Orthodox paradox

Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight: Matthue Roth does not want to be known as the Orthodox poet who talks about sex. Even though that’s kind of what he is.

His poems are not about sex, he claims. Or they are, but with an important caveat. They’re not about sex he’s had. They’re about sex he hasn’t had: about crushes on Orthodox girls and the incredible frustration of being frum, which means waiting until he’s married to do it.

“But what people hear is me talking about sex,” he says, shaking his head. “I think I just get typed. If you say 100 words and one of them is f—-, the other 99 just float away.”

He has a lot more to say on that topic.

Roth, 25, is a rising star on the spoken-word scene in San Francisco. He’s performed in his native Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” series. He’s read with Dave Eggers, author of Gen-Xers’ adored novel “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” He’s been blurbed by Deepak Chopra, though, admittedly, that’s more an indicator of his fame than of his being hip.

And for many, he’s a paradox. He davens (prays) three times a day, and his best friends are all lesbians. His somewhat ambiguous sexuality has made him a popular performer in the lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/ transgender community, even though he’s straight. On Friday nights, he’s a regular for dinner at Chabad of Noe Valley; other nights, he’s more likely to be found in front of the microphone in some bar in the Mission.

The sexual content in Roth’s work is “definitely borderline,” says Rabbi Gedalia Potash, director of Chabad of Noe Valley.

“He’s struggling with his passions and trying to keep in line, and he sings it instead of saying it,” says Potash, who admits he probably hasn’t heard some of Roth’s raunchier stuff.

Even his grandmother, Ida Roth, approves.

Besides, what he says isn’t worse than anything else you hear in movies or on television these days, she says.

Ask Roth why a hipster like him is Orthodox, and he immediately jokes, “I do it just to get girls because, you know, it works. There’s kind of this idea that being Orthodox is hot.”

When prodded to answer more seriously, though, he thinks for a minute. “You’re devoting yourself to something,” he says, looking completely serious. “You’ve got discipline and devotion.” He pauses, as if in deep thought. “Which means that you’re probably really good at oral sex.”

For a straight man with facial hair, he’s remarkably girly, and he plays it to the hilt; he often sports a baby T-shirt over his wiry frame. He’s certainly got to be the only guy around town with tzitzit (fringes) hanging over his pleather pants (he doesn’t like to have them referred to as vinyl) and maybe a spiked dog collar, with payes, the traditional side curls, swinging down from his ears to his shoulders.

And what about those side curls?

He started growing them a few years ago when he lived in the Czech Republic, because unlike the black kippah he always wears on his head, they don’t require a conscious act to put them on; they are hanging by his ears, all the time.

But they have become part of his shtick. When Roth was about to appear on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” series, the stylist said to him, “If I cut these, you don’t have a career, do you?” and Roth had to agree he was right.

Besides, he adds, “They make me look cute.”

The “ue” at the end of his name is just another gimmick. His given name is Matthew, but he started signing letters as Matthue, almost as a joke. People responded to it, and once he got his Web site, it made sense. He’s the only Matthue on the entire World Wide Web who spells his name that way. A sampling of his work can be both read and heard on www.matthue.com, in addition to a blog (diary on his Web site) he keeps about random things he does with his day.

After graduating from George Washington University, Roth remained in Washington, D.C., working as a consultant predicting sociological trends. His social life was less than exciting.

“All my friends were boring, working until 11 at night,” he says. His best friend sent him “Valencia,” a novel by San Francisco author Michelle Tea, which was unlike anything Roth had ever read before.

“She’s this dyke who mostly writes stories about herself and her crazy life,” he says, sex and drugs included. “I thought, ‘They sound like they’re having a lot more fun than I am.’ I wanted to come out here and have a life not devoted to a cubicle, and become best friends with her.”

And so he did, arriving here in 2001 — his first time in San Francisco. And although “best friends” may be a bit of an exaggeration, Tea is definitely in Roth’s social circle. “We’re friends. We hang out,” he says simply.

Roth began performing not too long after. While he’s always been a writer, he had never tried spoken word until he came West.

After he met Tea and others in her literary dyke milieu, someone told Roth about an open mic night at a bar.

He didn’t have much material then and was afraid to do “Orthodox Girls,” one of his old standbys that he describes as misogynistic, in front of a mostly dyke crowd.

He wrote “Orthodox Girls” a few years ago.

“I was getting back into Judaism but not getting into Jews,” he explains. “They were still stuck up and thought I dressed weird.”

More on that later.

The poem, which Roth describes as “raunchy and randy,” is about his having crushes on Orthodox girls “and why they’re hot.”

A sample:

Orthodox girls’ names turn me on

like Rochil and Batsheba and Yocheved

that are not names but onomatopoeias, meant to be

cried out in a fury of uncontrolled ecstasy,

like FIRE!

He took his chances though, and performed it, at his roommate’s urging. The crowd loved it.

Soon after, he was offered half an hour to perform his poetry, but there was one problem. He didn’t have enough material to be on stage that long.

“I had to write very fast,” he says.

Roth says he’s been writing his whole life. But beyond reading his work to a few friends in living rooms, having a live audience respond to him was a whole new thing.

“It was like my words were leaping off the page, and the more energy I pumped into it, the more energy the crowd sent back to me,” he says. He pauses to consider what he has just said. “S—-, that sounded so Berkeley.” But then he continues. “It’s like fire, I just, like, shoot it out of my eyes.”

It’s true. See Roth perform, and the cute boy with the shy smile transforms into someone with manic energy, his words almost uncontrollably spilling out of him. He’s on fire, and he takes total command of the stage and the audience. Whatever you think of his work, it’s nearly impossible not to like him. Or, at least, think he’s adorable, nervous tics and all — he says “um” a lot.

A native of Philadelphia, Roth grew up in a semi-observant home, the son of two teachers. Now, he is much more observant than his parents, saying they are the types to “wake up Saturday morning, clean the house and then go to shul.”

For quite a few years, Roth became totally disconnected from Judaism. He went from growing up in the Orthodox youth movement to becoming an anarchist in high school.

“I started realizing about sexism and homophobia and, I don’t know, that people are not treated equally,” he says. So he did what any angry teenager in that situation would do: He started going to punk rock shows. This also meant that “I stopped everything Jewish for six years.”

One weekend when he was about 20 and in college, several of his friends were going through particularly hard times. Roth, at a loss to help them, was searching for some kind of meaning.

“I thought, ‘Who’s around? God’s around,’ and I went to synagogue that night. That was it. It was downhill from there on.”

Roth says now that he always knew he’d come back to Judaism, he just had to do so on his own terms, which in his eyes meant “separating the laws from the bulls—-.”

Like all frum men, Roth prays three times daily, which takes him up to an hour (“I’m fast,” he says). “That means you still have 23 more hours to write and dance and flirt and eat food.”

Despite being Orthodox, Roth is extremely critical of the Jewish establishment, saying that it’s what turned him off to religion in the first place.

“I saw Judaism as this flat board I either fit on or not,” he says. “It was like you were asked, ‘Do you want to be on the inside or outside?’ and on the outside were all these amazing writers and movies and bands and the world I wanted to be a part of, and on the inside was my synagogue and stupid songs and newspapers that no one wants to read.”

Roth loves his Judaism. He is fully observant according to halachah (Jewish law), except that he is not strictly shomer negiah, meaning he’s been known to hug members of the opposite sex.

The Judaism Roth embraces includes a wide diversity of voices.

Now back to the sex, since he still hasn’t finished talking about it.

In the poetry section on his Web site, he warns: “Some of these poems may be inappropriate for children and halachic prudes. In fact, you might just want to wait for the TV show to come out.”

Roth draws an interesting analogy when talking about his religiosity and the fact that he talks about sex so much, or rather as he puts it, “I think I’m only a little bit risque.”

“Shakespeare wrote all of these incredible things in iambic pentameter,” he says. “If I can do what I do, be religious and still make art that I think is beautiful, and that hopefully someone else thinks is beautiful, it’s the same thing.”

Potash of Noe Valley’s Chabad insists that the man in front of the microphone is a different one from the one who joins him and his wife, Leah, for Shabbos dinner.

“There are two parts to him: the traditional, Orthodox lifestyle and his drive and desire to make it out there in the secular world. He’s looking for some harmonious path where both can be fully utilized. When he comes to my house, he fits in perfectly; he’s a good merger in terms of bridging people’s backgrounds.”

His grandmother, Ida, thinks he could curse a bit less. But she shows her approval by showing up whenever he performs near her Philadelphia home, sitting in the front row and cackling the whole time.

Actually, Ida says she had no idea what to expect the first time she heard her grandson perform. “But I thought he did pretty good. He is so active during the whole thing.”

About his act, she says: “I have told him to clean it up a little. Being a grandmom, you want everything perfect, but of course I’m not living in the netherworld. I know what goes on.

“You have to be a little open-minded. Things aren’t like when I was young. But this is what makes him happy, and this is what people have come to expect.

“I’m always proud of him, I’m proud of all my children, thank God. They’re all good kids and that’s what you hope for in your family. He’s a doll,” she says.

Roth isn’t limiting himself to just the spoken word, however. In addition to a few self-published booklets of his poetry, he recently finished writing a novel, which he’s now editing.

Called “The Goldbergs,” it features a 17-year-old punk Orthodox girl named Chava who gets asked to act on a sitcom, goes to Hollywood and encounters the outside world.

“It’s totally cheesy, but I’m in love with it. I can’t decide if I were 17 whether I’d be in love with Chava or want to be her,” he says.

“So much of contemporary Jewish children’s literature isn’t worthwhile. It’s stupid stories about boring people with boring children who won’t want to read them.”

Roth bemoans the fact that there are no positive, cool role models whom Jewish kids can identify with — someone like Eminem, for example. He hopes he can create one with the children’s hip-hop record he’s working on.

“I’m a 25-year-old single boy, unmarried, so that’s what I’m thinking about,” he says — yes, back to sex, again. “But when I’m 75 years old and all my poems are about mashed carrots, I hope they’ll be funny and interesting, too.”

Matthue Roth will appear with other Jewish performers at 8 p.m. Sunday at Urban Forage, 2254 Fillmore St., S.F. Others include Kirk Read, Amy Tobin, Heather Gold and Andrew Ramer. Information: (415) 255-6701. He also will perform with others at 9 p.m. Thursday in Daniland Talent Showcase, Metro West, 201 Broadway, Oakland. Others include the Suicide Kings, Sini Anderson, Carlos Mena and Aya de Leon; doors open at 8:30 p.m. Information: www.matthue.com.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."