Editor’s Note: The interview below contains language that may be offensive to some, as well as a slam on hamentashen from one of the Twin Cities’ sisterhoods. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Even after a late night at the Second Harvest Vinter Ball, Josef Harris manages to roll into Rustica Coffee for an early cup of coffee (extra dark, extra large), a scone and a conversation on a recent Sunday morning. We are on the ultimate (strictly platonic) Jewish blind date: connected by a non-Jewish mutual acquaintance who was shocked to find that my circle hadn’t yet crossed with Josef’s.
We start with the usual: (1)name: Josef Harris [He admits later that one of his two middle names is Thor – and although his explanation makes sense, it’s hard to tell if it’s just a big fish story. He seems like a guy who would have plenty of those.] and (2)age: 24.
I ask him (3)where he grew up and (4)what Jewish life looked like back then. He laughs as he says that he grew up in St. Louis Park and went to Hopkins High. Maybe he’s laughing about being the quintessential “nice Jewish boy.” His family is a Beth El family and “always had shabbat dinner on Friday nights.” To a teen-aged Josef, the Friday night schedule “was frustrating because [he’d] be late to the football games and things like that.” He confesses that he and his friends would drink Captain Morgan out of water bottles in the back of the h.s. stadium bleachers and I wonder aloud if he really wants his mom to read such things in print. “She already knows,” he easily replies with a chuckle.
Josef went to the Mpls Jewish Day School (his mother is also a teacher there) and “taught little kids for their bar and bat mitzvot[sic] and things like that throughout high school” When I ask him if he liked it, his answer is honest: “As much as hated it – it was Saturday mornings, ya know what I mean, it was very fun.”
He may want to consider asking for a refresher course in the basics – when I ask him what (5) his favorite Jewish holiday is, he pauses just a bit too long and laughs when I offer to walk through the calendar with him. And then it’s my turn for the refresher course when we stumble through 3 minutes of trying to figure out why Tu B’Av, Tu Bi’Shevat and Tisha B’Av all have to sound so similar to each other. Josef lands on Tu Bi’Shevat, the new year for trees, and tells me about being in Israel for the holiday last year: “It was really cool to be in Israel. Planting my own tree, learning about how Israeli is doing a lot of work sustaining the forests. While I was in Israel, there was a huge forest fire [Carmel] so everybody was coming together to replant. I went to go visit that operation.”
Josef almost spits out his coffee as I stump him by inquiring (6) which Jewish holiday should be on the calendar but isn’t. It takes him a moment to collect his thoughts, but he manages to “invent” a holiday that sounds like 90% of the ones already on the calendar: “Omigod! Omygoodness! Well….I really think it should be meal-based. It should be around celebrating. I like the idea that with Judaism, everybody is doing the same thing at the same time around the world. And I think it would be a fun way to connect everybody with food. Something relaxing, with the wine flowing. So basically a wine holiday.” When I point out that he has pretty much described Pesach, he corrects me. On his holiday, “you’d eat good food. Not get constipated for a week. [Passover is the] Worst. Week. Ever.”
Purim is just around the corner as we are chatting and I ask if this social butterfly will be at the all-city Cirque du Purim party. He promises he will, with clearly no idea what I’m talking about. When I explain that it’s like Cirque du Soleil meets Purim at the VFW in Uptown, he laughs. Hard. And then tells me why the Uptown VFW is the perfect local hangout for hipsters. But I can tell that I’ve guilted him into coming when I mention that TC Jewfolk is a sponsor. With his Purim plans firmly in place just a few days before the holiday, I ask him (7) what his Purim costume will be:
Omigod. I’ve never been a huge costume guy. I KNOW, I KNOW, I KNOW! Last time – for Purim in Israel…it’s like their excuse for Halloween so it’s every girl’s chance to dress slutty or for dudes to wear flasher costumes. When we [Josef’s MASA friends] were in Tel Aviv, we dressed up as the Publishing Clearinghouse People and walked around with a giant check and a really cheesy smile. Nobody got it. Everybody was like “why are you carrying this giant piece of cardboard?” Nobody understood me – I’m trying to give you shekels!
And he has strong opinions when it comes to (8) hamentashen vs. latkes. Josef is in the hamentashen camp but “only eat[s] the chocolate ones.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s loving the Beth El Women’s League PB/chocolate combo – in his mind, they use “awful peanut butter.” And he lets out an expletive as he realizes he’s just dissed the sisterhood’s hamentashen on the record.
We talk about whether or not Esther is a Jewish superhero and agree that she might be to some. For Josef, there are many Jewish superheros but the (9) Jewish superhero that comes to mind is “going to sound really cheesy and lame.” He’s a fan of Golda Meir – she was “no bullsh*t. A woman in a man’s world who just took names and kicked ass. A heads will roll kind of attitude.” I tell Josef about my Golda Meir girl power shirt from Nu Campaign and he approves.
I know Josef is recently back from Israel, so I ask him (10,11,12) why, where and when.:
Josef then moved to Tel Aviv with MASA, through a program called Career Israel, where he did two internships. The first one with a corporate social responsibility consulting firm had him working on projects such as helping a hospital shift to “green” practices. The second internship had him writing gallery and restaurant reviews for Telalivit, a social media experience for English-speaking olim to get to know the city better.
I was there for a little over 7 months. Went straight from Florence [Italy] where I studied art history and appreciation.
I had some buffer time between programs so 5 weeks or so. I lived up north on [an army] base 15 minutes from the border with Lebanon. From there, we rebuilt a post on the border. So we were right there on the border, doing all this work in fatigues and we got to shoot guns a little bit. It was a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. I met some interesting people there.
Base life is…fun. Every morning I’d wake up to this Englishman who would pull my sleeping bag off and say “hands off c*cks, on with socks.” At 5am every morning. He was in the English army for like f-o-r-e-v-e-r. So he was reliving his glory days. And the Englishman was this super outdoorsy guy. The program was really active – literally falling in line and saluting. This guy – he’s retired now and he just hangs out in cancer wards volunteering doing things like this.
I tease that, with a day school education, he should be able to write in Hebrew but he admits that if he was placing himself in ulpan, he’d probably end up in level bet. He knows there’s “no excuse” for him not to speak Hebrew better (with a day school education and living in Israel), but he says that people “would just look at [him] and not speak English.” But he knows that he doesn’t fit the typical Israeli look and that his tall stature and constant smile screams “American” before he even opens his mouth, so it’s really not his fault his Hebrew isn’t better than it is.
With five months of Israel, I’m sure he has (13) a story or two of “only in Israel” moments. He does:
We went camping on the Kineret. And it’s like, everybody up there just knows how to have this attitude of we’re here to have fun and help each other out. And when you try to do that in the US, everyone tries to find their own place, free of people for like 100 miles. And if anybody’s there? There’s a what are you doing here? This is MY spot sort of attitude. But not in the Kineret.
So we were on the water and we totally forgot like half of our sh*t. Of course, a bunch of guys planned it so we didn’t have the essentials like food and water. But we had booze, sleeping bags and tents. So we ended up – there were three groups and we all kind of moved together. And they cooked for us, and in the morning we snuck out to pick up breakfast for them in the closest town…Everybody’s just willing to help out.
You experience that all over the place. All over the country. I totally dig it.
Since we’re talking about groceries, I ask Josef (14) what grocery item you find at Shufersal that you can’t find here at Beyerly’s but you should be able to. “Omigod! Bagged chocolate milk. I would like buy a box of bags. Nobody gets it here. I don’t even try to explain it anymore.”
I mention that the things he misses aren’t so far away – Galgalatz can be streamed online or found on Sirius. Which leads me to ask Josef (15) whether DJ-chosen radio is better than format-driven radio like KDWB and Cities 97? Because only in Israel will Run DMC be followed immediately by Shalom Hanoch. It’s an easy choice for Josef – “I love The Current. You’ll have Prince play and then Atmosphere, but they have a theme. Only with random sh*t within it.” We both laugh as we decide that there is no theme on gal-gal-gal-galatz.
With so much time in Israel, I know Josef can think of a (16) phrase that needs to be stolen from Hebrew and added to the English dictionary. He admits that he teases people about saying kilu [the Israeli equivalent of “like”] “ehhhhh, kilu, ehhmmmm.” And then he laughs as he falls back into his memories of Israel for a moment, “I like to make random scenes with my friends. I’d be yelling ‘mah zeh?!’ really loudly and they’d be all embarrassed.” When I tell him that my word of the year is balagan, he almost jumps out of the chair with excitement. “We used that word ALL THE TIME. We started saying ‘BG’ and ‘B-Geezy’ and then it turned into ‘balagansky.”
It seems his life has come full circle as I ask him (17) where he lives now and he tells me that he’s staying with his parents to save money after traveling. And when I ask him (18) about getting a job at METRO Magazine, he launches into a hilarious story as only a professional shmoozer could:
It was a well-timed family reunion. I met up with my great-aunt – I think that’s what she is – at a housewarming party for her apartment in a nursing home. I met this guy in a corner who was pretty quiet and I said “I haven’t met you yet. Why haven’t I met you before?” He ended up being the CFO of this company [Tiger Oak Publications] and he brings me to meet the publishers. And I speak with the publisher for like 4 hours about traveling and stuff and she just sort of offered me the job. Thank God I still haven’t had to turn my resume in and things like that…because it’s all Jew camp.
Josef is one of the lucky ones. When I ask him (18+) what he thought he’d be doing now when he was just a young man of bar mitzvah age, he pauses only briefly before a Peter Pan grin breaks across his face and he answers: “Omigod, I have no idea! I still have no idea. I hope to never know. I don’t want to grow up. Ever. So it’s good. It’s working out really well.”
There’s no doubt about it: Josef Harris is a nice Jewish boy from MN with swagger. And while you can’t really put a finger on what that means, you know he’s one of those guys you just have to know.
18 Questions introduces you to cool Jews with a Twin Cities connection on the 18th of every month. Know somebody who fits the bill? Send an email to [email protected]