Imagine Woody Allen did a remake of Portnoy’s Complaint. Really early Woody Allen, too, not the reflective, self-critical director of Annie Hall, but the undiscovered young playwright whose Play It Again Sam straddled the boundary between comprehension and desperation. Then trowel on extra desperation. Like really, really desperate for us to like him for hating himself. The product might, distantly, resemble this portmanteau of ethnic stereotypes and confessional self-loathing.
Humorist Eytan Bayme, who’s certainly no Dave Barry, begins his autobiography of Jewish apostasy by admitting to whining because he can’t eat trayf. His ultra-orthodox parents expect him to keep kosher during Passover, but he desperately wants donuts. Why can’t Jews eat pizza and cheeseburgers, he wonders? What makes today so special that we consider it too holy, to eat? Why celebrate holiness through self-flagellation? But Mom, I’m staaarving!
By page ten, however, Bayme discovers something more interesting than food. Right in chapter one, he expounds the six-year-old joys of provoking his brother, antagonizing his mom, and catching his grandmother betraying dietary rules in public. Then he discovers masturbation. On the dining-room floor, at Grandma’s feet, during the Seder, age six. The sheer number of events, and exhibitionistic nature, makes observant readers suspect this “memoir” will reek of exaggeration.
Sure enough, by chapter two, he confesses openly masturbating during synagogue, Talmud class, and riding in the family car. Bayme contends he unabashedly stood up and wanked himself against the desk in his grade-school classroom whenever lessons became boring. His saddle sores must’ve been impressive. Considering that, at that age, peers openly mocked me for admitting I occasionally needed to pee, I have difficulty crediting Bayme’s recollection.
Instead, Bayme deluges readers, from page one, with intimate confessions of raunchy naughtiness. He evidently considers his narrative rollicking, and lumps one atop another before we’ve had any opportunity to process what we’ve previously read. Hey, he confesses, I humped my brother’s stuffed animals! I stole smut catalogs from the goyisher kids! I left my temple’s most sacred ceremonies to sneak home and get myself off!
Skeptical readers just sigh.
It isn’t just Bayme’s general implausibility (again, he purports he discovered masturbation at an age when most children still have a favorite stuffed bear). It’s the lack of friction he faces. Shulem Deen faced expulsion from his community, including loss of his children, for illicitly getting a library card. Bayme’s mother discovers his pornography stash and basically says, grimly, I’m disappointed in you. She even promises not to tell Daddy.
One struggles to understand why Bayme’s struggle even matters. He rebels against strict Jewish orthodoxy before he’s too old to reasonably commit to anything. Unlike Deen, whose apostasy represents a religious coming-of-age moment, forcing him to literally leave the community of his childhood, Bayme basically kicks and screams because he feels entitled to think with his stomach, dick, and general abdomen. Because, dammit, he’s six!
Don’t misunderstand me. Bayme didn’t need to mindlessly ape Deen’s style. Each man has his unique story, which he should tell his unique way. However, Deen convinced me his struggle represented real risk. With a family, community, and people, he had something to lose. Bayme comes across like a spoiled child, not a daring insurgent. Before page fifty, I started skimming, because I’d become irretrievably bored with this self-indulgent schmuck.
And worst, Bayme isn’t even funny! One Jewish friend criticized Deen for being excessively solemn, so I won’t suggest Bayme should’ve acted more earnest and po-faced. However, his accumulation of off-color anecdotes never coalesces into a narrative, much less anything humorous. He resembles a kid shouting “Penis! Penis!” in public to make Mommy squirm. The humorless, cringe-inducing outcome is very unpleasant to read.
In my teaching days, one comp student wrote an essay praising Free Speech, peppered with cuss words and vulgar metaphors to simultaneously construct and demonstrate his argument. It was hilarious, not only because it was true, but because I never felt he wasted any words. I wish I had a copy to send Bayme, because my student said more in two sentences than Bayme says in some entire chapters.