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Sh*t My Dad Wrote

In his novel, Sam Halpern writes about Kentucky’s Jewish sharecroppers. A Q&A with the son who made him famous.

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Sam Halpern in 2003, and at age 10, in 1946. (Courtesy of the author)
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JH: Some people are going to think you’re just trying to cash in on the Sh*t My Dad Says stuff. What’s your response to that reaction?
SH: The people who think that can go piss up a rope.

JH: You’ve been working on this book since before I was born. If this were me, you’d ask, “What the hell took so long?” So, what the hell took so long?
SH: I had to make a living or your scrawny ass would’ve starved. That was only part of it, though; I was really involved in my work at the university and exhausted when I got home. I sometimes got up at 4 or 4:30 in the morning and got in a couple of hours. When you do writing that way, it takes a long time. Also, when you have a family, you not only need to bring home the bacon, but you need to be involved with your family and enjoy them. When you’ve reached 77, like I have, you realize that of all the important things in your life, nothing even compares with your family. I had fun with you, little dude. There are times I think about your antics and those of your brothers and find myself laughing out loud. You’re going to be a dad soon; remember what I’ve said here and don’t put anything before your family. If you do, you’re going to miss the best part of life.

JH: Some of my favorite stories of yours are about growing up in a tiny town in Kentucky and being Jewish. Do you feel like the Southern influence of where you grew up informed your Judaism?
SH: No. My understanding of Judaism had nothing to do with the South or for that matter anywhere else in the country. I read a great deal of Jewish history as well as the Old Testament and Jewish thought on a variety of subjects. I find it fascinating that an ethnic group that’s probably never exceeded 25 million could have had such an extraordinary influence on civilization. I also had a unique experience growing up as the only Jewish kid among conservative Christian people. I never discussed religion with them, but when they quoted Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I often picked up their mistakes. You see, I read the New Testament, too. This did influence my thoughts perhaps not on Judaism, but on religion in general and its relationship to humanity. If I had been born and raised in a predominantly Jewish community, I might have missed this concept. So, I guess I have to amend my answer. My Southern upbringing really did inform my Judaism.

JH: Where did you go on the High Holidays and how big of a pain was it?
SH: We went to the Conservative synagogue in Lexington. And, yes, there was pain, and I’m not talking about the difficulties that you read in the book. Our family lost a huge number of people in the Holocaust. Dad divorced himself entirely from religion after World War II, but we always went into the synagogue on the High Holidays because your grandfather would say, “My father would have wanted it.” During the High Holidays, your grandfather would become very quiet, and it wasn’t a good time to irritate him. We had our conversations about religion after I grew into manhood, but I’m not willing to share them here.

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Jalive says:

This is a great interview. Your Dad is an amazing man, Justin.

I notice he gave his dad The Da Vinci Code – for Christmas.

Bo Guss says:

Your dad is awesome!

AllenLowe says:

strange thing about this piece is that there is nothing about black sharecroppers and the way that whole system was used to engender another form of slavery. I am assuming that his father knew some other poor whites and blacks and had to interact with many others in that horrible system; but you wouldn’t know it from this very shallow interview. I actually find this a little bit offensive in its insularity.

Mike says:

Did you even read the interview?

AllenLowe says:

yes I read the interviewer – did you? Nothing about race, nothing about other farmers/neighbors, virtually nothing about anyone but their family. You would think, from the piece, that they suffered alone.

bdubrovsky says:

Hi Justin,

The story reminds me of a book-long Yiddish poem called, “Kentucky” in which the author (I.J. Schwartz) describes the relationship between blacks and Jews in the post-civil war south. The main character is an immigrant Jewish merchant in Kentucky.

I know about this because my mom (now deceased) translated the book into English. She felt the work was so lyrical that it almost demanded being produced as a musical or a screenplay. Alas, she never had the chance to follow through.

Ben

The “I had fun with you, little dude” part made me choke back a tear. Geez.

ClimbingTheWalls says:

Interviews are not always the most entertaining reads, but this one had me from start to finish. Sam sounds like a great dad, but I think Justin would have to be pretty resilient to deal with such straightforward answers as a child too. Seems like you 2 have an amazing relationship. I see your book “Sh*t my Dad says” is up as one of the featured books in this coming weekend’s Father’s Day Book Report radio show. I loved the book, so for those who haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet, they usually read a snippet from the audio book – should be enough to get most to go out and read it! If you’re keen to listen, the stations and schedule guide can be found on bookreportradio{dot}com, along with the rest of the line up. Thanks for the great interview!

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Sh*t My Dad Wrote

In his novel, Sam Halpern writes about Kentucky’s Jewish sharecroppers. A Q&A with the son who made him famous.

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