Friday, January 4, 2008

Harlan Ellison: Tough Jew

For those who missed it when it first appeared on May 10, 2005, I’m reprinting (e-printing?) my interview with Harlan Ellison, which originally appeared at Chazarmaveth. This was the opening act for my occasional feature Tough Questions for Tough Jews. Note that I'm currently editing Yr. Pal, Harlan (a collection of Harlan’s electronic letters) for IDW Publishing.

Parts two and three of this interview will appear next week.

METH: The first thing I read of yours that knocked me out was the introduction to Approaching Oblivion where you talked about…

ELLISON: (interrupts) “I’m sick and tired of the world, and fuck the lot of ya.”

METH: Yes, that’s what it was. But there was a strong Jewish message in there. Here’s this little Jewish boy and his very Jewish experience--an experience that still affects you.

ELLISON: Yeah.

METH: You’ve always been conscious of being a tough Jew.

ELLISON: Yeah.

METH: Did you have Jewish role models who were tough Jews, because in the 1930s it would have been guys like Bugsy Siegel and Dutch Schultz representing that image.

ELLISON: No, I’ve never had a Jewish role model of any kind.

METH: So you thought Jews were a bunch of wimps.

ELLISON: No. You want to ask the questions and answer them, too? You can hang up and you won’t need me and I can go back to work.

METH: (laughing)

ELLISON: So, are you ready?

METH: Go.

ELLISON: Okay. I was a Jew in a world where there were no Jews. The only Jews I knew were my mother and father, and they weren’t all that Jewish. They were High Holy Day Jews. We would go into Cleveland and we would go to the synagogue there, and I would see all these people and they would be mumbling in a language I didn’t know. So I didn’t have that much contact with them. The way I knew I was a Jew was when I first learned that I was a kike, and I learned that at the end of Jack Wheeldon’s fist and feet, and his pals at Lathrop Grade School in Painesville, Ohio.

In my grade school, I was the only Jew for some while. I couldn’t have been any older than four years old when I moved to Painesville, and we lived on Harmon Drive, and there were no Jewish families at that time. Soon thereafter, there were Jewish families, but the kids were not in my class—I was a little bit older than them. And when I went to grade school, which was right around the corner from us, I was the only kid. Now, this was Ohio in the 1940s—‘39, ‘40, ‘41 that kind of thing. And these kids were the products of their parents inbred anti-Semitism. If they believed anything, they believed that Jews had horns and killed Christian babies to make their matzos. Now, you hear people sometimes talking about this, and they say it as a gag. I actually heard it. It was said to me.

Jehovah’s witnesses were big around there and I remember very clearly one day when I was walking home from school and this little girl started following me. And she started saying, “You’re gonna’ go to hell because you don’t believe in Jesus Christ. You’re gonna’ go to hell, and when you’re in hell, you’re gonna’ want water, and I won’t give it to you!” And I started crying and I ran on home.Years later, I had to laugh: What a terribly loving, “Christian” attitude that was on her part.

I knew I was a Jew because they would not let me forget I was a Jew. We’re talking here about the middle-America version of The Protocols of the Elders of Fucking Zion. And I became a tough Jew because I had no alternative. I was very small and when we were all small, I was able to hold my own and I could brawl pretty good with the best of them. But as they got older and taller, and I stayed a dwarf, they were able to beat on me like a big door. When I got to high school—Champion Junior High School in Painesville—one day I was sitting in an auditorium because there was an assembly, and behind me were Wheeldon and Beckwith and Jividen and the rest of those assholes whose names, of course, are burned into my memory because they were those memories that never leave you, no matter how well-adjusted you get. And people say, “Well, let it go, let it go.” Fuck you, “let it go.” You let it go. I think bad memories are as valuable to a writer as good memories. Pain is a much greater friend to a real writer than pleasure because the pleasure takes care of itself—it’s what sustains you. But what gets you passionate and angry enough to write are the hurtful memories. And one of ‘em behind me called me a kike, and I turned around and I slammed the guy—I think it was Wheeldon, but it may not have been Wheeldon; it may have been another one of his no-neck cronies. I slammed him in the face with a geography book. And when he recovered from being hit, he punched me, and he hit me so hard, he tore the chair out of the floor. It was an old wooden high school, and the chair was pulled straight out of the floor.

So did I have any role models? Yeah. Me. Is that tough enough for you?

© The Kilimanjaro Corporation, 2005

(stay tuned for Part Two)

3 comments:

HemlockMan said...

Damn, I like Harlan Ellison.

Felicity Walker said...

Heh. Awesome. :-)

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Painesville in the 60's (went to Huntington School--located in the crummiest part of town; unlike Lathrop. BTW, all the old schools have been demolished and replaced in the past few years) and am saddened sickened by these comments. Granted, the Jewish population of the town still wasn't very big back then (and probably still isn't), but I would have never dreamed there would be this level of anti-Semitism. Not that I have the power to do so, but I would nevertheless like to apologize to Harlan Ellison on behalf of everyone in Painesville for the manner in which he was mistreated. Ironically, this is now a town which likes to pride itself on its diversity! (Lots of Mexicans have moved there in the last couple of decades)