Off the Shelf: Differing approaches to their memoirs

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

According to the website Grammarly, “a memoir is a nonfiction narrative in which the author shares their memories from a specific time period or reflects upon a string of themed occurrences throughout their life. An autobiography is a factual and historical account of one’s entire life from beginning to end.” While some memoirs offer almost autobiographical descriptions of a particular period, others use different artistic formats to tell their stories. For example, Moshe Kasher wrote six essays about distinct aspects of his life in “Subculture Vulture: A Memoir in Six Scenes” (Random House), while Lonnie Mann focused on one facet of his childhood in the graphic memoir “Gaytheist: Coming Out of My Orthodox Childhood” (Street Noise Books), which contains art by Mann and his husband Ryan Gatts.

I’d never heard of Kasher before his book appeared on several lists of upcoming works with Jewish content. His short author’s note describes him as a stand-up comedian, a writer and an actor. I’ve never seen his Netflex specials or listened to his podcast, but, after reading these essays, I can testify that he is funny. In fact, except for some dramatic moments, he writes about his life through the lens of comedy, making me laugh at things that shouldn’t be funny – for example, his years attending Alcoholics Anonymous. (Kasher became sober at age 15 – that is not a typo.) He also writes about his life as a raver (which, for those like me who never heard of this lifestyle, meant attending all-night dance parties); about growing up with a mother who is deaf; attending Burning Man for years as if it were a religious experience; his connection to Judaism; and how he became a comedian.

For Jewish readers (and reviewers), the most relevant section is about his connection... well, initially his lack of connection to Judaism and how he’s managed to reclaim part of his inheritance. Both of Kasher’s parents were deaf and the marriage was not one made in heaven. For most of the year, he lived with his secular mother in California. He spent his summers with his father in a Chasidic enclave in Brooklyn, where Kasher wore different clothing, ate different foods and lived – well, pretended to live – as a religious Jew. However, before readers get the story of how he reclaimed part of his Jewish heritage, he writes almost 20 pages featuring a fractured-fairy tale version of Judaism from Abraham through Chasidism. If you are wondering if it’s funny, then wonder no more: it really is. Even when I disagreed with his description, it was hard not to laugh.

Kasher was 20 when his father died and that’s when things began to change. He said Kaddish for his father over the course of the next 11 months and suddenly Jewish rituals began to make sense: they sustained him through his period of grief. No, Kasher didn’t become an Orthodox Jew, but he gained a Jewish community in California and found a spiritual home. He also feels his connection to Judaism will help sustain him for the rest of his life. 

The other sections of the memoir were interesting, although for different reasons. His stint in AA offers an insider’s view for those of us who have never attended a meeting. Although he extols his time as a raver and his attendance at Burning Man (and hopes his young daughter will someday have similar mind-opening experiences), all he did was make me grateful I’ve never been to either. Reading about them, however, was a worthwhile experience because this is as close as I ever want to get to them. His essay on deafness was both funny and interesting because he offers an excellent history about the changes in the way the deaf have been treated. As for becoming a comedian, let me say that I will no longer joke about wanting to become a comedian in my next life. (The laughs I get during my sermons will just have to be enough.) 

You don’t have to be familiar with Kasher’s other work in order to appreciate “Subculture Vulture.” You do have to appreciate an offbeat sense of humor, though, because almost every part of his life is given a comic twist. 

While Kasher uses humor to tell his story, Mann’s approach is more serious. By first grade, Mann had hints he was somehow different from the rest of the boys in his Jewish day school class, even though the possibility of being gay was never mentioned in the Modern Orthodox setting in which he lived. The Internet helped him give his feelings a name and to show him that there were people living openly gay lives, although he knew that would be impossible in his own community. He does tell his parents, who don’t treat his statement seriously because they believe he is either confused or mistaken. Complicating matters is something he learns in his studies: his desires are not sins in themselves, but acting on them would be. He wonders if he will be condemned to a life without love. 

But being unable to talk freely about his life leaves him feeling lonely. Fortunately, he does make a group of friends – non-gay, Orthodox friends – who give him some sense of social life. He only feels comfortable enough with one to talk about his sexuality. Fortunately, that friend is completely accepting of his true identity. His parents’ expectations, though, have not changed: his mother still believes that he will marry and have children, and remain an Orthodox Jew. But as Mann explores Jewish history and law, and as he comes to know others who are gay, he moves away from Orthodox practice. What he wants is to have a boyfriend someday – to experience love just like everyone else.

Most of the drawings in “Gaytheist” are created with pastel colors, which fits the tone of the writing. Mann shows the difficulties he faced in his youth, but doesn’t stridently condemn his former community. In fact, he shows how he originally tried to remain religious, even if he was gay, but how there seemed to be no place in that world for him to live the kind of life he wanted. Even though his parents were not supportive, he was luckier than those who were disowned and forced to leave their homes. He was also fortunate that his parents allowed him to take some classes outside of the Orthodox world – classes that allowed him to meet others who did not fit traditional roles. Plus, he was able to reach out to others via the Internet, something which seems to have made a great difference in his life.
This memoir should be read by the communities to which Mann no longer belongs. But even those community that are open to their LGBTQ members will benefit from reading “Gaytheist.” Mann opens his heart and his readers will root for his younger self.