NEWTON – Newton native Adam Mansbach has made a name for himself through humorous titles released over the past decade, such as the No. 1-bestselling parenting parody, “Go the F*** to Sleep,” and the more recent “A Field Guide to the Jewish People,” which he wrote with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel. Yet during that same time period, he has wrestled with the impact of an unimaginable loss.
May 28 will mark 10 years since Adam’s brother, David, committed suicide. Now Adam is reflecting on this tragedy in a newly released book that is a combination of memoir and poem, titled “I Had a Brother Once.”
“I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t think about him,” Adam said in a Zoom interview from his current home in California.
David’s death shook the family. He had a “deeply kind and caring” side, his brother said.
At the time in 2011, Adam was preparing for the publication of his book which was on its way to becoming a No. 1 bestseller, and the ensuing publicity tour. The book came out two weeks after David died. In the media, his brother talked about his new book; in private, he mourned his and his family’s loss, one that he was not ready to talk about publicly.
“A lot of people I thank in the acknowledgments [of “I Had a Brother Once”],” Adam said, “who have been there for me the whole time through, whether making phone calls for me, telling other people he had died, that I did not do myself, that I did not do in public.
“The writing process was unlike any I had ever experienced before,” he recalled. “It was very intense, very intuitive, very fast, over three weeks [of] unimaginable work … I was writing and crying.”
In the poem, written in lower-case, Adam takes readers back to the phone call he received the night his father told him that David had taken his own life. The narrative continues to David’s funeral and Adam’s thoughts about their childhood, their family history, and the items that his brother had given to him as gifts over the years, from a Cuban baseball jersey to a ginger grater to a drum from Pakistan.
Adam has stayed busy during the COVID-19 pandemic. He is working on a screenplay for the upcoming film “Super High” featuring Andy Samberg. Samuel L. Jackson, who read the audiobook for “Sleep,” read Adam’s parody on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” at the start of the pandemic. Earlier this month, Adam made a virtual return to Boston to discuss Jewish humor with Barry and Zweibel.
The event was a wide-ranging discussion, with Mansbach and Zweibel representing Jewish perspectives and Barry speaking from a non-Jewish perspective, although he noted that his wife is a Jewish Cuban.
“I think the first time I heard of Dave was through one of his early books, “Babies and Other Hazards of Sex,” said Adam, adding that his father Charles, who at the time was the Page One editor of the Boston Globe, would print Barry’s columns off the Associated Press wire and bring them home to read.
His second collaboration with Barry and Zweibel – who for years was a writer for “Saturday Night Live” – is “A Field Guide to the Jewish People,” a humorous look at Jewish religion, history, and culture, from bar and bat mitzvahs to a quiz about whether you are an antisemite (which Adam wrote).
In the division of labor for the book, Adam said he “took on a lot of the history and holidays” and explored “what Judaism means – intellectual, spiritual, moral underpinnings.”
“It was really nice to do whatever we felt was funny in the book,” Adam said.
Although the virtual event was originally planned as an in-person discussion last May before it was rescheduled because of the pandemic, Adam said it is “always nice” to return to his home state, noting that his parents still live in Newton and that every summer, he takes a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.
Yet he knows that things back home will never be the same because of the impact of his brother’s death.
“It’s never far from my mind,” he said. “It’s stayed with me to this day. Every time I call my parents, I’m aware of it. I literally pick up the phone, call my parents, ‘Hi Dad, hi Mom,’ I’m deeply aware of the fact there’s only one person who could be saying these words to them … He’s very much on my mind.”