Conversations

 

Daniel Ross Goodman (photo provided)

Daniel Ross Goodman (photo provided)

 

 

bill berry, jr.:

 

Hey Daniel, to kick-off our discussion, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me.  I recognize how busy you are and that work-load situation does provide my opening question.  Without making any value-tinted judgments, I suspect most folks who know your background {see the Contributors’ page in aaduna’s fall 2016 issue} would easily say that you are an overachiever.  Now, you may or not take issue with that character assessment, so how do you see yourself at this moment in time, and share what it was like growing up, what you did for fun, and what were your parent’s expectations of you?   

 

 

Daniel Ross Goodman:

 

Hey Bill, first of all, thank you for having me for this Conversation, it’s a pleasure to talk to you—and it’s also a nice break from the full-time work-load of the Ph.D. program that you alluded to. And thank you for inviting me into the aaduna literary community, it’s a great honor to be a part of it and I’m really glad that my (at the time) second short story found its home with you.

 

“Overachiever”? Hmm. That’s something I’ve never been accused of being; if you’ve grown up Jewish and middle class, if you’re not a doctor, law firm partner, or investment banker by the time you’re twenty-eight, you’ve pretty much failed as a human being. So I’ll take it! But yeah, I’ve been working very hard over the past six or seven years and have achieved some good things so far, but I actually feel more like an underachiever—not because I haven’t accomplished anything, only because I believe that my most important goals and greatest achievements are still ahead of me, and that if I don’t keep working hard I’ll never reach them. I’d say that at this time, I see myself as an “anxious achiever”: I have definitely accomplished a few things—calling myself an “underachiever” would probably be too unfair to myself—but a nervous energy (and the dread that I’ll never actualize my full potential) propels me forward every day.

 

Growing up was a wonderful time for me—I was blessed with the priceless gift of a good childhood, which is the best thing you can give to a normal kid but the worst thing you can give to future writer because it’s not a childhood that you can later turn into a literarily lucrative memoir à la Running with Scissors or The Squid and the Whale. A book about my childhood would probably be the lowest-selling memoir of all time. The most tumultuous event of my childhood was probably when I got in a fight with my friend Roni in fourth grade after playing in the snow during recess and he threw my snow-boots in the garbage. My friends and I are still trying to determine what caused that fight and what exactly it was that led him to throw my boots into the garbage; every few years we piece together a few more clues, but to this day the case remains unsolved. It’s like our version of “Zodiac.” Only without, you know, the killing part. (Hey, I just realized that Roni later went on to be a cartoonist, just like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in “Zodiac”! That still doesn’t solve anything…or does it?…okay, let’s move on.)

 

I grew up in a quiet, idyllic middle-class suburban community in western Massachusetts during the golden years of the 1990’s when my Knicks were great and all the Boston sports team sucked. (Don’t you miss those times, non-New England America? And yeah, I grew up a Knicks fan in Massachusetts—I was strange like that.) Speaking of which, all I really cared about growing up was basketball and books—and usually in that order. So if you could magically combine them, that was like the greatest thing on earth for me since the internet. (I’ve made an executive decision to replace the now-senseless expression “greatest thing since sliced bread” with “greatest thing since the internet”—this is something we can all agree on, right? Okay, good.) By the age of eleven I must’ve read every book about Michael Jordan (and there were tons of those in the 1990’s—Jordan was like all four Beatles in one) and every basketball biography or autobiography ever printed—Bird’s, Magic’s, Barkley’s, Kareem’s, the Dream Team book…I’m not exaggerating in the slightest. The only one I never got to was Wilt Chamberlain’s, because when I was at the bookstore with my babysitter and asked her if I could get it, she refused after looking at the back cover and seeing that Wilt was described as a man with “the number of bed partners having passed 20,000 and still climbing.” She didn’t think it was an appropriate book for a ten-year-old. Then again, in Hebrew Day School they were teaching us the Book of Genesis at that time—the stories of Judah and Tamar, Lot and his daughters, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife—I can’t imagine Wilt’s autobiography topping that. (I mean, have you read these stories?! You’d think that the Author of the Bible doubled as an anonymous screenplay writer for bad NC-17 movies…either that, or God’s mind is no dirtier than ours.) I still can’t get over how they taught us those stories in fourth grade! I’ll never forget that day in fourth grade when our poor Hebrew school teacher was tasked with trying to teach us the Genesis story about Dinah—and then I’d come home from school and all I could watch on TV was Nickelodeon and Full House because my mom thought that The Simpsons(The Simpsons!) was too dirty. Fun times.

 

When I actively sought out fun (instead of having it thrust upon me), it usually involved playing sports with friends—mostly basketball, but also backyard baseball, two-hand-touch football, tennis, and the imaginary basketball league my friend Josh and I used to act out in our driveway basketball courts (in our league Steve Smith was better than Michael Jordan—don’t ask…and also don’t ask about the imaginary tennis league I used to act out when playing tennis against myself on the driveway and hitting the ball off of the garage door—in that league Agassi never lost to Sampras and Lleyton Hewitt was the best player ever). My other hobbies included such exhilarating activities as collecting and trading basketball cards, spending goodness knows how many hours at the Basketball Hall of Fame (I grew up ten minutes away from it), playing NBA Jam with my friend Tamir (“he’s on FIRE!”), randomly interjecting terrible impressions of Marv Albert into ordinary conversations, studying the annual NBA Almanac like it was the Bible (can you tell that I liked basketball growing up? Yes? Ok…I was worried for a sec that that wasn’t coming through), drawing unflattering pictures of my teachers, and discovering novel ways to get in trouble through reading. (I once got suspended from middle school for a day for stealing back my book that the rabbi had confiscated from me after he caught me reading while I was supposed to be reciting Grace After Meals. The book was “The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare.”…I guess you could say I was a very bellicose reader in more ways than one. Ha Ha.)

Which brings me to my main outlet for fun while growing up (besides for sports, of course)—reading. All I really wanted to do was read: anytime, anywhere, and anything—as long as it had monsters in it or was scary. I devoured every new “Goosebumps” book like it was a bite-sized Butterfinger bar; later I got into Fear Street, the “horror classics” (Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, et al.), and Edgar Allan Poe, which eventually led to all my later literary interests. Horror was my gateway drug to more serious reading—and I was always getting high growing up…if you know what I mean. I couldn’t get enough of it. When we drove through the beautiful Sedona mountain range during a family trip to Arizona, I was in the backseat reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. “Get your head out of that book and look at the freakin’ mountains!” my parents yelled at me. “We didn’t come all the way to Arizona just so you could read!” (They didn’t actually curse at me but I’m pretty sure they wantedto.) I guess you could say I was the type of kid who’d rather read about adventure than experience it himself. And I don’t think I’ve changed much since. My philosophy always was, when you have a great book, why go anywhere? Why seek out the Grand Canyon or Macchu Picchu when you can open up The Phantom Tollbooth or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and immediately have the greatest things in the world accessible to you from the comfort of your couch or bed? (I told you I was an excruciatingly boring person, didn’t I? I’m like the Bizarro version of the ‘World’s Most Interesting Man.’)

 

I don’t think my parents had any defined expectations for me except wanting me to pick out a good, stable career for myself (so from that perspective I’m a total abject failure) and wanting me to be happy (the verdict’s still out on that one). With my mom I know for sure that that was the case; with my dad, though, he never really explicitly told me what he wanted me to do, but as I got older he kept dropping more and more hints, like that one time when he said “I always thought you would go to Amherst” (didn’t happen) and that one time in college when he dropped a boombox-sized stack of books about Sports Law, law schools and the LSAT on my desk. That wasn’t very subtle either. (Isn’t it sad that those of us who grew up in the ‘90’s are the last generation who’ll understand what boom boxes were? No? Yeah…you’re probably right…they were always way too clunky and heavy to carry around, that’s true…though without them Do the Right Thing wouldn’t have worked. So there.)

 

bb:

 

I am familiar with and understand the dynamics that most Jewish parents place on their children.  Expectations, whether subtle or “in your face,” do place a bar for eventual achievement, and once achieved, the bar inches forward some more.  So, what fields did your parents exist in?  And it does appear that you mapped out your life goals and are pursuing those objectives with vigor.  Now, with your avid interest in basketball, are you still playing, coaching or some way or another engaged in the sport.  Also, give me a sense of your adult life, especially your social life, and what prompted your initial interest in the written word?

 

DRG:

 

My parents will strangle me Homer Simpson-style if I don’t immediately clarify that I had been exaggerating about them; they weren’t “tiger mom” parents in any way, shape or form—my mom (who was a local TV news anchor before transitioning to the field of professional development), like any good yuppie/baby-boomer mom, just wanted her kids to be happy, and my dad (who still practices law in western Mass), like any responsible father, wanted his kids to get into stable, remunerative careers. In fact, my parents were hardly even “Jewish” parents, as far as our stereotypes of pushy, demanding Jewish parents are concerned: those stereotypes mostly come from New York/New Jersey Jews—the Larry David/Woody Allen/Philip Roth Jewish universe is pretty much comprised of only New York/New Jersey Jews—and both of my parents are third generation New England Jews. I mean, of course my parents are Jewish, but they aren’t “Jew-ish” (to borrow the great Seth Meyers line) at all—they’re not loud, they’re not very talkative, they’re not open about their emotions and feelings; in that way they’re much more Waspy (are we still allowed to say “Waspy”?) than Jew-ish. They didn’t bring me up on gefilte fish and matzah ball soup. They don’t even like deli—they’d rather eat a filet of sole with baked risotto and porcini mushrooms than a pastrami sandwich on rye, which is as close as you can get to committing a capital offense in Judaism.

 

Unfortunately my only current involvement in basketball involves following the sport, watching a few games when I get a chance, and observing the annual Now-We’ve-Officially-Given-Up-On-This-Season day that all Knicks fans have been observing for the past seventeen years or so. (We follow the lunar calendar, which means that this date varies every year, but it generally falls out around mid-January. This year it fell out on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when they had that backbreaking loss to the Hawks, which was a tough loss but also pretty cool ‘cause it was like when Hanukah falls out on Christmas. Two holidays for the price of one! Doesn’t happen as often as you think.) I haven’t played basketball on a consistent basis since college, which is also the last time I played tennis competitively as well (my other main childhood sport). But I continue to draw on both in my life all the time in various ways; for example, I have a terrible habit, as my friends can lamentingly tell you, of analogizing anything to something sports-related—like how I believe that being a writer is a lot like being a shooter, which is what I was when I played: you’re not mixing it up in the paint and banging down low, you’re hovering on the periphery (of life/the three-point arc) and using your good eye/above-average observational skills to take shots (at the rim/at social conventions) from a distance…you get the point.

 

You really want to know about my social life? Oh boy. This is dangerous territory…as I warned you before, I’m about as exciting as a copy of Time magazine from 1997 (which is approximately the year my social life ended); my social life is sitting in a freezer somewhere in Massachusetts waiting to be miraculously restored to life—kinda like Ted Williams’ head…sorry. Where were we? Oh, right—social life. Let’s see…well, I don’t have very many friends, but I do have a great group of very close friends: I have six very close friends from rabbinical school (plus several additional close friends from rabbinical school), my four best friends are four guys I grew up with in western Mass that I’ve known since kindergarten (two since preschool, actually), and more recently I’ve been reconnecting with my best friend from childhood/growing up. As for that ahem, other aspect of my social life…let’s just say that I’m encouraged by the fact that celibacy worked out very well for Henry James…

 

You know how in The Phantom Tollbooth, there are those two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Words and the Kingdom of Numbers? Logos-opolis and Integer-opolis, or something like that? I think I was definitely born in Logos-opolis. Or at least I’m somehow descended from someone who was born there. I always had an inexplicable affinity for words—English words, foreign-language words, sentences, letters, books…and a concomitant abhorrence of numbers. (Even when I write out numbers I prefer to write “eighteen” instead of “18.”) Love of the written word is just in my DNA. And it was also injected into my bloodstream by my parents for good measure—well, not literally, but almost: when I was a child my mom read to me in bed every night (I loved anything with monsters, so “Where The Wild Things Are”, William Steig’s “Rotten Island”, and “The Headless Horseman and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow” were some of my favorites). My parents also took me to the local library and the local bookstore all the time (if I behaved myself while getting a haircut, my reward would be a trip to the bookstore), and generally supported my reading, as long as I read what I should when I should (which was hardly ever the case). That local bookstore (“Kiddlywinks,” for you Longmeadow folks out there) near the children’s barber shop was actually where I got my first copy of a “Goosebumps” book (which also happened to be the first-ever “Goosebumps” book—I was in on “Goosebumps” from the beginning) when I was eight-years-old or so, and that’s what led to everything else in my reading (and writing) life.

 

bb:

 

Truth be told, as someone who grew up in the Bronx, lived in Co-op City for seventeen years, and spent time in Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Monsey, NY, I, like most New Yorkers who are not Jewish, ‘understand’ the two common (Hasidim and Orthodox) belief streams in Judaism.  However, I never recognized that there might be regional and secular-driven differences among Jews.  And I am definitely of the New Yorker sensibility that Jews are typically cast as somewhat homogeneous in terms of lifestyle and secular proclivities.  And while I worked with a college president who was Jewish from Boston/New England region, I never recognized that his life stance was grounded in some of your parents’ viewpoints and outlook on living life.  I just put him in the common New York state of mind. Now, your sharing raises the specter of your rabbinical training.  Becoming a rabbi stems from where, what influences, and is this “role” a radical departure from how your life generally developed and where most folks expected you to head towards?

 

DRG:

 

Based on what I’ve shared so far, it might seem like becoming a rabbi was a radical departure for me, but actually, if you told anyone who knew me that I had become a rabbi, they’d say, ‘oh, of course, I always expected that.’ Along with books and sports, what I also gravitated to from a very young age was Judaic studies. In pre-school, I liked learning the Hebrew alphabet better than the English alphabet (or so I’ve been told—I have no memory of this). My first-grade teacher told my mom that I was “rabbi material” (or so I’ve been told—I have no memory of this either). But what I do remember is always feeling at home with Judaic studies, and feeling very inspired by what I was learning in school, and I guess people could always see this in me. I always wanted to be learning and wanted to take my Judaic learning with me anywhere, literally— during breaks on the tennis court, when we were supposed to be getting water I used to pull out my tanakh (Bible) from my tennis bag and learn chumash with Rashi (Torah with commentary). So in some ways becoming a rabbi was the least surprising thing that ever happened to me. In other ways, though, it was very surprising, because after I went through a very intense religious phase between the ages of 12 and 21, I didn’t want to be a rabbi anymore. But in my mid-20’s, when I began to get serious about theology, I knew that I had some unfinished business to take care of vis-à-vis my Judaic studies career, and realized that I should probably go to rabbinical school after all. What fortified me in this decision was that I began to understand that there were “other types of rabbis” (to borrow a line from my aaduna story)—i.e., that not all rabbis were “pulpit rabbis”—and that I could become one of these “non-pulpit” rabbis: a rabbi who teaches in the classroom (and in other non-traditional places), not in the synagogue, and whose teachings are found in his writings, not in his sermons…to sum up, it’s not surprising at all that I became a rabbi when I was 30, but the kind of rabbi I became is a rather surprising departure from the kind of rabbi I and everyone who knew me thought I would become when I was 15.

 

bb:

 

You provided an insight for me because the assumption that most non-Jews arrive at is that a rabbi is a synagogue leader, and even though that person may teach and write, the foundation is arrived at by way of leading a “congregation.” So, where are you headed as you bring the diverse elements of your education and skills to bear on your future?  And is politics an arena that you might want to investigate?

 

DRG:

 

Where am I headed? Anywhere but oblivion and soul-crushing disaster would be fine, I’d settle for that. But that’s just wishful thinking…Where am I headed? I wish I knew. My current trajectory as a Ph.D. candidate means I’m headed for academia, which I am at this point. But there are these other elements of myself, as you mentioned, that I’d like to incorporate in whatever kind of academic post I’ll God-willing be occupying. My greatest passions are literature and theology, so if I can, in my own small way, enrich our literature and reanimate theology…if I can make lasting contributions to these areas with my writing—if I can produce at least one good work of literature, and one good work of theology—then I’ll be able to die in peace. … Being a writer requires complete candor, uncompromising honesty, a taste for nuance, an appreciation of complexity, and a willingness to dwell in ambivalences; and being a theologian requires one to be ever-vigilant and uncompromising in the search for truth—all of these traits are pretty much utterly inimical to politics…so there goes my dream of becoming President pro tempore of the Senate; my dream of becoming an answer to a seventh grade civics trivia question will have to be accomplished by some other means…maybe by finally getting my screenplay for “How a Bill Becomes a Law 2: Revenge of the Congressional Budget Office” greenlit by Warner Brothers. (C’mon, call me! It can’t be worse than “Batman v Superman”! And it’s educational!)

 

bb:

 

I appreciate your wonderful spirit.  Clearly, you are an accomplished individual who has several trajectories in front of you.  And I am convinced that regardless of where you eventually reside personally and/or as a professional, you will maintain your scholarly demeanor and humorous and engaging outlook. 

 

As our conversational comes to closure, is there anything else that we did not know about you that I have failed to ask or you have avoided getting into?

 

DRG:

 

Hmm…well, you didn’t ask about the outstanding warrants the International Criminal Court has out on me or my pending extradition to the Hague for crimes against rationality (several more of which I’ve committed in this interview alone), so I do appreciate that…as far as anything else readers should know about me, here’s where I guess I’m supposed to get in the obligatory shameless plug (though maybe not so shameless because I don’t get any money from it): if you want to check out more of my writing, here’s my first-published story, “The End of Days”; my poem “Ecce Deus Meus” appeared in aaduna this April; my other recently published stories: “The Tryst” (in The Cortland Review), “Postwar” (in Aurora Wolf) and “Solids and Stripes” (in The Acentos Review); and my next short story, “The House of David” (in Calliope), will be appearing in the fall of 2017, so keep a lookout for that one. I also write on art, literature, religion and culture for the Books & Arts section of The Weekly Standard—you can access my articles (my most recent piece is on Emily Dickinson) on my TWS author page. Lastly, I should mention that readers of my aaduna story Prélude à l’après-midi d’un rhinoplastie might assume that I’m just a Rothian humor writer. While that story is definitely a comedy—and it’s probably clear from this interview alone that I do love comedy—none of my other stories (so far) are comedies. I write in all sorts of genres and styles; my literary palette is decidedly polychrome. And though Philip Roth has certainly been a very important writer for me, my literary sensibility has been primarily shaped by my four favorite writers—Thomas Mann, Gabriel García Márquez, Albert Camus, and Italo Calvino, and to a lesser extent by Emily Brontë, Kafka, and Poe. Finally, my overall religious-humanistic-literary sensibility—and my eventual literary goals—align more closely to Dante’s and Milton’s than to those of a more traditional post-17th century novelist. By Dante and Milton I don’t mean to say that I am or want to be a poet, because I am not, nor ever shall be, a poet—“Ecce Deus Meus” notwithstanding; I’m alluding, rather, to certain religious, humanistic, and theological goals that I have for my literary career which, if God grants me the time and the ability (and some much-needed luck with the fickle publishing industry), I hope to eventually make happen iy”H [God-willing]. And on that enigmatic note, I think I should sign off for now and stop talking before I get myself into even more trouble than I’m already in.

 

Thank you so much Bill, for this conversation; it’s been great talking to you—I hope it’s been as fun for you as it’s been for me.

 

bb:

 

Our chat was spirited and joyous.  Thank you for taking the time…much appreciated.

 

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Read Daniel Ross Goodman’s fiction piece, “– Prélude à l’après-midi d’un rhinoplastie: or, When the Rabbi Went for a Nose Job” in aaduna’s  fall 2016 issue:

 

http://aaduna.org/fall2016/fiction/daniel-c-goodman/

 

 

Click below to read conversations from previous issues:

 

summer/fall 2015

 

fall/winter 2014

 

summer 2014

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Message from Bill Berry, Jr

 

When aaduna started, I did an interview process titled “E-Viewpoints” with contributors. The purpose was to construct a wider audience for aaduna writers and artists while providing our readership with a better understanding and glimpse of the individuals who penned the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and created the diverse array of visual arts. For a variety of unplanned reasons, I took a hiatus from that initiative. But now, I am back with “Conversations.” The plan is to chat with current and previous contributors and delve into aspects of their background that you may find intriguing and uplifting. I hope you become a regular follower of this series of “Conversations” and continue to enjoy the work of the individual that I have a chat with. The intent is not to be “in your face” but enable you to savor the nuances, expectations, and challenges that aaduna contributors face as people, just like you and me. I think you will find “Conversations” interesting, maybe provocative, and enlightening. I hope so.

Stay Creative,

bill