I know you were already planning on seeing Rachel Shukert read (with Anya Ulinich) at the Other Means Reading Series at 8pm on Tuesday, February 24th, because you are totally no fool– you know that her book, “Have You No Shame?”, a bawdy, comic memoir of growing up Jewish in Nebraska, has been praised as containing ” the essence of being young, brash, and sexually awkward in the mid 90′s…recognizable and hilariously unpredictable…Shukert has a talent for pulling out the gritty, uncomfortable details that bring her stories into sharp relief…and packs enough force and honesty to send you reeling.” by Time Out New York and as an “at times bawdy, at times bleak…laugh-out-loud-funny and gloriously written coming-of-age portrait” by Joshua Neuman, publisher of Heeb. And I mean, I (Gaby) am not going to mess around with you. It is an effing hilarious book. I read it while sitting on a park bench and it made me laugh so hard that I felt like a crazy person.
But perhaps you need more convincing? Perhaps you don’t believe me OR Time Out New York? In which case, what is wrong with you, but please also enjoy this interview with Rachel! Rachel had many, many interesting things to say about playwriting,”Twilight”, abstinence education, European expatery, and corned beef, which will surely make a believer out of all of you (even the goyische).
G: I was reading your book early in the fall when all this “Twilight” nonsense was happening, and I couldn’t help but contrast your funny, honest, and irreverent recollections of teen sexuality, which I would place in a tradition of Judy Blume and other great bards of teenage sexual foibles, with all that weird vampire-promise-ring-purity-ball shit going on in those books, which completely weirded me out. Are times changing? Do you think Jewish teens have traditionally had a healthier, or at least more realistic, view of sexuality than their Christian counterparts, and do you think the current national environment of trendy sexual repression for young people threatens that at all? Do you think “Twilight” makes sense to any Jews at all? Did you read those books, do they make any sense to you?
Rachel: Well, Twilight doesn’t make any sense to this Jew, that’s for sure. I didn’t read the books, but I’ve read a lot about them because I like to keep my finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. They seem very creepily masochistic to me, and this sort of equating sex with death/an irrevocable transformation is, I think, so unhealthy. I think it’s so much more damaging to place that kind of premium on sex, to make it into such a big deal. The abstinence movement is so obsessed with sex and sexuality, I don’t know how they get anything else done. I think the best, most helpful thing you can say to a teenage girl about her first sexual experience is how incredibly dim a memory it is going to be just a few years down the road. It just shouldn’t be made that important. Do it, or don’t do it, but don’t build an entire identity around it. Sort of forcing people to think about their sexuality as another kind of teenage subculture, like being a goth or a skater or whatever, is so so so weird. We don’t do that with any other bodily functions. If I have kids, I plan to counsel them to just do it and get it over with. Like that scene in the TV show Rome, where Atia sends Octavian to the brothel, just so he can get it DONE. I think it’s possible that Jewish kids have a healthier view of this, that they see sex less as this penultimate event that Will Change Everything, and more as a kind of fun thing to mess around with, if you want to. But I don’t want to speak for everyone. That’s how I saw it, and I’m very happy I wasn’t raised to believe differently. Jews–and I’m talking about assimliated, modernized Jews, because obviously if you get into Orthodoxy, that’s a whole other ball of wax–are not big self-deniers. I also think that the traditional Jewish emphasis on achievement–intellectual, academic, etc.–which can be so oppressive in some ways, is actually a very, very good thing in this regard, particularly for girls. In my family, I was taught that my primary asset was my brain and what I could do with it, not my “purity” or “womanhood.” This is true of most of the Jewish girls I know. Because so much of the purity movement seems like a subjugation of women. I know you could argue the opposite–just as you can argue that some women wear the hijab as a form of liberation–and I am sure there is truth to that. But when boys are putting on big white dresses going to purity balls and symbolically marrying their mothers, then we can talk. I just think there is something so creepy about putting a parent in a custodial role over a kid’s sexuality–that should be the one thing that should never belong to another person.
G: After the book’s end, you ended up in Europe for a few years–do you think, having grown up as a Jewess in the Midwest, that you’re more comfortable with the role of the outsider? Do you think that helped you feel comfortable living as an expat? How does it feel, in contrast, to now live in our lovely and Jewish-person-filled city, where I would assume that you are very much an insider?
Rachel: That’s an interesting question, and I think the answer is yes. From an early age, I had kind of developed this bubble, this self-containment and ability to observe a dominant culture from the outside, which made my experience of living Europe quite familiar in a way. But I think there’s a sense of being an outsider inherent in being a writer, or in the writerly temperament–having to hold yourself slightly apart from an experience in order to observe it accurately and contextualize it later. I do like being surrounded by Jews now though. It’s infectious. Sometimes I catch myself at the deli counter screaming things like: “I want the corned beef sliced thin! Not too thin! Take your thumb off the scale, what, you think I was born yesterday?” It feels vestigial, as though I am tapped into something bigger than myself, and this gives me a warm and cozy feeling. Also–I’m glad you asked this–because this is what my next book is about! My European adventures, that is, not me getting all Jewy at the Zabars. It’s called The Grand Tour and it will come out next year from Harper Collins and everyone in America should buy it, because it is the next “Dreams From My Father” except I don’t think I can run for public office due to my public medical records in Nebraska never being officially cleared of a false diagnosis of gonnorrhea I once received. (I didn’t have it, but I forgot to call them back and tell them.) On the other hand, if I bring this up in the book, maybe it’s cool.
G: How did you end up jumping from being a playwright to being an essayist? Why did you jump from being a playwright to being an essayist (though I know you do still write plays, and please feel free to plug any of them here)?
Rachel: It really happened pretty organically. I would find myself with all of these observations and jokes that didn’t work inside of dialogue, and I needed something to do with them. It felt like a very natural form for me, anecdotal, funny, but adhering to a larger point.And also, people started paying me for essays, which they emphatically did not do for plays. But my theater career is bustling along! I have just started a new company, called Terrible Baby, with the genius playwright Nick Jones and the equally genius director/actor Peter Cook. We are doing a new play that Nick and I wrote called “The Nosemaker’s Apprentice” at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg this spring, and again, everyone in America should come see it! We’re running April 24-May 23. I’m very excited to be working with such great people, and it’s such a nice change from the prose writing, which is done in such isolation. Good things come from being with others! Thank you!