We’re all familiar with the timeless adage “write what you know,” and it continues to guide writers both young and old. The NJFP has long offered a unique opportunity for young Jewish filmmakers to “film what they know,” taking us on tours of their homes, histories, streets, and cities—exploring their fears, passions, and dreams. And now that the NFJP cohort and alums have embraced a common theme of Half Remembered Stories, we have started to “write what we half know,” and “film what we half remember,” as we trace our families and their faiths backwards towards the hazy horizon of history.
About the time I joined the NJFP charter cohort, I discovered a gift of a novel titled My Name is Asher Lev, by the celebrated modern Jewish writer Chaim Potok. It tells the story of a young Hasid with extraordinary artistic abilities and vision who is forced to reconcile his conservative roots with the fearless hedonism required of a true artist. He finds his way under the guidance of fictional artist Jacob Caan, a fictional firebrand of a mentor who nurtures Asher’s amazing talents, while helping him navigate the godless religion of art even as God looks over the shoulder of young Asher through the piercing gaze of his disapproving parents. While Asher was a practicing Jew struggling to find his identity artist, I was a practicing artist struggling to find my identity as a Jew. This struggle is documented quite candidly in my voiceover for Not Another Jewish Movie. But ironically, it was my experience with the NJFP that allowed me to embrace my Judaism in ways I never thought possible. The project eventually gave me the inspiration to visit Israel, and explore the world through the eyes of a Jew.
In Potok’s novel, Asher refuses opportunities to explore the world, and chooses instead to remain in Brooklyn and paint the world around him. He paints his mother, his home, his neighborhood, and his life. As Asher puts it, he “paints his street.” Eventually his art hits too close to home when his parents attend one of Asher’s exhibitions. The centerpiece of the show is a pair of paintings which depicts his mother in the nude, crucified on the windowpanes of her window, flanked by Asher and his father. It is blasphemy of the highest order. And it is beautiful. It is fearless, pained, and true. It is art.
When I first read the novel, I expected his parents to explode with anger, but they instead take the sting of seeing Asher’s stirringly graphic painting with a quiet agony that cuts deep into their hearts, as well as the heart of young Asher.
This past weekend, my father took my sister and I to see a stage adaptation of My Name is Asher Lev in Marin. The performances from the small ensemble cast were emotionally stirring. As the three of us sat there, tears rolling down our faces, we were all reminded of perhaps the strangest night of our lives.
I had written and directed a musical comedy titled A Little Too Young, which was about a misfit Jewish family and featured a cadre of zany characters which were all thinly-veiled versions of my real family and friends. It featured a character named Elliot Levine, who is based on my great grandfather Lee Ettelson, who I have dedicated many words on this site. Elliot (nee great grandpapa) discovers the original burning bush of Biblical fame, which his great grandkids Rose and Elliot (nee my sister and I) find is merely a highly hallucinogenic pot plant that never burns up and gets you so high you see God. It was High School Musical meets the Da Vinci Code—a whole bunch of singing, dancing, teenagers discover that religion is a crock of shit. I had fine-tuned the self-loathing angst of my Not Another Jewish Movie tirades into high-concept zaniness that delighted audiences. That was, except for my mother in father.
Like Asher’s painting, A Little Too Young exposed the weakness and fears of my loved ones as nakedly as the bare breasts of his tortured mother’s effigy. During the rehearsal process, this mattered little because I managed to compartmentalize my life in a way that my real friends and family were separated from their theatrical counterparts. This all came crashing to a halt on that strangest night of our lives, the night that EVERY SINGLE PERSON I HAD WRITTEN ABOUT ATTENDED THE SHOW. My parents, my sister, my friends, my ex-girlfriend, my professor—EVERYONE I HAD LAMPOONED IN THE SHOW—showed up and sat next to me.
When my parents stood up after the show and looked at me, I saw the same pain in their eyes that I had imagined were in those of the parents of Asher Lev when I read the book so many years ago. The eyes said “why? Why would you hurt us like this?” I looked back into their eyes as if to say, “I had to write what I knew. I had to paint my street.”
That night it snowed in Santa Cruz for the first time in decades, and a huge lightening storm descended on the sleepy beachside university town. It felt as though the heavens were rebuking me for my insolence. I had allowed two universes—one real and one theatrical—to collide into each other, and it had disrupted the flow of the real universe to the point that it was snowing on the beach. I was terrified of what I had done.
After the show we had a cast party at the house of the girl who played my mom, and all of my family and friends were hanging out with the people they had just seen making fun of them onstage. Some were having a blast—my sister especially—but the situation was awkward in a way I cannot describe with words. There is a picture of the real us standing with the fake us, and there is a look on my face of utter existential madness. When I found out that the girl who played my mom hooked up with the guy who played grandpapa, I had to leave. It was just too weird.
Three years later, my father sister and I relived that night in our heads as we watched the mirror story of Asher Lev unfold in front of us onstage. We turned to each other and all agreed “A Little Too Young.”
There are two ways to “write what you know.” You can paint your street, or explore the world around you with travel and research. I have found myself in a back and forth pattern between the two. After A Little Too Young I decided to write about something that was centuries and continents away from me, a play about Elizabethan playwright and spy Kit Marlowe. I was still writing what I knew, but I was writing what I knew about history and art, not my own life. The show was a flop, and never made it past the staged reading process. Clearly, my audience wanted more of the same. They wanted me to paint my street again. Under pressure from friends and colleagues, I penned a play titled Cabana Confessions about my experience as a pool boy at the legendary Dream Inn on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. It was exponentially raunchier than A Little Too Young, chock-filled with musical numbers, scantily-clad girls, and dirty jokes. The audience loved it, but I could barely sit through the damned thing. It was just trashy. But at least it didn’t hurt anyone but myself.
After that, I decide to write what knew about two things I knew better than anything: James Bond and the JFK Assassination. Forever and a Day, my kitschy musical spy caper, premiered this summer at the Garage in San Francisco. My dad and my sister loved it.
With Half-Remembered Stories I have returned to writing about my family, but I have also tapped my interest in research to delve deeper than mere musical laugh-mongering. In this way, the NFJP manages to “paint our street” but also “explore our world.” Through our blogs we paint our streets with poetry and pictures, and in our films we paint the streets with a sublime reverence for who we are, where we have been, and where we are going.
Name is Insert Here
I am a Jew
I am an Artist
We are the NJFP
We Half Remember
We Never Forget