Talking about it
by: Alexandra J Wall - Last updated: 2003-10-20
Matthue Roth. photo by Harbeer Sandhu, clothes by jewishfashionconspiracy.com
Before we go any further, lets get one thing straight: Matthue Roth does not want to be known as the Orthodox poet who talks about sex. Even though thats kind of what he is.
His poems are not about sex, he claims. Or they are, but with an important caveat. Theyre not about sex hes had. Theyre about sex he hasnt had: about crushes on Orthodox girls and the incredible frustration of being frum, which means waiting until hes 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**k, 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. Hes performed in his native Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and on HBOs Def Poetry Jam series. Hes read with Dave Eggers, author of Gen-Xers adored novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Hes been blurbed by Deepak Chopra, though, admittedly, thats more an indicator of his fame than of his being hip.
And for many, hes 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 hes straight. On Friday nights, hes a regular for dinner at Chabad of Noe Valley; other nights, hes more likely to be found in front of the microphone in some bar in the Mission.
The sexual content in Roths work is definitely borderline, says Rabbi Gedalia Potash, director of Chabad of Noe Valley.
Hes struggling with his passions and trying to keep in line, and he sings it instead of saying it, says Potash, who admits he probably hasnt heard some of Roths raunchier stuff.
Even his grandmother, Ida Roth, approves.
Besides, what he says isnt 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. Theres kind of this idea that being Orthodox is hot.
When prodded to answer more seriously, though, he thinks for a minute. Youre devoting yourself to something, he says, looking completely serious. Youve got discipline and devotion. He pauses, as if in deep thought. Which means that youre probably really good at oral sex.
For a straight man with facial hair, hes remarkably girly, and he plays it to the hilt; he often sports a baby T-shirt over his wiry frame. Hes certainly got to be the only guy around town with tzitzit (fringes) hanging over his pleather pants (he doesnt 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 dont 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 HBOs Def Poetry Jam series, the stylist said to him, If I cut these, you dont 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. Hes 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.
Shes this dyke who mostly writes stories about herself and her crazy life, he says, sex and drugs included. I thought, They sound like theyre 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 Roths social circle. Were friends. We hang out, he says simply.
Roth began performing not too long after. While hes 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 didnt 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 theyre hot.
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,
He took his chances though, and performed it, at his roommates urging. The crowd loved it.
Soon after, he was offered half an hour to perform his poetry, but there was one problem. He didnt have enough material to be on stage that long.
I had to write very fast, he says.
Roth says hes 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**t, that sounded so Berkeley. But then he continues. Its like fire, I just, like, shoot it out of my eyes.
Its 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. Hes on fire, and he takes total command of the stage and the audience. Whatever you think of his work, its nearly impossible not to like him. Or, at least, think hes 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 dont 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, Whos around? Gods around, and I went to synagogue that night. That was it. It was downhill from there on.
Roth says now that he always knew hed 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 (Im 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 its 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 hes 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 hasnt 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 Im 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, its the same thing.
Potash of Noe Valleys 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. Hes looking for some harmonious path where both can be fully utilized. When he comes to my house, he fits in perfectly; hes a good merger in terms of bridging peoples 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 Im not living in the netherworld. I know what goes on.
You have to be a little open-minded. Things arent like when I was young. But this is what makes him happy, and this is what people have come to expect.
Im always proud of him, Im proud of all my children, thank God. Theyre all good kids and thats what you hope for in your family. Hes a doll, she says.
Roth isnt 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 hes 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.
Its totally cheesy, but Im in love with it. I cant decide if I were 17 whether Id be in love with Chava or want to be her, he says.
So much of contemporary Jewish childrens literature isnt worthwhile. Its stupid stories about boring people with boring children who wont 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 childrens hip-hop record hes working on.
Im a 25-year-old single boy, unmarried, so thats what Im thinking about, he says yes, back to sex, again. But when Im 75 years old and all my poems are about mashed carrots, I hope theyll be funny and interesting, too.
For more information on Roth visit, www.matthue.com
First published in J. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.
J. can be found on the web at: www.jweekly.com
Copyright 2003 - San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc.