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Culture-shocked wherever she goes

Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories Rachel Shukert Villard: 272 pp., $14 paper

May 07, 2008|Amy Wallen | Special to The Times

In THE heartland of America, an occasional billboard will announce, "This is God's country, please don't drive through it like hell." In "Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories," Rachel Shukert floors it through her childhood in Omaha, a place populated with churches of various flavors but not known for its overabundance of synagogues. Far from a white-bread memoir of growing up in Middle America, this is the tale of a Jewish angst-ridden teenager living in the land of Cheez Whiz, Twizzlers and Philistines.

Shukert starts off introducing us to a couple of favorite games she played as an 8-year-old in the 1980s, People Who Would Hide Us From the Nazis and What to Pack When Fleeing From the Nazis. Little Rachel is obsessed with books like "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Island on Bird Street," from which she learned "how to burrow under the ghetto wall, how to keep and shoot a gun, and that the only person you can really trust is your pet mouse." Her ready-to-go-at-a-moment's-notice packing list includes "Ziploc bags of Cheerios and Skittles, apple juice boxes, and cans of Diet Coke from the pantry." While she plays her games, her mother fashions American cheese slices into the shapes of menorahs, shofars and dreidels with her holiday cookie cutters.

I need to make a disclaimer here: My knowledge of Judaism ends at the deli counter. I did live in Oklahoma at one time, so I understand the American cheese hors d'oeuvres, but when, say, Yad Vashem is mentioned, I'm not so hip. It's apparent that Rachel is used to communicating with Midwestern shiksas like me and provides footnotes with a friendly "Hello Gentiles!" greeting. As she explains in the first note, "In the spirit of cross-cultural dialogue, this feature, denoted by the symbol of the cross instead of the customary asterisk, will hereafter appear when we deem a reference or joke sufficiently 'Jew-y' to require elucidation." She uses a similar footnote designation for non-Midwesterners (denoted by an N for "Great Moments in Nebraska History") to give insight to the casserole of local politics, folklore and other tidbits of history that provide the context of her memoir.

We speed along with her through her childhood and witness the series of fender benders that are her teens. Shukert's neuroses make Woody Allen look like Ben Stein on quaaludes. But this is not meant to insinuate the story does not have its pathos. Shukert's sharp comic turns careen smack into the middle of our hearts. As in Lorrie Moore's story "People Like That Are the Only People Here," we feel a deep compassion through our laughter. Never pitying herself, Shukert gives us "Chapter Nine The Anorexic's Cookbook" as a humorous dissection of the disorder at work. Recipes include: "Hard Boiled Egg Surprise for Hard-boiled Dames," a boiled egg with yolk replaced with mustard and Tabasco, making breakfast calories total 15. Or, the "Pick-Me-Up Power Lunch" ingredients listed as "2 cans Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi (according to preference), 1 Twizzler (30 calories)."

In a letter written in 1998 to Rep. Newt Gingrich, Shukert shows us she's one smart mandelbrot (From her footnotes: "A tough, biscotti-like almond cookie, usually coated in sugar or cinnamon, suitable for eating with coffee or for performing minor tooth extractions.") The teenage Shukert derides Gingrich's lament on what to tell the children about the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal, because, she informs him, no one knows the definition of sexual relations better than a teenager, especially the truth-bending "everything but" concept.

Shukert may be overwrought with anxiety, but not much can slow her down as we see her survive anorexia, sex, sexually transmitted diseases, drugs and a move to New York City. At last we see her among the largest population of Jews this side of Tel Aviv, but she finds out she's now a Midwesterner among Manhattanites, and this is tsoris -- "trouble," according to the footnote -- and we're in for more adventures as she matriculates at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

As the title suggests, Shukert bares all on this journey. She may regret some of her antics, but we the passengers don't regret riding shotgun. We know there's still a little girl in the back seat sucking on Twizzlers and keeping an eye out for fascists.


Amy Wallen is the author of the novel "MoonPies and Movie Stars."

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