David M. Bader writes quiet, spare, funny books. His newest, “The Book of Murray,” was published last week. Its subject is the until-now lost book of the prophet Murray — part Moses, part Elijah, part Shecky Green. A man who draws a blank when the people put too much pressure on him to prophesy. So he grabs the first topic that he can think of: doom.
God, he warns the people, “hath had it up to here, and the day of reckoning is nigh.”
Bader is the dry wit behind “Haikus for Jews,” “Zen Judaism,” and a couple more. He brings his less-is-more style to the tale of Murray, a man who answers God’s call only to find that He never picks up the phone or even checks His messages.
Murray is a modern man in late-Bronze Age clothing, and his concerns are those that beset contemporary Jews, rendered in pitch perfect King James Bible English, poetic redundancies included:
And it came to pass that one day, when tending a small bush, lo, a sheep appeared before him. And the sheep was ablaze and aflame and also on fire.
That’s how Murray’s ministry begins. And through his prophetic words, we see the problems that have bedeviled Jewish theology ever since the days of ancient Israel:
And though thou wilt be enslaved, persecuted, and downtrodden for centuries, look on the bright side. For though the Lord will destroy you, later he will redeem and bless you.
Here is my conversation with David M. Bader:
David Holzel: The book jacket says you began working on this book after an image of the Prophet Murray appeared to you on a toasted bagel. What happened after that? How did this book come together, and how long have you spent on it?
David M. Bader: First, I ate the bagel. I have priorities. Then I spent a lot of time reading the Bible, especially the books of the prophets. And then I tried to figure out how a book of an ancient prophet could be more modern and entertaining. Something like the Book of Jeremiah – but funny.
This book shows you as more than conversant with the Bible/Tanakh. Are you?
I’m no expert, really. I’ve read it and re-read it, parts of it many times, but I’m not a biblical scholar in any way whatsoever. For writing humor,
sometimes it’s helpful to be a little clueless.
These days it can be dangerous to treat religious persons and texts with anything less than gravitas. Do you fear a fatwa for publishing “Murray”?
I didn’t think there would be a fatwa for this particular book. I was worried about a fatwa for my planned sequel to “Haikus for Jews,” which I was
going to call “Haikus for Islamic Fundamentalists.” But I decided not to go forward with that when I realized it didn’t rhyme.
With Jews continuing to assimilate and newer ethnic groups taking our place, I’m surprised that it’s still possible to make Jewish jokes. Are you finding it easier or harder than ever?
Interesting question. For me, Jewish humor is a challenge right now because some of the older subjects are still good targets of satire for Jews of a certain age. But then there are younger Jews, some secular, some Modern Orthodox, who have a new, very different set of idiosyncrasies. We’re a diverse bunch. I’ve tried to strike a generational balance in “The Book of Murray.” Most Jews still share a sense of humor, so I’m hoping people will laugh even at jokes that don’t quite apply to their personal circumstances.
Your earlier work, your haikus especially, was widely circulated electronically. I was amazed and somewhat appalled to receive them in emails year after year. No one appeared to recognize or wonder about the source. Did you receive those emails?
Yes, I’ve received those e-mails and found chunks of my books posted on web pages without attribution. It’s both flattering and upsetting. I once told someone I had written “Haikus for Jews,” and she said, “You didn’t write that, it’s from the Internet.”
Someone else once forwarded me an e-mail containing excerpts from my book “Zen Judaism.” She said, “This reminds me of your work, but it’s not as funny.”
Some people seem to think that I merely collected my haiku from the Internet, when in fact I started writing them before the Internet even
existed for all practical purposes.
I’m glad that people enjoy my writing, but it’s frustrating that they don’t take two seconds to find the source and mention it when they share passages over the Internet. One Google search usually leads right to the books.
Am I ranting? Ok, I will stop now.
You have enough books out to have an oeuvre. How would you sum up your published works, your style, your themes to date?
An oeuvre? You are too kind. The books are all pretty short, so it’s really more of an hors d’oeuvre. They are mostly parodies, as whimsical as
I can make them, touching on Jewish themes. I have also written on topics that are not Jewish. “One Hundred Great Books in Haiku” has no Jewish references that I can think of. I didn’t set out to write exclusively on Jewish themes, but they do show up a lot, I suppose. The Jewish references tend to be more cultural than seriously religious — Jew-ish, perhaps. Possibly it’s a New York thing.
In this book I hear echoes of the younger, funnier Woody Allen, and Allan Sherman. Who has influenced you?
Woody Allen looms large, as do Mel Brooks and other Jewish greats, including Borscht Belt stand-up comics, the Marx Brothers and so on. But I like lots of non-Jewish humor and satire, everything from James Thurber and Stephen Leacock to British writers – Jerome K. Jerome, P.G. Wodehouse and that sort of thing. Plus, I’ve watched a lot of bad television.
Will there be a “Murray” movie and, if so, who will star?
That would be fun, but Steven Spielberg and George Clooney aren’t taking my calls. I do think it’s a fun narrative that could work on the screen or
stage, but I don’t have any plans yet.
What’s next for David M. Bader, writer?
Hmm… I’m thinking about lunch and maybe a nap. Longer term, I have a couple of book ideas that I’m working on and we’ll see if they end up being funny and publishable. And maybe I will find another ancient scroll somewhere.