption after years of a life of crime is called “The Holy Thief”) squaring off in the ring for three rounds—gloves and proper boxing attire and all.
Borovitz, though, wasn’t allowed to punch his friend Arnold in the face since Arnold is currently filming a pilot. Maybe that’s why Arnold, who was coached by comedian buddy Dax Shepard, won the sloppy but nevertheless entertaining match, which had its share of bear hug-like grabbing and panting and, some might say, a sucker punch from Arnold.
Arnold and Borovitz in the ring:
Arnold’s pre-fight interview:
Pre-fight interview with Borovitz:
May 20, 2010 | 6:06 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
Susan Polis Schutz is a filmmaker, poet and greeting card writer. Her new documentary, “The Misunderstood Epidemic: Depression,” aired recently on PBS. The film explores the lives of 12 people who suffer from depression, a clinical disorder which affects approximately 20 million Americans each year. During a phone interview, Schutz explained the filmmaking process and opened up about her own struggle with depression.
Jewish Journal: How did you find the people who you featured in the documentary?
Susan Polis Schutz: I went to 300 support group meetings all over the country and most of these people I found at the support groups—mood disorders groups.
I was looking for diversity and for people who could really explain what depression was and what affect it had on them and their relatives. It was very easy to see who could speak very well and the people who were emotionally involved in what they were saying.
JJ: Everybody who appears in the film is either somebody who’s been living with depression or a family member of the depressed. Why were there no therapists, doctors or scientists interviewed in the film?
SPS: Because I wanted a grassroots depiction of what depression is like and I think the people who suffer from it really have a better view of it.
JJ: Did you struggle with the decision of asking people to open up on camera and be forthcoming about an issue that’s private?
SPS: Yes, I was afraid at the beginning. But other than one woman, a Japanese woman whose face I had to black out, everyone wanted to help people to understand what depression is and they also wanted to help alleviate the stigma. After I got such a great response, I wasn’t afraid any more.
JJ: Peter Yarrow, of the folk trio Peter Paul and Mary, participated in the documentary and spoke about his own depression, how it’s a disease that has been with him for years and that performing was one of the only acts that helped. Was Yarrow eager to be featured in the documentary?
SPS: He was. He’s a very good friend of mine. I talked to him about my depression. He opened up about his own. I told him about the movie I was making. His whole life is about helping others. He immediately said he wanted to be in the film.
JJ: The people being interviewed in the film referred to depression as a mental illness and a biochemical imbalance in the brain. This is one of the take-home messages of the documentary and most of the interviewees are on medication. Can people beat this disease without medication?
SPS: Absolutely. I have one person in the movie who refused to take medication and got better. He says in there that it was through therapy, through knowledge, though support groups and people in his life who were positive and could understand him.
What works for one person may not work for another. Everybody has different reasons [for becoming depressed] or possibly a different trigger – if they have a trigger.
JJ: In the film, you interviewed the Spielmans, Jewish parents whose depressed daughter tragically took her own life. Being Jewish, did you purposely set out to find a Jewish family affected by depression? Was it important to you, on a personal level, to include a Jewish family?
How did you find the Spielmans?
SPS: I met the Spielmans at a dinner party for [Attorney General] Jerry Brown. They told Jerry their story and the circumstances of their daughter’s death in hopes that he would help the cause of mental illness. I approached them later during the dinner and asked if they would be in my documentary because of our shared goal to increase depression awareness. Although their religious affiliation wasn’t my primary reason for wanting to include the Spielmans, it was important to me that a very diverse group of people tell their stories in my film.
JJ: In 2010, you published a book of poetry about your own experience with depression. This may be surprising to people who know you for your optimistic greeting cards.
SPS: It was most surprising to me. My whole life I have been very, very positive.
JJ: When did you become depressed?
SPS: I became depressed about four or five years ago. I can’t remember exactly. I had severe depression and a mental breakdown. I have no idea what happened what to me.
JJ: You can’t identify what you were depressed about?
SPS: I wasn’t depressed about anything. I just had a total mental breakdown. I did not have a specific trigger. The only possibility of a trigger is that I was very tired. I had a genetic basis for depression. My father and most of his relatives suffered from depression and something just cracked my foundation. Being tired and exhausted was the only thing I had. I have a beautiful marriage, a beautiful family, a good career. There was nothing in my life that was sad or troubled, which shows you that anyone can get depressed.
JJ: There was an Indian gentleman in the film, Russ Irani—he said that “you have no interest in life and nothing at all interests you” when you’re depressed. Another interviewee described her depression as a “prison in my mind.” Can you relate to those quotes?
SPS: Absolutely. The dominant feeling I had was an incredible numbness. I had a lot of anxiety and confusion and panic. Being totally numb, not being reactive to anything was how I felt. I couldn’t even talk. When people spoke, it kind of went in and out. That bad lasted only about three months. Being in bed was only for three months. At first I didn’t know what hit me, and I went to a regular doctor. Somebody told me I better see a psychologist. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I went and was immediately diagnosed with clinical depression.
Little by little, I got better. I had a change in my medicine—I went through about eight medications. Going to the support groups, I guess very gradually I started to get better. I was seeing my therapists three times a week back then.
JJ: What medications were you using?
SPS: I don’t really want to push medications because I’m not really for them. I had such bad side effects. I was in a complete fog. I didn’t realize it until I started getting off my medications. I couldn’t converse with anybody. I was very sluggish. That was the main thing for me. It’s very hard because there are a lot of medications and it’s kind of hit or miss.
JJ: Your poetry book is called “Depression and Back: A Poetic Journey through Depression and Recovery.” Do you feel like you’ve recovered?
SPS: No, I definitely haven’t fully recovered, but I’m totally functional. This may be as good as I’m going to get. I don’t know.
JJ: What do you suggest for people living with depression to do?
SPS: First of all, learn as much as you can about depression. Be very, very honest about it. See a therapist as soon as you can. And then consider what they tell you to do. There is also behavioral therapy. Most people have thought patterns and aren’t healthy. The therapist or the books can teach you how to have a healthy approach to life.
JJ: Can you sum up that healthy approach?
SPS: No, I don’t think I could. I’ve had a lot of therapy about it, but I don’t think I can sum it up. I guess: Don’t worry, because it doesn’t help. And think positively.
Visit misunderstoodepidemic.com for a complete schedule of TV airings of Schutz’s documentary, “The Misunderstood Epidemic: Depression.”
April 26, 2010 | 1:21 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
After a panel session featuring Ellis (“Less Than Zero”, “American Psycho”) at the Festival of Books at UCLA on Sunday, nervously I approached the clean-cut, bright blue polo shirt-wearing author, introduced myself as a writer from the Jewish Journal and asked if he was Jewish. I don’t normally go up to authors I admire and inquire about their religious affiliation, but my editor here informed me that Ellis is, in fact, Jewish – his last name is Ellis, she said – and so I thought that if I could confirm this with the elusive writer (this was his first public appearance in four or five years, Ellis said during the panel with music journalist Erik Himmelsbach) then I could perhaps interview him for the newspaper in light of his new book “Imperial Bedrooms,” a sequel-of-sorts to his debut, “Less than Zero,” which Amazon says will come out in hardcover this June.
No, I’m not Jewish, Ellis said. Sorry.
“You don’t have to apologize for not being Jewish,” I said, stupidly.
Amidst the hubbub surrounding Ellis as he attempted to make his way out of the crowded lecture hall, he introduced me to his mother. I have no idea why.
April 19, 2010 | 1:51 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
Like a lot of people I’m sure, I took the day off from work on Friday and went to Coachella with a few friends. Some of the best musical moments from the three-day festival were:
-Thom Yorke pleasantly surprising on the Outdoor stage with an acoustic version of “Airbag”—during the encore of his 9 p.m. Sunday set with Flea and friends. I hadn’t been expecting any Radiohead songs from the electro-rock supergroup, which has been performing under the name “Atoms for Peace,” a song title off of Thom’s solo album, “Eraser.”
-Jay Z coming onstage (the main Coachella stage) and going right into “Run This Town.” The rap heavyweight headlined on Friday night.
-Leaving Jay Z around midnight to catch the last hour of deadmau5, a buzz DJ that the L.A. Times ran a story on in Friday’s Calendar section (apparently the versatile electro-spinster spent eight months preparing for his Coachella performance). Before Coachella, I hadn’t heard of deadmau5. It was my one of my friends who insisted we make our way all the way across the huge polo fields to check him out in the sweaty Sahara tent. It was good that we did. We had to fight for our spot—the tent that was way too small to accommodate the masses spilling out of it—but it was worth it. We danced.
-My other friend screaming out, “I LOVE YOU VICTORIA!” to the lead singer of Beach House in the Mojave tent. Our band choices on Saturday afternoon would’ve made the editors at Pitchfork proud if only they would read this blog. We squeezed in Girls, the XX (whom Jay Z watched from somewhere in the back) and Dirty Projectors.
-Indie alt-rockers Spoon seriously kicking ass on the main stage on Sunday—I’ve always heard great things about these
. Now I understand why. It was too bad we couldn’t stay long—we had to hurry over to the adjacent stage to see Phoenix.
(Spoon is actually from Austin, Texas. The lead singer’s name is Britt Daniel, so I guess I got used to seeing that name in articles about the band and assumed they were British. Thanks to a commenter for pointing that out.)
April 13, 2010 | 2:46 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
Last night, during an interview and Q-and-A session with Israeli short story writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret, held by Birthright Israel at Bergamot Station, a Santa Monica art gallery, Keret gave me goosebumps (the good kind). Answering a question about his writing process, Keret said that he writes when he doesn’t want to go out and doesn’t want to stay at home.
I have since told two friends of mine. They both agreed that what Keret said was awesome.
One of them even wrote it down.
Surrounded by nonsensical artwork and photographs, the night of April 12, after a short reception with free wine and cheese, Keret—hair uncombed and wearing a button-down shirt untucked with loose-fitting jeans—sat for an interview with his old friend Luke Davies, an Australian author.
When Davies asked Keret how his son was doing, Keret said fat and fascist—but he also said that one of the only times he’s fully “present” is when he’s playing with his son (the other times are when he’s writing or getting a foot massage).
Birthright Next commissioned Keret to come to L.A. for the event.
Keret read a couple of new short stories from a book that will be available in Israel shortly (he didn’t say what the title is). He also showed clips from his films “Jellyfish,”—which he co-directed with his wife—along with “$9.99” and “What About Me?”
During a reading of his first short story, in which a guy holds a gun to Keret’s head and tells him to write a story (it’s fictional), I realized what makes many of Keret’s stories great: They have people acting calm in ridiculous situations, which creates humor.
Goran Dukic, the director of “Wristcutters,” sat in the audience. The film, which starred Shannyn Sossymon and Tom Waits and was about people who kill themselves only to end up in a place just like earth, only slightly worse, was an adaptation of Keret’s short story “Kneller’s Happy Campers.”
Originally, Keret explained, a French director was supposed to adapt “Happy Campers.” When Keret told a contact of the director’s that he was going to let Dukic do it, the French director had a stroke – but the stroke was unrelated, Keret said.
Still, Keret continued, as a second generation Jew, I felt very responsible.
We’re friends now, and he’s well, Keret said.
In Keret’s film, “$9.99,” a gun popped up again. A homeless guy holds a gun to his head and threatens to pull the trigger if another guy in a suit doesn’t give him a dollar. To which the guy in the suit tells the homeless guy that he’s being manipulative.
If this sounds cool to you, check out Keret’s “The Girl on the Fridge,” which has politically incorrect but touching and humorous short stories – some of them not even a page long.
April 9, 2010 | 5:36 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
In 2008, at a food justice conference held by environmental advocacy organization Hazon, a rabbinical student from American Jewish University—Justin Goldstein—saw a documentary that resonated with him. The film, “Food Stamped,” followed a young, socially conscious Berkeley couple and their decision to only spend $21 on food to last seven days.
The couple aimed to show that $21 a week—$1 a meal—wasn’t enough for a healthy, balanced diet, though it’s what U.S. food stamp clients receive approximately.
Last month, rabbinical students from American Jewish University and Hebrew Union College engaged in a week of activities related to food justice, a growing movement in the Jewish community.
Goldstein proposed that students participate in what the documentary help popularize as “The food stamp challenge.”
“The awareness is being raised around the difficulty to eat healthfully while on such a low budget,” Goldstein wrote in an email to me at the beginning of the challenge.
Only a handful of students participated. My editor at the paper asked me if I wanted to do the challenge. I agreed. Although there is something obviously problematic with middle class and upper-middle class students and journalists pretending that they are poor for the week—when others live such lives permanently – I figured the week could only make me more empathetic with the plight of the food insecure. To simulate a more realistic experience, I would not be allowed to accept handouts.
I purchased my week’s worth of food at Vons. $18 bought five pieces of chicken, pasta, tomato sauce, three big oranges, a bag of carrots, wheat bread, a can of beans, butter, rice and coffee grounds.
I thought: ‘This is great. Look how far my money took me.’
By day five, I was ready for the challenge to be over. These are some notes I took in a journal during the week:
Day 1, the official start of the challenge, for breakfast I make a cup of black coffee and eat a carrot.
The carrot tastes like cement.
The next morning, day two, I have black coffee, a fourth of an orange and one piece of wheat bread, toasted with butter.
I miss bagels.
For lunch, at work, I ravage chicken from the night before.
Dinner tonight is the same as the prior night, but I also have rice with my chicken and beans.
After only three servings, I finish a can of beans, one of my tastier foods (that also has decent nutritional value).
The biggest change in lifestyle is not taking food “to go” from places.
My sister’s boyfriend asks me if I want to go dumpster diving with a buddy of his.
It’s tempting, but I don’t go.
The bland, repetitive diet is making me moody. I tell Goldstein this via email.
“I too have been getting a little cranky,” Goldstein wrote back.
I buy a bag of dry peas off my editor for $1. I only have $2 left of my $21.
My final $2 goes to squash and a bag of mixed nuts from the farmer’s market in Century City.
A lot of people are impressed. I tell my friend I’m going out with my sister and my sister’s boyfriend, my sister’s boyfriend’s family and my parents to Katana, an upscale sushi place on Sunset, but that I’m not going to eat, even though the meal was going to be free. He tells me he never knew I had such willpower. “If you can do this, you can do a lot of things,” he says. “Sorry. I know you aren’t doing this for compliments.”
“No, by all means,” I say.
I cook white rice with squash. I ask my dad if he wants any.
“Oh yeah, rice and squash is exactly what I want at 11 at night instead of cookies and milk,” he says.
Conclusions: With $21 a week to spend on food, a person doesn’t starve. There’s not, however, any variation in your diet. I had either chicken or pasta every night for dinner.
Organizations like the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Hazon, and Mazon have been tackling food justice issues. Visit their respective websites for more information.
April 7, 2010 | 10:37 am
Posted by Ryan Torok
Comedian and HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” co-star Jeff Garlin promoted his newish memoir, “My Footprint: Carrying the Weight of the World,” on the Temple Emanuel bimah with actor and environmental activist Ed. Begley, Jr. last Wednesday, March 31. The crowd probed a trimmed-down Garlin for secrets on how to shed pounds.
But of course Jeff Garlin has come to fame for his comedy, and I tracked him down that weekend, on Sunday, April 4, at his $1 wholly improvised stand-up show at Upright Citizens Brigade:
Here are my notes from the show:
Garlin comes onstage. He grabs audience member’s cell phone and talks to guy’s mother on the phone. Garlin gives phone back.
Garlin says: “This show is…
This show is the “only thing that matters to me artistically,” says Garlin. “I’ve given up in every other area.”
Garlin complains about his family. On Sundays, he can’t go out without them.
Garlin calls negative women a “big bowl of minus.”
Garlin calls young comic Scott Aukerman to the stage.
Garlin points at Aukerman.
“Stop pointing at me,” says Aukerman.
Garlin chats with Zach Galifianakis look-alike in the audience. Galifianakis look-alike sits in the front row, drinking beer.
“You can bring your own beer in,” woman whispers to me.
Garlin thanks Galifianakis look-alike for coming to all of his shows.
Galifianakis look-alike denies having come to every single one.
“You’re here at every one of my shows,” says Garlin. “Shut up.”
Galifianakis look-alike continues to deny it.
“Just take the f*cking credit,” says Garlin.
Garlin tells audience about the interview we did backstage. Garlin says he was disappointing to me.
“No you weren’t,” I yell out. Theater is small. Everybody hears.
Garlin and Auckerman reenact my interview. Garlin attempts to recreate how disappointing he was.
Later, “I don’t like Canada…Is that wrong?” says Garlin.
“I don’t have an act,” says Garlin.
Garlin and Auckerman discuss lunch plans.
Garlin’s children help him pass out free, signed copies of his books.
Garlin’s wife helps pass out books too.
“This is what I like about the show,” says Garlin. “No pretense that there’s even a show.”
Garlin’s family departs. He tells them that he loves them.
Galifianakis look-alike joins the show. He stands center stage and rants about “Facebook,” “lol” and fights with an audience member about looking emo and having his penis pierced.
I have nothing to brag about, says Galifianakis look-alike. I don’t have a job. I sleep on a couch. But I enjoy my life. I have people who love me.
Garlin laughs hysterically.
Galifianakis look-alike shrugs.
Garlin urges Galifianakis look-alike to slow dance with emo guy while Garlin sings “Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting.” Galifianakis look-alike refuses.
Garlin and Emo dance.
March 24, 2010 | 1:03 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
Last Sunday, two buses carried volunteers from the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a nonprofit organization, and from the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, a coalition. They drove around East Los Angeles neighborhood Boyle Heights, an area which is considered a food desert (food deserts are defined as neighborhoods that don’t have a supermarket within .5 miles of the neighborhood’s commercial center).
The bus tour stopped in Ramona Gardens, a housing project that has seen its share of gang violence and where resident, single mother and L.A. Voice PICO organizer Olga Peres spoke about the lack of nutritious options for her and her family.
In addition, Peres said that the nearby convenience stores sell expired food and that the lettuce that she buys has to be peeled and peeled until she can get to a part that she can actually eat. She also said that at one of these stores, she purchased a bottle of juice, and, to her dismay, found that it had already spoiled and was moldy. When she tried to return it, the employee at the store only offered her store credit.
Yeah, that’s definitely the kind of place where you’d want store credit.
Look for my Jewish Journal ‘food deserts’ feature story (in print and online) in mid-April.
March 19, 2010 | 5:33 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
Comedian Joel Chasnoff sits across from me at Mel’s Diner on Sunset Boulevard. It’s early – too early – but Chasnoff is wide-awake.
It’s not just because Chasnoff, 36, is on New York time (Chasnoff resides in the Bronx with his Israeli wife and their three daughters).
No, Chasnoff is excited to discuss his first book, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” a politically keen but ultimately humanist memoir about how he spent a year fighting as a tank gunner in the Israeli Defense Forces and did one tour of duty in Lebanon.
In other interviews I’ve done with comedians, they try hard to be funny. They even tell jokes and try to pass them off like they just came up with them on the spot. Thankfully, Chasnoff doesn’t do that. He’s just a smart guy who decided to do something different when he was 24 and then wrote about it.
“Are we officially on?” says Chasnoff, leaning over a cup of tea and speaking into my mini recorder.
What follows is an abridged transcript of the interview:
Chasnoff: I’ve always said that this book is not about military operations. It’s about people. It’s about the guys in the platoon. It’s about what it means to be a Jew.
Jewish Journal: While you were in the army, did you know you were going to write it?
JC: About halfway through it occurred to me that I had a story. Every night, I made it a point [to] write at least one sentence about that day. Often it would be pages, like in Lebanon. There was so much downtime.
JJ: In certain sections, the book seems anti-war and anti-Israel. You portray an Israeli army that is, at times, reckless and inept. In certain passages, you depict the war against Hezbollah as without clearly defined goals. Was that your intention?
JC: I set out to write a personal, true story that’s honest as possible. My feelings are on the page.
I love Israel. I don’t want Israel to look bad. But that’s the thing: If Israel is going to grow, books like this need to come out.
JJ: Do you think it was a traumatic experience?
JC: Some of [it] was traumatic.
JJ: It certainly sounded traumatic. There’s a point during your intense training where you’ve just had it. You call your father and you tell him you want out. But you cut it off there. You don’t say how your dad responded.
JC: [That was] my point. My dad was incapable of saying anything. All through my childhood, my dad’s been powerful, overbearing and always had something to say. [He] always knew the answer. Whenever I had a girlfriend in high school and we broke up, my dad would be like, “Oh, I knew you didn’t belong together.” He always knew.
JJ: How true was the dialogue to how the conversations actually happened?
JC: [Author] Dave Eggers, in “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” has an incredible introduction to the book where he explains the things that were changed and had to be molded to make the book work. You remember the conversation [and] construct it so that it’s readable.
JJ: Right. Eggers omitted all the times that people said “dude.”
JC: Exactly. That’s my favorite book of all time. I’ve reread it so many times that I feel like I almost know it by heart, or at least sections by heart. Every time I read it, I read something that I forgot was there.
JJ: How do you view Israel now, when you go? How does it feel?
JC: I can go without the sense of guilt I had as a kid. I’m not saying every American Jew needs to feel guilty if they haven’t served in the army. I always felt a little wrong going there, seeing soldiers, calling Israel my homeland but letting them do the work. I feel absolved of that guilt. I can complain about the country when I want to. I’ve given something to it.
It’s a complicated relationship. It’s like a relationship with a woman. At first, you’re struck by her beauty. Then, when you get to know the person, it’s a little more nuanced and complicated, but the love is deeper.
JJ: Do you know if you took any lives in Lebanon?
JC: In the book there’s this story with a dog that we inadvertently kill in Lebanon. It was kind of a fiasco. The truth of the matter is that there’s always a small, small part of me that has not been 100-percent sure if it was a dog. Maybe it was a human being. I included that in [an earlier draft, but] the editor felt I was introducing a whole new topic. So we left it out.
I’m 99.9 % certain that it was a dog [and that] I didn’t kill another human being. But there is that small chance. Every once in a while I think about it but no so often.
JJ: Do you ever regret joining?
JC: Not at all. I look back at it as one of the defining experiences of my life.
JJ: There is a passage with one of your fellow soldiers holding a gun to his head and contemplating suicide. Did you worry that the serious passages like that one would not come across as seriously as they should, placed in the midst of comedy.
JC: It’s funny. When I do readings of the book, I usually start off with a funny reading from early on in basic training. Then I usually finish with Lebanon. There’s a section where I describe how an officer mistakenly kills his own soldier in Lebanon. Sometimes people laugh. There is something to be said about being primed for comedy and not realizing it’s tragedy.
JJ: I’ve heard the book might be turned into a film.
JC: I think every book has a chance of being turned into a film. It would take the right people. War movies in general aren’t a big draw. The key is to make a film about people and relationships, not a war film.
JJ: Do you think American Jews should join the army?
JC: If you want to help Israel, it’s not the best way. I could have been a teacher for low-income children. That would have been a better way to help.
I’ve gotten emails from people who have read the book and said, “I was thinking about joining. What do you think? Should I do it?” I haven’t written back yet. I’ve been thinking about how to answer.
JJ: You said that the book is about what it means to be a Jew. It seemed like such a big deal to you, emotionally, that your mom was only a convert. I read it and thought, ‘Big deal. His mom converted.’
JC: I have a hang up about conversion. So much about Judaism is our history. We are defined by the exodus from Egypt. All these Bible stories define who we are. Can you just sign papers, dunk yourself in water and suddenly all that history is yours? I’ve always felt like I didn’t fully belong.
JJ: You touch on racial and class issues between the Ashkenazi Jews and the Sephardic Jews.
JC: [And] the Russians.
JJ: Were you hesitant about including that?
JC: I was. It’s something you need to treat tenderly. On the one hand, I want readers to know that I wasn’t just going to cheer Israel on and not confront any of the domestic issues. The class issue is one that Americans don’t think about. We think about Israel [and] we think about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, [but] not so much about domestic issues. On the other hand, it could easily turn into a generalization that makes it look worse than it actually is. I had to do it carefully.
JJ: What are your plans now?
JC: I don’t know. It’s very strange. For the past three years, this book has been my life. I’ve always wanted to study in yeshiva for a year in Israel. It might be the year to do it soon.
To read the Jewish Journal review of Chasnoff’s book, click here.
March 17, 2010 | 5:27 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
Earlier today, I called my friend up – just to say hello. This is a guy who is fresh off some discouraging JDate experiences. He wouldn’t admit to feeling down, but I’m convinced that he is. To top it off, he slaves away in a neuroscience lab, often well beyond dinnertime.
When he answered the phone, however, he wasn’t at work. He was at American Apparel, where he’d just bought a green V-neck T-shirt.
Of course, I made fun of him. Who buys a T-shirt just for a holiday?
Do you know what his answer was? I shouldn’t be cursing on this blog, but what he said was so amazing that I don’t want to tamper with it.
He said, “I don’t give a shit.”
Is that not the best thing you’ve heard all day? I certainly thought it was great. I liked it so much that I momentarily re-evaluated my cynicism.
“Good answer,” I said.
It was, because tonight, my friend will proudly sport his spanking new green V-neck T shirt. He will merrily stagger in and out of packed, noisy bars until the wee hours of the morning (or at least until 2 AM). He will pound several beers and toast his buddies. He will probably hug strangers. He will forget about his woes. And that’s what St. Patrick’s Day is about. Sure, the holiday is Catholic in origin, but finding an excuse to celebrate life is a notion that transcends religion.
Be safe, and, of course:
P.S. My editor emailed me a link to Jerusalem Post article “The Irish-Jewish Connection.” Did you know that the protagonist in Irishman James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is part Jewish?
I didn’t either. That book is, like, really hard to read.