SHANDA: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew

Neal Karlen, Author . Touchstone $23 (208p) ISBN 978-0-7432-1382-0

A shanda (a disgrace, in Yiddish) Karlen certainly was—a good-Jewish-boy-turned-bad who, even at age 40, demonstrated his alienation from self and from Judaism by telling vilely anti-Semitic jokes to amuse the goyim. He portrays himself in the opening chapters of this debut memoir in all his repugnance—but even guided back to Judaism by a warm and patient Hasidic rabbi from the Lubavitcher sect, he's not an appealing protagonist, nor do his dialogues with Rabbi Manis Friedman offer much insight into either Judaism or Karlen's struggling soul. Though Karlen rejects as empty and judgmental the Twin Cities suburban shtetl (as he irritatingly and repeatedly calls it) in which he grew up, he seems even more judgmental himself, writing, for instance, that most rabbis he'd known "were full of shit." The wise Rabbi Friedman, the real star of the memoir, asks that Karlen observe only a few mitzvoth, or commandments. These acts, along with his lessons and the welcoming atmosphere in the rabbi's home, help heal Karlen's spiritual wounds. But readers will have been alienated by factual errors (Judah Maccabee didn't fight the Romans), sloppy editing (two contradictory accounts of Karlen's first encounter with Rabbi Friedman) and a narrator who never manages to draw the reader emotionally or intellectually into his search for his yiddishe hartz (heart). (Sept.)

Reviewed on: 08/16/2004
Release date: 09/01/2004
Paperback - 224 pages - 978-0-7432-6631-4
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