The Ultimate Mickey Kaus Interview
On 8/1/03, I email Mickey Kaus for an interview. He replies sure, but he's jammed for a week. A week later, I email him to schedule the interview. No reply. A couple of weeks later, I try again. No reply. A couple of weeks later, I try again. No reply.
Sunday, September 14, I drive to his seaside condo and knock on the door. After a few minutes he answers. I'm shocked.
Mickey Kaus, who I assumed was a thoroughly secular intellectual, is a closeted Orthodox Jew and a devout follower of the Mussar (19th Century ethics) movement.
His appearance is awesome. He is graced with beauty, but it is wisdom and fear of God that lights up his pure face. When he is sunk in thoughts of Torah or Mussar, his body seems to leave its physical state, and his face burns like a torch. At such times he looks like an angel of God and people fear to approach him. Whoever does not see it with his own eyes cannot imagine it. He never allows an artist to draw his face.
Kaus has grown a short beard and has sidelocks down to his cheeks. A black satin yarmulke sits on his head and an embroidered white and blue prayer shawl nestles on his shoulders. He wears not one, but two pairs of tefillin (Rashi and Rabbenu Tam). He's embarrassed that I've caught him wearing Rabbenu Tam tefillin, which is only put on by extremely pious Jews.
He motions with his finger for me to stay silent while he finishes his prayers in perfect Hebrew. He concludes with two extra Psalms for the state of Israel. "Out of the depths, I cry to you, oh Lord."
Mickey: "Shalom aleichem."
Luke: "Aleichem shalom."
Mickey: "What do you want?"
Luke: "To interview you?"
Mickey: "I'm not interested."
Luke: "I thought you were a man of your word."
Mickey: "I am."
Luke, producing a piece of paper: "Here's a copy of your email sent August first saying you'd do this interview."
Mickey scrutinizes the paper. "You're right. I must live up to my word. Give me a few minutes to get ready and we'll go have some breakfast. Come in."
I walk inside and I see an entire bookshelf filled with volumes of the Talmud. Mickey takes off his holy vestments and disappears into the bathroom.
This is an aspect of Reb Kaus that RJ Smith entirely misses in his Los Angeles Magazine profile.
Mickey never stops learning. Even in bed, in the midst of raptures, his learning can still be heard. When he comes out of the bathroom, his face is marked by the strain of restraining himself from Torah thoughts. The moment he completes the blessing for relieving himself, his thoughts pour out like a mighty river from which a dam has been removed.
"I know I have the mental capacity of a thousand bloggers," says Kaus, "but because of that, my obligation to serve God is also that of a thousand bloggers.
I spot works of Kaballah (Jewish mysticism) on his shelf and ask Mickey about them. He denies knowing anything. But I have it on good authority from two independent sources that he has studied Kaballah in private with Madonna and Roseanne Barr.
We walk towards Main Street in Santa Monica. "An ignorant person with a bad character is like an unarmed robber," says Reb Kaus. "But a learned person with a blog is a robber fully armed."
Mickey says a famous Hollywood screenwriter once turned to him with the following question: He had only one free hour a day to learn. What should he study? Kaus said, "Spend the hour blogging, and you will discover many more free hours during the day."
We come to a cafe and sit in the sun. I order a bran muffin and a large hot chocolate. Mickey refuses everything, including a glass of water. He does not trust the kashrut (kosher level). When the waitress lets her hand rest momentarily on his shoulder, Mickey flinches. Not even RJ Smith knows that Mickey is shomer negilla (does not touch the opposite sex).
When politeness forces him to drink a little something out of a glass not kosher, Mickey does so, but then steps into the bathroom and sicks it up.
Mickey looks down at his shirt, which has a small tear. "For the last ten minutes, I've been embarrassed about what people must think of me because of my scruffiness. Then I imagined how great and bitter must be my shame in this world if I fail to live up to God's Torah."
It's impossible to have three sentences of conversation or stride four yards with Mickey without him sticking in Torah.
Luke: "What's the secret to your blogging success?"
Mickey: "To blog with fervor, melodies and motions are necessary to bring out the soul's inner potential."
Mickey sways back and forth, gripping the table, humming an Eastern European melody, to show me how he writes his blog.
"Learning blogging with fervor is an art like music, which arouses and brings out spiritual potential. Just as a singer gesticulates to draw out the music, so does a person learning blogging with fervor gesticulate to draw out his soul."
I ask Mickey about the young woman who accompanied him on his recent cross-country drive.
"She's a 19-year old junior at UCLA, art history major. We got separate rooms the whole way. One day we stopped in Salt Lake City and I spent the entire night learning the saying of our Sages: 'Jealousy, desire, and honor take a man out of the world.'"
Luke: "Looking back on the Howell Raines affair?"
Mickey: "Whoever cannot control his desires and his anger should go to a wilderness."
Reb Kaus likes to stay up late, frequently not sleeping at all. He paces back and forth, sunk in thought and occupied with Torah, until an insight flashes through his mind and he rushes to his computer to update his Slate.com blog.
Slate editor Jacob Weisberg once stayed with Mickey. Curious as to what Mickey did all night, he listened through the wall.
Just a few days before, Kaus had written on his blog: "I know that nothing helps cut the tension around the kf offices like a vigorous gangbang."
But it was not the sounds of debauchery (which Mickey only allows to his non-Jewish employees as a concession to human weakness, like dental insurance) that greeted Weisberg's ears but the sound of Kaus learning Torah all night, repeating in frightful, hushed tones, "He who does not learn deserves death."
Mickey: "Enough about me, how are you doing?"
Luke: "I've not been sleeping. I'm on new medication. It's driving me crazy."
"On the contrary," objects Reb Kaus. "You are very fortunate. You can stay up all night learning Torah with no disturbances. How lucky you are!"
Chastened, I bite into my bran muffin and sip on my hot chocolate and look out at the girls roller-skating by in their bikinis.
So careful is Reb Kaus to honor others, he always addresses me with the formal you in Yiddish to develop my self-esteem. Our entire conversation has taken place in Yiddish and not in Hebrew, because the latter tongue is too sacred.
A Green party activist yells insults at Mickey while we speak. Reb Kaus continues calmly with his points. Finally the activist stomps away. When Reb Kaus is satisfied that he has made himself perfectly clear to me, he runs after the activist, and with his handkerchief, mops the sweat from the man's brow, saying gently and affectionately, "Very well, you're angry at me. But you are perspiring. How can you go out into the day like that and endanger your health?"
The activist is deeply touched and vows to become a regular reader of Kaus Files.
Emmanuelle Richard writes: "Luke, if I were Mickey, I would probably call one of my friends of Gold's Gym to knock on your door! This thing is insane!"
Cathy Seipp writes: "WHY did you have to do that fake Mickey Kaus interview? I really wish you hadn't. Thus my icy radio silence these past couple of days."