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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Me and Robert Pinsky down by the Schoolyard

On the heels of this bizarre viral video from the 92Y, JBooks, needing a big kick in the donations bucket, asked former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky -- who, apparently, is both a fan of poetry and a fan of JBooks -- to help them promote their site. Pinsky hails from the classical tradition, but has both an excellent sense of irony and exquisite comic timing (as evidenced on his Colbert Report appearance).

I could act all swaggery and say that's the reason I'm there, too. It's not -- I'm just a kid who writes books who got asked to talk about Losers, which is just a loosely autobiographical book anyway, except that, in the book, I say and do everything that I'm too inhibited or embarrassed or just straight-up dorky to do in real life.

But asking to talk about yourself is a pretty cool feeling. It's kind of the opposite of a blog, where you're asking other people to listen to you talk about yourself. Here, I kind of excoriate the fabulous Nathan Englander for writing Orthodoxsploitation, and talk about how I there need to be more books in the world that make you feel good about being a geek.

I don't know if Mr. Pinsky would self-label as a geek, but I certainly would label him as one. Purely, purely as a compliment.

A few years ago, I had a bright future as a Young Orthodox Novelist—surely you know the type. A little bit disgruntled, a little bit smarmy; a bit of an idealist, a bit of an exhibitionist. If Nathan Englander and Shalom Auslander were the literary world's reaction to Orthodoxy, then I was the reaction to them. I was a punk-rock kid who'd grown up as a Saturday-morning Jew, going to Hebrew School at my Conservative synagogue when I couldn't get out of it, and sick of the half-baked theories of God that were Xeroxed through three generations of crappy old textbooks. That's the way Judaism felt to me—like a smudgy third-generation bootleg of something that, to my great-great-grandparents, was crystal clear. Whatever that crystal-clearness actually was, I imagined it was God.

I'd almost been born disenchanted. I was disenchanted with leading a secular lifestyle, sick of the hypocrisy of going to synagogue Saturday mornings and then baseball games Saturday afternoon, and of all of that coming to a dead halt after my bar mitzvah. Like Hella Winston's book Unchosen, I was sick of Jewish culture. Only, I was sick of the other Jewish culture, the secular American kind. I wanted something legitimate. I wanted something real.


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