Many of the best comedians have had deeply troubled pasts. But Moshe Kasher, a rising 32-year-old comic and author of a new memoir, “Kasher in the Rye,” takes the old adage to a new level.
He began psychotherapy at age 4 and started using hard drugs at 12. By the time he was 15, he had flunked out of junior high three times, been falsely accused of rape, had stays in various mental institutions, and, oh yes, spent six weeks a year in the Satmar community in Brooklyn, where his deaf father, who also had Gaucher’s disease, had remarried.
“I was just in this huge identity middle ground,” Kasher, who is hearing, said in an interview, reflecting on his troubled teenage years.
Back then, he lived most the year in Oakland, Calif., with his brother, now an Orthodox rabbi at UC-Berkeley, and his mother, a secular Jew who is also deaf. They were on welfare, and Kasher was one of the only white kids in a nearly all-black school. His mother, unsure what to do with Kasher, had him going in and out of mental institutions, rehab centers, and, when he was sober enough for school, special-ed programs for the seriously mentally disabled.
“Smart-stupid; black-white; religious-secular” — either side of any of those identities never quite fit him, making it hard for him to find his place anywhere, Kasher said. Drugs became his refuge. “When I found a group of derelicts in the back of school, they taught me how to smoke pot and drop acid,” he said. And suddenly, “it made me feel good.”
If he had stayed on that drug-addled path, there’s little chance “Kasher in the Rye” would ever have been written. And it gives little away to say that, by book’s end, he’s on the road to recovery. But Kasher emphasizes that the memoir is not a maudlin, Oprah-esque affair. There are uplifting passages, but mostly it is drop-dead funny (though it does not deal with his career as a comedian).
“This is not a book about dealing with the agonies of a troubled life,” Kasher said. “It’s about dealing with the absurdity of it all.”
Still, Ben Greenberg, Kasher’s editor at Grand Central Publishing, which put out the book, didn’t want the memoir to read like a series of strung-together jokes.
“If anything felt too crafted in a jokey way,” Greenberg said, “then we tried to take that out and let the humor come from the situation.”
Some of those situations are both appalling and hilarious.
Take, for instance, the time Kasher was in middle school and sold LSD to a seventh grader. Unbeknownst to Kasher, the kid had a pre-existing heart condition (though you sense it wouldn’t have mattered if Kasher had known). And after taking the drug, he has a heart attack.
But because Kasher’s mother is deaf, Moshe volunteers to be the interpreter for the school principal, who had called her in to explain what her son had done.
“How could I deliver the message?” Kasher writes, musing on possible ways to misconstrue the message: “‘A boy here has a very big heart. Very loving! So loving that the love literally explodes all over.’” Thinking how ridiculous that would sound — why would a principal call in a mother for that? — he reconsiders. “I was f—ed,” he recounts.
Episodes in the Satmar community take on a similarly absurdist tone. With virtually no Jewish education save Sunday school in Oakland, Kasher is expected to have his bar mitzvah with the Satmars.
“I, Moshe Kasher,” he writes, “was as close to a non-Jew as any of them had ever met. They pleasure-read in Yiddish. I didn’t even know the Hebrew alphabet.”
Kasher was mostly looking forward to the after-party, where less-religious Jewish kids typically had themed affairs like skateboarding or baseball. “The theme of my bar mitzvah was the Holocaust,” he writes, alluding to the terror and shame that defined his occasion.
For the actual party, his father hired a local chasidic celebrity, Mordechai Ben David, who “crooned Yiddish songs to my father’s delight. … My father, being deaf,” he adds, “was spared the shocking realization of just how awful even the best of all Chassidic pop songs are.”
Somewhat remarkably, Kasher has little bitterness now towards Judaism. Quite the opposite, he says: it’s actually been critical to his recovery. Though he is not strictly observant, his father’s death more than a decade ago exposed him to some of the beautiful aspects of his faith.
“I honestly don’t know how non-Jews deal with the mourning process,” Kasher said. “It’s just so structured. It was like, man, these old Jews knew what they were doing.”
Sitting shiva and saying Kaddish also had a major influence on his older brother David’s embrace of Judaism. David was in many ways Moshe’s polar opposite growing up — a contrast highlighted throughout the book — he eventually became a Modern Orthodox rabbi, and now works at UC-Berkeley’s Hillel.
In an interview, David echoed Moshe’s portrayal of their father’s death as a turning point for them both.
“My father represented all of that” — meaning an observant Jewish life, David said. “And I felt like if I didn’t do some of that, that half of us would die. … Sitting shiva was really a profound experience for us both.”
To be fair, neither of Kasher’s biological parents was ever that far removed from Jewish life. Their mother identifies strongly as a cultural Jew and sent both her sons to Sunday school.
While their father Steven was born to ardently secular, communist Jewish parents, Steven’s mother came from a prominent line of chasidic rabbis. Steven’s father was the noted Yiddish writer, Duvid Kasher. And Steven, of course, became an ultra-Orthodox Jew (though he was a painter when he married Moshe’s mother, and essentially pantomimed his way through the rituals, a fact detailed in the book).
One might think that Moshe’s mother would have distanced herself from Moshe, if not entirely given up on him. After all, despite valiant efforts to rescue her son from an abysmal life of drugs and crime, Kasher never showed her any respect.
He stole from her so many times (and his grandmother too) — in order to feed his drug habit — that she put locks on almost everything inside her house. At one point, Kasher assaulted his mother so violently that she called the police, and had him arrested.
But she never actually gives up on him. When Kasher eventually sobered up, she encouraged him to go to college. And even though he never graduated high school, he got his G.E.D. and graduated from UC-Santa Barbara (he majored in religion, and minored in Jewish studies).
His mother was on hand to see it.
“Because she’s deaf, she got to say she loved me [in sign language] from the audience,” Kasher said. “It was a pretty special moment.”
Still, Kasher isn’t sure he would have handled a child the way she did — putting him in psychoanalysis at age 4, for instance, or convincing him and his brother that their father Steven physically abused her (it’s still not clear if that’s true, Kasher said).
“My mother is convinced that everything she did was absolutely necessary,” he said. “I don’t blame her, but I don’t absolve her either. I think she made some mistakes, but I don’t know what I would have done if I was in her shoes.”
It’s that kind of self-awareness that was critical to his recovery. Eventually, Kasher had learned to take responsibility for his recklessness. In his last rehab center — his third, when he was 16 — he promised to drop his ne’er-do-well friends and make something of himself.
“I had this illusion that it would all be alright, that everything would just right itself,” he said. “But I started to realize that nothing would change unless I stopped it myself. … A lot of people want an event that changed their life, but I don’t think it’s like that. The turning point for me was slow.”
And though climbing back to normalcy wasn’t easy — his first job was as a UC-Berkeley bear mascot; and for much of his 20s he worked intermittently as a sign-language interpreter — Kasher can be considered a success.
He took up a career as a comic only recently, after being exposed to acting in college, and in 2009, his stand-up album won him “Comic of the Year” on iTunes. Since then, he’s been on high profile TV shows like “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” “Chelsea Lately,” and many others.
And he’s been sober for years.
But if you ask about it, he prefers not to dwell on his recovery too much. He’d rather make a joke of it.
“I haven’t had a cheeseburger [either] in over a decade,” he said, proudly noting that he’s kept kosher-style since his father’s death. “You see, that’s what the frum in Brooklyn don’t understand: I’ve had bacon and cheeseburgers before, but I chose to give it up. That’s real religiosity for you.”