“Jews have been on the wrong end of the gun, the crossbow, and the sword forever,” a man tells Dan Baum over breakfast in Baum’s new book “Gun Guys: A Road Trip.” That man — Aaron Zelman, founder of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, “an organization widely revered by gun-rights activists as so absolutist that it made the NRA look like a bunch of milk-and-water sissies,” as Baum explains — goes on to describe the moment his life changed. He was 43-year-old brassiere salesman and one night, after putting their children to sleep, his wife asked him, “What is it you really want to do?” Zelman’s answer was simple: “I want to destroy gun control.”
Wisconsin is one stop of many on Baum’s cross-country quest to discover “the essential quality that, like anchovies on pizza, impassioned some people and disgusted others” about firearms. He visits gun stores, gun shows, gun ranges, and gun factories. He takes a guided tour of the National Firearms Museum at NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. He goes hunting for feral hogs with a .44 Magnum in Texas. And he stops by an exclusive machine gunners’ retreat in Wikieup, Arizona. “Choose the most adamant anti-gun peacenik you know and give him a tommy gun to shoot at a stick of dynamite,” he writes after firing off a full magazine in a matter of seconds. “Then strap him to a polygraph and ask him if it was fun.”
Baum is a gun guy who doesn’t belong to gun culture. He was raised among Jewish Democrats in suburban New Jersey, where one of his mother’s friends once said, “Jews make and sell guns… we don’t shoot guns.” And yet, after firing a .22 Mossberg rifle at summer camp, he began studying shows like “Combat!” “with the devotional zeal of a Talmudic scholar” and tucking a toy Luger inside his suit jacket during High Holiday services. The Arty Semite caught up with Baum recently to talk about to talk about his new book and one of the country’s oldest, fiercest debates.
Philip Eil: Judaism provides a kind of microcosm for the broader national debate in your book. Jews are both vehement gun-control advocates and vehement anti-gun control advocates.
I felt my blood pressure skyrocket this morning when I learned that nonfiction wunderkind-turned-pariah Jonah Lehrer was given $20,000 for a mea culpa sermon at the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar, addressing the Bob Dylan quote-fabrication scandal in which he was embroiled last year. My sister-in-law — a fellow freelance journalist who sent me the news with the note “Makes my blood pressure rise” — had the exact same response. I didn’t stew listlessly after reading the article, however. I took out my calculator and went to work.
In five years since graduating from college, I’ve published roughly 125 nonfiction articles. They range from blog posts for book review websites like The Millions to cover stories for my local alt-weekly paper, The Providence Phoenix. The most I’ve ever been paid to write is 75 cents a word for my alma mater’s alumni newsletter. Much more frequently, I get paid around 20 cents a word to write articles for the Phoenix and around three cents a word to contribute to my local Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Voice and Herald. I write for other outlets, free of cost. When I added up the payments for those 125-or-so articles, the sum was less than half of Lehrer’s $20,000 payday.
I don’t report these numbers to elicit pity. Like many young nonfiction writers, I supplement my writing (non-)income with odd jobs: teaching writing at a local college; pay-for-hire research and copywriting; leading literature discussions for a group of local middle-aged women. And like many Jewish kids of a certain milieu (I’m a 27-year-old son of a doctor and attorney who graduated from private prep schools and universities), I’m far from a charity case.
But I write this to illustrate exactly how offensive Lehrer’s honorarium is to anyone in the nonfiction writing business — particularly those of us close to Lehrer’s age who scan Gawker for Lena Dunham’s latest book deal and stare wistfully at the words “staff writer” on the contributors page of our weekly New Yorker. Lehrer proved last year that he isn’t nearly as Digital Age-savvy as he was supposed to be. But even he should know that his $20,000 fee would speak louder than his Knight Foundation remarks.
This new mini-scandal doesn’t have to be an aftershock to the earthquake that crumbled Lehrer’s career. He could turn it around. So, Jonah, if you’re reading, here are a few suggestions for paying your infamous honorarium forward.
Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity
By Joel Stein
Grand Central Publishing, 304 pages, $26.99
Was it possible for Joel Stein to get through his new book, “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity,” without mentioning Judaism? Of course not. The Time Magazine humor columnist makes it only a few steps into his journey before facing the fraught ties between religion and gender.
“After all that camping and firefighting, I am happy to relax in the comfort of a fellow Jew,” he writes, after arriving to learn how to throw and hit a baseball with retired L.A. Dodgers slugger, Shawn Green. “Woody Allen has made neurotic, frail, high-strung Jews seem like all we’ve got, but I don’t blame my lack of manliness on my religion. Not only are there tanned, Uzi-toting, unsmiling, Maccabee-tough Israelis, but there are the haggling, arguing, lawyering Jews that Larry David has brought back.”
Though he fires an M240 machine gun by book’s end, Stein undoubtedly belongs to the Woody Allen School of Jewish Men.
On the day of Moshe Kasher’s bris, his grandfather held him in his hands and declared, “This boy will be a great rabbi, I can see into his soul.” The old man’s prophesy almost came true. One of his grandsons did grow up to become a rabbi: Moshe’s brother, David. Moshe, meanwhile, grew into a brash, fast-talking standup comedian who sports a haircut that, as he says, is just gay and Hitler-esque enough to be called “the Gitler.”
The fact that Moshe survived childhood at all is the basis for his debut book, “Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16,” out this week from Grand Central Publishing.
The book is the enactment of a Jewish mother’s worst nightmare. The author describes a childhood in which he puts out a cigarette on his arm (it later becomes infected); drops acid; sells acid to a seventh grader who then has a heart attack; traipses through subway tunnels; sprays graffiti on various surfaces; steals liquor from the supermarket; smokes weed; snorts pills; drinks “Everclear margaritas”; and breaks into his own house while his mother is away to take psychedelic mushrooms and steal her car. As Kasher tells it, he is a prodigy of misconduct. By age 4 he is assigned his first therapist, and is checked into drug rehab by age 13.