Memorial Day, 2007. I’ve drifted away from a Santa Monica beach party to gaze out at the Pacific Ocean, plus my navel, when an unfamiliar woman approaches. We chat a bit—she’s a literary agent based in New York, the sister of the hostess—and then she asks the dreaded question. “So…what are you working on these days?” I pause to consider before answering. You know when people say to cute, charismatic single women, “You’re so fabulous—I just can’t believe you’re single!” and they want to punch them in the face and then kill themselves? This was a work version of that.
You see, I’ve been living in Los Angeles for seven years, having left my native New York City to seek my fortune as a screenwriter with a soap opera credit and a fresh pile of TV spec scripts in my kit bag, but the steady ascent I’ve pictured, and that I’ve seen other people achieve, hasn’t happened. I’ve been working so damn hard for so long and I feel like I’m nowhere, other than crushed. How could that be, when I’ve done everything I’ve seen other people doing—and what my various agents have told me to do?
I mean: I got a driver’s license at age 30 in order to drive cross-country in a U-Haul piled with whatever possessions my husband and I didn’t sell when we left Brooklyn. I sat in a rented house in the Hollywood Dell with a vintage metal desk and a pristine view of a walled garden that gave me a squirrely Barton Fink feeling, and I cranked out material and rolled calls. I got a job on a show—the researcher on Law &Order: SVU in its first season—and I wrote two freelance episodes…but I wasn’t put on staff. I re-wrote a teen comedy feature for Paramount…but my broadly comic take was poorly received. I sold a TV dramedy pilot, a high school musical…but the executives involved walked away when I’d banked they’d burst into song. Eventually, motivated by the stretches of unemployment between these gigs, I developed a freelance sideline, writing copy for entertainment-based ad campaigns. And then, just weeks before the beach party at which I’m now a wallflower, a literary manager who’s read what I thought were my best scripts delivers a disturbing critique. “Your work is solid,” she says. “It’s well written and it proves you can do it. But I can’t do anything with it, because it’s generic. I would be interested in working with you, but first I’d need to see material that only you could write. Write some new stuff this summer and send it over after Labor Day.” Generic? New stuff? Sounds like me? Fecch. Continue reading
“Ashkenazi.” “Sephardic.” As a kid, wandering around the kiddish reception at our shul collecting cellophane ruffle-topped toothpicks in a plastic cup, I heard these terms bandied far above my head by adults and had no idea what they meant. Were these languages? Politicians? Street gangs, like in West Side Story? As a first-generation American and the daughter of German-Jewish refugees, I was pretty sure these mysterious terms didn’t have anything to do with me. We were Jews who kept kosher and went to shul, but we didn’t eat or do the things that seemed officially Jewy, like, Fiddler on the Roof-Jewy. My single mother didn’t bake kugel, or encircle the flames of the Shabbat candles with her hands when she made her brachot, or bobby pin a white nylon doily to the back of her head for services (nor would she have dreamed of wearing a kippah like some of her friends from her Consciousness Raising group). My mother used no Yiddishims in her speech, other than “shul” and “schlep” and, while cursing other drivers, “schmuck.” I wasn’t sent to Jewish sleepaway camp to meet my future spouse or bridesmaids or employers. And on Christmas Day, we did not go to the movies or eat Chinese food.
What I did know, always, was that we were German, from old families. We ate our pizza with a knife and fork. We liked marzipan, in whimsical shapes like fried eggs and, yes, piglets. We wore pinky rings stamped with a family crest based on the corporate logo of my industrialist ancestors’ metals business. We kept glass bottles of 4711 eau de cologne in the bathroom. Phrases like “yeah” and “okay”were frowned upon. Continue reading
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.