Arts & Culture

The Four Questions: Rachel Shukert

I think it’s safe to say that Rachel Shukert can claim the title of “Best Book Written About Being a Jew from Nebraska”, with her 2008 memoir, Have You no Shame?: And Other Regrettable Stories. Two years later, Shukert is … Read More

By / March 23, 2010

I think it’s safe to say that Rachel Shukert can claim the title of “Best Book Written About Being a Jew from Nebraska”, with her 2008 memoir, Have You no Shame?: And Other Regrettable Stories. Two years later, Shukert is gearing up to release her second book (more on that later), but is taking a little time off to deliver what she describes as a “play-like product” in the Exodus-meets-Gypsy, “Everything’s Coming Up Moses: A Gypsy Seder” (produced by our pals at Tablet). In anticipation of the most entertaining take on the story that gave us Passover (Exodus, not Gypsy.  In case you were wondering…), we caught up with Rachel, and asked her four questions.

I have this theory that two of the most loyal audiences are Jewish people and gay people.  Is this your attempt to cater to both camps?

Well, this is New York.  It’s pretty safe to assume that there’s a fair amount of overlap between the two camps.  (Is is weird to use the word “camps” when referring to these particular groups of people? Is it too early in the interview for a Holocaust joke?)  I completely agree with you about Jews and gays beingloyal audiences; they are both such strong identities that really define taste and the way someone sees the world, and I think both those groups tend to gravitate toward things that reflect that sensibility back to them.  And that sensibility is certainly inherent in musical theater, which was almost exclusively created by people who were either Jewish or gay, and when you combine the two in one being, you get Stephen Sondheim, which…enough said.  I think you can pretty much end any argument with those two words: Stephen Sondheim.  And scene.

How did the idea to combine Gypsy with the story of Exodus?

It has to do with my very slight propensity toward bipolar disorder, actually (totally self-diagnosed, Future Insurers.)  I had been IM’ing with my friend Michael Schulman one day shortly before Passover of last year, and I think I said something like: “Everything’s Coming Up Moses!”  I have no idea how that was relevant to the conversation, but it’s not unheard of to speak in lyrics sometimes.  So Michael writes back: “Lift the staff!  Part the sea!  We got nothing to do but be free!”  I had that in my head all day, and then that night, when I was very…um…awake, I just wound up writing lyrics to the whole song, and then another song or two from Gypsy, which I sent around to a few people I thought would think they were funny–sort of like when your mom sends you those long emails of “jokes” about the Israeli/Palestinian crisis or whatever.  And people really liked them, and Jesse Oxfeld at Tablet was like: “You need to write these into a show for next year!”  I need constant approval from other people, so pretty much whenever someone tells me they like something, I’ll do it.  But it has occured to me since that the stories of Jewish holidays and the stories of Broadway musicals are extremely similar: they both typically feature an indomitable protagonist faced with impossible odds.  Plus Rose’s rhymes with Moses, so that helps a lot.

You like to write about Jew and being Jewish: do you think the Jewish material well will ever run dry?  If so, are you prepared?

Oh god, I hope it runs dry soon!  I’d love to write about something else!  It’s funny; writing on Jewish themes wasn’t something I particularly intended.  Not that I don’t find it interesting and rich–I obviously do–but I think I sort of fell into it because it was something I had sort of a life’s worth of analysis to fall back on.

Writing can be so difficult and the work can be obtuse and hard to get inside of, that I think it’s natural for a writer to sort of grab at anything that breaks some of that wall down.  You know, like if you’re trying really hard to get inside a character or a situation, but then you say, “Oh, I’ll make him or her Jewish” and suddenly you know how they’ll think, how they might respond to the situations you put them in, and things open up a little bit.  But what I am wary of is substituting a sensibility for a sense, if you know what I mean.  Of making my facility with this particular material into sort of a trick.

That said, you can’t essentially change the history of who you are and the experiences that formed your brain.  There’s a hint of a writer’s autobiography in whatever he or she writes.  So I think my work will always have what we’ve come to think of as a “Jewish” sensibility: the questioning, the fatalistic humor, that kind of good-natured seige mentality.  However you define it.

Your last book, Have You no Shame, came out two years ago.  Your fans are worried.  We want a new book.  What gives?

I have fans?  Well, fear not, all eleven of you!  I have a brand new book coming out at the end of July, from Harper Perennial!  It’s called Everything Is Going To Be Great, and it’s a memoir of the time I spent living in Europe after college, mashed up with a sort of guidebook of the kind you might get if all the Lonely Planet writers were paranoid schizophrenics. Things like “How To Tell If You’re Being Sex Trafficked”; things like that.  Useful things.  I’ve been telling people it’s a little bit like Eat, Pray, Love–that is if she had no money, no place to live, and a lot of disconcerting sexual encounters with possible sociopaths.  But it has its sweet moments, (which I don’t want to spoil); at heart, it’s really a love story.  Anyway, I’m excited.