Sins of the Father: Heeb Interviews Dave Itzkoff

Dave Itzkoff and his FatherNew York Times writer Dave Itzkoff was in second grade when he came to a decision: He was not going to Hebrew School “now, or ever.” Unsurprisingly, Dave’s mother was less-than-enthusiastic. And so, marshaling his most effective debate skill – “loudness” – Dave rouses his secret weapon, his father, who declares Dave’s Hebrew school obligations null, punctuating his decision by throwing a stack of Hebrew school worksheets out the apartment window. Shortly thereafter, Dave’s mother informs him that his father is, in fact, a cocaine addict, and has been for most of Dave’s life.

So begins Cocaine’s Son, Dave Itzkoff’s memoir on growing up the child of addiction. With sincerity and humor, Dave details his relationship with his father through flophouses, therapists’ offices, and ultimately, a fateful trip to New Orleans. What begins as a story about addiction transforms into something more: a lesson on what makes a family. Heeb sat down with Dave to talk about his father, his book, and his favorite PSA.

You begin your book by describing every kid’s dream – getting out of Hebrew School. Did you have a sense of why your father was so willing to acquiesce?

Certainly not at the time. That’s why it was so important for me to include that story. It’s such a perfect depiction of how, as a child, you really don’t see all the different factors that are at play. I had no understanding at the time of why he was sticking up for me so passionately, and why it would bother my mother so much. She understands the danger of what would happen if I come to side too much with my father, and not with her. I’d get completely sucked into his sphere of influence without really knowing what he’s capable of. Dad is “come hang out with me and I’ll give you presents” and mom is the one who has to lay down the law.

You went to a Reform synagogue, but attended a Conservative Hebrew school – was that your mother’s influence?

I don’t think there’s any harm in saying that was Park East Synagogue that I first went to. When I went to nursery school I actually went to Central Synagogue, and that’s where I would end up resuming Hebrew school, and where I had my Bar Mitzvah. It was just a much more comfortable atmosphere for me, and my mother’s mother was very passionate that I would at least get a Bar Mitzvah, and it was easy enough to satisfy that. The time demands were not so strenuous and I knew there was money and a party at the end of it.

Having lived around addiction, how do you feel about shows like “Celebrity Rehab” and “Intervention”?

It didn’t happen just now. When I was growing up every TV sitcom had to have its “very special episode” with a character who is introduced, and then turns out is a drug addict. There must have been an episode of “Different Strokes” or “227”…

The fact that Alf is addicted to cats?

[Laughing] It was never in such explicit terms, but I always assumed that was the case… There was a public service announcement that was very popular where the dad walks in on the son doing drugs, and the dad says, “where did you get this stuff?” and the kid fires back “From you, Dad! I learned it from watching you!” To 99% of the people it seemed so improbable and stupid. That line was so snide that it became this snarky catchphrase. It seemed so impossible to people, and I laughed at it like everybody else, but knew that behind the scenes this was actually happening to my family.

At one point your father tells you about having been approached by an orthodox Jew in a locker room, and told that he’s had an improper circumcision.

I actually told that story at the launch event — it says so much about him, and the fact that he would tell that story to me. It’s something he placed a tremendous amount of value in, and still does. He’s not a religious person at all. Maybe he’s become more spiritual in his autumn years, but he doesn’t need to go to any particular building, or recognize any particular deity to feel that. But, it was important to some other person to attend to my father’s spiritual well being. He cared enough to reach out to my father.

By your wedding toward end of the book, you and your father appear to be on great terms. How did getting married affect your relationship with your father?

He has been clean for a very long time, and that has gone a long way towards it. So much of my frustration came from the actual experience of him falling off the wagon, or the fear he would, or seeing something that would remind me of when he would. The further back that is in the rearview mirror, the easier it is to believe for myself that he is a changed person. Getting married pushes so much else into the background. Now you have to be totally responsible for this one other person. Who even has time to worry about this old crap, and re-hash it and live in it in perpetuity? There’s too much going on right here, right now. Why hold this over someone’s head when I can just move on?

Dave and his father now share a great relationship. His book Cocaine’s Son is available from Random House Inc.

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