The Austin Chronicle

The Outsiders' Insider Guide to the Modern Jewish Experience

Ben Greenman at the 2009 Austin Jewish Book Fair

By Josh Rosenblatt, October 30, 2009, Books

Two thousand years ago, when the Romans destroyed the Jews' Second Temple and then expelled them from Judea, they probably didn't realize they were helping to create a new culture, but they were. Suddenly, the Jewish people's physical and spiritual center was gone, replaced by individual rabbis leading scattered congregations in foreign lands through obscure rituals and parsing even more obscure laws with one another through the written, rather than spoken, word. And thus began the great tradition of Jewish writing that has stretched from the Talmud to Maimonides to Spinoza to Martin Buber to Philip Roth to Tin Pan Alley to Hollywood to The New York Times to Larry David and, eventually, to Heeb magazine.

For more than half a decade, Heeb has been the self-proclaimed voice of the new Jewish hipster: urban, assimilated, educated, American, cynical, worldly, and wordy, more Beastie Boys than Bar Kokhba but still conflicted enough about his/her place in the world to entertain the idea that religion and culture can coexist in the 21st century.

Take it from Ben Greenman, a novelist, New Yorker editor, and contributor to Heeb's new collection of Jewish storytelling, Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish. "Anytime you have a religion that's also a culture," he says, "and that's so dispersed, the way you stay connected to it is cultural, especially for those living in urban areas who tend to be more secular. So that's the question for Jews: Is it a religion? Is it a culture? Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish is an attempt to examine some of those issues."

Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish is the product of Heeb's "Storytelling" nights, where writers, comedians, and filmmakers jump onstage to shed light on their own particular corner of the modern Jewish experience. After selling out shows across the country for six years, Heeb Arts Editor Shana Liebman and her staff-mates decided it was time to compile the best of these stories and release a book. So we get humorist Andy Borowitz talking about the time he met Will Smith, comedian Ophira Eisenberg describing the one-night stand she had with a man who collected Garfield stuffed animals, and dozens of other tales of woe, self-deprecation, nostalgia, and therapy unfolding at summer camps, kibbutzim, and Hebrew schools around the world.

Then there's Greenman's contribution, "A Field Guide to the North American Bigfoot," which may not seem to have anything to do with Judaism but which he chose because so many of his fans kept telling him how Jewish they thought it was. "I hadn't really thought about it before," he says. "And maybe they're right. It's definitely an outsider story. This bigfoot is upset that his ex-girlfriend is getting married, and getting married in a church, and he feels like he's on the outside of that experience, which is very common in Jewish stories and Jewish culture. It has something to do with a certain kind of balancing between inclusion and exclusion, between a sense of inferiority and superiority." Two thousand years after the Diaspora, still nothing seems quite so Jewish as a writer looking for his place in the world.

Ben Greenman will read as part of the Austin Jewish Book Fair's Lit Wit event with David Plotz (author of Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible) on Thursday, Nov. 5, 7:30pm, at the Tiniest Bar in Texas (817 W. Fifth). The event is free.

Visit for more info on this event and others at this year's Austin Jewish Book Fair.

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