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Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew

By Neal Karlen

Touchstone, 224 pages, $23.

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Self-hatred can be fun — for other people, that is.

That’s what Neal Karlen learned in college. He could use his profound Jewish self-loathing as a way of attracting mass quantities of shiksas at parties. While guitar-playing non-Jewish men might play Grateful Dead songs to make themselves interesting, Karlen would reel in the women in by “shpritzing.” If it sounds unappealing, it is, but not in the way you might think. What he did was spout rapid-fire Jewish jokes. More accurately, jokes about Jews.

“Did my non-Jewish friends perchance want to see my horns, I’d ask, or the yellow stripe running down my back? And gee, I’d throw in, sorry about killing your Lord and all that. It was a party, things got out of hand. He didn’t chip in for the Last Supper’s tip.” It went further, descending into jokes alive with the nastiest stereotypes (think satire about crematoria).

Of course, the self-loathing also was, in part, loathing of the audience that laughed at this slimy barrage, as Karlen reveals in his new memoir, “Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew.” And because it was very much a performance, Karlen would be watching himself onstage — with a split consciousness, as in Cain and Abel. One side would be thinking: “Show how much smarter and funnier you are than these schmucks,” while the other pleaded: “Make them like you.”

This split started in his childhood in Minneapolis, where his family was steeped in Yiddishkeit, but he saw the insular Jewish community of the Twin Cities as reflecting “more bar than mitzvah,” in his father’s words. Karlen was torn between wanting to be a rabbi and wanting to be an utterly assimilated Brady Bunch kind of kid. The collision of these goals made him bitter, resentful and something of a juvenile delinquent. By his college years, he no longer could find enough truth in Judaism to pursue the rabbinate, and his antisemitic shtick took off.

He married and divorced a non-Jew, moved to New York to pursue a career in journalism and returned to Minneapolis adrift. So how did he finally become a mensch at 40? An airplane encounter with a warm-hearted, funny Lubavitcher rabbi led to the man becoming Karlen’s mentor. They met in dozens of weekly meetings that mixed low-level therapy with Torah study. Wearing a Sam Spade fedora, the rabbi was a rhetorical mix of Myron Cohen and Sherlock Holmes, and he welcomed Karlen into his home and life. Discussions of Torah led Karlen to start putting on phylacteries after many years, and to try being Sabbath-observant. Ultimately, he found his unique way back to Judaism and, just as importantly, to himself.

It’s a stirring journey with a surprising and deeply moving conclusion. “Shanda” is a powerful, painfully honest and often very funny memoir, its only flaw being the lack of linear narrative. Karlen aptly quotes Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” at one point, a book very much about Jewish humiliation and the rage it inspires (“Everyplace I turn,” Portnoy cries, “something else to be ashamed of.”) In “Shanda,” Karlen does his own fine job of revealing the corrosive role that shame can have in undermining Jewish self-esteem.

Lev Raphael is the author of “Tropic of Murder.”

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