I think of Claudia Silver, the eponymous heroine of my debut novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue, as one in an anxious, spirited line of Nice Jewish Girl protagonists from New York City. This lineage starts with Lily Bart, Edith Wharton’s A-list flibbertigibbet in The House of Mirth, then moves on to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar (who put up with that scoundrel Noel Airman’s hijinks for about 100 riveting pages too long), Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine (if only 30 had been the new 20 in 1972), Erica Jong’s Isadora Wing, and Melissa Bank’s Jane Rosenal. Yes, I know that Lily Bart wasn’t Jewish. But if only she’d married Simon Rosedale! (Sob! Gnashing of teeth! She could’ve given him a make-under!)
Claudia Silver possesses some key traits that connect her to her literary sisters. She’s got a loud speaking voice and wobbly self-worth, she finds comfort in self-destructive habits and relationships, and she’s paralyzed by her own ambivalence. She’s helpful and selfish, fierce and vulnerable. She’s got a keen sense of class and caste, ranking herself ruthlessly in any given social situation. She knows how to dance, and how to accessorize. But unlike Lily and Marjorie, whom I adore, but let’s face it, whether it’s in the back of a hat shop or lower Westchester, they both die from denial, Claudia wakes up. And she does so along a particularly Jewish continuum.
It’s when Claudia hears her ill-fated soon-to-be-paramour, Paul Tate, recite the shehecheyanu prayer as grace over an assimilated Christmas dinner, that her interest in him shifts, fatefully. Once Claudia’s actions cause a multi-family train-wreck, she becomes aware that she has one chance to make it right – and that’s to undertake “teshuvah” – the humble pursuit of repentance. Now, I don’t know how the Rambam or Rav Kook or even my own Los Angeles rabbi, Sharon Brous, would define teshuvah. (Personally, I plucked my definition from the low hanging branch on the tree of knowledge known as Wikipedia.) But Claudia acknowledges her profound misdeed with humility, fesses up, will remember this one for the rest of her life, and even though there’s no sequel in the works, I promise you, dear reader, that she will refrain from committing this one in the future. In fact, once Claudia Silver accounts for her actions, she’s propelled forward to growth and emotional maturity. She marches straight into a possibly dangerous social event and yanks her younger sister free of it, apologizes sincerely to the Nice Jewish Boy Who Was There All Along and gets her love life on track, and even reunites with mother despite a dug-in estrangement. And none of this could have happened if Claudia hadn’t made the worst mistake of her life.
It’s my firm belief and my personal experience that patterns run through families faster than we can usually stop them, which is why we need both spiritual practice and literature – so that a wisdom greater than our own can escort us, lovingly, to awareness and eventually, to change. And it’s my opinion that Lily and Marjorie made huge freakin’ mistakes. Do I need to tell you that if Marjorie Morningstar had understood what Wally Wronken truly had to offer, she might’ve been at the TONY Awards last week in Calvin Klein? Possibly with Calvin Klein? Given her lineage, Claudia was powerfully teed up to repeat history. But having read her Wharton and her Wouk, she, through me, made a different choice. And as a result, the biggest mistake Claudia Silver ever made is the best thing that ever happened to her.
My father’s artwork was always how I made sense of the world around me. The sometimes scary, ghetto Lower East Side I grew up in was beautiful, interesting and safe when shaded by his paints. His devotion to his artwork, but also creative, compassionate parenting inspired me early on to pursue my own artistic passions. I would sit in Dad’s sun drenched studio dictating stories about suicidal whales before I could write.
Dad encouraged my taste for tragedy and drama by reading me bedtime stories beyond my years. With me in the cozy crook of his flannel arm, under soft yellow lamps he turned the pages and read ten year-old me Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, Dickens’s Great Expectations and Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain. These guilty, lonely, decadent, sexual stories were a dazzling escape from the Lower East Side of the early ‘90s. They infuse my writing to this day.
I also got my fascination for celebrity from my artist father. He was intrigued by what fame stood for; the levels of luxury, artistic recognition and happiness Americans believed it could get you. Yet, his was an outsider’s stance. He felt more comfortable around the edges. The works which gained him newspaper write-ups and radio interviews were skull shaped masks of American conservatives, people he felt propagated the unfair conservation of money and power. These death heads, wildly colorful in papier-mâché ranged from Nancy Reagan and George Bush Senior to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Andy Warhol. Continue reading
I changed my name from Hazak Brozgold to Royal Young when I was 20 years old. I was a drunk college drop-out who had moved back into my parent’s Lower East Side apartment with big, unrealistic dreams and a drinking habit too large for my childhood bedroom. Getting rid of my hard to pronounce Hebrew name felt like a step toward escaping my youth and my disapproving Jewish parents. My moniker had set me apart in classrooms and the ghetto downtown streets I’d grown up in. The Lower East Side of my youth was broken glass on uneven sidewalks, fast domino games, sneakers hanging from streetlights, Hip Hop blasting bass heavy from car windows. My grandparent’s days, when the neighborhood was an Eastern European shtetl transplant, were long gone. My parents had literally missed the boat.
They named me Hazak Brozgold to make up for it. Hazak means “strong” in Hebrew. But I always felt weak. A shy, quiet bookworm I shrank from the rough streets around me, finding escape in making my neuropsychologist mom administer me Rorsach tests instead of going on play dates, or painting crude canvasses with my artist/social worker father in his cluttered studio.
Perhaps I escaped too much into my parents. By 20, I wanted to run away from them and hide behind dive bars where they couldn’t reach me or speak the slurred language.
Yet, what started out as a pompous challenge—changing my name to Royal Young (my younger brother changed his name to Fury Young in a show of stubborn solidarity)—strangely allowed me to become closer to my parents and my Hebrew heritage. I took to Royal naturally. I was used to sticking out. I cut down on drinking and started getting published under my new byline. Small articles that didn’t pay my rent but made me feel, for the first time in my life, able to provide for myself. I was more comfortable with a name that people pinned to a profession rather than a religion.
There are legions of Jews who have changed their names to take on larger than life careers in writing, acting, as artists. Taking on an identity that encouraged success seemed like a rite of passage to join this group of my fellow tribesmen and women. I began to wonder if picking your own persona had less to do with disguising your heritage and more to do with finding a shield to deal with the more unpleasant aspects of making your work public. Countless rejection, hate mail, harsh editing, scrutiny when my pieces were published, Royal took them all in stride. I’m not sure if Hazak would have been able to.
I also relished having a part of me that was private. My parents would never stop calling me Hazak. The way it tripped off my grandparents tongues was with the “Ch” Hebrew pronunciation at the beginning. I loved being able to catch up with my parents over weekly dinners and be reminded, simply by the name they had so lovingly given me, that I had a healthy, whole, strong family to support me when work became overwhelming.
It’s been eight years since I started calling myself Royal. Only this year, with the publication of Fame Shark,did I change my passport. The change is about coming into my own, accepting the past, but pushing forward. It’s not about shame, or leaving my roots behind. It’s a decision Hazak made. One he is finally ready to fully be proud of.
My maternal grandmother fought to escape her Lower East Side. My Babbi was born in 1932 and raised on Pitt Street and Houston, a few blocks from where I would grow up years later. She was the daughter of Orthodox Austrian immigrants who came through Ellis Island in 1919 with thousands of other displaced Jews, gazing in awe at the Statue of Liberty from the steerage deck of a third-class freighter.
The Lower East Side of the ’30s was an Eastern European shtetl transplant, an unruly Jewish village struggling through the end of the Depression. Its tenements teemed with immigrants who practiced wild customs—matchmaking, interpreting prophesies from dreams— that they’d imported with silver menorahs hidden under rags during the ocean passage.
My handsome grandfather had a bachelor pad on Henry Street before he was a Zayde. They met when he taught my Babbi art and their hearts filled over many hours developing photographs in dim darkrooms. Images of her from that time are coy and striking, he bold and laughing. Their eyes gleam for adventure, conquest, love, glory, knowledge.
To this day my grandparents teach me about loving fully, they have always fully believed in my writing, encouraged me to pursue it no matter what the odds. In a career filled with rejection, this fighting spirit buoyed me. Their beautiful old home in Long Island with a swimming pool and lush garden is my refreshing escape from the downtown New York hustle I still live in. Their wisdom, tenacity and verve inspire me every day and so I decided to sit down with them before the publication of my memoir Fame Shark and talk about their first meeting, performance as love, competition, what art means to them and the perils as well as pleasures of celebrity. Continue reading
“I sound like a cheap, mean kyke,” my father raged. “I sound like an idiot, a complete non-entity,” my mother was furious too. I had been nervous about them reading my first memoir, Fame Shark, but none of my jitters had prepared me for this ballistic reaction. We were sitting down to breakfast at Castillo, a Dominican restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side where I had grown up eating delicious homefries colored orange from Sofrito. Now they stuck in my throat.
For me, the book was a monument to the obvious: I was in love with both my parents. But raised by two Jews who were brilliant psychoanalysts, my love had a darkness, a depth, an introspection I’d learned from them. Wasn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t that flattering?
“So, it’s basically fiction,” Mom said,”a lot of this stuff never happened.” It was true that I had purposefully pandered to a modern American culture that had the attention span of meth addicts. I’d cut all the “boring” bits out of my life in this telling. But fiction? No way. It had been hard, terrifying and humbling to write truths about myself: I had been bullied to the point of molestation as a kid, I had later exchanged sex for money and movie roles, cultivated friendships with drug dealers, sunk to supreme unhappiness at the altar of celebrity worship. I had begun writing Fame Shark still half in the throes of an idiotic, unoriginal fantasy that the book itself would lift me into celebrity. Only the therapeutic writing of it had helped take me out of my own narcissism/self-hatred (a diagnosis my parents had once agreed with, in our darkest conflicts). Continue reading
“Many artists are ‘underground’,” a writing instructor of mine once remarked, “but no one is more underground than writers.” To that I would add that no one is more underground than writers who don’t write in the language of the place they live. It amounts to a sort of double life. On the outside, you function in the same language as everyone around you. But then you have this other world, where you think and create in the tongue of a stranger. Your boss, the next-door neighbors, the mother of your child’s best friend and Moshe from the makolet might be aware that you are working on a novel, but you know, from the very first word you write, that they will probably never read it.
While I was writing The Wayward Moon, a novel which takes place in the 9th century Middle East, the situation was even more confusing. I was constantly alert to the fact that rather than Hebrew or English, my characters would have spoken something that sounds like Ha lachma anya di achalu avtania, and dizabin abah bitrei zuzei. If, like me, these phrases from the Haggadah are all the Aramaic you know, then you understand the difficulty. As I wrote the novel, I realized very early on that I could never really know how Rahel Bat Yair, the story’s heroine, really spoke. All I could do was try to imagine her “voice,” not only the sound of it, but the “music” of it, its point of view, its inherent assumptions and ways of seeing the world. It wasn’t a matter of getting it “right” or “wrong,” because due to the absence of Jewish women’s voices in the few documents that have come down to us from that time, it was impossible to know exactly what idioms she would have used to express herself. All I could do was read the limited material that is available (e.g., letters from the Cairo Geniza, writings by men of her time) and listen to the tones, attitudes and modes of expression as they play out in the folk tales, songs, films, and poetry of people who have lived their lives in the lands of Islam.
While this sort of linguistic alienation is challenging for a writer, it can nonetheless be conducive to writing. The sense of being isolated, of having to wrestle alone with the voices in your head, enacts something existential. Writing becomes a sort of refuge, a place where you can sink into the words and phrases and fully inhabit your state of aloneness.
Having said that, if any Israeli publishers are reading this, Moshe from the makolet is still waiting.
I’m sitting on the back porch of my temporary lodgings in Atlanta, while two spiders go at it, the smaller invading the larger’s web. (Why? Who knows. Maybe he or she is lonely.) Larger lunges at smaller, until smaller retreats, and both settle down again to await the arrival of an unsuspecting fly. Watching them, I am reminded of Charlotte’s Web, which I read when I was boy, and how caught up I became in the struggles of Charlotte and Wilbur and how I never wanted the story to end. Unfortunately, it did, yet fortunately for me I found many other stories to get tangled up in—Encyclopedia Brown, The Westing Game,The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Bridge to Terabithia.
Back then, I read only for pleasure and escape and erroneously imagined these books I so loved to be handed down through a series of magic tricks to end up in my favorite bookstore. I had no idea they were written by real people, who sat at real desks and typed them out on real typewriters, arduous page after arduous page. These books, these authors, changed the way I saw the world, but more than this they changed the way I interacted with it. I learned about sleuthing, betrayal, love, and death by falling headfirst into these created universes, which matched the reality of my own only insofar as they resembled the familiar—houses, trees, the sun and moon, stars, streets, etc. Other than this, they were as fantastical as they were absorbing; I couldn’t wait to flip the page to find out what happened next.
While working on my own novel, I had a similar experience, yet now I was in complete control (or so I thought) of what happened next. The process of writing and publishing Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence took ten years and through it, I learned many valuable lessons, the most important of which is this: we writers have little say in the fate of our characters, who ultimately dictate to us how they want the story to be told and what will happen to them. So it was that one writer after another began to appear in the pages of Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence and I had nothing to say about it. No, really. They turned up and took over and suddenly the novel became more than a novel about a fraught triangulation of widow, critic, and ingénue. It became a novel that asked where stories come from and who owns them, how we write novels and why we do. Like a fly, I was trapped in my novel’s web and the less I struggled, the more I discovered about the characters and myself and the more I discovered, the more the impossible began to occur—the characters told me what was going to happen and held me to this, refusing to let me go until they were satisfied I’d told their stories as honestly and as well as I could.
When someone asks me where I’m from, I never hesitate to say that I’m from New York City. Then, a little ashamed, I often confess that I’m not really from New York, that I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. While I did not spend my formative years in the city, I have always considered myself a New Yorker, which probably has to do with all those summers I spent on Long Island with my mother’s parents. The day trips to Jones Beach and into the city to see a play or wander around Macy’s! Some of my favorite memories still involve being stopped between stations on the subway or the Long Island Railroad. And then our slow approach into Penn Station and the skyscrapers obliterating the sky and my mother leading my brother and me up into the beautiful, congested fray that is Manhattan.
Every step I took along those overpopulated sidewalks, every museum and bookstore I wandered through, every salty pretzel I pulled apart and devoured—all of it was leading me closer to my future self. At the time, I had little idea that years later I’d live in and among those crowds, museums, bookstores, and pretzel carts, though I should’ve suspected as much, given my early fondness for the city. When I was a boy, I fell head over heels in love with the city, yet it wasn’t until I finally moved there as a young adult that I came to really believe what Le Corbusier meant when he said, “A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe and 50 times: It is a beautiful catastrophe.”
A beautiful catastrophe, unlike any other in the world, especially for a young man who wanted desperately to become a writer. Even now, when I think about it, I am still filled with a sense of the romantic and haunted by that earlier version of myself, who traversed the sketchier and verboten neighborhoods of Morningside Heights and Spanish Harlem on his bike, who lived on 107th and Central Park West, in what was and would continue to be for ages the biggest, most amazing apartment he ever lived in—a doorman building with view of the park, our rent only $1,400 a month. I shared the apartment with a friend, another Columbia undergrad, and eventually set a short story there. It was hard to leave an apartment like that, but leave it we had to do. After graduation, I moved downtown, then ultimately to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where I stayed for over a decade, until it was time for me to go. I had become too hard, too covetous of what other people had, and New York was killing me.
From there, I went to DC, then to Gettysburg, PA, then back to New York for a brief stint that lasted a summer and fall. Then, it was to Berlin, then back to Gettysburg, then Durham, NC, then Gettysburg yet again. Now, I am in College Station, Texas, soon to be moving to Atlanta—but, but, but…I left my heart in New York, just like so many of my characters in Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence. No matter where I have gone, no matter where I have lived, New York always beckons me back. She is an impossible place to leave for long, even more of an impossible place to untangle from. Just ask Antonia Lively herself, or Henry Swallow, or Catherine Strayed. Just ask any of these characters where they’d rather be and they will tell you, “Well, New York City, naturally.”
Unfortunately, we do not always get to choose the places in which we live; some places choose us. Antonia, Henry, and Catherine live in Winslow, a small college town in upstate New York, and it chose them. It also chose me and it is where I have lived, in my imagination at least, for over ten years. I know the town just as well as I know New York City, perhaps even better than that, because I created it whereas, in some ways, New York City created me.
All fiction writers have a streak of audacity. To make up something and then ask readers to suspend their disbelief and give themselves over to your vision is, well, a little outrageous. Among the most audacious are the writers of historical fiction. How can anyone presume to know what it was like to live and work and raise a family in a time other than their own? How can one comprehend the hopes, the limitations, and the challenges of people who lived their lives in historical periods with radically different circumstances and assumptions?
Logic says that it’s impossible. Yet the imagination insists that it’s not. It insists that, with a little bit of help, it can transcend space and time and understand something beyond the here and now.
Allow me to offer an example. Let’s say you want to write a scene in which a character goes to a bathhouse. You could do worse than to make your way to Acco, a city in the North of Israel. When you get there, you may want to linger for a few minutes on the boardwalk, enjoying the vista of the bright blue sea, but don’t stop there. Continue along the boardwalk, and head for the old city. You’ll know it by the shops and vendors at the entrance, selling nargillas, Armenian pottery, olive wood carvings, humous, and fresh pomegranate juice. Look for the signs on the walls pointing the way to the Hammam – the public bathhouse. When you get there, you’ll have to take the tour. Maybe you’re the type that doesn’t like tours, but do it anyway. That way you’ll get to see the inside. You’ll be shown the various pools, now dry and empty, and hear the stories about the generations of balanim – bathhouse attendants who would scrub you down with sponges and brushes and fill you in on the latest gossip. And then there will be a moment when the group moves on, but don’t follow them. Remain behind and linger a little longer.
Instead of the empty stone pools, think of steam rising from the hot water. Instead of the scent of moldy walls, imagine wafts of rosewater and jasmine oil. And now, in the dim light and the silence, try to hear the voices. Hear the groans of the women being scrubbed with rough sponges by stern-faced attendants, the trills of laughter from a group listening to the town matchmaker tell a racy joke, the soft whispering of two girls in the corner, pointing to a third and whispering, “Look at that stomach. If she isn’t pregnant, then I’m a Rabbi.”
If you can see all this, then you’ll feel it in your bones—how the very drama of life played out alongside the tiled bathing pools. And as you emerge into the alley that leads back to the market you’ll know, from some mysterious place in your head that you never knew existed, exactly how to write the scene in the bathhouse.
I knew I was going to dedicate my first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence, to my maternal grandparents long before I ever set out to write it. Or let me rephrase that: until I was tasked with dedicating the novel, I had no idea just how clear it had been that I would dedicate it to them. During the years it took me to write the novel, I never thought about the dedication, nor did I think much about my dearly departed grandparents, though in retrospect they were always with me, whispering their story into my ear.
No, the novel isn’t about them, not literally anyway, but it does touch upon certain themes—displacement, trauma, assimilation, ambition—about which I would never have plumbed had I not known the intimate details of their struggles. Marianne and Stephan—Mimi and Steve to their friends—were both born in Vienna, where they met and married. Both full-blooded Jews, their Jewishness never played a significant role in their upbringing. They were Jewish, just not religious, and rarely attended shul.
Long before their conversion to Catholicism in 1930, long before they fled Austria in 1936, it seemed they had already begun the slow, arduous process of shedding themselves of their Jewish identities to live a Jewish-less life in America. They arrived on Ellis Island in 1938, after having spent time in Istanbul, then Geneva. They bought a house in Manhasset, NY, and there raised my mother and my aunt as good Catholic girls, never once alluding to the war, or to what they left behind in Europe.
Like my grandparents, who loved Vienna and missed it every day, many of the characters in Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence yearn both physically and emotionally for a place to which they cannot return. How then, my novel asks, do we make a home elsewhere? How then do we find happiness in a strange place when we have been stripped, or have stripped ourselves, of our identities, that which made us who we were?
I wrote the novel to answer this question, among many others, for myself. When you read it, I hope you will find an answer or two for yourself.