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Lifes no joke for Oakland-raised bad boy turned comic

Ask comedian Moshe Kasher about his new memoir “Kasher in the Rye,” and he says it’s the perfect title, because even without the subtitle, “it gives you everything you need to know in one sentence. It’s funny, it’s f—-ed up, and it’s the story of a kid trying to figure out who he is, in unimaginably weird circumstances.”

But one wouldn’t do justice to the book by not mentioning its subtitle: “The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient and Then Turned 16.”

The “unimaginably weird circumstances” that Kasher refers to begin here: His parents, both deaf, met and married and had two boys, David and Mark (Moshe is Mark, more on that later). When Mark was 9 months old, his mother left and divorced his father, taking her sons to California and moving in with her mother. Their father stayed behind in New York. And that’s when things got a bit strange.

Moshe Kasher photo/alex koll

“When my parents were together they lived in a somewhat Jewish household,” Kasher, 32,  explained. “But when they split up, my mom got less religious, my dad got much more religious.” Most of the year, the boys lived with their “atheist hippie” mother, but in the summer they spent six weeks with their father, who eventually became a Satmar Hassid.

Although the boys attended Oakland’s Temple Sinai for religious school, neither had a bar mitzvah. But when going to the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Seagate, in Brooklyn, to visit their father during their summers, “it was like shuttling into the past six weeks a year, where I’d put on the costume of a Hassidic Jew, shuck and jive and pretend I knew what I was doing,” said Kasher.

But it was clear that he was different. “They would call me goy, I was as a close to a non-Jew as they knew,” he said. “I think I grew up more Jewish and less Jewish than anyone I’ve ever met.”

And in the Oakland public schools, his sense of otherness was no different.

“Being one of a few white kids, you can feel invisible,” he recalled. “I already had that going on in Seagate, and I didn’t want to be invisible here too — I wouldn’t have existed. I could be black or funny so I chose both.”

He pauses.

“I’m pretty sure me and my friends were those people who invented white people trying to be black. I’m pretty sure that was us.”

Kasher will soon be in the Bay Area for a variety of appearances: a “conversation” with comic Nato Green April 3 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, and an April 4 book reading in  Oakland, followed by an evening of standup comedy at an Oakland club.

Kasher’s memoir can be hilarious in places. “I’ve always felt chocolate money to be an odd choice of treat for a people so concerned with their reputation as shylocks and money-grubbers. What are gentiles supposed to think when they see us training our children to actually eat money?” he writes.

And Oakland, specifically Oakland in the ’90s, looms large as a character in his memoir. But the story of his addiction and behavior that it caused is anything but funny.

Kasher’s mother first sent him to a child therapist when he was 4, for his unusually aggressive behavior. That behavior didn’t change until he was 16. As the subtitle suggests, he became an addict (an alcoholic and pot smoker), a thief (stealing booze from supermarkets) and a mental patient (he spent several stints in different facilities) and was kicked out (or dropped out) of several schools.

Readers waiting for his moment of redemption in the book will be disappointed, as he summarizes his graduating from high school, college, and going on to become a successful standup comedian — he was named best new comedian by iTunes in 2009, and a “comic to watch” in 2010 by Punchline magazine — in a matter of pages.

“I did that on purpose,” he explained. “I wasn’t interested in telling my miraculous story of recovery because I think that story has been told already. I wanted to make sure it didn’t splay into the realms of an afterschool special.”

Rather than some kind of “magical Hollywood moment,” where Kasher knew he had to change, he said it was luck more than anything else that got him to where he is now.

“A drug addict or alcoholic isn’t really in control of their destiny, it’s the whim of the fates,” he said. “Do I feel I had more determination to get out than the kids I know who are dead right now?  No. I think I just got lucky.”

Kasher decided to go by Moshe, his middle name, when he got clean, as he felt he had “degraded that human being that was Mark. I poisoned that identity so that when I had the opportunity to recreate myself it was a no-brainer.”

Moshe was always his middle name, and his father and brother always called him that. His father wanted to name him Moshe from the beginning, he said, but his mother put her foot down because she thought it sounded like the word “moose.”

“Keep in mind my parents are both deaf, they have no idea what either word sounds like,” he added.

Kasher, who now lives in Los Angeles, regularly comes home to Oakland — where his mother still resides. Also in the area is his brother David, now a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Berkeley Hillel.

While Kasher said his mother is proud of him (which she must be, especially after all he’s put her through), his brother is too, and it was he who came up with the title of the book. He also read the manuscript as it was being written.

“Most of us have our wild and crazy experiences when we’re growing up, but we manage to keep it in balance with some semblance of normal life,” said David Kasher. “He didn’t have that impulse to keep it in balance, he tasted the crazy and just fully went for it.”

And while there were times David

wasn’t sure his brother would pull through, that is all in the past. “It’s not just that he has come through what he has, but everything that he’s made of himself,” he said. “He’s so talented and he’s become such an incredibly strong and smart and obviously hilarious person that I feel a great sense of pride at seeing him turn all of these experiences into a story, a kind of piece of art.”

Moshe Kasher, appearance at 7 p.m. April 3 at JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. $10-$15. www.jccsf.org; standup at 8 p.m. April 4 at Vitus, 201 Broadway, Oakland. $15-$20. www.vitusoakland.com; reading at 7 p.m. April 5 at Diesel Books, 5433 College Ave., Oakland. Free. www.dieselbookstore.com.

“Kasher in the Rye” (320 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $24.99).

Headshot of 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."