Author’s roundabout journey to Orthodoxy includes website for writers
“I grew up as a nerd,” Matthue Roth confesses.
Roth, 37, is a published author several times over, with credits including the award-winning “Never Mind the Goldbergs” and “My First Kafka,” a picture-book retelling of several Kafka tales. He’s the author of a memoir, “Yom Kippur A Go-Go,” about his journey to Orthodoxy. Roth is also co-founder of the popular Orthodox website Hevria, a sort of group blog for Orthodox writers to hold forth on all topics imaginable. Roth explained how he got into writing in the first place.
“Dan Burn talks about how when we’re kids, everyone’s a writer, and somewhere along the line, most of us just stop. And I feel like I just never stopped.” Roth’s family got a computer when he was 13, and the youngster used it to further his burgeoning portfolio. “I was writing for Internet sites in the 1980s when nobody had the Internet or knew what the Internet was. But I liked the idea that I could just write something and throw it up online and it would exist.”
One day, he said, he sat down to write a short story, and instead of completing it, he came back to it the next evening — and the next, and the next. “Eventually, I had a novel,” he said. “And it was horrible.” Called “Colony One,” “it was about this asteroid where a bunch of doomed people lived, and a lot of things happened to everyone, but it didn’t make much sense and it was very hard to follow. But I really liked it. The important part was that I’d actually got it done.”
He isn’t sure where the inspiration for the novel came from. “Probably just because I was a lonely kid and wanted an asteroid with a bunch of friends.”
Around the same time as his first foray into novel writing, Roth left behind his Conservative Jewish upbringing, which, he said, consisted mainly of “some sort of kosher thing and Friday night dinner,” as well as Hebrew school. He was also a member of an Orthodox youth group for a while. But then, “I just sort of gave everything up and became punk and decided that I wanted to be in control of my life. I just wanted to try out my own weird things for a while.”
He didn’t re-examine his religion until he was at George Washington University, where he was double majoring in anthropology and religion. While studying major world religions, he decided he should learn more about his own. At the same time, some friends of his roped him into joining a mincha minyan on campus. Roth found that he enjoyed the space in the day “to get out of life and support these crazy people who needed 10 people to pray,” and liked too “the inadvertent community that sprung from it. It led to me questioning more and getting more interested. The more things that were unknowable or unknowns, the more it attracted me and the more I wanted to know about it.”
Roth said that growing up, “I wanted to know everything, and this was sort of the end of that and the beginning of me saying, ‘There’s no way I will know everything and that can be kind of good: Accept not knowing everything and embrace it a little.’”
Another epiphany was shortly to follow: post-graduation, Roth was working a desk job “and desperately wanted to get out.” One day, he came across a copy of the memoir “Valencia” by Michelle Tea, co-founder of the lesbian-feminist poetry collective Sister Spit, which Roth described as “a rotating cast of characters: a bunch of queer identified women, some of whom later became not queer identified and not woman identified. They would rent a van and drive across the country and perform and give poetry readings in punk rock clubs.”
Roth said the memoir “was basically about her hanging out in San Francisco and serially dating different women and writing poetry. I read it and I was like, ‘This is what I should be doing. This is the kind of life I should be living. Forget social mores, forget everything else: I should just go to San Francisco and be a writer.’” So he did.
“I was tongue-in-cheek saying, ‘I’m going to be the first boy in Sister Spit.’ Of course, two weeks after I got to San Francisco, they announced that they were breaking up and there would be no more Sister Spit.” But, said Roth, though the group itself was gone, “there was still the crowd and the community. They gave me a place where I didn’t really fit in but didn’t have to worry about fitting in.”
Feeling comfortable among queer people wasn’t new for Roth: “I’d always been really close to queer people in general.” When he was 14, his female best friend was sexually assaulted, and “it kind of sent me into a tailspin. I didn’t really know how to deal with being straight: I was like, this is male sexuality and male sexuality is violent and I don’t want a part of that, and I kind of shut myself off. One of the only safe spaces that I found was hanging around queer people.” So he fit right into the community that Sister Spit cultivated, if not the group itself.
There were other forums for Roth to showcase his work: Tea and another former Spit member ran a monthly open mic poetry night called “kvetch,” although, said Roth, “nobody there was Jewish, and I’m not sure if they knew what kvetch meant.” Roth showed up with a poem he’d written, about having crushes on Orthodox girls. “It was filled with a lot of innuendo but also a lot of frum terms, things that I don’t know if everyone understood, but everyone really liked it. I hadn’t written much poetry before that, but I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’m writing poems.’” After that said Roth, he performed four or five nights a week.
The readings were a way to pull him out of his shell: “When you get to a new city, you sort of redefine yourself by default,” said Roth. “I was still a terrible introvert, and I am now even more.” But poetry was a safe way “of getting up there and spilling my guts.”
After San Francisco, Roth began a somewhat nomadic period of his life, deciding to move to Los Angeles in the hopes of writing for television. “I basically couch surfed for a year,” he said ruefully. But while his professional career may have briefly stalled, it was balanced by the uptick in his personal life. While endeavoring to break into the TV writing game, Roth met the woman who would become his wife, a Lubavitcher from Melbourne, Australia. She came from a “very old Chasidic family: I’m the second baal teshuvah to marry into their family. When I asked her father for permission, he kind of laughed and said, ‘We don’t do the permission thing.’” However, he did advise a year of study in a yeshiva, “whereupon we set about finding the weirdest yeshiva possible, which of course was in Jerusalem.” So Roth and his new wife moved to Nachlaot, where he attended Yeshiva Simchat Shlomo, founded according to the principles of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. It was a school that worked for him, said Roth, since he was “resistant to being told what to do all day. I can’t just sit and learn — I need to write. And they were really good about that.” It was in Nachlaot that Roth first met the Bialer Rebbe: he is now one of his disciples. While waiting for yechidut (a private audience with a Chasidic rabbi) with him, Roth would sit in the beit midrash. Appointments were inevitably delayed, and sometimes, he said, he would wait until 1, 2 or 3 in the morning for his name to be called. So while he waited, he would listen to the stories of the elder Chasidim and watch a man who would inexplicably be juggling in the corner: “It was kind of a circus and kind of a farbrengen,” Roth said with a laugh.
After Israel there was a brief stint in Chicago — “it’s really cold and really hard to get jobs.” — before the couple headed to New York City. Roth reasoned that it was the only place for them: His wife was an aspiring chef, he an aspiring writer. What better place to venture into artistic pursuits?
New York led to one of Roth’s main creative endeavors: Hevria. The source of inspiration for the site is hard for Roth to pinpoint. A hazy idea began to emerge after Roth witnessed an event called YAMJAM, which targeted “young adults who were having trouble with drugs or thinking about leaving religion,” but ended up “attracting all sorts of people.” It was a performance space for these kids to express themselves. Watching it, Roth said he came to a realization: “Nobody is doing this mix of performance and writing and sincerity anywhere. This shouldn’t be something that’s pushed off to the side.”
Another early inspiration came from an email chain with two friends, Elad Nehorai, who would eventually become the co-founder of Hevria, and Chaya Kurtz. Kurtz had just published an article on xoJane.com called “What Women’s Media Needs to Know about Chassidic Women.” The article got a lot of attention on social media, and Roth, Kurtz and Nehorai were trying to understand why: what was it about this piece that grabbed people? If this article was a sort of gateway for people to learn more about Chasidic Jews, they reasoned, could they create a place for these people to come and see what Chasidic Jews were really like? Nehorai already ran a popular blog called Pop Chassid and knew some other religious bloggers he thought would make great additions to the group. And so began Hevria: the name is an amalgamation of the Hebrew words briah — create — and chevrah — friend.
Roth said the essaid on Hevria are far from their only project. They also partner with Chasidic musicians in the Hevria Sessions, posting music videos on their site. Roth, who is a video game designer, said that Hevria “isn’t my day job at all.” But still, he and Nehorai are “not really trying to take it slow.”
A documentary about Bat Ayin is under production with the hopes that more films will follow. They also plan to create Hevria houses, which Roth describes as akin to Chabad houses but with a more creative spin — a place, he said, where you can grab a coffee, debate about Torah or politics or art or find a quiet space to create and to think.
All of it — Hevria, the novels, the memoir — is traceable, a thread that seems to originate with Roth’s dual identity as baal teshuva and punk prince.
“For me in general, punk has always been about less anger and more joy,” he said. “Even when it’s angry, it should still be an angry joy.”
Roth decided, when becoming more religious, “to take on Judaism in a way that isn’t sexist, racist, homophobic or whatever people think Orthodox Judaism is. Judaism is expected to be a certain way. I thought the truth was a lot deeper than that and I wanted to show the depth and the different ways it could be taken. For me that anger and that joy has always been about finding the essence of something and holding onto that.”
Masha Shollar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.