Tales from the stark side: Heebs new anthology leaves convention to other Jewish writers

The German term “schadenfreude,” meaning to take delight in the misfortune of others, seems to be popping up in the media a lot lately.

In the foreword of Heeb magazine’s new anthology “Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish,” novelist A.J. Jacobs introduces the term “auto-schadenfreude” — or deriving pleasure from one’s own humiliation and foibles.

“Auto-schadenfreude isn’t restricted to one … ethnicity,” he writes. “But I will say, we Jews seem to have a knack for it. Almost every good Jewish story I’ve ever heard is about the pain and humiliation of the narrator, and I bet that a small part of the narrator felt paradoxically proud of the level of humiliation.”

This theme of pride in one’s own foibles is a common thread among the 48 essays in “Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish.”

The 288-page book is the written counterpart to the ongoing Heeb Storytelling series, in which journalists, comedians and musicians tell shockingly personal tales in front of live audiences in small clubs across the country. Heeb Arts Editor Shana Liebman began the series in 2003, in order to create a forum for the panorama of Jewish experiences, and she also edited the book.

“We wanted … to defy a traditional definition of ‘Jewishness,’ challenge conventions and … bring together an unlikely community — those who didn’t identify with many of their parents’ customs but still ‘felt’ Jewish,” writes Liebman in the book’s preface.

“Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish” is a much-needed respite from those fuzzy, warm religious essays in books such as “Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul.” It is packed with fascinatingly honest, comedic and occasionally uncomfortable stories.

The collection of writings by four dozen authors is separated into six sections: Sex, Drugs, Work, Youth, Family and Body & Soul.

In one example of its many cringe-inducing tales, author Abby Sher writes about the time she pranked her cherished rabbi by giving him a dog poop sandwich immediately following her confirmation.

In “Poop Sandwich”, Sher says she adored and looked up to her rabbi, which is why she immediately regretted placing the dog feces between two slices of rye and presenting it to him.

“I wanted to throw up,” she writes, “but it was stuck in my chest, this knot of nausea and aching sadness. I needed to explain. I wanted to tell him that we thought it would be funny, or at least charming. Couldn’t he see that we were honoring him by giving him this hilarious gift?”

Beyond embarrassing tales, the book also includes some sincere and tender moments — albeit infused with sharp-edged wit.

In Liz Feldman’s story “Grandma Betty,” the reader meets a loud, abrasive bubbe who always had a stash of chewy caramels.

Feldman, a writer for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” describes the scene at Grandma Betty’s deathbed, where she discovers her cousin rolling a joint. Marijuana can help ease grandma’s pain, the cousin explains, so the two — both accomplished pot smokers — persuade Grandma Betty to bring the joint to her lips and puff.

Feldman writes: “She coughed a little … about a minute later she shook her head. ‘I don’t feel anything. This isn’t working … does anybody have a caramel?’ Scott and I laughed. She was herself again.”

Feldman continues: “We all had the giggles. We couldn’t help it. And we all sat together for the first and last time, actually comfortable.”

But for every affectionate moment, there are five more salacious tales with titles such as “Unprotected: A Confession” and “Losing It.”

Ophira Eisenberg’s essay “The Anti-Mensch” is one of them. She writes about having “the world’s worst, most unskilled sex” with a Garfield-obsessed comedian, and about how she wanted to bolt out of his house the second she stepped into his bedroom (which was absolutely covered with various forms and pictures of Garfield, the cartoon cat).

Closing out her tale, Eisenberg writes: “The following night, I rewrote my JDate profile. ‘Looking for a stand-up guy. Must not love cats.’ ”

If that isn’t auto-schadenfreude, what is?

“Sex, Drugs & Gefilte Fish” published by Heeb (288 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $13.99).