Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me
(except the one you believe in . . .)
I can think of no better place to write a book about religion than this, my ancestral homeland, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I attended the University of North Carolina as an undergraduate. None of my ancestors actually came from here — they all came from Russia and later settled in New York — but I like to imagine that they're from this place. It's less depressing. "Russia" in the original Russian means "gathering of depressed people with a penchant for vodka as self-medication."
Several years ago I went to St. Petersburg, Russia, where some of my family was from, and I felt as if I didn't belong at all. It didn't look as if it had changed much since the early 1900s, when the pogroms there convinced my family to get the hell out. In these pogroms, organized gangs of Russians terrorized and killed more than a few Jews. My Aunt Sonia suffered six saber wounds during one of these attacks. Luckily, her sister, my grandmother, had come to America at the age of sixteen and made enough money to bring her here before a seventh saber wound could be delivered. I can't even imagine a time when people used sabers, let alone what would possess the Russians to go after my ancestors, who weren't what one would call practicing Jews.
As I wandered the streets of St. Petersburg, I felt not even one root. Actually, it was kind of a dump. An amazing dump, filled with some spectacular pieces of architecture, like the Hermitage, but everything looked in desperate need of repair and a paint job. It looked like it must have looked in a nineteenth-century painting that someone had soaked in water for weeks. I don't think it was a really smart move for the Russians to have driven out the Jews; they would have been a big help. They sure know their real estate. Lucky break for me, though — I was much happier in North Carolina than I would have been going to school in the Urals, or Vladivostok, or Shtuppengrad.
I felt absolutely at home in Chapel Hill from the moment I arrived from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., forty years ago. At the time it seemed strange that a Jew from up north would feel comfortable in the South, but Chapel Hill was a place where there were only a few folks left who thought the South had won the Civil War. It's one of the few spots on earth where I have felt comfortable in my own skin. I don't feel that way in many places — hence the very attractive series of twitches one sees in my stage act. Maybe it's because I lived in Chapel Hill in a past life and if I scout around long enough I'll see my ghost wandering around the campus. (Maybe even in a crinoline — Jesus, what if I was a woman in my past life?) It is the first place I discovered my own voice and was able to take my first baby steps toward becoming a writer — a playwright, no less.
Reprinted from ME OF LITTLE FAITH by Lewis Black by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2008 by Lewis Black.