Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Betsy Salkind Releases Betsy's Sunday School Bible Classics

In her new book, Betsy’s Sunday School Bible Classics, former Boston comic and M.I.T. grad Betsy Salkind retells the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Lot, and, as describes it, “puts back all the stuff that was removed to keep children from running away screaming,” That includes all of the murder and rape, things people don’t usually associate with these stories. Salkind illustrates the book herself, offering a brutal, effective counterpoint to the simple narrative, designed to look like a child’s notebook.

Salkind has never been shy about potentially offensive material. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be a part of a tour called “Offensive Women,” which also stars Boston native Julie Goldman. For a bit more background, check out her site or my Boston Globe article from 2005. I spoke with Ms. Salkind by e-mail about M.I.T., Bible stories, and pissing people off.

What made you put Bible Classics together?

I had created the style in an earlier book and knew it would be a great way of telling these stories. I have always been bothered by much of the bible and especially by common interpretations of what the stories were about. For example the story of Abraham and Isaac is always told from the perspective of Abraham and is supposedly about his relationship with God. But I always was more interested in Isaac and his experience, and wondered why no one even talked about it. Turns out there are a whole bunch of stories like that. I also found that some of the stories that are taught to children, the "classic" children's bible stories, are seriously abridged and are really more like Grimm's Fairy Tales. Even Noah's Ark had a lot of surprises.

And I chose the old testament because it’s the basis of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and since we’re supposed to be reverent and respectful of religious people (even if they are not always respectful of each other or non-believers), I thought we should be honest about what’s really in that book, and decide if those morals are really what we want to base our society on.

Was any of this based on stand-up material?

Yes. I had jokes about Abraham and Isaac and Job. A fellow comic, Edmund Johnson, was the son of a preacher and he told me even more horrible stories I didn’t know about. We loved making material out of these stories. It's great material. And references that most people know.

Have you gotten any flak over it yet?

No. I can only hope. Oddly, the religious scholars (or religiously raised) know best that these are the real stories. It seems they have troubled them as well. And so far people find it very funny (if a little disturbing). I thought about giving it to Sunday school children and then letting their parents and teachers try to explain that yes, these are the stories, but...

Are you planning on additional volumes?

Yes. There are 8 stories total, only the first two are in this book. I expect that the whole 8 will be published in a big volume (they are completed and ready to go). Then I plan to take on the Book of Mormon, and some secular stories.

Were you religious as a child? Do you remember questioning these stories when they were first taught to you?

I had a bat mitzvah, but by then was pretty sure god had nothing to do with organized religion. The Abraham and Isaac story always bothered me, and hearing men in the conservative Jewish temple pray "thank God I was not born a woman."

Are you planning more Offensive Women shows in the new year? Any in or near Boston?

There will be more Offensive Women shows. The December shows at the Zipper Theatre (co-produced by Eve Ensler) in NY were a big hit, and I'm sure we will be back there. In addition the show will come to LA, SF in 2009 and eventually tour the country. I'm sure Boston will be on the tour.

How often do you think the show still offends people, even with the warning in the title?

Rarely. I don't think we're really offensive, we just are letting folks know up front that we are not self-censoring, which I think is expected of women. There's so much to be offended by in the world right now, that if you're offended by us you're going to have a hard time getting through the day.

Did you know Julie Goldman when you were at MIT? (Not sure of the timeline for when she was here and you were).

I didn't know Julie when I was at MIT. I met her when she was a student at Emerson. We actually met on a short lived PBS series that was supposed to be a feminist Saturday Night Live. It was produced by Nova producers, so you can imagine how funny that was.

I never asked about this when we spoke - how did you wind up banned in Boston? Where, specifically, were you banned from? (From the "Emperor story in your online bio).

I was banned from the Comedy Connection and any other club they had control over. So was Guilty Children (the improv troupe), because I was a member of the group. They never gave me any paid work anyway, so the banning was just their rage at being called out. They said I shouldn't air comedy's dirty laundry in front of the audience.

I ran across this letter doing some research. What do you think when you read something like that? Do you ever purposefully try to offend someone?

I love this letter, and am amazed at how high up in the Google search it comes. My favorite thing in this letter is the last sentence in the first paragraph:
“But I will try not to dwell on my own feelings and opinions here because they are more-or-less irrelevant, and because I was not present at the event myself.”
I tend to be most offensive to those who are not actually there.

Here was my response in a later issue of that paper:

Letters to the Editor

I am writing in response to the letter by Adam C. Powell ["Women's Comedy Night Deemed Offensive," April 10]. I didn't actually read his letter, but some friends of mine did, and based on their reports, I consider his letter to be misguided, inappropriate, and misrepresentative of my work. I submit the following reply.

I am sincerely sorry that you were offended. I am also sorry if it was not clear to you and your friends before you attended the event that the content would be feminist.

The material I believe caused distress to your friends was a piece about "The Rapture." The entire piece consisted of me reading, verbatim, from a publication about the Rapture put out by a Christian group in Pensacola, Fla. That much of the audience found the readings amusing was entirely their choice.

It is not my intention as an artist to attack individuals or groups for the purpose of getting a laugh. As a feminist comedian I do hold up to scrutiny many patriarchal institutions and their practices. This includes all of the Judeo-Christian religions. The purpose of this is to allow those who are oppressed by those who would oppress them to laugh at the injustices, so as not to be crushed by that which truly is offensive: oppression.

I cannot say that you were not hurt by my obvious disbelief and disagreement with a doctrine which holds meaning for you. However, I would ask you to understand that I believe a humorous presentation of Christian doctrine is not comparable with the offenses done in the name of Christianity (e.g. the burning of 9 million women).

Betsy Salkind '86

Are you surprised a letter like that would come from M.I.T.?

I am not surprised by anything that comes from MIT. It was a place that showed Deep Throat in campus facilities, got a lot of its money from the department of defense and the weapons industry, and preferred co-ed housing because the buildings suffered less vandalism than the all-male housing. It was also the height of Reagan youth.

I know you were happy leaving the Bank Examiner gig, are you even happier about that decision now?

Oh yes. I can finally use that part of my life for material. I also remembered recently that we had a Federal Reserve Employee Credit Union. The bank regulators did not use banks – they used a credit union. Nuff said?

1 comment:

Paul Day said...

Great stuff! I'm forwarding this onto a few friends to piss them off!