Teenage Hero Is a Distinctly West Coast Jew

Allen Zadoff Tells the Story of California's New Jewish Family

By Amy Klein

Published October 22, 2012, issue of October 26, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Since you Left Me
By Allen Zadoff
Egmont USA, 320 pages, $16

God’s Comic: Zadoff’s new novel is devoutly irreverent.
Courtesy Egmont Usa
God’s Comic: Zadoff’s new novel is devoutly irreverent.

Has any Jewish teenager in recent American literature felt as much antipathy toward attending Hebrew school as Sanskrit Aaron Zuckerman? The 17-year-old narrator of Allen Zadoff’s new bildungsroman, “Since You Left Me,” has just cause, though.

First, he’s only attending “B-Jew” (the nickname for Brentwood Jewish Academy, a Modern Orthodox high school) because his deceased, Holocaust-survivor grandfather made it a condition of his will that his Sanskrit attend religious school, or else the money would go to the Jewish cause of finding a cure for Tay-Sachs disease.

Second, Sanskrit doesn’t believe in God, no matter how hard he tries. Not “HaShem,” the God that his Orthodox classmates are constantly praying to; and not “The Great Spirit” that his yoga-instructor mother and her yoga-guru boyfriend believe in.

Rebekkah Zuckerman is not your stereotypical overbearing Jewish mother. She’s a vegetarian — always on some abstemious juice fast or diet — who forbids her children to eat sugar, a believer in “The Great Spirit,” and more invested in her son’s inability to hold a downward dog pose than in his education. Her ex-husband — a sweet, deadbeat dad — is even less reliable, lost in his failed inventions.

The Zuckermans — named, no doubt, in homage to Philip Roth’s meta-narrator — are not your typical Jews. And, by typical, I mean the stereotypical East Coast, neurotic, claustrophobic nebs personified in film by Woody Allen and Larry David (whose humor derives from being a New Yorker dealing with clueless Californians). No, the Zuckermans are a different breed of Jew: Left Coast Jews. They are Californians first, Jews second — or third, after being vegans/yogis/universalists /surfers/hikers, you name it. Even Alex Portnoy, the progenitor of all dissatisfied Jewish youth, had a much more cohesive clan to deal with.

It’s one thing to deal with Portnoy’s mother, who watches his every move, and quite another to deal with Sanskrit’s, who forgets, for the gazillionth time, to show up for a “parent-professor” conference because she’s on a juice cleanse and can barely remember that her children exist — let alone the fact that Sanskrit will be thrown out of school if she doesn’t attend.

“Since You Left Me” revolves around the lie that Sanskrit fabricates to keep from getting thrown out of the Hebrew school he doesn’t want to attend in the first place, but it actually tells the story of a new type of California Jewish family: parents who are self-involved to the point of negligence, children who must fend for themselves — not only in the day-to-day aspects of navigating religious school, but finding their own paths in Judaism.

Zadoff, the author of “Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have,” manages the rare trick of showing the Modern Orthodox world without mocking it. Though this is a YA novel, it’s a humorous and introspective read for any age — Sanskrit is also trying to find love, real parents, and his place in the world.

In the end, most of it doesn’t work out, but, Sanskrit says, “I can’t believe in a God like that, one who hates or loves according to an obscure set of rules. I have to believe in one I can say anything to. I can tell him the truth.”

Let’s hope God can handle it.

Amy Klein is writer living in New York City. Her work can be found at www.KleinsLines.com


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!
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • 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.