Book Review: Jew Boy
By Silja J.A. Talvi

From Gadfly March/April 2001


The very title of Alan Kaufman's debut novel, Jew Boy (Fromm International, 2000), signals the Bronx-born author's willingness to shout out the very things that make him—and the rest of us—uncomfortable. Bigotry, violence, sexual depravity, self-loathing, mental illness, alcoholism and child abuse: these were among the more disturbing and deranged realities of Kaufman's life that could have easily conspired to make a monster, not a man, out of a fragile, overweight, impoverished Jewish boy.

Born to a mentally ill Jewish mother who was a lifelong illegal immigrant and a Jewish-French survivor of the Holocaust, the stunning accomplishment of Kaufman's life is that his spirit ultimately triumphs over profoundly cruel adversity. In the process of telling his own story—and breaking a largely unspoken taboo against sharing, publicly, the more disturbing aspects of Jewish life in America—readers have been offered a startling new glimpse at a slice of Jewish Americana, whispered but not spoken about, that has existed all along.

Kaufman's astonishing memoir sparkles with poeticism, vivid imagery, street-real dialogue and achingly honest depictions of the dysfunctionality of his life, from his turbulent childhood through his time in New York and San Francisco as a homeless alcoholic. Kaufman's autobiography chronicles his relentless internal struggles with his Jewishness and his survival in the callous, rough-and-tumble neighborhood into which he was born. His mind races from one thing to the next: race relations, sexuality, persecution, self-hatred, parental abuse and the residual torment inflicted by the Holocaust, as it is manifested through his mother's mental illness. From the start, Jew Boy is an emotionally demanding, engrossing and sometimes angering read. Even in its more humorous moments, the book never loses its knife-edged quality.

The title of the book, says Kaufman, is intentionally provocative. "It has that kind of double-edged quality about it. It's absolutely a derogatory term. It's as derogatory as any racist term out there. But also, on the East Coast, especially in New York, a lot of Jews say, 'Yeah, but we always call each other 'Jew Boy.' It's affectionate.' So, I used it because it contains both the racism and the affection."

The title may have been an easy, standout choice. But the brutal frankness of the narrative in Jew Boy, which took nearly five years to write, took a heavy toll on Kaufman's own mental stability. "I would get really suicidal in writing that book," he admitted in an interview from his San Francisco home. "I felt as if I was betraying my mother. Betraying the Jewish people. Betraying Holocaust survivors. I felt like I was doing some terrible thing by telling the truth. But, of course the terrible thing, the betrayal, is to not tell the truth and to maintain secrecy.... That would be the ultimate betrayal."

In the months leading up to the release of Jew Boy, Kaufman grappled with enormous anxiety and trepidation, fearing a wave of outrage from Jewish readers and, in particular, from the children of Holocaust survivors. "I set out expecting an uphill battle," he admits.

But Kaufman's readings on both coasts haven't yielded the responses he most feared. Instead, he says, Holocaust survivors, their children, Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike have approached Jew Boy with interest. For the children of survivors who had themselves suffered quietly, through extremely difficult childhoods, the book validates their lives, while many non-Jewish readers, explains Kaufman, are experiencing the book as a kind of revelation. "It's giving them admission into the innermost recesses of a Jewish person's life and [of the life of] the child of a Holocaust survivor. They're saying 'we've never heard this kind of story before.' And they're finding a lot to connect with," says Kaufman.

"The implications of the Holocaust are such that [people can] find its relevance in any contemporary situation, including things that are happening here in America. At one of my readings, for instance, a Latin teacher came up to me. She had read Jew Boy and said, 'I work with survivors of the Cambodian genocide and also of the war in Vietnam, and I came to tell you that this book is the only description that I've ever seen of their home life.' This is what happens when you break the taboo; you suddenly find that you've established lines of discourse with all kinds of people that you didn't expect to be dialoguing with. "

To Kaufman, the true impact of the Holocaust on the collective and individual Jewish psyche has only begun to be measured, museums and box-office hit movies notwithstanding. Kaufman's quest to push Jews to truly wrestle with the gaping spiritual and emotional wounds left by the slaughter of two out of every three Jews in Nazi-era Europe has sensitized him—sometimes painfully so—to the plight of the greater mix of humankind.

"[Is] the Holocaust the most important, central atrocity in [human history]? In this kind of steeplechase of atrocities, I don't do that. I don't see it as a ranking of [oppressions]. I don't want to look at it that way," says Kaufman.

"To me, they are all related. To me, what happened in Auschwitz somehow has spun-off [and affected] Rwanda and Sierra Leone, and in turn, Rwanda and Sierra Leone impact me here. I can't pretend that tens of thousands of kids with no legs or hands doesn't affect me in San Francisco. It affects me brutally. It's part of the brutalization of my world .... I get really insecure when I look at kids with their hands lopped off. I look at those kids and I get terrified."

A spoken word poet, writer and editor, Kaufman is best known for his groundbreaking work as the founder and editor of the short-lived, controversial magazine Davka: Jewish Cultural Revolution, the first issue of which featured a picture of a heavily tattooed woman wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl. Kaufman also edited the anthology The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1999), and he continues to edit the alternative Jewish e-zine,

The "outsider" quality of Kaufman's work—and the enthusiasm with which he has pursued the presentation of radically non-traditional Jewish culture—is something that he embraces, unequivocally. "All I have to do now is be honest, and the outsiderness just comes out," laughs Kaufman. "But the other thing that I'm trying to bring forward is that every one of us is an outsider who is pretending that he's not. Every one of us is trying very hard to pretend that we're in the mainstream, that we're on the 'inside.' The truth is that we're not," Kaufman says passionately.

"There is no 'inside.' The inside is in ourselves, not out there! We're all desperate to be a part of the cool thing, [but] our coolness is just who we are."