november / december 2006:
Doing shots with the Gonzo rabbi
To say Niles Goldstein is a renegade rabbi is like saying Mary Poppins was just a nanny. When he’s not preaching, he spends his spare time chasing tornadoes, jumping out of airplanes, and riding horseback through Mongolia. His mission is simple: Think outside the box. And he’s tired of old-guard Judaism bringing everyone down with their talk of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Instead, as he points out in his new book Gonzo Judaism, he wants to imbibe a more festive brand of religion. We hang out at the bar with America’s most uncharacteristic rabbi.
Words by E.B. Solomont | Photo by Sam Norval
Niles Goldstein is a firestorm on the verge of igniting. For one thing, the renegade rabbi has some pretty strong feelings about the state of Judaism in America. For another, he isn’t afraid to say it.
Inside a Brooklyn watering hole several blocks from his home, his laid-back demeanor could fool you. Though casual in jeans and a T-shirt, the 40-year-old rabbi has been plied by offers of libation (in this case, shots of gin), in order to dissect his just published defiant manifesto against old-guard Judaism, entitled, Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith. We meet in Brooklyn for his convenience. At a bar, for mine. After all, didn’t Hunter S. Thompson, in casting off the shackles of conventional journalism descend into the hazy underworld of his subjects?
But Goldstein needs no fortification. Although he pens in his acknowledgements that, “This was a book I didn’t want to write,” he is sick of the establishment and rages to break free. In the book’s introduction, he leaves no room for confusion: “The fiddler on the roof can take his fiddle and stick it where the sun don’t shine.”
Over drinks, Goldstein’s fervor builds and he starts to rock and roll. “What does it mean to be a Gonzo Jew?” he asks. “To call truth to power. To not be afraid to speak out.” His voice rises a decibel. “To confront people when people need to be confronted.”
As Goldstein emotes, his blustery words catch the attention of Marissa the waitress, our 20-something server (and aspiring writer) who latches onto his sermon and proclaims, Right On. “I’m Jewish and I’m so atheist,” she announces, after depositing two sweating beers in front of us.
“Of course she’s a Jew,” Goldstein says in a stage whisper when she moves away. “She’s actually the kind of person I want to reach.”
Call it passion or call it anger, Goldstein traces his emotion back to a heart operation he had at age three. “Even though I know I wouldn’t have died if I hadn’t had it,” he says, “I think as a three-year-old I probably had some perception that something bad was going on inside of me and I was being invaded.” Not surprisingly, what followed during his adolescence and adult life was a preoccupation with mortality and issues around it.
For a while, Goldstein tried to answer life’s existential questions with literature and philosophy. After college, he considered joining the Peace Corps, pursuing a doctorate in philosophy, or attending the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “The whole rabbi thing basically snuck up on me after college and bit me in the ass, to be honest,” he says.
In an incident he refuses to discuss in detail, Goldstein was arrested and spent 24 hours in a cell at The Tombs, the notorious New York City jail. “I was an angry young man back in those days,” he concludes. The subsequent soul searching prompted him to draft a never-published novel about a young man’s psyche. Ultimately, however, his questions led him to a religious life.
“Literature addresses the big questions, but only up to a certain extent. Philosophy addressed them in a more direct way, but only got so far. And it really seemed like religion — because of its focus on the metaphysical, and not just in the physical world — addressed it in the most intimate and most powerful of ways,” he says.
At this point it must be said that Goldstein’s ordination in no way relegated him to the pulpit, never to be heard from again. His writing is widely published, and he has written and edited seven books (and is working on an eighth). In 1999, Goldstein helped found The New Shul, a synagogue in Greenwich Village characterized by its creative and experimental approach to Judaism.
As much as anything else, Goldstein is known for seeking the most extreme kinds of adventure, which often become the site of his spiritual revelations. In 1993, Goldstein traveled to remote regions in Central Asia seeking signs of Jewish life, and in subsequent trips he has dived off the Great Barrier Reef, ridden on horseback through Mongolia, and mushed dogs in the Arctic. Astonishingly, he also has chased tornadoes, jumped out of airplanes, and traveled to Alaska five times.
The latter he describes as his place of revelation. “It really is my Sinai,” he says. Upon witnessing the undulating Northern Lights, he experienced a state of awestruck reverence, he says. “All the clichés are true ... It’s the last frontier.”
For a congregational rabbi, the comment is a bold one, although Goldstein could hardly be described as shy. And that’s without the gin — and at this point we were probably up to two.
In Gonzo Judaism, his passion flows freely as he takes on the Jewish establishment, attacking prominent figures like the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, and Nobel prize-winning Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel whom he faults for emphasizing Jews’ tragic history. The Jewish community needs to do better than erecting Holocaust memorials in every “goddamn city” in the country, he says.
Further clarifying, he notes: “I didn’t just want to take them on, I wanted to say, ‘Listen, Judaism is not about gloom and doom. It’s very uplifting and inspiring and a joyous approach to living the life.’”
Indeed, at various intervals, Goldstein reveals an affinity for early Chasidism, which took a celebratory approach to Judaism. (“Going back to the Chasidism, they were all about celebrating,” he says. “And we’re drinking right now,” he says with a tilt of his glass.)
In addition to finding inspiration in figures like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard (for their brash, non-conformist approaches), he also lists the Kotzker Rebbe and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. “These guys were proactive, assertive, and highly non-conformist,” he says. “In my view, some of these people like Nachman of Breslov, the Kotzker Rebbe, Jesus — even Jesus as a Jew — they were Gonzo Jews.”
That is to say, they pursued Judaism outside the status quo, just as Jews today ought to do, according to Goldstein.
“It’s about being proactive. It’s about being brash. It’s about being raucous and celebratory. And affirming life. And not being afraid to live. And finally, connected to that, it’s about being willing to take risks, and that includes the risk, of course, of failure,” he says. “If you don’t take risks, you are going through life in a state of quiet desperation, and I don’t want to go through life in quiet desperation, I want to go through life banging on a drum very loudly.”
This past July, Goldstein’s appettite for adventure — the antithesis of “quiet desperation,” perhaps — took him deep into the waters off Hawaii, where he went scuba diving with some 40 Manta Rays gliding overhead. The day we meet, he is wearing a memento from the trip: a forest green T-shirt with the words “Big Island Divers.”
Despite his bravado, I wonder aloud if he was scared by the proximity of the Manta Rays, which are part of the shark family. “In one sense, they look like the worst conceivable monster from a nightmare ... but they also have an angelic quality to them in the way they move,” he says. “So I think I was so awestruck that I couldn’t feel fear. I was numb with a kind of reverence and awe that ideally the High Holidays should bring about, but too often for all kinds of reasons, don’t.”
With that in mind, Goldstein says he actually did emerge from writing the book with a positive attitude, bolstered by signs of Gonzo Judaism emerging nationwide. “Part of it is being open and receptive and finding the paradox of strength within vulnerability,” he says.
Before swigging his last shot, Goldstein scans the room for Marissa the waitress. He wants to show her he’s really taking the shot. She has momentarily disappeared, although he’ll find her to say good-bye before he leaves the bar.
The night has been a brief distraction for him during the holiday season, and our interview has taken him away from the task of writing his Yom Kippur sermon. I reach him by telephone a few days later to ask what a Gonzo Jew does on the High Holidays.
“I guess in my view, when the High Holidays, or more accurately translated, the Days of Awe, are handled properly, it’s all about Gonzo, because the point of the Days of Awe is to confront your own souls,” he says. “To see where you have missed the mark, to call truth to power, and in this case, the power is yourself.”
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