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Drugs, Rehab and Bar Mitzvahs: An Afternoon Chat with Author Moshe Kasher

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Moshe Kasher/Photo by Laurent Martin
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Moshe Kasher's book, "Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient and Then Turned 16" documents the L.A.-based writer and comedian's hard-partying lifestyle that resulted in his getting sober before he was legally allowed to vote.

Kasher's memoir launched on Wednesday with an event at Barnes and Noble at The Grove, and tonight, he'll read at Book Soup in West Hollywood. To give you a little preview, he chatted with us by phone about why he likes L.A., what he learned from gangsta rap, and the enduring messages of the 1990s.

How did it go at The Grove Wednesday night?
It was great. We had a great turnout and everyone was really warm and really nice. There was a 12-year-old boy there who has his Bar Mitzvah coming up next week - I told his parents not to let him read the book before the Bar Mitzvah because he wouldn't be ready for it.

In addition to kids like him who might be able to relate to that time period in your life, who do you think is the target audience for the book?
The book has a lot of different levels. I think it will work with parents, because it speaks to teenage chaos and the menaces to humanity that middle school kids are. But I think the biggest demographic is people my age who grew up in the '90s. It's a nostalgic trip through a very dark subsection of that decade.

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That's good, because I was born in 1979 and I feel like we're a really overlooked demographic.
Right, nobody cares about the 18-34 year olds. This will be for men ages 30-34 who have faux hawks.

You're based in L.A., but you grew up in Oakland. What do you think are the biggest differences between the two areas?
The physical attractiveness. In L.A. we are on a much higher level.

So many people talk about the bad differences, but the good differences is that people here are working really hard. Everybody is busy with stuff, and there's a great work ethic. In the Bay Area there is a great thought ethic, but people are too busy working at the poetry factory to get things accomplished.

Did Oakland influence your style as a writer and comedian?
I'm sure there's no question that the Bay Area hugely informed me and my comedy. One of the biggest invisible characters in the book is the Bay Area, and that's all infused in who I am. It's hard to leave the Bay Area - it's kind of hypnotizing. People never leave because it's so good.

Your book is about the drugs and therapy of your childhood. How did you get into drugs, and at what age?
When I was growing up, I had a whole set of circumstances that made me feel like there was something fundamentally flawed about me. I went to therapy at age four, I had two deaf parents with a religious identity crisis, there were very few white kids at the school I went to, so there were a lot of things that made me feel different. When I got to middle school I felt even more different, but then I found the fuck-ups at the school and started doing drugs and I forgot that I felt different. That was part of the great seductiveness of drugs at that age - it was not recreational, it was therapeutic.

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How did you eventually quit?
I went to rehab three times by time I was 16. I got locked up in mental hospitals and my therapy increased to eight sessions a week. It became like Groundhog's Day; every day was inescapably the same as the next. Then I had a moment of luck where the window opened for me to be able to escape that life, and when that window opens you have to walk through it.

Your manager has called your book "an amazing story of survival." Do you agree with that assessment?
That's the kind of thing a manager says. I don't know, it's hard for me to be that sincere about it. What I can say is that I didn't know for sure that I was going to make it out as a kid, and I think it was unlikely that I would have made it out had I not made some of the choices and had the lucky breaks that I had, and the good news is that I survived.

Tell me about being a white Jewish boy in Oakland who got into gangsta rap. Did you feel out of place?
Not at all - in Oakland that was the music we played at our sock hops, that was the soundtrack of our lives. I'm sure it was like growing up in Seattle during grunge. Even the nerdiest Oaklander who grew up at that time will know some obscure gansta rap references.

I can say that as an adult now, the message of selling cocaine and murdering people while fucking them is wearing a little thin for me. I have some moral objections that I can't get around. But when I was a kid, I kind of lived my life based on the lessons I got from those songs. The booze I got back then, if you gangsta rapped about it, I drank it. So, gin and juice and malt liquor. That's also how I understood dating to work. I had a lot of lessons to unlearn.

The book is clearly funny, but it has some very dark parts as well. Did you write it with the intention of it being comedic or serious?
Comedy was definitely the driving factor behind it. I wanted to write a book that was less about the agony of a lifestyle than about the absurdity of it. Almost despite myself, it needed some sincere moments. It takes these really dark things and exposes a way to laugh at them -- and anything that you laugh at, you'll never be ashamed of again.

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You can hear Moshe Kasher read from his book at Book Soup tonight, 3/30 at 7:00 p.m.