Thursday, September 18, 2003 | return to: arts


‘I’m a walking shanda’  — playwright Wendy Wasserstein earns Jewish Image Award

by naomi pfefferman, l.a. jewish journal

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los angeles | "My father loved me dearly, but I'm not a Jewish American Princess," playwright Wendy Wasserstein said. "I'm a Jewish mother, but I'm not Molly Goldberg."

Which is why Wasserstein — among the most articulate voices of a generation of women who came of age during the 1970s — often peoples her plays with complex Jewish women.

In "Uncommon Women and Others," wry, vulnerable Holly Kaplan is the lone Jew among recent graduates of WASPy Mount Holyoke College. In "Isn't It Romantic," aspiring writer Janie Blumberg bucks her parents' pleas to marry the nice Jewish doctor she doesn't love. In "The Sisters Rosensweig," the titular siblings include "a self-loathing Jew, a practicing Jew and a wandering Jew,' " Wasserstein said.

"Her plays have always dealt with strong, diverse Jewish women," said Olivia Cohen-Cutler of the MorningStar Commission, founded by Hadassah. MorningStar, which promotes such images in the media, will grant Wasserstein its Marlene Marks Woman of Inspiration Award at the Jewish Image Awards on Monday.

Speaking from her Manhattan apartment, the girlish, friendly author — who won a 1989 Pulitzer for "The Heidi Chronicles" — said she "very much set out to write plays in which characters were Jewish and talked about being Jewish. After all, my grandfather was a playwright who wrote in Yiddish and my humor comes from growing up Jewish in Brooklyn."

Another motivation was the popular culture that seemed to marginalize people like herself. "I always felt, growing up, that nobody in the movies ever fell in love with the Jewish girl," she said.

Love prospects were of paramount importance to Wasserstein's parents, who sent their awkward preteen off to the Helena Rubenstein Charm School at age 12. The conflicting message from dad Morris, a textile manufacturer, and mom Lola, a flamboyant housewife, was "Be your own person but get married, get married, get married," the never-married Wasserstein, 52, said. When she remained single after graduating from Mount Holyoke and the Yale School of Drama, they telephoned her to sing, "Sunrise, Sunset."

No wonder the fictional Holly in 1977's "Uncommon Women" complains about the 7 a.m. phone calls from parents asking, "Are you thin, are you married to a root-canal man, are you a root-canal man?" In 1983's "Isn't It Romantic," Wasserstein elaborates on the particularly Jewish pressure "to marry a lawyer and to be one." But 28-year-old Janie's parents are so desperate, "they even bring up a Russian cab driver for her to marry," she said.

Wasserstein began 1992's "Sisters Rosensweig" while she was living in London, where she heard remarks such as, "You're terribly Jewish."

"I became interested in writing about American identity, female identity and Jewish identity," she said.

In the play, Sara, the eldest sister, tries to obliterate her Judaism while "faux furrier" Merv, just back from an American Jewish Congress mission to Budapest, endeavors to remind her. Middle sister Gorgeous Teitelbaum, a garrulous suburban mom and Sisterhood president, nudges her two unwed sisters to marry. "She very much has the cadences of my mother, who is capable of meeting you, looking you over and talking about your skin," Wasserstein said. The author's alter-ego is little sister Pfeni, a 40-year-old unmarried travel writer whose biological clock is ticking.

As Wasserstein wrote the play, her own biological clock was ticking. She was in the midst of a decade of fertility treatments that resulted in a life-threatening pregnancy and a daughter, Lucy, in 1999.

The experience has prompted her to start a novel that will feature a whole new range of Jewish women. "It's making me think even more about the particular relationship between Jewish mothers and daughters," she said.

While Lola continues to carp about Wasserstein's unmarried status ("I'm a walking shanda," she said), the dynamic has changed since Morris died last year. "For all the nagging, you look at your mother as someone very precious," Wasserstein said.

She sees herself as a different kind of Jewish mama from Lola — and certainly from 1950s TV mom Molly Goldberg. "Recently Lucy and I were looking at the Hope Diamond in Washington, D.C., and I said, 'Darling, when you grow up you meet somebody nice to get you something like that.' And then I said, 'Or, you can buy it for yourself.' "


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