Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tough Questions For Tough Jews: Harlan Ellison

In this installment of our Tough Questions for Tough Jews series, author Clifford Meth interviews fellow tough Yid and award-winning author Harlan Ellison. This is Part I of III -- stay tuned for Part II tomorrow, and Part III on Thursday.

METH: The first thing I read of yours that knocked me out was the intro 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.


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


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?


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


At 1:24 AM, May 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's no rant like an Ellison rant

At 4:07 PM, May 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I grow up, I want to be just like Harlan Ellison.


At 4:34 PM, May 11, 2005, Blogger Steve said...

Well, I for one am sad that H.E. was not able to attend I-CON this year at Stonybrook, NY. He has a wealth of life experience, much of it lousy, and an unsurpassed skill as a raconteur. I can't say I enjoyed his account of his bullied early life since it spoke of crummy and stupid stuff that should have been bred out of us long ago in favour of intelligence, but I wanted to read more.

At 6:31 PM, May 14, 2005, Blogger The Head said...

Harlan Ellison is the Holy Man of Atheism

At 7:20 AM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who is Harlan Ellison and what did he write? Email me at d_h_888@yahoo.com

At 3:55 PM, May 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wikipedia has a pretty thorough entry on Harlan Ellison here, which includes a list of publications.

Go read some. He's amazing. His collection "Shatterday" was recently reprinted. I recommend it.

At 7:15 PM, May 17, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeez, he sounds exactly as I remember him. HE made a significant impression on my young fannish mind when he was GOH at Albacon (the Scottish one) way back in 1985! Bring it on, man, I love it....


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