The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew

By Neal Karlen

Touchstone, Hardcover, 9780743213820, 224pp.

Publication Date: September 1, 2004

Early in his memoir, Neal Karlen tells a rabbi, "I love Judaism. It's Jews I can't stand."

What he means is that he hates the parochialism and material trappings of the young Jews he knows: Their new temples are gilded and the parking lots spill over with luxury cars. Religion for them is a quest for a Jewish wife from "the right" family and a big house and splendid clothes. Gone is the soulful practice of tradition that his grandparents brought over from Russia. Karlen sees communities from New York to Los Angeles of Jewish status seekers and he can't stand the thought of being identified as one of "them."

Frustrated and embarrassed, Karlen stops looking for the Jewish enclave that fits him and, for the next ten years, simply rejects Judaism. He antagonizes rabbis. He becomes the token Jew among his Midwestern friends and the buffoon at cocktail parties with a shtick of Jewish jokes and imitations that cross the line. And then one day, Karlen goes too far: he marries a blue-eyed Protestant from a family with an anti-Semitic bent. The marriage is doomed.

At midlife Karlen discovers that he belongs nowhere and that the Jew he really hates is himself. He is a "shanda" -- a shame.

Written with irreverent zest and poignancy, "Shanda" is Karlen's story of finding his way back to Judaism -- and the Jewish community. His guide is an unlikely one: Rabbi Manis Friedman, the renowned Hasidic scholar with a beard to his chest and a fedora that makes him look like "Sam Spade about to go out in the rain." The rabbi invites Karlen to study with him. In their weekly meetings devoted to scholarship and Jewish ritual, Karlen asks the questions that assimilated Jews grapple with, such as "Howdo we bring meaning to the practice of Judaism?" "Where is the line between Jewish and "too" Jewish?" and "What does it mean to be Jewish-American and ashamed by Judaism?" Rabbi Friedman leads Karlen up the mountain to find these answers -- and shows both author and reader the stunning view from the top.

Ultimately, this odd couple discovers what it means to be a good person -- not just a good Jew. At its heart, "Shanda" is about their surprising friendship and the ways that people change -- and change each other. At once hilarious and heartbreaking, it is a parable for anyone who has ever questioned his faith or has lost his way.