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Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties: Essaysby Wendy Wasserstein
I cannot tell a lie. Now that Madeleine Albright, Tom Stoppard, and even Hillary Rodham Clinton have embraced their Jewish roots, I feel compelled to bite the bullet and publicly reveal that I’ve just discovered my own denominational truth. I am Episcopalian.
I should have guessed a long time ago, because my parents never mentioned it. In fact, they hid it. They sent me to primary school at the Yeshiva Flatbush. It never crossed my mind that I was deliberately being isolated. On our classroom walls were portraits of Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir in place of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. Our horror stories were not of being buried by Communists, but of being suffocated by nomad ham sandwiches.
We lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Flatbush. Our shopping strip included kosher butchers and Hymie’s Highway Appetizers. For Sunday brunch, my mother produced bagels, belly lox, and cream cheese with scallions. Nobody told me that lox lived a double life as smoked salmon, or that herring could ever be kippered.
Even the Christmas holidays were a setup. Every year on Christmas Eve, we were on a jet to Miami Beach. There wasn’t even a chance for us to watch the WPIX Channel 11 Yule log burning as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang “Silent Night.” We celebrated the holidays front-row center at the Versailles Room, with Myron Cohen warming up our crowd for Sammy Davis, Jr. Even our African-Americans were Jewish!
Until now, I’ve had a happy life thinking of myself as a Jewish writer. I came to accept that when my work was described as being “too New York” it was really a euphemism for something else. I belonged to a temple, and on my opening nights, my mother invariably told friends that she’d be much happier if it was my wedding. In other words, I had a solid sense of self. I knew exactly who I was.
Then the bottom fell out. I was speaking at the Lion of Judah luncheon in Palm Beach recently when I noticed a woman in a Lilly Pulitzer dress, one strand of pearls, and forty-year-old pink Pappagallo shoes leaning against the door. She stood out from the crowd because, instead of the omnipresent Barry Kieselstein-Cord purse with lizard clasp, she was carrying a battered lacrosse stick.
At the conclusion of my talk, she approached the podium. “I hope you don’t mind my speaking to you, but I believe we are related,” she said.
I looked at her dead-straight blond hair and smiled politely. “I doubt it.”
“Your name translates to Waterston,” she continued. “Harry Waterston, your great-uncle twice removed, was my mother’s fourth husband. They were married for one month.” She looked at me as if only a simpleton wouldn’t make the immediate connection.
I did have a distant relative, Dr. Harry Wasserstein, but I never heard of him marrying anyone but Aunt Rivkah. According to my mother, even though Harry was an educated man, he never worked a day in his life, and Rivkah’s life was miserable.
“I think you must be mistaken,” I said, and tried to excuse myself.
“After he left my mother, Harry Waterston changed his name to Wasserstein because he wanted his son to go to an Ivy League college, and to Mount Sinai Medical School. Harry Jr. became an educated man, but he never worked a day in his life.”
I was shvitzing. I mean sweating. “Our name actually translates to Waterstone,” I said.
“That’s irrelevant!” She was almost haughty. “Look at that actor on Law & Order—what’s his name, Sam? He’s a Hasid if I ever saw one.”
She handed me the lacrosse stick while I made a mental note to find out what Sam Waterston was doing for the High Holy Days. “This was Harry’s lacrosse stick, which he used the year he was expelled from Hotchkiss,” she said. “He made me promise to give it to the first Wasserstein relative I met in Palm Beach. He said it was inevitable that one of you people would show up here!” She winked and left the room.
Good or bad news had always made me hungry. But for the first time in my life I needed a drink. Maybe she was onto something.
That week, I began eating chicken sandwiches with mayo on white bread, no crust, and getting full after two bites. For the first time in my life, I wrote in to the Mount Holyoke Quarterly: “Am looking to buy thirty-year-old Saab car and to apologize to all the Holyoke girls named Timothy and Kikky, whom I never spoke to. I now know you were very interesting people.”
I began wearing faded cardigan sweaters and canceled all appointments for massages, pedicures, and exploratory liposuction. I gave up on my complicated relationship with a married Jewish Malaysian vibes player and learned to enjoy the company of a divorced asexual friend from Amherst who studies pharmaceutical stocks for J. P. Morgan. I began running ten miles every morning and sculling down the Hudson nightly. My approval ratings with my friends have gone up fifteen points.
But I was still, as I used to say in Yiddish, “nit ahin nit aher,” or, as I now say in the Queen’s English, “neither here nor there.”
That was when I decided to go on a listening tour of Fishers Island. I wanted to really hear the stories of my new Wasp ancestors, learn to make their cocktails, and wear their headbands. I want to live up to my true destiny and announce to the world how great it is to be goyisheh like me.
A Place They’d Never Seen: The Theater
As far as I’m concerned, every New Yorker is born with the inalienable right to ride the D train, shout “Hey, lady!” with indignation, and grow up going regularly to the theater. After all, if a city is fortunate enough to house an entire theater district, shouldn’t access to the stage life within it be what makes coming of age in New York different from that in any other American city?
I am certain that I became a playwright because every Saturday my parents picked me up from the June Taylor School of Dance and brought me to a Broadway matinee. Of course, at the time I had no idea that I would even remotely have a life in the theater. No adult said to me, “Oh, Wendy, darling, don’t become a doctor, a lawyer, or a certified public accountant. Please do us a favor and consider the not-for-profit theater.” But watching those plays while I was still in high school first put into my mind the idea that the work you grew up to do didn’t have to be entirely separate from your real interests.
As the 1998–99 theater season officially ended with the recent Tony Awards, and as the attendant hoopla is replaced by the weary question of where will the new audiences come from, I have some good news from the front. Perhaps there is even a glimmer of hope for the new season from eight New York City high school students who have decided to make theatergoing a habit.
Sadly, a New York adolescent’s life as a regular theatergoer is becoming the exception to the rule. Ticket prices have made a family habit like mine almost an impossibility. Moreover, those against government subsidy for the arts have marginalized theater as elitist and solely for the upper middle class.
Well-paid movie-marketing experts have endless figures and charts to demonstrate that teenagers would far rather sit through 10 Things I Hate About You, the movie remake of The Taming of the Shrew set at a high school, than the Shakespeare play itself.
While I was on a recent trip to Congress to lobby for the arts, a senator asked if I was serious that theater was as important as health and education. I was tempted to say, “Yes, let them eat plays!” But instead I hatched an idea to personally bring New York high school students into the theater.
I mentioned my plan to Roy Harris, who was the stage manager for my last three plays. Roy was quick to jump on board: “Best thing you can do is get those kids in here. This is audience development at the grassroots level!”
Stage managers are wonderfully organized people. One day I’m daydreaming, and the next thing I know we’re at a meeting at The Theatre Development Fund. Among its many functions, the nonprofit TDF runs the half-price TKTS booth on Broadway and works to develop new audiences.
“You get me eight smart high school students from the New York City public school system and Roy and I will take them to plays for a year,” I proposed to Marianna Houston Weber, the fund’s director of education. “Just make sure it’s no one who is looking to get an agent or meet Drew Barrymore. I want students who have never been to the New York theater, and let’s see if it’s at all still relevant to them.”
Being a Brooklyn girl, I was hoping to include students from every borough. But Marianna said that the development fund already had a playwriting program set up with DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. She offered to get in touch with Patricia Bruno, a popular English teacher there, who would pick eight candidates from the accelerated math and science program.
DeWitt Clinton High School, named for the nineteenth-century New York mayor and governor, is the alma mater of the comedian Robert Klein, the designer Ralph Lauren, and the writers James Baldwin and Avery Corman. Over the years, the mix of the school’s immigrant population has changed, but the commitment of teachers like Mrs. Bruno to opening worlds for their students has remained constant.
In September 1998, with the help of our educational advisers, Roy and I mapped out a more precise academic plan. We would see seven matinees: a potpourri of Broadway, off-Broadway, musicals, and straight drama. After each, we would go out for pizza and talk about the show. The students would be selected based on an essay about why the project interested them. Those chosen would keep a yearlong journal, for which they would receive high school credit.
On a cold Sunday in early November, the DeWitt Eight and Mrs. Bruno meet us for the first time in front of the Gershwin Theater to see George C. Wolfe’s production of the musical On the Town. As our three boys and five girls ride the escalator upstairs, all in blue jeans with backpacks, I see Adolph Green walking across the lobby.
“That man wrote this show with his partner, Betty Comden, fifty-five years ago,” I say, pointing him out to Manuel Nuñez and Omar Mendez. “He’s the local talent, too.”
We sit in the upper balcony, and as the orchestra begins to play “New York, New York,” the eight students lean forward. I feel a lump forming in my throat. Immediately I think of Kenesha Johnson’s application essay. She, like most of the others, mentioned wanting to have a sense of why it is good to live in New York before she left for college.
Yscaira Jimenez, an ebullient young woman, is immediately laughing and snapping her fingers to the Leonard Bernstein score. Watching the stage from her point of view, I am grateful for George Wolfe’s commitment to diverse casting. All of my eight theatergoers are members of minority groups. At least this On the Town resembles their town, too.
Leaving the theater and bouncing down the street, Yscaira is singing “New York, New York.” Later, she writes in her journal, “Seeing New York through the eyes of an outsider made me realize that I have so much of the world so close to me, which others just dream of having.”
Over pizza, they tell me how modern the music seems. None of them has heard of Leonard Bernstein. I try to explain the plot and the phenomenon of the Miss Subways contest, and they giggle at the naiveté of it. What I don’t learn until later is that most of the DeWitt Eight had anticipated that going to the theater would be a stiff and dreary affair. “Previous to my seeing this performance, I expected the theater to be boring and only for the rich and elegant,” Manuel wrote in his journal after seeing On the Town.
Although they all say they enjoyed the show, when I ask if they would recommend On the Town to friends, they are silent. Omar emphatically shakes his reversed-baseball-capped head: “Oh, no! It’s not cool to go to plays. I almost didn’t try to sign up for this because I was afraid of what my friends would say. You know, stuff like ‘the big classy thug.’ ”
Our next outing is to Beth Henley’s lyrical play Impossible Marriage starring Holly Hunter at the Roundabout. Beth Henley has found one of her greatest fans in the sensitive Kenesha.
“I loved the language in this play,” Kenesha gushes about Ms. Henley’s Southern-eccentric characters. “I could see beyond Holly Hunter’s character’s camouflage. You have to understand it’s poetry!”
Chung Nguyen, on the other hand, found Impossible Marriage to be quite distressing. Chung, who came to America at age ten from Vietnam, feels the comic elements only diminish the seriousness of the moment. Of course, Chung himself is rather serious. He is the class valedictorian. What all the students do agree on, however, is that most of the audiences at our matinees are old and white. Erica Vargas, a shy and studious girl with wire-rim glasses, believes the DeWitt Clinton students stand out because of their age, their color, and their dress. Kenesha begins to worry that only whites go to the theater.
They are all relieved by the diversity of the audience at The Trial of One Shortsighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise & Safreeta Mae, directed by Paul Carter Harrison at the Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center. In fact, Kimberly Ebanks, the confident sophomore in our group, weeps throughout Marcia L. Leslie’s play. She would later write in her journal, “I had no urge to wipe my tears away because it felt as though I was cleansing my soul and cleaning away the dirty film that slavery had left on me.” Kimberly’s catharsis was everything Aristotle dreamed it could be.
None of them had been to Lincoln Center prior to our Christmas visit to see Parade, the Alfred Uhry–Jason Robert Brown musical. As we walk through the Vivian Beaumont lobby, I tell them my play The Sisters Rosensweig had opened downstairs. I suddenly soar in their estimation.
Parade sweeps our crowd for outstanding theatrical event of the season. They are shocked to find out it was based on the real story of Leo Frank’s lynching in Atlanta in 1915, and that such injustice could happen to a white Jewish man in the South.
As I take them backstage for our pizza and discussion, they poke one another when they recognize an actor. There are squeals of laughter as wigs and a peg leg pass by.
“How did they know to make such a serious subject into a musical?” Omar asks me.
“Have you ever heard of Hal Prince?” I respond. Their faces stare at me blankly. “He’s the director, and for decades he has tried to stretch the boundaries of musicals. This time, he’s working with a twenty-eight-year-old composer. So in many ways it’s a merger of old-time theater craft with youthful innovation.” I am hoping they get my analogy to our own cross-generation collaboration.
“I give it a nine and a half on a scale of ten,” says Camille Darby, a sophomore and an aspiring playwright.
The others begin shaking their heads: “Ten!” “Ten!” “Eleven!”
“You know, no movie executive who decides what people your age are going to like would ever dream that Parade would mean so much to you,” I say, smiling.
Yscaira is indignant. “They don’t know about us! They think they do, but they don’t.”
We visit Lincoln Center again in February to see A. R. Gurney’s play Far East, a memoir of a young naval officer’s stint in Japan in 1954. The play is directed by Daniel Sullivan and Roy Harris is the stage manager. Roy takes us backstage and explains the intricacies of calling all the cues for the show and exactly what it takes to keep a play in shape night after night.
Erica writes in her journal, “The intensity of live theater is like a wild rush that one can almost never achieve from movies or literature.”
Our most heated debate takes place after seeing Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth. It is about three young disaffected and privileged New Yorkers, one of whom is named Warren.
Omar is really ticked off: “Girls always fall for jerks like Warren.”
The usually silent Erica jumps on him: “That’s not true!”
Manuel defends his friend on the day of his eighteenth birthday: “Oh, you just feel sorry for him cause he’s a spoiled rich kid who’s wasting his life on drugs.”
Kimberly jumps in: “I know plenty of people like Warren who aren’t rich and are wasting their lives, too, you know.”
For the first time, Marianna, Patricia, Roy, and I are silent. These are the experts. This is their youth.
Our final selection is a field trip to my own play An American Daughter, directed by Derek Anson Jones at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. The students had earlier read the play and, for the most part, were not initially drawn to the story of a woman’s embattled nomination for surgeon general.
Since their reading, however, I had revised the play significantly from the version that initially ran in 1997, emphasizing the political arguments and clarifying certain characters’ motivations. Mr. Jones gave the play an edgy, almost Shavian interpretation. It was a production I was personally very pleased with.
When they return from the performance, which I had to miss, we meet at the V & T Pizzeria, a New York hangout even in my youth, adjacent to Columbia University.
First, there was college news. Yscaira was on her way with a full scholarship to Columbia, Chung was waiting to hear about his financial aid from Haverford, and Erica from Barnard. Kenesha will be extolling Impossible Marriage at the University of Rochester, while Omar will hang his cap at SUNY–Albany.
Manuel was waiting to hear about his financial aid at SUNY–New Paltz.
“When I get to college, I’m going to see as many plays as I can,” Chung tells me.
“Yes,” I say, slyly, “but let’s talk about what’s really important here. What did you think of my play before you run off to all those others?”
They all agree that it was odd seeing the play because of their knowing me. “Did you think it was much angrier than I seem?” I ask. “No, it was funny,” Chung answers. “I just couldn’t find you in it.”
Erica speaks up for my work: “I thought the play was very contemporary. The issues about women in this play made me think what it will be like for me.” I want to kiss her.
She will write in her journal, “Women have always been oppressed by society, but sometimes it is the choice of women to let themselves be oppressed.”
We begin taking photographs and toasting our theatrical season, which is coming to an end. “Do you think TDF should continue with this ‘Wendy Project’?” Marianna asks the group.
Yscaira doesn’t hesitate: “Absolutely!”
Omar gives two thumbs up—“Every inner-city student deserves this experience”—and vows that when he and Manuel settle in at college, they will go to plays often.
Yscaira wants to study theater history. Camille and Kimberly want not only to see plays but to develop their own artistic voices.
Someone pipes up: “My mother thinks we see the same play every week. She says, ‘Go with your la-di-da friends.’ But I wouldn’t miss it. I just want to see more.”
Rather than speaking, Erica writes eloquently in her journal: “When I first began, I thought that theater was out of my league because only rich, white, old people went to see it. Broadway is no longer intimidating to me. I no longer feel like an outsider. This is especially important because I have lived in New York all of my life and this is the first that I am learning about what is standing in my own backyard.”
Frankly, going to plays with them made me also feel less of an outsider from my city and my own work. I, too, learned who is standing in my own backyard.
Kimberly Ebanks summed up our program in a speech before New York City high school teachers: “Seeing plays has changed me from a student who believed that in order to be successful in life I had to excel only in math and science. Life isn’t only about math and science. It’s about hypocrisy, prejudice, love, joy, compromise, hate, and conflict. These are things that are not only found in life but in theater itself.”
My favorite high school history teacher told us that the way to start a revolution was to seize the means of production. Perhaps one way to revolutionize the theater is for its artists to become responsible for not only what is on the stage but who in the future will be sitting in the theater.
This project will continue next year, as a joint venture of the Theatre Development Fund and the League of American Theatres and Producers. Financing has been made available for three New York City high school groups, including DeWitt Clinton.
To anyone who doubts the relevance of contemporary theater, I would say just ask the DeWitt Clinton Eight. Certainly Manuel’s fear that theater would prove to be boring was happily unfounded. The art form was gloriously compelling. Now the trick is to eliminate “only for the rich and elegant.” If the price was right—which is not only a high school student’s dream—and the theater truly became the undisputed birthright of every New Yorker, it would be way cool, indeed.
From the eBook edition.Copyright 2001 by Wendy Wasserstein
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