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Home > Arts & Entertainment > Alan Kaufman retraces Jewish odyssey


Different story, different day
Poet Alan Kaufman retraces the odyssey that helped him come to terms with his Jewishness

By MICHAEL AUSHENKER
Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
December 4, 2000

LOS ANGELES—Alan Kaufman remembers growing up in a working class Bronx neighborhood as "a regular American kid with Marvel comics, the Green Bay Packers, and Ernest Hemingway." But his childhood was far from idyllic.

In fact, it roiled with turmoil, a darkness closeted from his neighbors, his friends.

"My whole life has been a tortured relationship with the fact that I'm a Jew living in a non-Jewish world," the author told the Journal. And that inner conflict informs his new book, "Jew Boy" (Fromm International, 2000), an autobiographical memoir that reads like a novel and is the first book of prose by the 48-year-old poet.

Kaufman's angst goes back to his Bronx upbringing and the relationship he had with his strict, abusive mother-a Holocaust survivor who, during the war, was one of fifteen people to escape a Nazi round-up in Paris of 50 Jews. Kaufman vividly remembers the physical and emotional abuse in his household, such as the time his mother forced him to learn a song she learned from a condemned Italian man during the war.

"She beat me in order to sing the song properly," recalled Kaufman. For years, Kaufman lived in shame, unable to make sense of his emotions. He felt perpetually invalidated by his mother, who evoked her own pain every time he tried to express his. And at school, he not only faced anti-Semitism, he promoted it, unleashing pent-up rage by bullying other Jewish kids.

Inevitably, "the faster I tried to escape my identity," said Kaufman with a laugh, "the more I found myself running like crazy into the arms of my Jewishness.

Case in point: 1977, when Kaufman not only wound up in Israel, but lived there and served in the army during the height of the Lebanon crisis. At first, Kaufman's life in Jerusalem felt "like Paris in the '20s"-the lush life among artists and poets. As the Lebanon conflict escalated, his life began to mirror the chaos and disintegration that eroded Israeli society. Kaufman quickly alienated himself from his circle when he ran off with his best friend's wife, whom he married and divorced soon after.

Upon his return to the U.S. in 1984, Kaufman's tailspin continued. He developed a six-year bout with alcoholism that toppled him from Columbia University's prestigious writing program and rendered him a homeless drifter, living in Tompkins Square Park and surviving by "eating out of dumpsters out of McDonald's on Eighth Avenue." This, the author of "The New Generation," a book of poetry published by Doubleday. His relationship with his parents had become so strained, he couldn't turn to them for help. Kaufman found that this life on the streets "freed me of all responsibilities, and freed me of my identity as a Jew."

Kaufman finally found the inner strength one day to "pick myself off this park bench and get help." He kicked the bottle, moved to San Francisco and became further entrenched in the Slam poetry scene. In 1996, Kaufman launched Davka, a nationally-distributed Jewish lifestyle magazine that only ran three issues but has since proved somewhat influential in the Jewish periodicals culture.

But it was 1992 that proved pivotal for Kaufman-the year he confronted his demons face-to-face when his literary reputation led to an invitation to read his poetry in Germany. It took many friends and much encouragement to finally convince him to accept.

"I was terrified of Germany," said Kaufman. "It was like entering the world of your nightmare. I was flying into the teeth of the Bogeyman."

But that visit, and subsequent voyages back to Germany-where his work was well-received-proved cathartic. He bonded with a Munich clan of Holocaust survivors, and the experience led him to reconnect with his parents before his mother's death in 1994. It also inspired "Jew Boy."

"I realized I had this story that was never told," he said. "Nobody knew my story. I've got to sit down and tell the story. I began to write it and it came pouring out for me. "

The reaction, such as the kind Kaufman received at the Jewish Community Library last month, is always the same.

"When I finish hands shoot up. A lot of them say to me, you have told my story," said Kaufman, who is currently on a book tour supporting "Jew Boy." Kaufman himself is rather amazed by this ubiquitous connection- after all, for many years, he never even realized that there were so many out there who would identify with his story.

The more he travels, the more he finds that while the details are different, the story is always the same.

Nevertheless, Kaufman stresses that with "Jew Boy," "I don't speak for all children of Holocaust survivors. This is my story."

Kaufman, in fact, would like to see other Jews "come forth with their experiences and articulate it. Tell the truth and not be politically correct and whitewash events." He finds inter-Jewish divisiveness "crazy and totally antithetical to what it is to be a Jew," for it is this very messy process of struggling with questions and searching for answers that makes our culture so rich.

"It's the whole picture that makes us a people, it's not just a particular sides," said Kaufman. "To me Judaism should be a Felliniesque appreciation and love of Jewish people, as Fellini did, presenting the noble profile and ridiculous Italian backside."

As Kaufman has come to learn for himself, the conflict of what it is to be Jewish "never goes away. It's not supposed to. I eventually came to understand that there is no escaping it -- this is who I am. And what seems like a curse is now a gift."

Alan Kaufman is also the editor of a Webzine at www.tattoojew.com, where the content from all three issues of Davka can be found.

© Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission
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