Taste of forbidden led Neal to foresake rabbi school for rock 'n' roll

IT was just another relaxing day for student Neal Karlen. It was the 1970s - a new liberalised America was coming to terms with the aftermath of the war in Vietnam and the end of free love.

Neal was studying Yiddish at Brown University on Long Island and was "coming down" from an acid trip.

It was at that moment that he rejected the rules and obligations of his Jewish upbringing - and tasted pig for the first time.

He told the Jewish Telegraph: "I tucked into a Caesar salad and felt something strange, it was a piece of bacon.

"I had a choice of going on to a rabbinical school or working for Rolling Stone magazine as a rock 'n' roll journalist.

"I made my mind up there and then - my life changed."

But Neal gradually came back to his faith and has since written two books.

Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew, looked at the parochialism and material trappings of the young Jews he knew, while The Story of Yiddish is self-explanatory.

The front cover of Shanda featured a man wearing a yarmulke with a picture of a pig on it.

"I think that cover sold the book more than its description," he recalled.

The author and journalist grew up in St Louis Park, a Minnesota suburb that serves as the backdrop for the latest Coen brothers film A Serious Man.

Ethan and Joel Coen both grew up there and 50-year-old Neal's dad Markle, a fluent Yiddish speaker, was a script consultant for the film's Yiddish content - as reported in the Jewish Telegraph last month.

Neal, who still lives in Minnesota, but now in Minneapolis, recalled: "Around 25 years ago I was working as a journalist and was supposed to interview the Coens about their debut film Raising Arizona.

"They flew me 3,000 miles to speak to them face-to-face, but when I got there, I was told the interview had been cancelled.

"Then I found they had called my father about their new film and even then I didn't manage to speak to them."

But his perseverance prevailed and he recently interviewed them, describing them as "lovely guys".

A Serious Man is set in 1960's St Louis Park, where, despite the Jewish population being only 20 per cent, it was considered something of a Jewish enclave in Minnesota.

Neal said: "A sociologist once wrote that Minneapolis was the capital of antisemitism. It was 98 per cent WASP.

"And I remember playing ice hockey for my school when I was younger and the crowd threw baigels and the organist played Hava Nagila."

Neal's interest in Yiddish began when his parents would lapse into Yiddish on long family car trips.

" I found words like shmock and shlemiel funny," he recalled.

But his Judaism felt tight and stagnated and after growing up in a close-knit Jewish community, he 'broke free'.

Neal recalled: "It was a case of them and us - Jews and Christians.

"When I moved to New York to work for Rolling Stone magazine, I found different types of Jews, loud Jews.

"They were not frightened or sheltered like in Minneapolis or the Midwest.

"They were confident about their Jewishness, in fact, they didn't even think about it.

"People would look at me in amazement when I told them that Minnesota Jews went fishing - my father was an ice fisherman.

"Minnesota Jews also had work benches, again not a very Jewish thing."

Neal, who also worked for Newsweek and interviewed a host of well-known names, later went to study with Rabbi Manis Friedman.

Rabbi Friedman is credited with having convinced Bob Dylan to return to Judaism.

Neal explained: "I grew up religious and he was one of the few rabbis I had met that was not full of rubbish - he really impressed me.

"I didn't evolve into a new person, I am not chassidic, I don't keep kosher and I don't go to shul every week, but I guess it was a therapy for me.

"Rabbi Friedman was really honest, he didn't profess to know all the answers."

After studying with him, he wrote Shanda, a process which he pondered was maybe a mid-life crisis.

"I am comfortable with my Jewishness now," he confessed.

Not surprisingly, he married a non-Jewish girl, but the marriage only lasted a year-and-a-half.

And an antisemitic joke at the wedding reception proved to be the catalyst.

Neal remembered: "She was an Icelandic Catholic and I knew 10 minutes after we were married that it was not going to work.

"Her grandfather told my dad that we should have 'Jewed down' the wedding reception price.

"That is a very offensive term, more so in America. The veins were popping out of my father's head, I had to tell him not to hit him.

"My now ex-wife was making jokes about it, saying her grandfather was old and that he couldn't help it - that is when I realised she was not on my side."

Neal's Yiddishkeit seemed to grow again and was rekindled from his childhood and formative years.

Researching and writing The Story of Yiddish proved to be a cathartic experience for him.

Neal said: "My father and mother's families were both from Russia and I went back to a town called Slutsk, which is now in Lithuania, where my paternal ancestors came from.

"They, along with other Jews, were killed and I managed to track down the mass grave where they were buried.

"I stood there, talking to them and filling them in about what had happened in the family over the last 60 years. It was quite surreal."

Neal sees a future for Yiddish and revealed that it is thriving in some obvious - and odd - places.

"There are courses on it in America and the first Yiddish book recently came out in China," Neal continued.

He admitted he would like to get married again, to a Jewish woman, but remains sceptical about his chances.

Neal said: "Jewish women don't like me. I am very Jewish - I talk fast and make jokes.

"Perhaps I remind them of their uncle Morty. But to the WASPs, I am exotic."

His role at Rolling Stone concentrated mainly on features - he once had to follow eccentric rock star Prince (was born in Minneapolis) around New York City.

And he recalled penning a feature on Courtney Love, the wife of Nirvana's tragic frontman Kurt Cobain.

Neal said: "I went round to their house in Seattle, actually it was more of a mansion.

"He answered the door and said she was at Narcotics Anonymous.

"Cobain was not as passive as I thought he would be, he was quite with it and seemed delighted that Beavis and Butthead loved Smells Like Teen Spirit."

A big fan of Bob Dylan (another Minnesotan), he remembers seeing pictures of the music legend at the Herzl Jewish Summer Camp.

Neal recalled: "There were images on the wall of when he attended camp, which was exciting.

"I have never met him though and I do not really want to - it may shatter any illusion I have of him."

He is also into rhythm and blues and recalled seeing James Brown and Ray Charles in his home state.

Neal continued: "I went to see Ray Charles with my brother - the place was full of African-American kids, but that was cool, we did not feel intimidated.

"One thing I learned from that gig was not to ever get front row tickets for a show.

"All we saw for the whole time were Ray Charles' shoes tapping along."

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph