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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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,"
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,"
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
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.
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.
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."
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, TattooJew.com.
"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.
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."