Gloves come off as writers battle for bragging rights

The home cook never knows when she may be called upon to prepare a whole bull.

But according to food writer and restaurateur Karen Leibowitz, it’s easy: All you need to do is bleed the animal, sprinkle the blood on the ground, paint it on an altar, remove the fat and burn all component pieces, and you’ll have a convenient offering to the Lord in no less than three days and three nights.

“It serves one for the Eternal, blessed be He, or 40 appetizer portions,” said Leibowitz, wearing an apron and brandishing a stuffed lamb (standing in for the bull) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco last week. “I know a ton about beasts of the herd.”

Karen Leibowitz in the Literary Death Match at the Contemporary Jewish Museum photos/drew himmelstein

Leibowitz, who was reading from an unorthodox interpretation of Leviticus she helped editor Michelle Quint write for “Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah,” went toe to toe with three other writers in a heated and humorous literary competition at the museum on Nov. 6.

This is the third year CJM has hosted the Literary Death Match, an offbeat event that puts four writers and three judges onstage, marrying serious literature with zany competition. The series was started in 2006 by writer Adrian Todd Zuniga and is presented in cities around the world.

“The Jewish people have been known to have a great sense of humor,” said Zuniga, who hosted last week’s event and quoted extensively from Philip Roth onstage. “It’s a tilt I enjoy. We love calamity and people taking chances.”

In the qualifying round, Leibowitz faced off against Davy Rothbart, creator of Found magazine and a contributor to the radio program “This American Life.” Rothbart read a piece about touring the country and appearing on local news shows to promote his book. At the end of his allotted time in the match, Rothbart put in a plug for his children’s charity, Washington II Washington, which takes city kids on wilderness trips, and asked audience members to help support it by buying his work.

“That twist at the end about kids going camping; I didn’t see that coming,” said judge Oscar Villalon, book critic and managing editor of journal Zyzzyva.

Rabbi David Kasher, another judge, called Rothbart’s piece “amazing” and razzed Leibowitz for her subject matter. “It took a lot of courage to talk about food in San Francisco. You’re breaking that barrier,” he teased. But Kasher, director of education at the Jewish learning nonprofit Kevah, credited Leibowitz for being at the vanguard of Jewish observance. “I think we can all agree about the necessity of animal sacrifice. Let’s build that third temple and start doing animal sacrifice again.”

Judges (from left) Rabbi David Kasher, Rebecca Bortman and Oscar Villalon

While the judges conferred, Leibowitz offered them the Pringles she had used in her cooking demonstration. That sealed the deal.

“This was really tough for us until we got bribed,” said judge Rebecca Bortman, a San Francisco designer and musician. “Where before there was a whiff of jealousy, there is a whiff of sour cream.”

Point: Leibowitz.

The other first-round matchup featured writers Joel Stein and Gabe Delahaye, also reading their pieces in “Unscrolled.” Delahaye read his take on a Torah portion from Numbers, and Stein hit back with his interpretation of a portion of Exodus.

Kasher pilloried both pieces as blasphemous.

“I don’t want to play the offended religious guy all night, but ‘the world is a Godless farce?’ I’m sitting right here,” Kasher said. “I feel like one of you insulted the Torah, and one of you insulted God and the Torah. That’s a demerit.” The judges gave the win to Delahaye on a technicality for having harder source material.

Point: Delahaye.

In the championship round,  Leibowitz and Delahaye had to guess the titles of books by Jewish authors that were acted out  charades-style. Delahaye took an early lead by calling out “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Fountainhead.” Leibowitz evened the score by guessing “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” and “The War of the Roses.” It came down to one final book.

“The Executioner’s Song!” called Delahaye, guessing Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book for the win.

While Leibowitz declared she felt “robbed,” Delahaye gloried in his victory.

“It’s all really happening,” Delahaye said. “I couldn’t have done it without my fans. I’ve got to thank God.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.