Bess Kalb Talks #Boymoms, Humor and Jewish Books

I really need Bess Kalb to make me laugh. 

I’m not concerned that she won’t, to be clear. Bess is—famously—very, very funny. This is a deeper, more primal need; a decently selfish desire borne out of seven months (and counting) of not having very much of anything to laugh at. I know I’m about to conduct an interview on behalf of a magazine. I know this isn’t about me. And still—I highlight the date of our conversation on my calendar with a few different colors. A veritable rainbow splashed over BESS, in all caps. We’re going to have fun! 

Reader, we did have fun. And like any good Jewish conversation, we ran through a list of topics that include but are not limited to: the best delis in Los Angeles, #boymoms, Bess’ (excellent) children’s book, Buffalo Fluffalo, the Jewish Book Council Awards, her Grudge Report Substack, Cedars-Sinai, and how we’re finding joy these days.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Justine: Well, my cat has decided to join us—this is Fritz. (editor’s note: a large, fluffy orange cat jumped onto my lap once I started recording).

Bess: I have two cats—though they live with my parents right now. I became allergic to my cats when I was pregnant. 

Justine: That can happen? 

Bess: I blamed everything else. I had the allergy test, and it could not have been more clear. 

Justine: This is my new fear. I need to cover my cat’s ears so he doesn’t hear. Okay, putting aside that horror….tell me what’s exciting in your life right now. 

Bess: Buffalo Fluffalo is exciting. It’s gotten reprinted. So it had disappeared for a little bit while it was unavailable, and now it’s back, and back on the indie bestseller list!

Justine: Tell me how Buffalo Fluffalo came about. 

Bess: Buffalo Fluffalo came about because I wanted to make my son laugh. It really was kind of a private thing at first. Do you have kids?

Justine: No. And now I’m scared I’d have to rehome my cats. 

Bess: [laughs]. Yeah, it’s one or the other, right? Just kidding. Okay, so: Buffalo Fluffalo was to entertain my child. And it was also because I think I felt a little bit defensive about the books friends were getting us. We were getting a lot of books in the “little feminist” genre. Like, Little Amelia Earhart or Little Susan B. Anthony. And yes, of course, every mother looks at their child and hopes that they stand with the suffragists. 

Justine: Of course. 

Bess: But also… let’s talk to this child on the level that they’ll be at! I wanted to write something about being a good person and being compassionate. And in a way that didn’t feel preachy or pedantic and—made them laugh. It’s not a boy-specific book, either. There was one woman who was like, “we call our youngest daughter the haunted Victorian ghost. But Buffalo Fluffalo made her laugh.”

Justine: That’s incredible. So I’m getting the vibe you’re not a hashtag #boymom?  

Bess: I am not. Honestly, the first time I saw that hashtag, I really thought it meant something else..But no, I’m allergic to #boymom and cats. 

Justine: I tend to limit my observations about parenthood but the #BoyMom phenomenon strikes me as particularly wild, because not only are you crafting this specific identity for your child, but it’s about you

Bess: Right, the #mom in #boymom. It’s…not something that I would call myself, but, that said…my kids have received shirts that say like, careful ladies, one at a time

Oooh, I just got a text from my mom—I want to show Lilith magazine this text. 

Justine: Absolutely.  

Bess: So she’s watching my kids and texting about my baby’s nap. The last two texts are actually perfect. First one: No emergency. But can you call when you can? [laughs]. But the one I just got is: I’ll be there by three. With babka.

Justine: That’s the text I’m waiting for every single day of my life.

Justine: Okay. Tell me about hosting the Jewish Book Awards. 

Bess: To give you an idea of how enthusiastic I was—I was like, skimming the email early in the morning. And they gave a list of potential dates to meet on Zoom to talk about it. And I was like, sure, I’ll host the book awards on January 17th. In my head I was like, oh, there must have been a last-minute cancellation. Fortunately, that was not at all the scenario. And Naomi [Firestone-Teeter of JBC]  very politely was like, thank you so much for your enthusiasm, but the awards are, as it said in my email, March 26th. 

Justine:  But you can host some January 17th if you want

Bess:  Exactly [laughs]. They truly put together an amazing, wedding-level event. A full awards show! With amazing authors that I was so excited to honor. Alison Greenberg was the co-host, and she’s been involved with the Jewish Book Council for a long time. They brought me in and I got to fulfill my role as court jester.

But it really was the kind of thing that I jumped at doing because I am so indebted to them and grateful for them. My book, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, came out on March 17th, 2020 as the world shut down and my entire tour evaporated. It felt like that book that was basically going to be dead on arrival. I thought—there’s not going to be any press, or any tour. And then Naomi at the Jewish Book Council said, “I read your book this week. It shattered me.” And I didn’t really even think of my book as a Jewish book, but I feel like that’s very typical of most Jewish books. It’s like everything I do is as a Jew. Like, this is a Jewish water bottle [holds up water bottle; laughs]. Of course it’s a Jewish book. It’s about my grandmother, who was the daughter of a woman who fled pogroms in the 1890s. Writing about it is Jewish. And so the JBC was my book tour. I would Zoom every week for a month with like 150 people, all named Rachel Cohen. But it was also a community space. I always opened up the floor. People talked about their grandmothers, and the matriarchs that came before them, and their heroes. It ended up being this community of mostly women–but generally of readers—who got the story I was telling and really related to it and, and were so warm and receptive in the darkest days of the pandemic. And so when JBC they emailed, I was like—yes, I’ll host the book awards, I’ll deliver your child—whatever you want. 

Justine: What was the actual hosting experience like? 

Bess: It was lovely. Every author got to speak about the work that they had done. There was such a wide variety of speeches. It was so important to be in a room that made it very clear that Jews are not a monolith. There are many different opinions, there are many different perspectives. And, these books were a real testament to our wide range of beliefs—about the world, and about ourselves. It felt so very important to see that all together in one room. 

Justine: This is such a good segue—I mean, this is already a Big Conversation. I want to ask, knowing it’s kind of a heavy sledgehammer: what’s it like being Jewish for you right now? How are you feeling these days making jokes and trying to get through, you know, the online sludge? 

Bess: I feel very lucky and safe—and I feel like it’s so important in times of grief to look outside our own grief. And to validate and understand our pain, but hopefully allow that to open into empathy—for suffering outside of ourselves. And so those are the two worlds that I live in. You know, this is not October 8th, this is March. This is not the day after. This is months and months thereafter. So much has happened since. And so while I’m still living in it—like most Jews are—I feel that duality of grief and empathy at the same time. 

Justine: It did feel, especially in the weeks and months after…that there was this extreme collapse of empathy into a black hole, where people were just shouting at each other and talking past each other. And it’s been difficult to climb out of that. I don’t know if we really have climbed out of it yet. It’s been tempting to just hide under a rock. But as you said, we have this obligation to look outside of ourselves. 

Bess: I think the only responsibility that I feel is to not process it in public too much. I try to be very considerate about what I put out there and—and let venting and primary processing happen within my family and immediate community. 

…That my writing has resonated with people, that my Grudge Report has quietly become a community for commenters and readers to write to me about their thoughts, is a chance for me to listen. To be clear, I’ve gotten some people who are very, very upset with things that I have written. I have gotten feedback that is definitely straight-up antisemitic… I wrote a piece for New York Magazine that I really stand by every word of, but because of the headline that was chosen, I had people angry in my inbox for weeks. I have been called a Hamas sympathizer. You get literally every angle. 

I think there’s twice as many opinions about Judaism as there are Jews in the world. Ditto for Israel. 

Justine: I know exactly what you mean. 

Bess: I think it’s hard to be everything to everyone. =If you want to have an opinion about what’s happening, you need to talk to people who are reporting in Israel and in Gaza. I really admire the work of Standing Together. I really admire some of the columnists in Haaretz. There are so many wonderful writers intimately connected to this issue to read and listen to. I’m…writing as who I am, which is a Jewish mom in the United States.

And you know, my relationship to Judaism changed when I had kids. The nice lady at Cedars-Sinai who came in with the pamphlet about brit milah was like, you look gorgeous. And I was like—this, this is the religion. I was laughing…but…. it was important to me that my kids would be Jewish, right? It was important to me that they go to Jewish nursery schools the way that I did, because they would know our history and they would have an awareness of their heritage.

Justine: So tell me a little bit more about how you felt like your relationship to Judaism changed after you had kids. 

Bess: I think I had my grandmother’s voice in my head.  I had my children after my Grandma Bobby could meet them, it affected me in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. And I also think there is something very important about matrilineal religion. Whether or not they went to a Jewish preschool, these were 100% Jewish children, right? And it was my responsibility to make them aware of that in a way that made sense for our family. I also think I became much more anxious. 

Justine: I mean if you gave birth at Cedars Sinai, you were bringing them into the tribe immediately.  

Bess: When the Jewish lady came in—I think that’s her title, the Official Jewish Lady of Cedars Sinai—she came in with this pamphlet called, like, “So You’re Having a Bris.” When she came into my room with this pamphlet about my son’s genitals, I was, at that precise moment, eating a ham and cheese sandwich. 

Justine: Of course. But she’s like, as long as you do the bris, it’s fine.

Bess: Right, eat whatever. Do the bris

Justine: When I’ve talked with my husband about if we want a child or not—sometimes it feels overwhelming to imagine creating and raising a Jewish child. 

Bess: So not only am I raising a Jewish kid, I’m raising a 63-year-old Jewish man. My dad, during the pandemic, stepped in as our child care. And so my oldest child, when he was like not yet two, would stop and then shrug and be like, augh. Sort of like a young Larry David wearing bright orange Crocs. I would have to explain to people on the street in Los Angeles why my kid smacked his hand to his forehead because he heard a dog barking. I am raising a lovely retired Jewish man. 

Justine: You know, I found out last week that Larry David and I share a dental office and hygienist. 

Bess: Honestly, you could retire on that. 

Justine:  Our dental hygienist was like, I’ve been doing his teeth for 25 years and he is the only person I’ve ever had who almost flosses too much. And I was like, thank you. This is the most important piece of celebrity gossip I’ve ever received. 

So I have one question left—which, naturally, is about Jewish humor. What does that look like for you right now? 

Bess:  You know, like before, I’d say that because I’m Jewish, all my humor is inherently Jewish. But I think at times, I do feel a little bit silly, you know—like there’s not really a place for making jokes at a time like this. But it’s also in our DNA to try. And the only rule of humor I really have is: punch up, not down. Punch up, and usually at yourself. And so I can make fun of myself, I can make fun of my own hysteria. And I feel like if I’m able to laugh at myself, that hopefully people are laughing along with me. 

You know, I AM wondering now if Buffalo Fluffalo is quietly coded as a Jewish buffalo. Everything I write and say is Jewish, so…did I make a book about a nervous guy who’s doing exactly the gestures my father does when he’s asking for a sandwich?  We should have Larry David read the audiobook, that’s what I’m coming away with from this conversation. 

Justine: You know, Curb’s ending. I’m sure he’s looking for something to do. I’ll connect you the next time I go to the dentist.