When it comes to writing, brevity has never been my strong point. Just ask any of my editors here at j. — or, for that matter, my elementary school teachers — and they’ll all vouch for the fact that my work tends to err on the side of verbosity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I find the idea of a “six-word memoir” as difficult as it is intriguing. That’s what I learned Feb. 4 when I headed to the Elbo Room, one of my favorite Mission District dives, for “Oy! Only Six? Why Not More? A live show of Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life.”
The evening, which saw maybe 80 people packed into the bar, included performances from local comedians, musicians and poets, all expounding on their “six-word” reflections on Jewish life. It was sponsored by the national Jewish nonprofit Reboot alongside SMITH Magazine, with help from the SFJCF’s Young Adult Division.
The concept was inspired by an incident in Ernest Hemingway’s life, when the minimalist writer was challenged to write a story in six words. The result: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In 2006, SMITH Magazine editor Larry Smith launched the Six-Word Memoir Project online at www.smithmag.net, inviting anyone to contribute extremely short stories of their own.
Since then, the project has gathered steam — and publishing credits. The book version of “Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life,” including abridged wisdom from the likes of Larry David, Ed Koch and Jonathan Safran Froer, was published last summer, with a launch event featuring live storytelling at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
And while that evening went well, “This is a really different crowd,” Smith said of the Elbo Room event I attended. Smith, who served as emcee, laughed as he surveyed the boisterous crowd of mostly 20- and 30-somethings as they drank and mingled after the show. (He and Reboot’s Tanya Schevitz were both very pleased with the turnout.)
Performers included comedian Aurora Simcovich, musician Aaron Glass, Wise Sons Deli co-owner Leo Beckerman, writer Josh Healey, designer and singer Rebecca Bortman, poet Dyanna Loeb, and storyteller Aviva Frank. Aside from containing some kind of Jewish theme, their stories couldn’t have been more different.
Behind Bortman’s hilarious description of growing up as one of only two Jews in a town outside Pittsburgh — dating a jock who told his football teammates “No more Jewjokes, Becky’s my girlfriend,” hence Bortman’s six words — was a coming-of-age story about learning to stand up for yourself.
Beneath Frank’s lively comparison of her decision to move to Israel to her grandparents’ emigration from Eastern Europe were questions about what it means to migrate as a Jew — and how the meaning changes depending on what you’re running from, or to. (She has since moved back to the U.S., hence her six words: “Reclaim aliyah backwards. Guilt-free Jewess.”)
My favorite piece of the evening came from Oakland’s Josh Healey, who riffed on Lenny Bruce’s famous “Jewish and Goyish” shtick, making his six words “Jewish or goyish? Hard to say.” It was inspired, he said, by a friend who didn’t quite understand how Healey could be both Jewish and an atheist.
“Being atheist is very Jewish,” said Healey. “Converting to Buddhism is Jewish. Converting to Judaism is goyish. So goyish, in fact, that no Jew has ever done it.” Another highlight: “Berkeley is Jewish. San Francisco … I hate to say it, but you know it, and that’s why you’re all here. Oakland? Oakland is an interfaith family that celebrates Kwanzaa.”
Throughout the performance, a big screen displayed six-word memoirs that audience members had texted to a special number. A free photo booth was set up for people to memorialize their own memoirs. And at a back table, Reboot staffers were helping folks turn their memoirs into wearable buttons.
And this is when I froze: If I picked six words for my button, I wouldn’t get 10 minutes to explain myself, as the performers did. The words had to say it all. They were of utmost importance! And was matzobrei one word or two? “The beauty is kind of in the constraints of it,” Bortman told me, by way of advice.
I walked away without a button that night. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this column that it came to me.
Difficulty hitting word counts: Very Jewish.
Emma Silvers lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com.