Addicted to Love (and Drugs)

Authors Write Humorously About Self-inflicted Pain

By Eddy Portnoy

Published March 08, 2012, issue of March 16, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16
By Moshe Kasher
Grand Central Publishing, 320 pages, $24.99
Flatscreen: A Novel
By Adam Wilson
Harper Perennial, 336 pages, $14.99

Since when did alcoholism and drug addiction become part of the American Jewish experience? Obscured by the allegedly resounding success of Jews in North America, those Hebrews who are left flailing in the face of insurmountable difficulties are often swept under the cultural rug. Spoken about in hushed tones, Jewish screw-ups don’t generally get booted out of the tribe, but they aren’t usually celebrated like the rest of our Nobel Prize-winning, higher-IQ-than-everyone-else, more-successful-in-everything-except-for-sports Jewish family. Throwing a spanner into the works are two debuts by young Jewish writers who have come forth to expose the seamy, alcohol-soused, drug-addled underbelly of the American Jewish experience. Pretty, they’re not. But hilarious, they are.

“Kasher in the Rye” is Moshe Kasher’s gut-wrenching memoir of a youth so wasted one cannot be anything but astounded that he managed to survive it. Truth is, he nearly didn’t. A hearing child of deaf and divorced parents, Kasher and his brother were abducted by their mother and plunked down in a poor neighborhood in Oakland, California. There his family lived on welfare, and he was in therapy by the age of four. His volatile father, who had been a painter, remained in New York, became religious and wound up moving to Brooklyn to marry a deaf Satmar Hasid.

With the exception of a few crazed summers spent among the Hasidim, Kasher stays in and around the gritty neighborhoods of Oakland, where he falls in with a band of merry and very unsavory delinquents. By seventh grade, he’s drinking, smoking pot and dropping acid on a near daily basis, writing poor quality graffiti and morphing into a general menace to society.

With a cocktail of learning disabilities and a social deck stacked against him, Kasher wends his way through a broken maze of schools and rehab programs, rebelling all the way and getting ejected from each and every one. A frequent shoplifter, he also steals from his mother and grandmother, fighting them with word and fist, and is sucked so deeply into a maelstrom of drugs and alcohol that his bedroom becomes a urine-soaked hellhole that no one but he will enter. Oh, and he’s only 15 years old: such a nice Jewish boy.

Kasher sounds horrible, and he unquestionably was. But buried somewhere inside of this frightened, raging, drug-addicted teenager was a decent kid aching to get out. If not for the dedication of his mother, who put up with more daily terror than one can imagine, he might not have made it. Emotionally wrenching and profoundly moving, Kasher’s tale is also deeply funny. Writing in a wry, winking style, he manages to turn his gut-churning experiences into a furious comedy of teenage survival.

Not a memoir, but a work of fiction, Adam Wilson’s debut novel, “Flatscreen,” also introduces a young Jewish anti-hero — a drug-addled, slacker Oblomov named Eli Schwartz, who stumbles around suburban Boston in a ratty bathrobe, contending with, among other things: a successful older brother; his parents’ unpleasant divorce and the fallout thereof; and the specter of his own total failure at pretty much everything, including a marked inability to get laid.

Lacking interest in anything except getting high, Eli remains in the subterranean masturbation palace of his mother’s basement as the rest of his friends go off to college. Obsessed with the visual — hence the title, “Flatscreen” — Eli lives by metaphors that come from movies. The reader is constantly reminded of this by Eli’s parenthetical film references, some real, many fake. He constantly notes the types of televisions people own, but it is the narratives he sees on their screens that provide the framework for his mental life.

Eli’s man-boy-cave idyll is disrupted by the sale of his childhood home to Seymour Kahn, a former actor and local celebrity who, despite spouting often bizarre pearls of wisdom, turns out to be a wheelchair-bound, drug-addicted pervert who has been kicked out of the poolhouse of his now lesbian ex-wife. In other words, a perfect mentor for young Eli.

After selling Kahn a bag of weed in synagogue on Yom Kippur, Eli is introduced to his strange world. Complicating matters, Eli’s older brother embarks on a relationship with Kahn’s gorgeous daughter while poor Eli is miserably single and celibate. In love with a Latina EMT who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, but manages to save his life a number of times, Eli makes failed attempts to date a clearly off-kilter local girl. Constantly cycling downward, his lack of direction and increasing use of all kinds of drugs send him spinning out of control.

The Schwartz suburban saga is raucously funny. Wilson expertly crafts explosively hilarious scenes ranging from a Viagra/Oxycontin/cocaine-driven meltdown during a high school football game to the complete destruction of what might have been a reasonably pleasant Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends. Wilson brings Eli to his senses only after a drug- and alcohol-induced bacchanal at which he winds up nearly getting murdered — the first step on his road to recovery.

Not content with a straightforward novelistic format, Wilson playfully divides the book into three major sections, each with multiple chapters, many of which are scattershot poetic meditations on Eli’s condition, while other chapters provide informational bullet points on issues at hand. For some, this may take a bit of getting used to (not unlike his movie-referencing tactic), but it works in a way that cajoles readers into feeling like they are reading a memoir, not fiction.

Consistently playing with form, Wilson offers a selection of “possible endings” interspersed among the chapters in the final section. Though he finally provides a singular resolution, a variety of visual genres dictate the other possibilities he shows for Eli’s sad predicament. The plethora of endings suggests how a literary product might navigate a filmic world.

Although “Kasher in the Rye” is a memoir and “Flatscreen” is fiction, the two works share themes of drug addiction, divorce, love, betrayal, fury and recovery, all within two very different but distinctly Jewish contexts. With the appearance of addiction/recovery memoirs like Alan Kaufman’s “Drunken Angel,” recovery is fast becoming an important component of Jewish literary life. Not long ago, Philip Roth claimed that the novel as a genre was dead. He was wrong: It’s just on drugs.

Eddy Portnoy is a contributing editor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.