I participated in a group blog called Rethinking Religion at Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life. They asked me to go and hear comedian Lewis Black get interviewed by the institute’s director, Mark Taylor, and then write a reaction. The interview took place at the Kraft Center for Jewish Life, which has nothing to do with processed cheese, being Columbia’s version of Hillel. The session was a laff riot and a half; no surprise there.
In preparation to blog I read Black’s 3 books, which were not quite as funny as the real thing but actually more enlightening on his views of religion and specifically Judaism, which rarely comes up in his act but is by far the most consistent thread in his writing, though he constantly claims he’s not interested in it. Anyhow, here is what I wrote, significantly edited (weird feeling - I’m not used to being edited).
The whole experience has had an uncanny resonance. Black grew up in Silver Spring, Md., the heavily Jewish suburb of Washington where I spent most of my weekends hanging out during my high school years in D.C. (Coincidentally, he and I graduated from high school the same year, 1966. He was bar mitzvahed at Temple Sinai in D.C. around the corner from my house, where he fell under the spell of Rabbi Balfour Brickner and thought about becoming a rabbi, until Balfour moved on and was succeeded by Rabbi Gene Lipman, who quickly cured him of the ambition. Not long after that Lipman was my draft counselor and quickly cured me of my ambition of being a conscientious objector by asking if I would fight for Israel. But I digress.) Black went to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where my father went in the 1940s, and developed an almost mystical attachment to the place, as he discussed at some length, and which I then blogged about (and now I’m blogging about blogging about it, which feels a little like the old Burns and Allen show where George would sit in his study and watch the Burns & Allen show on TV).
Black also talked at length and passionately about his contact with a friend who has psychic skills that he can’t explain and can’t get his mind around but can’t deny. This got me thinking, having been exposed to such things myself once or twice and been similarly confounded. My father spent much of the rest of his life traveling back and forth to the South as legal counsel for the southern department of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. I guess when you go to Chapel Hill you get a thing for the place. Here’s what struck me most strongly: my son Coby, who is 13 and never met my father, decided several years ago that he was a passionate Carolina Panthers football fan, for no reason that he or anyone else can discern. And now, this summer he is going to a summer camp in North Carolina that he heard about and instantly fell in love with, sight unseen.
Does this count as religion? I’m just asking…
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).