Moshe Kasher (Photo/Messica)
Moshe Kasher (Photo/Messica)

Oakland-raised comedian Moshe Kasher explores the cultures that shaped him in memoir

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This article first appeared in the Jewish Herald-Voice and is reprinted with permission.

A memoir is a collection of memories written by an author aiming to capture stories from their own life. A good memoirist is first and foremost a storyteller.

In his second book, “Subculture Vulture: A Memoir in Six Scenes,” Moshe Kasher details his experiences within six distinct subcultures. These include as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous at the age of 15 after losing control of his drinking and drug use; as a DJ in San Francisco’s rave scene at the age of 16; as a professional sign language interpreter related to his experience as a CODA, the child of a deaf adult; as an employee for 15 years at the Burning Man festival; as a Jew; and as a stand-up comic, his current profession.

Essentially, what you get in “Subculture Vulture” is six personal stories, each set within historical context.

Kasher writes: “In the ’80s and ’90s, subculture was king. Your destiny was shaped by the people you fell in with. … Subculture was a discovery of your people. …”

For Kasher, the Jewish and deaf communities were foundational elements in his identity. He writes, “Subculture, finding your people, was the whole journey of youth for me. It created my life.”

I don’t know about you, but I know next to nothing about the deaf community, American Sign Language (ASL) or the history of the deaf. Kasher’s chapter on deafness includes a condensed history including how a French Catholic priest, Charles-Michel, realized that language, not hearing, unlocks reason.

Deafness, until the 18th century, had the effect of cutting off people from language. When Charles-Michel de l’Épée observed two deaf sisters communicating with each other through hand movements, he realized he was seeing language. He established the first school for the deaf in Paris and learned how to sign from his students. One of his students, Laurent Clerc, went on to co-found the first school for the deaf in North America.

Kasher emphasizes, “When it comes to deafness, the real disability is not the lack of hearing but the lack of access to communication. The hearing loss is incidental; the linguistic isolation is monumental … the acquisition of sign language by the hearing has the real effect of destroying the disability of deafness, crushing the isolation and proving that the deaf can participate equally in society.”

Kasher also covers the oralist movement, an attempt led by Alexander Graham Bell to eliminate sign language education in favor of lip reading and learning to communicate by making sounds.

“In my experience,” writes Kasher, most deaf people don’t want to be hearing, don’t consider themselves disabled and identify strongly as members of deaf culture.”

Kasher recalls how, from his mother, his childhood was filled with ASL story nights and poetry readings. “I was proud to be able to understand it in its unadulterated form. Most hearing people in the audience needed an interpreter to know what was going on. Not me. I was a member of this community. I was a CODA.”

Kasher’s chapter on the Jews earns a PG-13 rating. There’s a strong argument to be made for the entire “Subculture Vulture” to come with a PG-13 rating.

The first part of the chapter is a comedic take on Jewish history, funnier when read out loud, even funnier when one imagines Kasher delivering the text in front of a comedy club audience.

Kasher’s own Jewish exposure growing up is the stuff of a film script. He was raised partly by his mother in Oakland, with little exposure to Judaism except an occasional visit to the local Reform temple. And he was raised partly by his father in a Brooklyn Hasidic enclave.

“Every part of me was a Bay Area kid, progressive and egalitarian,” he writes. “But when it came to Judaism … my brain wanted to preserve stodgy old-world traditionalism. I didn’t wear a yarmulke at all, and I had the right to judge how someone else wore theirs.”

Kasher describes his relationship with Judaism as one of “skeptical affection,” the skepticism you have for family. “I feel an awesome responsibility to carry on, in my small way, this legacy into which I was born,” he writes. “I don’t do it well or all that respectfully, but I do it because it’s so deeply and fundamentally interlaced with who I am that I couldn’t stop if I tried.”

Kasher’s book reads like an insider anthropologist’s visit to six subcultures, but without the academic language. It’s good, smart reading.

“Subculture Vulture: A Memoir in Six Scenes” by Moshe Kasher (Random House, 320 pages). Kasher will perform five stand-up shows Aug. 1-3 at the Punch Line Sacramento Comedy Club, 2100 Arden Way #225. $32-43.

Aaron Howard

Aaron Howard is a staff writer at the Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston.