Growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s, Joshua Braff attended an Orthodox yeshiva for primary school, afternoon Hebrew school at a Conservative shul as a teenager, and had his bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue. The driving force behind the family’s Jewish identity was his father, for whom his mother had converted before their wedding. The household’s charged religious atmosphere found literary expression in Braff’s comic first novel, “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green” (Algonquin, 2004), about a family whose controlling patriarch tries to shape his wife and children into the sort of Jews that will make him proud vis-a-vis the fellow congregants of his Orthodox community.
Braff’s new book, “Peep Show” (Algonquin, 272 pages, $13.95, paperback), deals with similar themes, but is more outrageous. Its narrator, David Arbus, in his final year of high school in the New Jersey suburbs in the mid-1970s, finds himself caught between his newly religious mother, who has joined a Hasidic sect, and a father who makes his living running a burlesque theater in Times Square. The father, Martin, is threatened not only by his wife Miriam’s new identity, but by a changing business climate, leaving him little choice but to make his theater even smuttier. And he seems determined to foil Miriam’s earnest attempts to be accepted by her new community and to bring her children along with her. The combination of these pressures makes for some very funny − and some very sad − scenes, and a cast of characters who all make big mistakes, but can’t help but earn our sympathy.
Braff, 42, is the older brother of Zach Braff, who starred on the TV series “Scrubs” and wrote and directed the acclaimed film “Garden State,” which also offered a quirky look at life in suburban New Jersey. Joshua Braff is married to Jill Braff, the CEO of a photo-sharing Web site called Scrapblog; they have two children. He spoke with Haaretz by phone from his home in Oakland, California.
Q: Your first book was modeled in part on your own upbringing. What inspired the plot of “Peep Show”?
A: I had heard a story about a man who used to be the peep-show king in 1970s Times Square, but who was also a suburban dad in Long Island and modern Orthodox. I thought, wow, here’s a guy who goes through the motions of suburban life, but in his business life he was living the pinnacle of Smutville, USA. As the story evolved, he became a character that was not involved in Hasidim [or Orthodoxy], as you know. I also met a woman when I was touring for my first book, who said that her mother had been one of the first ba’al teshuvas [newly Orthodox] in the early ‘70s. The mother raised her daughter as a Hasid, but her husband would sit in the TV room on the Sabbath, and he could care less, didn’t want anything to do with it. So this was quite the family dynamic. And she wanted to tell me her story. She became something of a consultant for me, and offered me her story in the form of a series of e-mails.
Q: How did you go about uncovering the vanished world of peep shows?
A: In a couple of ways. First, I lived in Hell’s Kitchen, which is the area around 43rd Street and 10th Avenue, in 1990, when I studied at New York University. That was not far from Times Square. That world was on its way out, but a lot of that grit still existed, and I absorbed a lot of it, although I wasn’t focusing on fiction at the time.
Q: The character of David Arbus is an aspiring photographer, and in the book you have him, as a teenager, shooting lots of photos in the seedy Times Square area. Is his name a tribute to Diane Arbus?
A: Yes. I love the textures of her work. I must have been way into her when I was picking names for characters, and so that came right from her. Her work is freak-showish.
Q: After all the different varieties of Jewish behavior you were exposed to as a young person, where does your Jewishness stand today?
A: My Jewishness mostly has to do with my children. I have a 6-year-old girl, and a 9-year-old boy. And I would not say that we are religious at all, but we celebrate Passover and Hanukkah, and I do not celebrate any of the non-Jewish holidays. So, the kids know that this is what we are, and this is what we’re from. I’ve had to work over the years on not cringing around the approaching holidays. Because, whatever it was about me and my makeup, I did feel that Judaism was not offered to me − rather, it was smashed into my face. Part of that, as I got older, had to do with recognizing that my mother converted to Judaism, and that we had hardly any contact with her side of the family. So here’s a whole section of people that were celebrating Christmas, but we didn’t go near that. And I think that was on purpose, my dad saying, this is what you are and that’s what you’re not. And as an adult, I completely still see myself as a Jew. But not as a part of a Jewish community.
Q: Did your parents stay together in their marriage?
A: No, they did not. They divorced when I was bar mitzvah age. And that’s also a part of my first novel, “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green.”
Q: Do you like the character of Martin Arbus, David’s father?
A: I do. Abram Green [in “Jacob Green”] is a narcissistic character who is confused about how to show love. He’s very capable of showing love, but because his children are appendages of him, he’s unable to see them as individuals. They’re more of a reflection of him. I don’t see Martin as a narcissist, but more as a Jewish Willy Loman who wants so much to nurture the artistic legitimacy of the theater his father passed down to him, but alas, here comes the obvious evolution of Times Square New York in 1975. And to keep up with the Joneses and remain competitive, he must literally have a sex-toy shop in the lobby of his father’s theater. So he’s torn and aging and brash as hell. He’s like many people I grew up with in New Jersey, and I have a father-in-law who’s like that. There’s a little bit of “Sopranos” in the Arbus family where at home everything is meant to be shaped to be palatable and suburban, and will be okay to the parent-teacher association. And the truth behind it is, that this is where the money comes from. And the truth is, like Tony Soprano, there’s things to appreciate in this person that are under the surface, and I try to make those apparent through his relationships with his kids. But there’s also another side of him, that will take you out if he needs to.
Q: He seems to be unable to get along with his wife. Even when a conversation is going well, he does something to ruin it. He’s almost like Larry David’s character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
A: There’s a certain amount of Larry David. That character is like a child, and he has only the child’s ability to rectify these curve balls he’s been given in his life. I think that’s true about Martin. He’s an old dog trying to learn a new trick. And the new trick is, that his now ex-wife is saying to him: Understand me for what I am, even though it’s not understandable to you. He’s incapable of having a productive conversation with his ex-wife. Partly because his ex-wife, in his eyes, has drunk the Kool-Aid and wants to drag not only her daughter with her, but her son too. And he’s saying, I’m not going to let that happen, you can’t have it all. So he’s almost holding on to David to spite her.
Q: But you seem to have a certain amount of sympathy for Miriam, no?
A: I’m really glad you see that. Philosophically, as the writer, to each his own is very, very important to me. I would never point fingers, or say, how could you believe in that? And I do think that Miriam has found something that is going to make her a better person. She’s on to something − for herself. How much she should drag other people into that is questionable. She’s bettering herself, by taking on the Hasidic life, but when it comes to children ... I am wary of the fundamentalist lifestyle. It’s a world that could very well be described as limiting − or let’s say, limiting for females, just for fun. You know, you can’t look your intended bride in the eye until the wedding day, you can’t touch them. From morning til night you’re beholden to rituals and rules. And there’s a lot of room for failure, too much room for failure in the name of God.
Q: You call the sect that Miriam joins the Lichtigers, but it seems clear to me that they were based on the Lubavitch. Why not just call them that?
A: I think I did that through the advice of my research partner. She is a woman who removed her sheitel and has distanced herself from the Hasidic lifestyle, but who still lives in Brooklyn and is still in those circles. When she finally read the manuscript, I think she got afraid of how people might respond to her. I think she felt that I was going to write something lighter, like maybe something that was going to fit the description of ‘chick lit.’ Now it’s true that Lubavitchers aren’t people who read secular books, but I’m not in the business of offending people, so I figured I would distance it and I did want to protect her.
My father has a friend who’s a Chabadnik. It’s a recent relationship, and my father wants me to know, very much, that his friend does not push him in a way that says, Hey we can’t be friends unless you become a Chabadnik. And I think it’s important to note that there has been a progression in the Lubavitcher movement that is more welcoming and more progressive and does not say, Okay, if you go to movies and Mets games, and use the F-word, that says you can’t be my friend, or you can’t come to Shabbat, or you can’t come to my seder.
The first wave of ba’al teshuvas was in the early ‘70s. In “Peep Show” I’m writing about the mid-70s, and my research showed that it was a different time. It doesn’t mean that the rules have changed, but just that there’s a progression, and all politics has opened.
Q: I also have the impression that Lubavitchers, at least, are more open or even tolerant than they were 20 years ago. And they’re also there − on college campuses and in remote cities − when no one else is there, offering services with no questions asked.
A: Yes, that’s a big deal. That seems to be something that’s new. And their expansion is amazing, I’m blown away by that. I can completely imagine a Chabad rabbi in a college setting welcoming a kid who’s interested in Judaism. Sure, in the back of his head he’s saying, I would like this kid to really get into this? Yes but he’s also hopefully saying: Take it as you will, and maybe some of it will rub off.
Haaretz Books, May 2010, firstname.lastname@example.org
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