DiversifYA: Seth Z Herman

SethHappy Monday! Today we have the ridiculously talented Seth Z Herman on the blog! Seth writes YA/F/UF, teaches Judaic Studies at an American seminary in Israel, is a musician and a stand-up comic. He’s repped by Brittany Booker.

Seth tweets here, blogs here, and you can find out more about his music here. Go on, I’ll wait.

1. How do you identify yourself?

I am, first and foremost, a Jew. Born to Jewish parents, hailing from a Jewish lineage that most likely dates back several hundred – if not thousand – years, I am a Jew through and through. So that part is simple.

The “Orthodox” label is the trickier part. What measures religiosity? That’s a very loaded question. The word “orthodox” literally means (Miriam-Webster definition) “conforming to established doctrine, especially in religion”. But I hate that definition, because “conforming” implies doing something I don’t want to do. And I love being Jewish, I really do.

So let’s define it like this – a Jew who is “Orthodox” tries to follow the laws of the Torah (Bible) as best he/she can. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he fails, but he tries to have the best of intentions and live his life in accordance with God’s laws, as mandated by the Torah.

Whew. That makes me nervous, like I have a rep to live up to or something. But I think that covers it.

2. What did it feel like growing up as an Orthodox Jew?

In terms of my childhood, I’ll be the first to admit – I was as sheltered as anything. (Not that being sheltered is necessarily a bad thing; it certainly allowed me to develop my Jewish identity and personality to the fullest, which I am eminently grateful for.) See, there are almost one million Jews in New York City (I grew up in Queens). In my Orthodox circles, we had our own little everything. There were private schools, where only Jews attended. There were neighborhoods almost entirely made up of Jews. There were restaurants, synagogues, study halls – you name it, we had it. So I had my own little Jewish world growing up. I didn’t have many friends who were non-Jewish – not because I didn’t want to, or because I couldn’t – but because I didn’t need to. I had so many friends at school, in my neighborhood, in my synagogue, so many people I had so much in common with – I didn’t really need to extend my arena to feel comfortable, accepted, and happy.

(Do I sound like Fiddler on the Roof yet? Wasn’t trying to – honest.)

The problem with this, as you might be able to imagine, is the topic of question #3.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

See, when you grow up in your own little world, you have certain misconceptions about how the world actually works. And when you get out into that world, that jungle (for lack of a better term) from which you have been shielded from your entire life… it’s an eye-opener, to say the least.

And I’m not talking about drugs, alcohol, etc – don’t worry, God knows we had those issues in our Jewish circles, too. What I’m talking about here is a general disconnect from other kinds of people; how they think, how they act…

And most importantly, how they’re expecting you to act.

For example – and I’ll touch on this in question #5, too – I was always nervous how people would react if they knew I was Jewish. So while I would wear a yarmulka when walking around my neighborhood, there wasn’t a chance in Gehinnom (sorry – Hebrew for “hell”) that I was wearing that thing on the subway, or at a ballgame, or at a comedy club in the city. I just felt too uncomfortable. I guess when you’re living with two thousand years of deathly baggage – Crusades, Pogroms, Holocaust, Inquisition, you know, all the warm and fuzzy stories about how Jews got massacred every hundred years or so – I guess you start to feel a little paranoid. Whether it’s warranted or not.

And, you know – sometimes it was. Often, the times I would wear a yarmulka, I would get looks and whispers from other people around me. Case in point: I was taking the subway once, and a group of kids my age (not Jewish) threw a couple of coins and pennies at my feet, pointing and laughing.

What did I do? (aside from flip them off in my head, of course?)

You’ll have to wait until Question #5 to find out. :p

4. What do you wish people knew about being Orthodox Jewish?

In terms of specifics, one little-known tidbit is that Jewish lineage officially traces from the mother. So… Jewish father + non-Jewish mother = not Jewish. Sorry, I don’t make the rules, I just work here. So, Scarlett Johannson – non-Jewish father, Jewish mother? You’re in. Ben Stiller – Jewish father, non-Jewish mother? Nope. Underrated, but important nonetheless, especially if you’re going to be sketching a Jewish character.

In general, I wish Jews knew how beautiful Judaism was. Too many Jews hate their own religion – or simply don’t care about it – because they haven’t been exposed to the beauty of it. One of the main tenets of Judaism is simply: God loves you. And that’s very often lost on so many people, Jews and non-Jews alike.

I wish non-Jews knew that there’s a lot more to being Jewish than eating matzo on Passover, lighting a menorah on Hannukah, and being an accountant (sorry, that’s a joke, couldn’t help it). The Jewish way of life is a fulfilling, meaningful, beautiful way of life – at least when it’s being lived properly. Jews are much more than the big-nosed people (okay, okay, now I’m really getting into Question #5 territory, sorry!). They’re a nation who care for others, care for the world at large, and try to be the best people they can be. And not only because God said so; because they’re wired that way.

Not that non-Jews aren’t, but you know what I mean.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

Hah – oh, these are fun. Where to begin?

To quote Borat: “The Jews? The big-nosed people?”

To quote Borat again: “The Jew, he take all of my money!”

And finally – I’ve heard it said that Jews have horns. In fact, I’ve personally been asked to remove my yarmulka so that the person could see whether I had horns or not.

Newsflash – I’m not the devil.

But back to the first two – and this might surprise you – I don’t have a problem with stereotypes.

What? Is he insane? That’s so insulting, how could he not care about that??? Doesn’t he care what people say, or think?

Wait, hear me out.

Let’s say you want to write a story that involves a Jewish character. You have to be some sort of accurate when you tell that story, don’t you? I mean, my nose is not small. I don’t know if it protrudes to the point where it’s distracting, but it’s not small. My friends’ noses are not small. And if you’re going to tell a story about a Jew, and protray some girl with a nose the size of a peanut… well, let’s just say this – I’d have a hard time believing she was actually Jewish.

See, there’s a fine line between being insulting and being accurate with your sterotypes. Do I like money? Sure. But I mean, find me someone who doesn’t love money! Why should I be insulted by that?

It’s when you dehumanize me – that’s when I get upset.

If you go to any Holocaust museum in the world, inevitably you’ll find some version of the following Nazi propaganda used in the 1930’s: a caricature of a maggot, with a human face, glasses, and a large nose. Maybe with a pipe, and a beard.

That’s when it crosses the line.

Because I’m no less human that the next guy. We might be different, sure – find me two people who aren’t different – but I’m still a human being. I don’t have horns. I’m not a bug. I’m 100% homo sapien.

And we should be able to live together in peace and harmony, no matter what our differences.

One final illustration of why stereotypes, if they’re going to be employed, need to be accurate and true: my story, with the kids tossing pennies in front of me as I walked in a subway station. Obviously a nod to the stereotype that Jews love money, always chase after money.

What did I do with those pennies?

I picked them up and put them in my pocket. Obviously.

Just to screw with them.

But why else did I pick them up?

Because my mom had always told me to. You see a coin on the floor, you pick it up.

Just like the stereotype says.

Thing is, what the stereotype doesn’t know, is why she’d always told me so.

“You pick up that coin, Zvi,” my mom would always tell me, using my Hebrew name, “So you can give it to charity the moment you get home.”

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

As has been mentioned a million times over: do your research. You might find that a stereotype is true – and that’s fine, that doesn’t mean you can’t use it in your storytelling. But make sure it is true, and find out why. For example, you might’ve thought that Jews wore yarmulkas to hide their horns, whereas they really wear yarmulkas to remind themselves of their own attempted devotion to God. So then having a Jewish character wear a yarmulka in your story wouldn’t be insulting & stereotyping – it’d be totally accurate – but having that character wear a yarmulka to his hide horns would be. Got it?

And above all else – have fun learning about other cultures, other religions. People are different, even people who look the same. Draw them differently. It’s what’s so great about being human – there are so many complex parts to every single human being. What does it matter that I’m Jewish, and you’re Christian, and she’s Muslim, and he’s an atheist, and they’re Hindu – does that really matter? We’re all human beings on God’s earth – and we should be proud of the differences that make us unique! Just because I wear a yarmulka instead of a Sikh turban, for example, or any head-covering instead of nothing at all – does that really matter? I am different – but so are you! And we should be able to live our lives together, in peace, without everybody’s differences getting in the way.

Introduce us to your newly created friends accurately – we’d love to learn about the world along with you!

3 Responses to DiversifYA: Seth Z Herman

  1. Fabulous interview 🙂 All the things I didn’t say in mine, you said in yours!
    Love, love, love, love.

  2. Great interview! Seth, that story about the kids and the coins is so poignant, it’s going to stay with me a long time…as are the wise words you’ve shared here.

  3. Thanks guys, much appreciated.