Matthue Roth


Matthue Roth has performed his poetry on Def Poetry Jam and Rock the Vote and on three national solo tours. The author of the young adult novel Never Mind the Goldbergs, Roth lives in San Francisco.

Yom Kippur a Go-Go

"Matthue Roth has an explosive, generous worldview and a ridiculously large heart." — Kirk Read, author of How I Learned to Snap

"You don’t have to be a radical would-be lesbian living in a straight Orthodox man’s body to identify with Matthue Roth’s lovely memoir. A universal story of reconciling your sensibilities with your tradition, it’s a story for everyone. Matthue is far too young to write with as much wisdom and perspective as he does. This is an utterly compelling book, talmudic in its thoroughness, as energetic and winning as Matthue himself." — Jennifer Traig, author of Devil in the Details


Matthue Roth is a contradiction in terms: an Orthodox non-conformist and spoken-word poet; a celibate who had a stripper girlfriend; a straight advocate for queer youth. His vivid, slam-paced memoir, Yom Kippur a Go-Go, tracks the contradictions and unexpected parallels between his Orthodox practice and his punk sensibilities as he leaves college in Washington, D.C., and moves to San Francisco, sure that he'll fit in among the queers, writers, and rebels of the city. Regina Marler talks with Matthue about his new memoir.

Regina Marler: How did the memoir come about?

Matthue Roth: I'd been living in SF for about two years, working as a performance poet. I would go on stage, talk about being Orthodox and missing my grandmom and about girls I liked, and then try to hustle people into paying me $5 for little zines of my stories and drawings. That was how I paid my rent. Eventually, one of my zines got into the hands of Frédérique and Felice [Cleis Press publishers Frédérique Delacoste and Felice Newman], and they wanted to know what else I was thinking about, did I have anything longer? I told them, "Definitely," even though I was lying through my teeth—and then I started to write.

RM: Did you learn anything about yourself in writing the memoir? It isn't often that we scrutinize our pasts so closely at 26 and then have to shape them into literary form.

MR: Partly it’s an I-can't-believe-I-did-that kind of embarrassment. Well, I'm half embarrassed and half in awe of all the things I can't believe I did and could never do again. I'm a little bit envious of my younger self for being that crazy and open. In the book, I become tight friends with someone named Box, a dyke who's wrestling with her sexuality—sometimes she's high-femme, sometimes she's a guy. I don't know if I could just encounter someone like that on the street now and immediately become friends. But I was never scrutinizing the stuff I did then—I was just living it.

RM: You don't write much about your childhood. The memoir begins when you're in college and Orthodox again after a period of non-observance. Tell me a little about your early influences.

MR: I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia—a very strait-laced neighborhood, very working class, with pretty conservative sensibilities. I was the only kid in town who didn't play football. I spent several years very unhappy until I started high school in a special-admissions school downtown and met up with the punk kids and the gay kids and the artists—everyone else who was ever different. It was like a revelation to me. I never met anyone else who was different before.

RM: What’s the Orthodox reaction to your work—both the poetry and the young adult novel Never Mind the Goldbergs? Do your Orthodox friends still "humor your secular side"?

MR: Most do. One Orthodox talk show host had issues with the fact that in Never Mind the Goldbergs, I talk about Orthodox teenagers who are sexually active pre-marriage—even though the main character herself is very opposed to that. And so they didn’t want to talk about the book. That’s fine, I respect that.

On the other hand, a lot of Orthodox people have been incredibly supportive of everything I've done. There are so many people who find tremendous value in real, Torah-based Orthodox Judaism but get turned off by dogma. A lot of Yom Kippur a Go-Go< is about that struggle. And, yeah, I think that a lot of Orthodox people find that refreshing. At least, they tell me they do.

RM: Have friends read the memoir? What kind of reactions are you getting?

MR: A lot better than I ever expected! My friend Ahuva, who I spend the first half of the book crushing over, I expected her to freak out when she read the parts about when we met—when I wanted an actual Orthodox relationship and she didn't. I think I was bracing myself for her to say, forget it, take out the entire section. Instead, she sent a letter asking if she could spread rumors about us to her friends!

RM: Now that you've done substantial work in three or four genres—novel, poetry, memoir, critical writing—do you sense a tug in any one direction?

MR: No way. Sometimes I think it's dangerous to write this much undisguised stuff—to just let it spill out on the page and even to exaggerate it, which I do frequently. But as long as there's someone who's connecting with my writing—this one girl who'd almost abandoned Orthodoxy, or a queer kid who sees there are straight kids going through sexuality crises too, or a straight kid who needs to get out of the box himself or herself—as long as somebody gets me, I'm doing okay.