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Schmutz Sandwich Anyone?

Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish: The Heeb Storytelling Collection
Edited by Shana Liebman
Grand Central Publishing, 288 pages, $13.99.

The quest to be cool: Didn’t it end with high school? Not according to “Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish,” a new personal essay series compiled by Shana Liebman, who’s an editor for Heeb, a magazine for and about Jews. Some of the essays treat serious themes, with the requisite irreverence implied by the book’s title. But most feel stuck in adolescence. Forget survival of the tribe. Here, questions like, “Can I party like a porn star?” hold sway.

Still, the book has its, um, head in the right place. For the sake of science, it sniffs and slinks through worlds unknown to our parents — well, except the swingers, the stoners and the heroin punks (sorry, Lou Reed) — and asks, “What if I lived solely for myself?” As a result, it falls to the far side of obnoxious on the funked-up Richter scale.

Maybe that’s because the essays began as confessions made before a live audience — as part of Heeb’s urban storytelling series — and so they share a melodramatic bent. Many of them self-inflate, boost the trivial to heights of importance and fall into troughs of whiny despair.

So what’s wrong with that? Or, more precisely, what’s unfamiliar? Despite Heeb’s self-concept (It’s hip and louche! It speaks to post-affiliated Jews!) the book gives off a whiff of the past. (Let’s face it: Something retro is at work when adults stay in thrall to their teenage fantasies.) As a result, reading it feels like watching an old-time version of ourselves — Rodney Dangerfield, say, shvitzing before a stand-up mic — even as we eavesdrop on our own 13-year-old brains. It’s so mortifying and familiar that it’s hard to look away.

If you like gross-out comedy, you’ll love essays ranging in fixation from semen to pork dildos to offering a rabbi a schmutz sandwich (that last one was downright disturbing). If you don’t, you may ask: What purpose can a book like this serve? Contributor A.J. Jacobs ponders this in a foreword, as he seeks to define the collection’s Zeitgeist. “[T]here should be a word for this phenomenon,” he muses, for “the pleasure you derive from your own humiliation, pain and foibles, fueled mostly by the knowledge that you’ll get mileage out of it later.”

The word is “masochism.” Nope, he insists. Why not? Because in these essays, he explains, “There’s often a moral.” Jonathan Kesselman’s, for one, details “how he takes meds for his crippling OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder], but that means he can’t ejaculate (retarded ejaculation is the medical term).” Jacobs natters on, adding, “His lesson: Freedom comes with costs.”

Well, maybe. But such oversharing brings to mind the time that Madonna urged David Letterman, along with his late-night audience, to pee in the shower because it’s good for the feet. “Get yourself some Desenex,” he groaned.

So who’s to say, besides the Federal Communications Commission, what’s fit for mass broadcast? Still — and maybe it’s just my generational hangup (did X run short on the exhibition gene?) — I’m left to ask: How is total self-revelation before strangers necessarily funny?

That’s not to say that a few of these essays aren’t howl-worthy: among them, D.C. Benny’s tale of hanging with the divorced uncle of his sex-therapist wife, a black man who’s fond of racial conspiracy theories and inappropriate small talk. (“You look like you a Mexican, maybe a redbone, or one of them Sepharticus Jewish slaves that wandered in the desert.”)

But their humor lies in pointing up universal absurdities, not in citing the names of people the authors got freaky with — including themselves — and then following that up with a drum roll.

It takes skill to choke comedy from life’s annoying elements. Lisa Kron does so when she channels her aged father in “Lesbians at Shul.” Trying to ditch a dull service, she’s irked to be stopped by her partner. But Jews, Kron protests, don’t stand on ceremony; instead, they refuse. “If you said, ‘Please rise’ to a group of Jews and there was a little old Jewish man in that group who wasn’t able to,” she says, “you’d hear him announcing loudly, to the group: ‘I can’t rise! Halachic law forbids me to rise! Because I have a bowel obstruction!’”

Somehow that makes me laugh, in a way that the phrase “other than her melons, one of the things that Honey was famous for was her lack of a gag reflex” can’t. Even if it’s meant to be epiphany, not comedy, tales like David J. Rosen’s “All Eighteen Inches,” about sitting next to a porn star as she deep-throats a sausage on public-access cable, lack the same comic impact.

Susan Comninos has written for The Miami Herald, The Christian Science Monitor and Albany Times Union, and other publications. Her poetry appeared recently in the Forward. Her fiction is forthcoming in Quarterly West.

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