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Alan Kaufman: Jew Boy
Interview by Alexander Laurence

Alan Kaufman is a writer who now lives in San Francisco. He grew up in the Bronx in the 1950's. He is known for helping to popularize the Spoken Word movement in literature. While traveling all over the world, Kaufman found time to join the Israeli Army. He was involved with many journals and was known as the editor of the Jewish theme magazine Davka.

Kaufman became widely known after editing the successful The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. This is an anthology that traces all outlaw movements in poetry from Whitman to Slam. It is one of the best known anthologies in recent memory. Even though Kaufman spent most of his time in New York City, in 1990 he came to San Francisco to join forces with the San Francisco spoken word scene that revolved around Cafe Babar. Kaufman published a book of poems, American Cruiser, that was one of the highlights of the new scene.

As media attention came unwillingly to spoken word and freedom of speech in 1993 during the San Francisco Poets strike, Kaufman was at the center of the storm. Along with Gary Glazner, Kaufman helped put San Francisco on the map in terms of poetry slams, activism, and MTV culture. As Kaufman made a place for himself in the literary world, he brought American poets on tour abroad, spreading Spoken Word to Europe and helping many new voices get heard by organizing readings locally and nationally. Most notable of these was Worldland.

Kaufman's Jew Boy is a memoir about growing up in New York City and being the son of a Holocaust survivor. It is a brilliant book. It is a confession. It reads like a novel of growing up and learning life's lessons, through the eyes of a poet. Jew Boy is an important book for any time, and especially right now, in the world that we find ourselves in after 9-11.

I spoke to Alan Kaufman recently in his apartment in San Francisco. We talked about his book and all things Jewish. Even though we covered serious subjects like the Holocaust and depression, there was a lot of laughter in our conversation. Sometimes when things get bleak you can only turn to laughter. And we did.


AL: You have more of a background in poetry. Why did you decide to write a memoir?

AK: I had no intention in my life of writing a memoir. In 1994, I was invited to attend and perform in a Jewish cultural festival with Allen Ginsberg, Kathy Acker, and Jerome Rothenberg in Berlin. Ginsberg was actually a guest of the Turkish government because the Turkish people were under persecution in Germany then. There were skinhead riots against the Turks. It was fascinating.

We ended up going to a party with Ginsberg at the Turkish Consulate. I actually spoke to someone there from the American State Department. He was probably a CIA agent. He gave me a rundown on American foreign policy vis-à-vis the Germans through the postwar era. He admitted to me that of course most of the people in the German government are former Nazis. It's the big hypocrisy they chose to work with to oppose the Soviet threat. It was shocking to me at the time.

This was the fourth time that I had been to Germany. I had never really faced that I was the child of a Holocaust survivor and this had affected me in profound ways. I had touched base with aspects of this in my poetry now and then but never had any sustained look at it. When I published Jew Boy, many people who knew me in the past came up to me in New York and said "We had no idea. You never spoke about it." When I came back from that tour something had changed me. I was sitting in cafe in San Francisco and I was depressed. I couldn't understand why I was so depressed. But I just sat there and said to myself "I am going to write this story." I bought some legal ledgers and I started to write it. I didn't know what I was going to say.

AL: When you grew up hearing about the Holocaust directly from your Mother, did that make you want to go to Germany and visit some of the death camps?

AK: The Holocaust was my Harry Potter stories. It was a lifelong obsession, but it was a secret obsession. When I was in college I came back from that freight-hopping trip out West that's in Jew Boy, the part where I get arrested and thrown into jail. But here's something that's not in the book: when I returned, I saw this Rabbi at Hillel House, which is a Jewish student organization at City College. I told him my story. He said "Don't you see the irony of this?" I said: "No, I don't know what you are talking about." He said: "You go on a freight train, you are incarcerated, you are humiliated, and you are persecuted for being Jewish. That's like the concentration camps, only an American version."

At that point I fell into the world of Jewish Studies, just when that was getting off the ground. I studied with Elie Wiesel. At that time, the Holocaust was a hands off subject. Wiesel sort of turned it into a cottage industry. It was a very new subject when I got involved. The first thing I ever published was some short stories, one in the magazine European Judaism which was noted for its Holocaust studies. I published this story in a magazine that had a bunch of pieces by scholars famous for their Holocaust experiences. I wanted to be a great American writer. I didn't want to deal with any of this Holocaust stuff. I didn't want to be a victim. I wanted to be like William Faulkner.

AL: Your book Jew Boy is quite amazingly honest. On one hand it's like this Nietzschean character out of a John Fante novel, where there's ambition to do something great, and on the other hand there's this poverty, and scenes like when you have a Bar Mitzvah and nobody shows up.

AK: Right. My childhood was quite pathetic. We were dirt poor and my father was a gambler. He would gamble whatever money we did have. The big refrain at our house was: "Mommy, can I have a baseball glove?" And her reply was: "We'll have to see how your father does at cards tonight." That was the answer to everything from baseball glove to college education.

My father was not a great gambler, so we never got what we wanted. The other thing was that my mother was deeply affected by the lack of social contact. We were like hiding out from the Gestapo in the Bronx. We had no friends and no neighbors dropping by. We lived in this little apartment and no one knew what was going on.

My mother hit me all the time. I used to go to school with my sleeves rolled down and buttoned because I didn't want anyone to know about all the welts and bruises. The Bronx was a very interesting place at the time. I lived at 171st and Grand Concourse in the heart of the Bronx. We lived about ten blocks from Yankee Stadium. It was a tough working class neighborhood. You had to hold your own. Your life could be literally taken away. If you were a kid and you looked at somebody the wrong way you could be killed. The first fame in my family was my cousin Harvey was in the Daily News because he got stabbed in a gang fight with some Puerto Ricans. This was the first Kaufman to appear in the press.

AL: You had an uncle, Abraham Cahan, who was an important literary figure in the Lower East Side around the turn of the century. He was friends with Mark Twain?

AK: Yeah. They kept him hidden from me for many years. My family is full of mysterious absences. Abraham Cahan was the founder of the most important Yiddish newspaper in America, The Jewish Daily Forward. It is still being published. He was one of the people to found the labor movements in America. He wrote a book called "The Rise and Fall of David Levinsky." There is also a film made based on one of his short stories, called "Hester Street." He was friends with William Dead Howells and Mark Twain.

AL: What was sexuality like back then? You describe some scenes about masturbation that are very funny.

AK: There was no sex in my house. My parents didn't have sex. They never told me about the birds and the bees, but my father would leave his lurid magazines around. Actually there is a magazine shop near where I live that specializes in those sorts of magazines and memorabilia from the 1950s. I'll go down there and find some of the same ones my father had. They would be lurid and be about sadomasochism and torture. There would be screwing women, horrible text, Satanism, Nazi torture of these voluptuous women victims. They looked as if they were either in agony or enjoying the hell out of it.

I would read these magazines in front of my parents and they didn't seem to mind. Once I looked in the closet and a reel fell out. It was the first porno film I had seen. That was my introduction to sexuality.

In the world of my mother there was torture and it was horrible. In my father's world there was torturer and tortured and it was sexual and somehow okay. How did mass murder and sexuality intersect? It was exactly at that intersection of American pop culture and Jewish historical genocide that I lived. Jew Boy brings those dimensions together. There is a lot seething and hidden in Jewish culture.

AL: Do you think that the evil of Nazism will be thought of differently given the big picture of time?

AK: There has already set in a reaction to the events leading up to World War II, and more specifically, the Holocaust. If one were to say what was the central act to the Nazi ethos, one would have to say the Holocaust. It was an incredibly complex activity. It was systematic extermination using modern industrial means of the state and bureaucracy. It was not just the German State, but other surrounding states had to participate willingly for the Holocaust to happen.

Even though Germany had conquered a country, they still had to carry on diplomatic relations with that country and get permission to do things like round-up and deport Jews. If a country didn't cooperate, they couldn't really do it. But all the countries, with the exception of Denmark, cooperated.

Torture expressed the heart of Nazi philosophy: Nazi Germany was a torture state. It was the consummate totalitarian society. It took place in the center of Western Civilization. It was an intellectual center. All the great thinkers and writers and scientists and politics came out of Germany. So there was this crucible of Western Civilization that gave birth to this horror, that was like something out of Dante's Inferno, which was the concentration camps. The roots of that were Christianity, without a doubt. You can see the seeds of the Holocaust in the writings of Paul and of Martin Luther.

My grandfather had left Russia because the Czar had instigated progroms that killed hundreds of thousands of Jews. That forced the immigration of a million Jews to Europe. Jews had grown used to state level persecution. But the Holocaust was on a scale that was almost metaphysical. It betrayed so many things that we have understood about Western Civilization.

Many Jews had embraced the principles of the Enlightenment and abandoned Jewish thinking. They had a huge faith in goodness and democracy. There is something problematic in Western Civilization, and that thing is Christianity. It's hard to deal with the persecution of the Jews. We are to Christianity what blacks are to the Southerners. They have to have us around to hate. Their whole religion is a refutation of Judaism. It's founded on a rejection of the Old Testament. The politics of Christianity had to do with discrediting of the old ways of Judaism. Jews are supposed to be old fashioned while Christians are forward looking. The whole idea of Modernity is a Christian idea. Progress is a Christian notion. I agree that the horror of the Holocaust is fading and is being replaced by pop culture interpretations. Making films, building monuments, bringing things into a museum are attempts to move the holocaust out of the center of our concerns and trying to replace it with something else. That is a problematic strategy in America.

If we don't come to terms with the Holocaust, there will be another one and not just against Jews but also non-Jews. And this time non-Jews will suffer as much as Jews. Now Islam has declared worldwide war on Jews. Daniel Pearl is an example. Now it's unsafe to be a Jew again. We had a fifty year window where we were safe. In American, there are militia groups and the religious right, and anything is possible now. America has done some bad things but America has not built concentration camps in Arkansas and murdered wholesale parts of the population. Some of the stuff that Bush does is scary for a country that has not declared war on another country. Still, I believe it's too democratic here for a Holocaust to happen. There are too many cranks here. People will not allow that to happen. We Americans are not obedient and we all hate father figures too much to have a Hitler.

AL: What is your take on the 9-11 attacks?

AK: The Holocaust happened sixty years ago and maybe now we are able to process that and deal with that. 9-11 happened last September and already we are going: "It's time to move on? That was six months ago. Let's heal now."

We are not going to heal from 9-11 for a long, long time. It might take several generations to heal from all that. 9-11 changed our world. Americans have no patience with history. History takes a long time to process. We have no patience. We want to get to the next thing. A human being cannot move on that quickly. I learned that writing Jew Boy. I wanted to move on too. I wanted to hop on freight trains and be Jack Kerouac. History will find you wherever you are hiding. We have to address the past.

AL: How did people react when the book came out and what were the readings like?

AK: I was scared. I had no previous experience with this sort of audience who were deeply Jewish or had experiences of their own with the Holocaust. With Davka Magazine I had contact with a young countercultural audience, but I definitely had no contact with the big Jewish community. Sure enough, in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit, they turned out en masse. It was Holocaust survivors, children of Holocaust survivors and me. There I was. It wasn't like Cafe Babar.

To my own amazement they really loved the book. They were so glad I wrote about this subject. People like me could identify with the book. One of the most gratifying moments I had was in Palo Alto. I did a reading down there. I met a social worker in the audience who was a Latina. She said: "I came because I read the book. I work with Vietnamese and Cambodian children who are survivors of those wars. I want to tell you that your book is the only one that almost describes their experiences exactly." It makes sense. It's the same sentiments, same feelings, and same problems. That was amazing to me. My book was speaking to communities outside the Jewish.

AL: In 1977, you decided to move to Israel and join the army. What made you decide to do that?

AK: My mother was Jewish who lived in France and my father was American Jewish. We didn't talk about Israel at all when I was growing up. When I first went there I had a temporary resident status. They give you money. At the time I had no money. If you want more money you become a new immigrant. They give you housing, food, and money. After three months your status reverts to Israeli citizenship. The benefits of that is you can now serve in the army and pay taxes.

A lot of people who want to be in the army don't want to lose their own citizenship. If you are made a citizen and recruited into the army it's okay. That's what most people do. Most people in Israel serve for three years when they are eighteen and then they go into the reserves. I was twenty-six years old so I served for a year and a half. I was injured in training so I was put in the press corps. I was a press escort. I would take foreign correspondents all over into hot zones. I was a private but when I took these reporters out I would wear rank tags. Suddenly I was an officer. You had to have those tags. Soldiers would stand in ranks and salute me because they thought I was an officer when actually I was a private. I started the first English language magazine there because they let me. Soon after that I got involved in poetry and spoken word in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That was in 1982.

AL: What are you going to do next?

AK: I am writing a novel. I can't talk about it too much. I am just writing and staying out of harm's way. I may return to Israel soon. I am teaching classes about personal memoirs and journalism. I also write book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle. I have a story in this anthology, Nothing Makes You Free. It is a book edited by Melvin Jules Bukiet and it is a collection of writings by descendants of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. It's an intelligently assembled book. The writers are from all over the world.

AL: Do you have any advice for younger writers?

AK: Yes. It's simple advice. Don't stop and don't give up no matter what. The Outlaw Bible was a great success. It was an archive. But Jew Boy is all my own writing. I started dreaming of being a writer when I was twelve. I published stories and poems in tiny magazines all along the way. That's fine but it isn't like publishing a proper book.

Jew Boy was what I wanted to do all along. So it took me about 35 years to do that. So my advice is don't quit no matter what. You should also write as much as you can. Life is short and you never know how much time you'll have to do what you want. The more you can focus on writing the better. I try to write for at least three hours a day. Writing is the best way to use one's time.

-- Alexander Laurence


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