Another exclusive interview with myself

July 5 • Permalink

Over a year ago, I scored an exclusive interview with myself. In a wide-ranging discussion, I talked about leaving The New York Times; Pope Francis; internet meanness; vaccination; and my resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe and Mark Duplass. Over a year has passed since that time almost a year ago, and in that time my interview subject has gone through many transitions, changes, and evolutions. I caught up with him on the sofa of his home in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven, where he was sitting next to his daughter as she watched Dinosaur Train.


Tell me about Dinosaur Train.

I’m not really sure what it’s about. Dinosaurs, I think. I have an amazing ability to be near my children’s entertainment without absorbing any of it. There are picture books I have read my children hundreds of time whose plots I don’t know. And I’d maintain that I have read those books with proper intonation; you’d never know I was any more checked out than my wife, who actually enjoys the books as if she were a three-year-old herself. With Dinosaur Train, the only time I focus on the show, rather than my mental radio dial which flits from book ideas that will never come to fruition, to favorite ice cream flavors, to wondering what assorted long-lost junior-high classmates are up to, is when I hear what sounds like Stephen Tobolowsky’s voice, although it isn’t. Man, that guy is everywhere: Silicon Valley for me, Dinosaur Train for the children.

Why do you say “children” and not the more colloquial “kids”?

My grandmother, Rebekah Müller Kirschner, did not like “kid,” which she said was to be reserved for baby goats.

Have you regretted leaving your Times column?

Not for one second. And that is the God’s honest truth. Quitting a job, even an occasional, freelance job, is like quitting a relationship. You are sweating, it’s a difficult phone call to make, then you do it, you hang up the phone, you do something to take your mind off what you just did, like eat ice cream or re-watch Rounders on Netflix for the 72nd time, then, exhausted by the psychic toll, you go to sleep. And then you wake up the next morning with one of two emotions. Either “Oh my God what the hell have I done will she ever take me back?” or “I feel terrific—why didn’t I do that months ago?” I had the latter feeling.

And then what happened?

I rested, spent a few days mildly curious how I’d make up the lost income, and then the L.A. Times asked me to contribute monthly op-ed columns, about any topic I like, not just religion. And I have done that, and that has been great fun.

And what else are you up to?

I have been spending a lot of time swimming with Cyd and the daughters at Mrs. Ahern’s pool down the block. It is so nice of her that she lets neighbors swim in her pool. Which is one reason, aside from the fact that I needed a nifty, tidy close for this piece, that I mentioned her in the closing paragraph of my recent essay about the paucity of municipal swimming pools. 

Wait—that essay ran in The New York Times!

How very attentive you are! Yes, I can still write for the Paper of Record, and have, a couple times, since I let them go a year ago. For example, I also wrote this piece, about Jews’ reclaiming the noun “Jew,” which got me interviewed, not untestily, by the redoubtable Jewess Brooke Gladstone on WNYC’s On the Media.

Can one really say “Jewess”?

How you keep bringing us ’round to my favorite subjects! I think we ought to use the word more, and I cite for backup the blog of the Jewish Women’s Archive, called Jewesses with Attitude. But not everyone agrees. And some people say that as a man I definitely can’t use the word. My argument is that the word is so thoroughly antique and antiquated that any use of it is thick with irony, and should be permissible. You can read a range of disagreements with me in this roundtable I curated.

Okay, but what else are you up to?

I finished a draft of that book I told you about last year, How to Be a Jew. Hope to have an update soon on who is publishing it. I am working on some magazine pieces. Still teaching a bit, and directing the Yale Journalism Initiative, which helps liberal arts students try out journalism as a career. And I remain very excited about my podcast, Unorthodox, which remains the #1 Podcast in the Entire Jewish World. We’re not as funny as we think we are, but we are entertaining enough to be doing a second live show at the JCC of Manhattan next week. And we have some other cool stuff in the works. What I love most about it are the emails we get from listeners, saying things like, “When I moved to the rural town of Buttlick, where I was the only Jew, I drifted away from my heritage. I stopped saying ‘schmuck’ and forgot the taste of corned beef and learned how to be happy—basically, I became a Gentile. But after the death of my pig, I realized that something in my soul was yearning for more. Then, as if it was bashert, I discovered your podcast. And now I feel that I am back in the bosom of my big Jewish mishpochah. You are like my grandparents, but younger and with a weird predilection for Holocaust jokes.”

Last year you talked about what you’d been reading. What can you add to that list?

Two brilliant autobiographies by artists who have no business also being great writers: the photographer Sally Mann and a gifted tunesmith named Bruce Springsteen. Totally brilliant. I can’t snap a decent picture or get Rosalita to jump even a little bit higher, and they write books for the ages.

What else of note has transpired in the last year?

Best of all, three of my four daughters can now swim, and the almost-four-year-old seems well on her way. Swimming is, as you may know, one of the three important skills that we parents must pass on our children, along with reading and looking both ways before crossing the street. If they have those, we can safely die and leave them behind in a house with a credit card and they’ll be find, at least until their guardianship is sorted out.

Whoa—tempt fate much?

I really am not very superstitious. I got religion so that I wouldn’t have to get superstition.

What’s so bad about superstition?

Ask an unvaccinated child who got the measles.

You have had some down time this past year. Have you learned much?

Yes. As you know, Hannah Arendt used to set aside an hour every afternoon to lie back on her chaise-longue (this was when philosophers had chaises-longues) and just think. I have done the New Haven version of that, which is to binge-watch Narcos from around 7:00 to 7:45 in the evening, whilst my wife reads stories to the children (I am sorry, they just prefer her at that hour; they prefer my sense of what “a little ice cream” is). And as my mind wanders during epic grands guignols  of bloody Latin narco-murder, I have achieved some new morsels of wisdom.

Such as?

You want them for free?

Did you ever get that three dollars a word you talked about in last year’s interview?

Fair point. Okay, then. Ready?

Yup. Shoot.

Here goes. First, don’t argue politics with anyone, ever. Nobody ever changed her or his mind.

They are using “they” now.

Sorry, not there yet. Anyway. Second, a good movie is still worth seeing on the screen, and the popcorn is not overpriced—you think it is, but you’re paying for the experience. Third, you really can’t go wrong with button-down collars. With straight collars, the risk of its being too big, or too pointy, or too starchy, or uncomfortable, is just too damned high. And we’re in a golden era of button-downs, what with Gitman Brothers doing online made-to-order, Brooks Brothers making its made-in-the-USA rolled collar again, Mercer & Sons, etc.

I notice you hyperlink to the purveyors. Are you hoping they will send you free stuff?

Why, is that something they do?

Okay, what else?

Do some stretching every morning; you’re not 41 any more, you know. Poker is never as much fun to watch on TV as you think it will be. And, finally,  art is more important than politics. Sometimes they overlap, but not always. When they do, side with art. I’ll quote my brother Daniel in a recent Facebook post of his, because this sums up what I have been feeling:

Was just reading this critique of Zadie Smith's recent piece in Harper’s, and putting aside all the specific political and ideological issues, I find myself dispirited by the sense that so many artists, writers, and intellectuals out there seem to identify their primary tribe as the left, broadly speaking, rather than as the tribe of other writers, artists, intellectuals. Not that the two tribes are intrinsically opposed. They're not. Most of the time I find it pretty simple to identify with both, without cognitive dissonance. But they're not inevitably aligned either, and conflicts between the two are inevitable.

When it comes down to a choice between the two tribes, the two distinct value systems, my default is to stand with my brother and sister artists and thinkers, even when I don’t agree with their politics or lack of politics. The political types can carry their own water. They have more power than us. They live in a society that generally thinks that art and intellectual activity are frivolous and useless and inefficient and worth less than other forms of more “useful” activity. We need to stand in solidarity with each other, and in defense of the intrinsically worthwhile values of creativity, expressivity, intellection, and truth-seeking.

Dana Schutz (the white woman who pained Emmett Till) shouldn’t be above criticism, but when people try to get her art removed from a show, or have it destroyed, they are going right at the heart of what it means to do art. When we see someone standing in front of a painting, trying to block other people from seeing it, we should fight that, no matter how well intentioned it might be, since our lives and identities as artists depend on being able to be seen and heard. Charles Murray, whatever you think of his politics and ideas, should be able to speak on a campus without threat of physical violence, and those of us who traffic in complicated and potentially unpopular ideas for a living should push back against those who would try to subordinate that activity to their notions of justice. We should have the back of Robert Mapplethorpe and his photos of gorgeous dicks, and Andres Serrano and his Piss Christ, and Laura Kipnis and her defense of eroticism in the Academy, and pro-Palestinian speakers, and Zionist speakers.

I could make a claim for why this is also good politics, in the long run, but I don’t want to. Good politics are not the only worthwhile end in life. Beauty is its own justification. Trying to understand the world better is its own justification, as is struggling to express one’s worldview through the medium of words, or paint, or film, or music. And instinctively having the backs of those who are engaged in lives and careers oriented around these values isn’t simply self-interest, though it’s that, or solidarity, though it’s that too. It’s also evidence of self-respect. If we believe what we are doing is valuable and worth defending on its own terms, then we should be fighting for more space for us to do our work, and more recognition of the unique values of our activity. We should view with immediate suspicion, rather than sympathy, those who would narrow that space, and refuse to credit or even acknowledge those values. 

Whoa, he must be smart, that brother of yours.

Yes, he wrote a good book, too. My other brother is working on raising awareness about the carceral state, like with this video, which is kind of amazing. And my sister helps high schoolers get to and through college. They are all swell. There are swell nieces and nephews, too.

“Swell”?

I am bringing it back. Ring a ding.

You have a lot of wisdom. Is there anything you don’t understand?

Some things, yes. I’ll tell you what baffles me. People who choose gelato, when there is good old American ice cream. The fact of two writers named Tom Perrotta. Nose jobs. Name jobs. The touching faith some have that soccer will one day conquer America. “Makayla.” Parents who think forcing their children to read will turn their children into readers. The cult of Marilynne Robinson. People who think it’s acceptable to go to a funeral dressed in their best business casual. Those girl-headbands with bows that some people put on their infant daughters’ heads to avoid the horror of gender mixup. The eternal youthfulness of Paul Rudd.

This has been great, just great. Can we do it again in a year?

Last year, you asked if we could do it in 41 more years. Now you want to make it annual? I’ll tell you a story. And this is a true story. My dentist forgot about me. They don’t call me to remind me to schedule cleanings, haven’t for about a year now, and it seems they aren’t going to. What happened was, Cyd left for another dentist, following her beloved hygienist, Cheryl, who had switched. Cyd brought all four girls with her. Now, I was planning to stay with our old dentist, because I love my hygienist, Paula. But the office manager obviously figured we were decamping en famille. So now I don’t get any calls. The old dentist dropped me, the new one doesn’t know about me. I am off the books. Lone wolf. El lobo solo. I could go the rest of my life cleaning-free, with nobody to guilt me about it. This is the dream. So here’s the thing: yes, you can interview me in another year, because if nothing else, it will remind me about this, my last answer to your last question. And that, perhaps, will get me to the dentist.

On leaving my Times column: an exclusive interview

June 14, 2016 • Permalink

Yesterday, I told my editor at The New York Times that I was stepping down as the monthly “Beliefs” columnist. On hearing the news, I requested an interview with myself, and I agreed. Below is my exclusive interview with myself.


Why are you leaving?

In 1996, during my senior year in college, I wrote a letter to Gustav Niebuhr, then the religion beat reporter for the Times, to ask how I could be him someday. He wrote back, inviting me to his office to talk. A couple weeks later, after pulling an all-nighter to finish a paper, I took the train into New York, went to the old Times HQ on 43rd Street, and met Niebuhr. He gave me an advice-rich half hour of his time. He told me that reporters with good story ideas were rarer, and thus more valuable, than reporters who could only write good prose. Our meeting took place in the cafeteria, and two other guys at the next table were playing speed chess. I had been a pretty competitive chess player in junior high, and I figured that if I ever got good enough at finding story ideas, I would get a job at the Times and play chess every day with my colleagues. When I finally got a gig at the Times—albeit not Niebuhr’s beat job, but the biweekly religion columnist job—I discovered there was no chess. Key parties, maybe, but no chess.

Key parties?

Well, okay, no key parties. Not anymore. The staff of the Automobiles section was in charge of the key parties, and when the Times closed down Auto, nobody really picked up the ball and ran with it.

Really?

Okay, not really.

Is anything you said true?

Yes. Gus Niebuhr really did meet with me, he really did give me great advice, and there really was chess.

You still haven’t told us why you really left.

Oh, right. Because after more than six years of total bliss in this part-time job, to which I had always aspired—with great editors, engaged readers, and an expense policy that let me really go to places to do a good job—I am increasingly interested in my longer pieces. I’ve written three books, and I do a lot of magazine work, and I want to focus more on that stuff. The Beliefs column is every four weeks now, and although that doesn’t sound like so often, I report it pretty heavily, so it stops me for a few days every four weeks, which makes it hard to build momentum on other projects. Also, I’m now hosting a weekly podcast, Unorthodox, on Slate’s podcast channel, and that takes up a full day every week.

Is that code for, “You’re being fired.”

Yes.

Really?

Okay, no. In fact, although the frequency of my and Sam Freedman’s religion columns has been cut back from biweekly to every four weeks each, the editors have protected the columns from the total guillotining that befell the chess and bridge columns. As far as I know, my future at the Times was secure.

So you’re firing them?

I’m not firing them, not exactly. Let’s just say I am transitioning them out. I’m helping them move on to new challenges and opportunities.

So what, specifically, will you do next?

I have magazine stories in progress for the Times Magazine, GQ, and a couple other places. I’m an editor at large for Tablet, which covers Jewish life and has the most gorgeous new print magazine you have seen. I have the podcast, which has been growing rapidly—we’re also now being asked to do live shows of it, which has been amazing. I think we’re doing something very unusual: a religion podcast that is informative but totally irreverent, even self-lacerating. I might work on a documentary with my brother Dan, who writes books and makes movies. I’ll visit my brother Jonathan, who is a student, community activist, and new dad in St. Paul, and my sister, Rachel, who is moving to Chicago next week with her domestic partner (but not her partnered domestic) and their dog. My kids and my dogs will get more of my time—they are always like, “Feed me! Love me!” My wife’s always like, “Who’s that hanging up the phone every time I answer?” I direct the Yale Journalism Initiative, which has been endowed by Steven Brill and Bob Woodward to mentor the amazing student journalists we have there. I will keep up my public speaking schedule. I have a couple book ideas. I have started writing a book called How to Be a Jew (seriously), which takes the form of a letter to my youngest daughter. Another book idea involves dressing like a real dandy for a year and writing about how the world is different when you wear bow ties and bespoke suits. Would you buy that book?

Probably not.

Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of. But at least I could write off my tailoring bill.

It sounds as if you have big plans for the second half of your life.

I see it as the second third of my life, thank you very much. I am 41, but my people live long lives.

Your people?

Jews. More specifically, Jews with good dental health.

You have good dental health?

Unbelievably good. No cavities, no gum problems. When I go to the dentist, my hygienist calls all the other hygienists into the room: “Hey, you’ve got to see this!”

I’ve heard there’s a biopic in the works. Who’s in talks to play you?

They are trying to get Daniel Radcliffe, but if he’s tied up, Mark Duplass would be good. Andy Samberg wanted the role, but I felt he wouldn’t bring the necessary gravity to certain scenes.

You’re alluding to the work you’ve done on clergy sexual abuse?

Oh, we’re being serious now?

Yeah, let’s.

Okay. Yes, as the wonderfully named (suspiciously so) writer Jeet Heer once noted, I seem to have a specialty in men of the cloth behaving very badly. That’s been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done, because it’s brought great abuses to light, but also some of the most painful for me. Talking to the victims of the Zen priest Eido Shimano, or the ex-rabbi Marc Gafni, who amazingly has found a champion in Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, was very painful. My pain was nothing as compared to the pain of these women—not even close—but they are hard stories to report, and I won’t miss them.

What will you miss?

The eccentrics I got to write about. Like the Orthodox Jewish guy who travels the country to figure out what Starbucks products are kosher, or the celibate conservative Catholic lesbian, or the guys who ran Christwire, a website satirizing fundamentalist Christianity, whose 15-point checklist to help you figure out “Is My Husband Gay?” was taken seriously by all sorts of people.

But you can keep writing about them for other venues?

Yes. But possible subjects will be less likely to return my phone calls. When you say you are calling from the Times, everyone returns your calls. That is awesome. I’ll miss that. The good news is that I’ll live forever on Google as a Times writer, so probably people will keep returning my calls. Thanks, Sergey and Larry.

What else will you miss?

The prestige. Even people who say they hate the Times kind of revere it.

You’re 41 now, so you have accumulated a certain amount of wisdom. Do you want to share any?

Sure, for three dollars a word.

That’s your new rate?

Yes. Or as I put it, “.6(Gladwell).”

Do you really charge that much?

Do you pay that much?

No.

Okay, then let’s see what we can work out.

Meanwhile, how about some of that wisdom?

Alright, you win. Here goes: Being mean isn’t okay just because it’s on Twitter. If you don’t use television to make parenting easier, you’re a fool. Don’t call yourself “Dr.” unless you are a real doctor, the kind with an M.D. There is no surer sign of douchebaggery than the monogrammed shirt. If you’re an old man, don’t dye your hair Sheldon Adelson orange; if you’re an old woman, don’t tint your hair purple. Mentor young people in your profession. Show up on time. If you’re a writer, file the piece a day early and fifty words short. Journaling is not practice for writing. Vaccinate. Floss. Get your dog from the shelter or rescue.

What about American religion? You are a preeminent observer of the scene, and one with good teeth, no less. What can you tell us?

You know that generalizations can get me in trouble, right?

Now that the Times can’t fire you, what do you have to lose?

Good point. Here goes: From what I can tell, Scientology is dying. The Christian right was always more a media construct than a reality. Mormons really are nicer, and they take care of their own, and often others, but their lack of irony and sarcasm and edge is a problem for Mormon artists (as I have written). Jews are my people, my family, and I love them best, but if we want Judaism to survive outside the Orthodox world, then non-Orthodox Jews have to have more children, live closer together (Judaism is a home-based, and by extension neighborhood-based, religion; suburbia will murder us all), and allow for real diversities of opinion about Zionism. Pope Francis matters hardly at all; a popular pope will not save Catholicism in the West; Catholics have to find a reason to reengage with parish life. Open, avowed atheists are the most oppressed minority in America, the last group that will be able to elect one of their own as president. People who say they are pacifists are some of the most violent people I know.

Any good religion jokes to share?

Just one: How do you drive a Unitarian family from your neighborhood? Burn a giant question mark on their lawn.

Are you religious?

I love ritual and I love community and I love tradition, so that makes me a good candidate for being religious. I love being Jewish. In terms of belief … I go in and out. I definitely feel that the Jews are chosen—if not by God, then by history. But chosen for what, I am not sure. I’m glad to have been born to a religion in which belief is just one of the four legs of the tripod.

What’s in our future?

Liberal versions of Islam and Mormonism. Just as Jews have Reform Judaism, and Catholics have those parishes where everyone kinda sorta just knows the priest is a pro–birth control lefty, Mormons will develop liberal communities of culturally Mormon but theologically flexible members, who will operate on a kind of don’t ask, don’t tell model, and Muslims will have prog mosques that are gender-egal and, for lack of a better word, very Americanized.

How good was your chess game?

Okay, not that good. I think my rating got up to 1600 or so.

What are you reading these days?

Tim Kreider, Tom Perrotta, Jessica Anya Blau, Jonathan Tropper. I am psyched for Min Jin Lee’s second novel. Always waiting for the next Janet Malcolm or Joan Acocella article. I get my best fiction suggestions from my wife, who reads a lot more than I do (she hosts a podcast about books). I’ll always be reading my former colleagues Laurie Goodstein and Sam Freedman, who write great stuff on religion. And the younger comers on the God beat: Michael Schulson, Shira Telushkin, Emma Green, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Liz Bruenig, Ilana Strauss. Jack Hitt. And Lindy West and Katha Pollitt and Gail Collins and Matt Taibbi, because they are funny.

Do you want suggestions?

Not if they involve Elena Ferrante. I tried, I really did. Just couldn’t get into it.

You sound like a happy guy.

Yeah, it’s been a great first third of my life. The main thing is that I have a great family: a wonderful wife, two great dogs, an antisocial cat, and as many daughters as Rush Limbaugh’s had wives.

Can we do this again when you’re 82 and again when you’re 123?

It’s a deal. And no worries about the three dollars a word—this is so good for my brand, I’m willing to give you free content.

I look a little bit different now.

June 8, 2016 • Permalink

Welcome to the new website! Will Etling is a superb designer, and I’m elated by the fine work he’s done to make web-sense of my big schmoosh-up of a career. I’ll be posting upcoming news and events in this space. The main projects for the summer are a little writing, a lot of podcasting, and a whole lot of swimming with my daughters.