Questioning faith in the parsha
Bruce Jay Friedman
BRUCE JAY FRIEDMAN is an American novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and actor. He was born in the Bronx on April 26, 1930 to Irving and Mollie (Liebowitz) Friedman, graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and then attended the University of Missouri as a journalism major. He served as a First Lieutenant in the United States Air Force from 1951 to 1953 and 1954 married the model (now an acting coach and writer) Ginger Howard.
In the same year, Friedman worked for many of the era’s famous men’s magazines through Magazine Management Company. Friedman ended up as an executive editor in charge of the magazines Men (not the present magazine of the same title), Male, and Man’s World. In 1962, Friedman published Stern, the first of his eight novels. In 1988, he appeared in a film by Woody Allen, “Another Woman.” His latest collection of short fiction, Three Balconies, appeared in September 2008, from Biblioasis.
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“WHEN A WRITER CAME TO SCHOOL WHEN I WAS A KID I WASN’T EVEN LISTENING TO HIM. I WANTED TO SEE THE WAY HE SMOKED.”
Why Jews don’t become junkies:
They have to have fresh orange juice in the morning
They have to read the New York Times
They have to get eight hours of sleep
I got turned on to Bruce Jay Friedman a few years ago when a novelist friend referred to him as “one of the lost writers of the ’70s” and recommended his novel About Harry Towns, about divorce and cocaine. I loved the spare, mordant style, and quickly devoured his novel A Mother’s Kisses (about a mother who accompanies her son to college). Later I read Stern, his first novel, while struggling with my third, and told my husband that there was no point finishing it because I would never be as good as Friedman.
Stern (1962) is about a man who comes undone when he learns that his neighbor may have referred to his wife as a “kike” and also may have noticed that she wasn’t wearing underwear. Friedman has published five other novels, five collections of short stories, three plays, and several works of nonfiction, includingEven the Rhinos Were Nymphos. His latest story collection, Three Balconies, has just been published by Biblioasis.
His short story “A Change of Plan” was adapted by Neil Simon and Elaine May into the movie The Heartbreak Kid. He wrote Doctor Detroit, Stir Crazy, and Splash, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The Steve Martin film The Lonely Guy was based on Friedman’s book.
Friedman suggested we meet at the Century Club, a private club for men and women in the arts and letters on West Forty-third Street that is surrounded by an aura of secrecy. I arrived at six o’clock on a chilly spring night, fifteen minutes early. There was a board on one side of the entryway with all the members’ names—J. Galassi, W. Zinsser, and J. Feiffer were a few that I recognized—and colored pegs indicating whether the members were in. A few minutes later Friedman arrived, wearing a tweed coat and hat, strongly built and dapper. “Are you early or am I late?” he asked in a melodious, lightly Bronx-accented voice, putting his hand on my arm. He took me upstairs and we talked in the library over wine, and then in the dining room over clams, veal, and lamb, until we were the last guests to leave the club.
The Believer – Amy Sohn, 2008
THE BELIEVER: Stern drew comparisons to Nathanael West, Hieronymus Bosch, and Marc Chagall. Who were your influences when you started writing?
BRUCE JAY FRIEDMAN: When I was in the air force, I had a commanding officer named George B. Leonard, who later became a major counterculture figure on the West Coast. He gave me three books to read: Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe, From Here to Eternity by James Jones, and Catcher in the Rye. I read the books in close to one weekend and it was my only epiphany: a Jewish guy can have an epiphany. I thought, Wouldn’t it be wonderful to try something like that? This was particularly true with Catcher in the Rye. I had an image of literature as being something I simply couldn’t do, having to do with life and the cosmos and the universe and the rolling hills of South Carolina. When I read Salinger it was the first time I thought, This is my world, I could try something like that.
I was influenced by radio—I listened to a lot of radio, there was no television—and the street. The way young people admire rock stars, I had a thing about writers. When a writer came to school when I was a kid I wasn’t even listening to him. I wanted to see the way he smoked.
Someone reviewing one of my early books said, “Obviously Mr. Friedman has been influenced by Céline.” I had never read Céline but then I read Céline and they were right, meaning you could be influenced by someone whose influence is so widespread that you get influenced without reading it.
Later I started to get influenced only insofar as I enjoyed someone, like Evelyn Waugh. He’s written some novels that I can actually prove were perfect, like Decline and Fall.
I read The Day of the Locust for the first time recently. I really loved it, except there’s a lot of unnecessary “he said” and “she said” where you don’t know who the speaker is. It could have used a good edit. It wouldn’t have lost any literary value.
I’m really, really touchy about this, maybe more so than others, but I cannot read a pedestrian sentence.
BLVR: What’s an example of a pedestrian sentence?
BJF: I like to know what’s going on and what pop culture is once in a while, so I read The Da Vinci Code. I was reading along and I came to a sentence where the hero is in a hotel room and he dons a bathrobe. There’s no particular reason but I said, “OK, let him don a bathrobe.” It was like a king donning his raiment. Then twenty pages later he dons another bathrobe. I said, “If he dons one more fucking bathrobe I’m out of here.”
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Bruce Jay Friedman says his writing has always been sprinkled with Jewish themes.
Photo by Molly K. Friedman
by Ron Kaplan NJJN Features Editor, October 16, 2008
You can find an excerpt from Bruce Jay Friedman’s 1966 debut novel Stern in The Rise of American Jewish Literature, an anthology of the works of prominent Jewish authors. The contributors include such legends as Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud, among many others. Pretty heady company.
“For them, yes, I agree,” said Friedman, tongue-in-cheek, during a phone interview from his home in New York City.
Perhaps if the 30-year-old anthology is revised someday, it will include something from Three Balconies: Stories and a Novella (Biblioasis), Friedman’s new release.
Friedman aficionados will no doubt note the gradual change in themes and characters since he began publishing. His characters tend to be older now, more preoccupied with the meaning of life and worried about opportunities missed, impending illness, and death, tiptoeing the fine line between humor and desperation.
In comparing his new work with his more recent output, “the early ones were more frantic and hyper and crazy,” said the author. “I’m older and these [stories] are probably more dimensional.”
Friedman has always sprinkled Jewish themes in his writing. In his latest collection, “The Convert” considers two schoolboy adversaries turned friends, then returned to adversaries, while in “Mr. Wimbledon,” a Jew moves to a distant suburb expecting to find anti-Semitism and is somewhat disappointed when it isn’t there. “It’s like the Stockholm Syndrome in a funny way,” Friedman said. Compare this with Stern, in which the eponymous protagonist winds up in a sanitarium because of his paranoia about anti-Semitism.
“Stern was written pretty much when I was a kid,” said Friedman, now 73. “I was in my 30s, and I suppose if I had to write that book again, I’d write it in a different way.” He quickly amended his comment. “I’m only saying that I probably would have done it differently, but I don’t regret doing it the way I did. I was surrounded by that time and period and I was that person.”
Freidman has written in several genres: novels, short stories, screenplays, and theatrical plays.
In his stage play Have You Spoken to a Jew Lately?, two friends in an isolated area of America begin to suspect they’re the only Jews left in the country. “They try to verify it and sure enough, they can’t find anybody. They can’t find a lawyer; they can’t find the Second Avenue Deli in the phonebook. It gets more and more suspicious until they’re convinced of it.”
Freidman enjoys the short story format best. “I always come back to it,” he said. “It’s like coming home. That’s where I began.”
Nevertheless, he penned hits movies such as Splash and Stir Crazy and received critical acclaim for Steambath, which was way ahead of its time when it aired on PBS in 1973. Who knows what was more shocking: a nude scene or the fact that God was depicted as a Puerto Rican spa attendant?
What might have been
Even though he denies consciously “writing Jewish,” he concedes, “I was born a Jew, I’m still a Jew, and it’s one of many themes.”
Friedman grew up in the Bronx. “Lower middle class, but I think we were poor without my really realizing it.” Friedman remembers sleeping upright in a folding chair in the cramped apartment until he was 17. He wrote about some of those experiences in his second novel, A Mother’s Kisses.
His was a “marginal” Jewish upbringing. “Some attendance at synagogue — [it] never interested me.” After all these years, he still recalls the trauma of attending Hebrew school, his introduction into the Jewish community.
“The instructor hit me across the face with the Five Books of Moses for whispering to the guy next to me,” Freidman said, amazing himself with the memory. “Mr. Kaminetsky…you don’t forget that kind of name. I’ve thought about that for years and I ended up sympathizing with the poor man. Who knows what kind of pressure he was under.
“I always feel if I had one guiding individual to take me through what the religion was all about and get me interested, my life would have been a bit different.”
For one thing, his attempt to get into medical school — basically because many of his friends were going and he didn’t want to be left out — might have deprived the literary world of a biting, humorous voice. “It would have been a very unattractive thing for the community in general,” he said. In retrospect, Friedman thought he might have made a good therapist. Until his wife reminded him he didn’t know how to listen. “Oh, that,” he told her.
He applied to Columbia Medical School “never dreaming that anyone would reject me.” But the dean explained to him that returning World War II veterans would be allocated all the openings. He suggested that Friedman develop his talent as a writer and apply for the school’s arts and science program with the possibility of later switching to pre-med. With a mixture of confidence and ethics, Freidman refused, thinking the subterfuge dishonest. Long story short, he received notification while working at a summer camp that all the spots were indeed taken as predicted. He wound up at the University of Missouri journalism school, “which was pretty much a waste of time.”
When not writing, Freidman loves to share his knowledge of the craft. He currently holds the Leila Hadley Luce chair at Marymount Manhattan College and for the last 12 years has taught an intensive writing course at the Humber School of Creative and Performing Arts in Toronto. “I always compare it to hitting the ball back and forth and having fun on the tennis court and then you take a lesson with a pro. I’m the pro.”
He finds working with novices — his students have included a neurophysiologist and a race horse trainer — “not in the least frustrating. It’s a learning experience for me…. It brings me back to fundamentals. As I’m teaching, I remind myself of some of the rules.” The classes have served as inspiration for some of his own work. “I’m staggered by how little I know and how much I’ve forgotten.”
Lucky Bruce: A Memoir – Hardcover (Available on Sept. 13, 2011) by Bruce Jay Friedman