Orthodox slam poet pens quirky punk-rock novel

He’s quick.

Matthue Roth, the Orthodox slam poet who called San Francisco home from 2001 to 2004, wrote his young adult novel in just six months.

But then he took another two years to edit it.

“Never Mind the Goldbergs,” Roth’s debut novel that he wrote during the days — nights were usually spent in front of the microphone in either the Mission or Berkeley — came out earlier this year with Scholastic Press.

Roth was easy to spot, with his effeminate clothing and long payot (traditional side curls). He also was the subject of a j. cover story on Oct. 10, 2003.

Flitting between his native Philadelphia and New York, the newly-engaged 26-year-old has two more books in the works, including a memoir about his time in San Francisco called “Yom Kippur a Go-Go.”

“Never Mind the Goldbergs” focuses on a high school student named Hava Aaronson, who is drafted to play the heroine of a television sitcom about an Orthodox Jewish family. While Hava is not an actress, she is “discovered,” and then chosen because the producers feel there should be one legitimately Orthodox cast member. She abandons her summer plans in order to spend her summer in Los Angeles, where she quickly gets swept up into the craziness that is show business.

But Hava is not your run-of-the-mill Orthodox Jew. She is alternative in her way of thinking and dress. She wears skirts of the right length to be considered modest, but with combat boots. She dyes her hair and favors punk rock. And much of her struggle is remaining true to her beliefs while being tempted by all the world has to offer.

Roth identifies with his 17-year-old protagonist.

The scrutiny that Hava experiences, Roth said, is akin to how he felt being Orthodox in San Francisco, “where nobody’s Orthodox and everyone’s looking at you like an alien.”

He said he chose to make her female because girls are so much more together than boys at that age. “When you have a character that’s really hot — I mean hot like a character that sparks you — you instantly know everything they’ll do, what they’d think of you and the world, and how they’d react to any situation. In some ways, there’s a lot of me in Hava.”

Then he added, “Part of her is the person that I am, and part of her is who I want to be, and part of her is who I was so embarrassed to be when I was 15.”

Roth did not envision “Never Mind the Goldbergs” as a young adult novel, but it was sold that way to PUSH, the teen division of Scholastic.

“My editor saw it as a kind of a ‘Catcher in the Rye’-like book, which had always been in my mind too,” said Roth. “But I never thought of ‘Catcher’ as a teen novel. It was just a damn good book that happened to be about a teen.”

Roth had a challenge getting it published. He flew to New York with the sole intent of finding an agent. One told him it was not pop-culture enough and too Jewish; and a second one told him it was not Jewish enough and too pop-culture. On the day he was to leave, he e-mailed a cousin of a friend at Scholastic. One thing led to another, Roth extended his ticket to meet him and the book was published.

While the majority of the book takes place in Los Angeles, there is a scene in the Bay Area, where Hava ends up at a house in Berkeley where any young Orthodox adult who needs a place to go for Shabbos is welcome. Roth misses that about the Bay Area.

While reaction to his book has been mixed, and he has received more than a few e-mails from Orthodox people saying he’s crazy for writing this, the highest compliment came in a review from a random reader on Amazon.

“A 40-year-old Christian male loved it,” he said. “I think that’s the highest compliment I can get, because it’s like I’m not writing about being Orthodox or about being punk. I’m just writing about this girl who wants to do her own thing and not give in to the expectations the world has of her and people identify with that.”

“Never Mind the Goldbergs” by Matthue Roth (368 pages, PUSH, $16.95).

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."