Posted by Danielle Berrin
Nobody likes a know-it-all.
When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg burst onto the scene with “Lean In,” her best-selling broadside against gender inequality in the workplace, many saw an occasion for a mean-in.
Sandberg’s apparently maddening message, “that men still run the world” despite the triumphs of the feminist revolution such as suffrage, equal access to education and sexual freedom, is coupled with an exhortation to women to stop holding themselves back and to aim for top jobs in government and industry. Yet her attempt to revivify feminism’s fading star was promptly met with roaring rebuke.
A “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots,” The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd condescendingly called her. Another Times reporter, Jodi Kantor, author of “The Obamas,” blithely suggested Sandberg’s privilege might render her message irrelevant: “Will more earthbound women, struggling with cash flow and child care, embrace the advice of a Silicon Valley executive whose book acknowledgments include thanks to her wealth adviser and Oprah Winfrey?” she wondered.
At the Washington Post, Melissa Gira Grant likened “Lean In” to a “vanity project”: “This is simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line,” she wrote. And in The Nation, the headline: “What ‘Mad Men’s’ Peggy Olson Teaches Us That Sheryl Sandberg Doesn’t.”
Oh, for the days when discourse was kind.
Sandberg’s closest counterpart, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, has also been subjected to “so much scorn” as “The End of Men” author Hanna Rosin noted on Slate. Ever since Mayer changed Yahoo’s flexible telecommuting policy (and famously forwent her maternity leave), she has been pilloried for her indifference to work-life balance while male CEOs who have also nixed pliable policies — including the heads of Best Buy and Bank of America, as a Washington Post article noted — have never been called anything near “The Stalin of Silicon Valley.”
To make matters worse, though this is hardly new, most of the catty name calling has come from other women — many of whom, one suspects, continue to struggle on a far more ordinary plane with the many trying tasks Sandberg has mastered. Why else so much scorn for someone so worldly and winsome? Any degree of psychological acuity could uncloak this cast of envy: Sandberg may be hard to take because not only does she have-it-all, she actually is-it-all — smart, self-made, super-accomplished, superrich, personable, poised and pretty. And there are aspects of her fortune that simply can’t be earned; they are a gift of nature.
As the author and literary critic Clive James recently said to The New York Times, “Spraying cold water on a witch hunt is one of the duties that a critic should be ready to perform.”
Well, how about a Bible scholar instead?
“When you think about it, women can be tremendous diminishers of other women, and that’s very unfortunate,” the writer and educator Erica Brown told me. Brown knows this fraught terrain; as a career-driven mother of four — she is a prolific writer and currently serves as the scholar-in-residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — she admitted to tuning out social criticism of her choices. “Those voices are paralyzing,” she said. “I think it really speaks to the insecurity of women in society today — that they still profoundly feel a need to either criticize or judge one woman’s lifestyle and life choices in a certain kind of catty, feline belittling way.” The Sandberg backlash, she suggested, “may be coming from people who are so threatened by the subtlety of having to juggle a world that they simply can’t accept the fact that someone has done this successfully, and they want to poke holes in her happy cloud.”
Some of the criticisms, of course, are valid. Like when Daily Beast editor Tina Brown opened her Women in the World Summit with a “call to arms,” pointing out that in a world in which millions of women still struggle for basic civil rights, “Leaning in isn’t enough. … Pushing up against the glass ceiling is practically a luxury when you consider the millions of women who can feel the floor dropping beneath their feet.”
But Sandberg has considered that, too. When she hosted a book party for Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who sparked the nonviolent revolution that led to the ouster of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, many of her guests asked Gbowee what they could do to help. “More women in power,” Gbowee replied. Sandberg believes, “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.”
Biblical women, who were rarely vested with societal power, frequently took it upon themselves to change the tide of history. Following Pharoah’s decree that all Israelite first-born boys be killed, it was Miriam who scolded her father Amram for divorcing his wife — “Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s!” she cried — as it meant that neither male nor female Hebrews would be born. It was Miriam who followed Moses, the brother she prophesied, down the Nile River and into Pharaoh’s home, where she cleverly arranged for the child to be nursed by his biological mother. And further back, intuiting that leadership could fall into the wrong hands, Rebecca craftily machinated for her son Jacob to steal his brother’s birthright. And how could we forget Yael, who used her powers to seduce in order to surprise: Once King Sisera was in her tent, she did a very unladylike thing and stabbed him in the head, saving Israel from war.
In the Bible, women take tactical initiative, Brown said. “They’re not asking anyone’s permission.” But by contrast, even in today’s “post-feminist” world, she added, “Women tend to need to be invited to take positions of leadership; they wait to see if someone acknowledges them or finds them worthy.
“If you’re really a leader, what are you waiting for? The women who have made history have not waited.”
Women who have made history also offer another indispensable lesson of leadership: that real change does not occur in isolation, but in community. So every woman who leans out from Sandberg’s cause because it isn’t inclusive enough, or sufficiently relevant, is only further fragmenting the feminist cause. Who cares if Sandberg is a queen? This American royal is telling all women everywhere that they’re capable.
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April 16, 2013 | 2:21 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
In a pointed and deeply personal profile by Jonathan Van Meter for the New York Times Magazine, former congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin offer an account of life from the "post scandal playbook" -- that is, from the trenches of their private life following Weiner’s very public political disgrace.
For those who were out of town that spring: It was May 2011 when Weiner pressed send on that "one fateful tweet," as he calls it, accidentally tweeting a picture of his boxer-clad package to nearly 45,000 followers. Soon after that, further revelations of his sordid online life led to a fallout that nearly wrecked his marriage and his political prospects. Weiner explained his lubricious carelessness thusly:
For a thoughtful person, it’s remarkable how little thought I really gave to it until it was too late. But I think a lot of it came down to: I was in a world and a profession that had me wanting people’s approval. By definition, when you are a politician, you want people to like you, you want people to respond to what you’re doing, you want to learn what they want to hear so you can say it to them.
One can only have so much empathy for the affliction of narcissism, though his candor is admirable, however belated. Time, as we know, is a great healer, and in the nearly two years since Weiner's boneheaded bravura, he and his family have come to grips with his gaffe: Weiner now sees a shrink, has become the primary caregiver for his 13-month-old son and weeps with desperate gratitude over his wife's forgiveness.
Prior to the scandal, Abedin admitted that the couple had not spent more than 10 consecutive days together since they had been married. When she became pregnant, they took an otherwise unprecedented two-week trip to Europe. “That was the longest period of time we’d ever spent together,” she told Van Meter. “Later, when we thought about it, we didn’t realize that so much of our lives were kind of these snippets of, we see each other for a few days and then are separated.”
As is often the case with the highly ambitious, especially those who zealously pursue political careers, both husband and wife were so myopically-invested in their work, family life was relegated to a limited realm. Until, ironically, their marriage was tested.
Abedin said that she did not make her choice to forgive Weiner “lightly.” But since granting him the second chance he both wanted and needed, he told the reporter that this time, “I’m trying to make sure I get it right.”
And what does that mean? According to Van Meter:
He seems to spend much of his time within a five-block radius of his apartment: going to the park with Jordan; picking up his wife’s dry cleaning and doing the grocery shopping; eating at his brother Jason’s two restaurants in the neighborhood. This is what happens after a scandal: Ranks are closed and the world shrinks to a tiny dot. It is a life in retreat.
It is also a life lived among family, from which there is no retreat -- especially when you share the home corner-office.
Last week, I asked the writer and educator Erica Brown, who currently serves as the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, about qualities of leadership. She reiterated the teaching of the 19th century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who believed that behavior within a family determines how individuals will behave within community. For Hirsch, this notion is supported by the order of the Ten Commandments, which he divided into two categories: the first five relate to God, and the second five relate to man. The turning point, Hirsch taught, is the fifth commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. Why? Brown explained: “Because your parents really are the microcosmic form of authority in your life, and they will teach you how to see God as an authority in your life.”
Respect for authority is a pre-requisite for leadership; if one does not adhere to the concept of authority, then leadership is meaningless. And without the humility to recognize forces beyond one’s control, any leader may become vulnerable to the bottomless needs of their ego (see: Weiner, Spitzer, Clinton, Kennedy et al.).
Family, then, in the way Hirsch sees it, becomes not only a moderating force but a model. “There’s this sense of family being the determinant of how you’ll function in community and it’s meant to prepare you for that,” Brown said. But, she added, “Today we don’t think of leadership that way.” The biblical ideal does not translate particularly well in most of American politics where there is tendency to separate the private individual from the public figure. “And as a result, we have loads of politicians who are not fidelitous [sic] to their spouses and that is somehow separate from their relationship to leadership. We kind of atomize that they lead in one arena and they may not be moral exemplars in another.
“But what if we looked at someone and said, ‘Who are you in all these different situations? What is your identity in the boardroom, in the bedroom, in the playroom, in the family room, in your volunteer context; who are you?’ How can you create a more holistic identity so that you’re leading in any place you are?”
Weiner may be learning this lesson in reverse. He began his career as a dazzling boy wonder who whizzed into political office at 27 with all that blustery boy swagger only to become unglued by 46. Van Meter tells us, his “pugilistic political persona bled into his personal life and made him, ‘hard to take,’” -- that last quote courtesy of his brother, Jason Weiner.
Only now, at 48, after a humiliating collapse is he confronting the demons of his discontinuous personality and beginning the work of the family. Stripped of her political power role, he is taking turns as husband, father, friend, brother.
It can be granted that Weiner’s lachrymose lament does seem genuine (he refers to himself as an idiot three times in the story), but no remorse is entirely selfless; the need for redemption undergirds repentance. And with a New York City mayoral race around the corner, and apparently some valuable campaign matching funds set to expire soon after that, Weiner has his eye on returning to politics. Private penitence, it seems, is incomplete without public absolution.
According to the article:
[H]is political committee spent more than $100,000 on polling and research by Obama’s longtime pollster, David Binder... The focus of the poll, Binder says, was the question “Are voters willing to give him a second chance or not, regardless of what race or what contest?”
Barring something truly egregious (which, let’s face it, an explicit tweet is not), Judaism teaches that both God and man are inclined towards second chances. Every year on Yom Kippur, Jews repent their sins and repair broken relationships in order to restore themselves to dignified living.
Still he says, “I want to ask people to give me a second chance. I do want to have that conversation with people whom I let down and with people who put their faith in me and who wanted to support me. I think to some degree I do want to say to them, ‘Give me another chance.’”
He deserves a chance to do that teshuva, literally “return” in Hebrew -- a return to fidelity, to rectitude, to goodness and wholeness. Perhaps his reconciliation with his family will prove edifying in his political life. Could error, struggle and salvation accord him the gift of better leadership?
Maybe. As Weiner said of the polling results on his character, “People are generally prepared to get over it, but they don’t know if they’re prepared to vote for me. And there’s a healthy number of people who will never get over it.”
April 12, 2013 | 1:16 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Yesterday I spent the day at Milken Community High School reporting on the Righteous Conversations Project, a group that pairs teens and Holocaust survivors for intensive one-on-one dialogue.
In recounting their survival stories, survivors often say that egregious acts of silence aided and abetted their torment. As the statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke famously said, all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
But doing nothing is itself an act. As Susan Sontag shrewdly observed: “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.”
No matter the circumstances, not to speak out is statement making; it is an act of acquiescence to what is.
April 10, 2013 | 4:41 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Rabbi Michael Rose Knopf has written a defense of the Newsweek/Daily Beast rabbi list for the Huffington Post in which he basically makes the argument that since the list honors ‘influential' rabbis and not ‘best' rabbis -- even though it is called ‘top' rabbis (definition: the highest or most important rank, level, or position) -- that it is perfectly legitimate, not harmful and “succeeds” in its aim.
But Knopf’s defense distorts the debate about the rabbis list in several egregious ways. In his opening paragraph, for instance, I was especially disappointed to discover he considers the cover story I wrote about the list for the L.A. Jewish Journal a “ferocious polemic” (his ever-so-subtle suggestion came via linking to my piece with those words) since it was meticulously reported and thoroughly detailed; in fact, every single person who either conceived of or worked on the list is represented in the piece, as are a number of well-respected rabbis, many from the list, some not, almost all of which were quoted on the record. And, (unlike the Newsweek list) the story was contextualized with a range of concrete measures, which in addition to the interviews, included original graphs and charts. All of this was done for the express purpose of representing the subject’s fullness and complexity.
I’m not sure if Knopf read the piece, but if he had, he might take note; instead, he deigns to mislead his readers by suggesting that my story appeared “almost immediately” after the 2013 list was published, when in fact, the story appeared both in print and online about two weeks prior to The Daily Beast posting.
The most harmful error, however, is the result of a shocking misperception. In his piece, Knopf feels the need to mount a defense of individual rabbis, which implies that he either used the reportage as occasion to acknowledge his teachers and mentors, which is sweet, or he deeply misunderstood the Jewish Journal’s coverage. My reported story was a critical and analytical look at the history of the list and its impact on the scant but visible parts of the community who care about it; it was not at all about the worthiness or deservingness of individual rabbis (in fact, I noted my intense admiration of many of the listed rabbis in a recent blog post). Similarly, Dennis Prager’s opinion column for The Journal, to which Knopf also refers, explicitly states: “This is no reflection on the rabbis who made the list.” And indeed Prager took pains to single out those list-making rabbis he deeply admires.
The rabbis who make the list are really beside the point; and it’s worth noting that never during the course of my reporting was it revealed to me who would appear on the 2013 list. Instead, my reporting was based on extensive data my colleague Jonah Lowenfeld and I compiled, given the available lists from 2007-2012.
The point of my piece was not to suggest that the hard-working and very talented rabbis selected don’t deserve the acknowledgment; it was to question the purpose of the list. After all, the rabbinate is supposed to be one of the few places in American life where the centrality of holy work and higher thinking obviates the need for a competitive and shallow star system. But perhaps the writer James Salter was right when he wrote, "We live in the attention of others. We turn to it as flowers to the sun."
April 7, 2013 | 3:58 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
I had dinner with a friend last night who told me there is no excuse for the infrequency of my blogging as of late (though I do have excuses; he just wasn't interested in hearing them).
"Just post little things," he urged.
So in the spirit of maintaining constancy in light of my absence, I thought I'd share an interesting verse from Salvador Dali, which I discovered at a retrospective of the artist’s work at Centre Pompidou during a recent visit to Paris.
By now it is well known that Dali was fascinated by film and theater and had hoped to transpose his painterly gifts into storytelling on screen. Though he found limited success in that endeavor, it did result in some fruitful collaborations: first, with the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, with whom he produced two films, "Un Chien Andalou" and "L'Age d'Or," both of which were formative influences in the surrealist film movement.
But true to his zealous, striving nature to achieve the pinnacle of success, Dali also turned his sights towards Hollywood, with whom he had a definite but vexing relationship. He spent considerable time in Los Angeles in the 1940s while collaborating most famously with Alfred Hitchcock, the outcome of which resulted in an edgy dream sequence for Hitchcock’s 1945 film "Spellbound" (several years ago, during their own Dali retrospective, LACMA devoted an entire room of the exhibit to this sequence).
In 1946, Walt Disney hired Dali to develop a storyboard for the short film "Destino" inspired by the hit Mexican song of the same name. Though Disney and Dali worked on the project for eight years, the Walt Disney Company became beset by financial difficulties in the aftermath of World War II which forced the project on hold; "Destino" was not fully realized on screen until 2003, when Walt's nephew Roy revisited the project. The film that resulted is a magnificent and wild, entirely un-Disney-like music video that tells a deep and daring love story, more provocative and sophisticated than most other Hollywood renderings of romance.
In the end, Dali's work on film was not deemed commercially viable enough to justify further investment, a harsh reality that deeply disappointed him. Then again, the self-declared megalomaniac ("I am surrealism!") disdained any imposition of limitation on his talents.
Though much has been made of Dali's fascination with Hitler (the subject of many of his paintings but never his public reproach), Dali also had a mysterious relationship with Jews and Judaism. In 1967, he was commmissioned by Shorewood Publishers, a purveyor of art books, to create a series of paintings depicting Zionist history to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Israel. According to The Forward, the Emory University scholar David Blumenthal, a professor of Judaic studies, owns one of these paintings and several years ago undertook to investigating Dali’s relationship to the Jews:
He tested a number of proposed theories: Did Dalí secretly have Jewish ancestors? Did his wife, Gala? Did the artist feel some kind of empathy for the Jewish people? Or, conversely, was he simply trying to build a Jewish market, even exploit the Jews for commercial benefit? ... And “Aliyah” is not his only Jewish-themed work: He produced other paintings, as well as two sculptures, “Menorah” and “Western Wall,“ whose images he licensed to a man named Jean-Paul Delcourt in 1980. Delcourt has since built a small industry of Dalí Jewish art products.
Which brings me to the passage I mentioned at the beginning. The following excerpt comes from Dali’s own writings and beautifully illustrates (as only an illustrator can) the importance of place -- and not just any place, a particular place -- in the formation of one’s identity. Naturally it recalled for me the Jewish tie to Israel:
Like a good workman, I tend to my field, my boat -- that is the painting I am finishing -- while striving for simple things: eating grilled sardines and walking along the beach with Gala at nightfall, watching the gothic rocks turn into nightmares in the night. I built myself on these shores. This is where I created my image, found my love, built my house. I am inseparable from this sky, this sea, these rocks: I am forever tied to Portlligat - which means 'tied-in port' -- where I defined all my raw truths and my roots. This is the only place where I am home: everywhere else, I camp.
Dali’s last line makes a good case for capturing the essence of exile -- another enduring Jewish theme. On that note, I offer a shattering passage from Victor Hugo’s pen, also discovered during my trip to Paris, in which he describes the 18 years he spent in exile from France after publicly opposing Napoleon III’s seizure of power:
A man so ruined that only his honor remains, so despoiled that all he has is his conscience, so isolated that only equity remains close, so rejected that only truth has stayed with him, a man cast so totally into the darkness that all he has is the sun: that is what it is to be an exile.
April 4, 2013 | 1:09 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Roger Ebert, the legendary film reviewer, has died at age 70 of cancer. His decade-long battle with papillary thyroid cancer began in 2002 and ultimately robbed him of his ability to speak, eat or drink.
Despite the life altering setback, Ebert worked tirelessly through the disease. He continued to write prolifically, regularly publishing his beloved and trusted movie reviews and even made high profile speaking appearances -- including a popular TED talk -- made possible through the use of cutting-edge voice technology. In 2010, he told Esquire magazine, “When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.”
But despite his dogged optimism, things had seemed especially ominous of late, as when earlier this week, he announced on his Website that because of declining health, he would be cutting back on movie reviewing. Even that admission of decline, though held a hint of promise, and included a business announcement that he had planned to purchase his website Rogerebert.com from the Sun-Times and relaunch it.
In his 2011 presentation at the TED conference, "Remaking my voice" Ebert described in painful detail the deprivations that resulted from his cancer battle and the astonishing technologies that had helped him cope. You can watch the video (which has nearly 400,000 views) here:
Ebert rose to prominence with his sidekick and sparring partner, fellow movie buff Gene Siskel, with whom he could make or break a movie's fortunes with the flex of a thumb. Their trademark "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" movie reviews were for many years a staple in the cultural lexicon.
Though Ebert was Catholic, Siskel was Jewish, and just after Siskel died in 1999, Ebert eulogized him for the Chicago Sun-Times, recounting a conversation they had after a speaking appearance at the Harvard Law School Film Society:
That night we had dinner together in a hotel in Cambridge, and had our longest and deepest philosophical discussion. We talked about life and death, the cosmos, our place in the grand scheme of things, the meaning of it all. There was a reason Gene studied philosophy: He was a natural.
He spoke about his Judaism, which he took very seriously. His parents had started one of the early synagogues on the North Shore after World War II. "I had a lot of long talks with my father about our religion," Gene told me. "He said it wasn't necessary to think too much about an afterlife. What was important was this life, how we live it, what we contribute, our families, and the memories we leave." Gene said, "The importance of Judaism isn't simply theological, or, in the minds of some Jews, necessarily theological at all. It is that we have stayed together and respected these things for thousands of years, and so it is important that we continue." In a few words, this was one of the most touching descriptions of Judaism I had ever heard.
Ebert also wrote with great sensitivity about his Catholic school upbringing and his struggle with faith in God. Despite his skeptical beliefs, religion was an object of fascination for him, a class he considered a “favorite subject.”
In a personal essay for the Chicago Sun-Times, "How I Believe in God," he pontificated about his religious and spiritual beliefs, elucidating the moral code he adopted from the Church (and, really, the Hebrew Bible). "Catholicism made me a humanist before I knew the word," he wrote.
[O]ur theology was often very practical: All men are created equal. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. The Ten Commandments, which we studied at length, except for adultery, "which you children don't have to worry about." A fair day's work for a fair day's wage. A good government should help make sure everyone has a roof over their head, a job, and three meals a day. The cardinal acts of mercy. Ethical behavior. The sisters didn't especially seem to think that a woman's place was in the home, as theirs certainly was not. You should "pray for your vocation." My mother prayed for mine; she wanted me to become a priest. "Every Catholic mother hopes she can give a son to the priesthood," she said, and spoke of one mother at St. Patrick's, who had given two, as if she were a lottery winner.
His so-called secular humanism -- though he eschewed labels -- made him comfortable with religious behavioral principles but not theological ones. “I believed in the basic Church teachings because I thought they were correct, not because God wanted me to.” Throughout his life, he stubbornly struggled with the existence of God, explaining his personal theology in a way that lay plain his confusion: "If I were to say I don't believe God exists, that wouldn't mean I believe God doesn't exist. Nor does it mean I don't know, which implies that I could know."
Despite his identification with Catholic teachings, however, he resisted religious conformity and was honest about his contradictory impulses. He admitted to spending "hours and hours in churches all over the world" not to engage in prayer, of course, but to "nudge [his] thoughts toward wonder and awe." The angels of his religious nature ultimately won out, since he clearly had a spiritual bent but he also felt a substantial degree of institutional disillusionment. "I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors,” he wrote. “I think what happens in them is socio-political, not spiritual." Still, when recounting a childhood tale of a priest who comforted a young Ebert by holding him in his lap, he reassured readers "no priest or nun ever treated me with other than love and care."
In the end, though, his ultimate spiritual principle strikes as deeply Jewish:
“I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am still awake at night, asking how? I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.”
April 1, 2013 | 2:32 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
Pardon the delay; I should have blogged this weeks ago when the Jewish Journal ran a cover story on the Newsweek/Daily Beast top rabbis list but at the time I was traveling and doing my darndest not to blog while on vacation. After that it was Passover and it seemed fine to let it pass altogether but then the radio host and Jewish Journal columnist Dennis Prager wrote about the list and it quickly became one of the most popular stories on our Website. So now I have an excuse to post for posterity's sake.
Without overstating its significance, I want to say two things about this story:
First, I wouldn't have written it if I didn't think it raised some important questions -- specifically, about the intersection of secular and religious values in American Jewish life and the way we perceive our spiritual leaders as well as our expectations for the rabbinate -- but I don't think I quite realized how sensitive a topic it would prove to be, both to the people related to the list and to the broader community that consumes it.
Moreover, irrespective of my opinion of the list or the fact that it exists, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for many of the rabbis who appear on it and I consider it a privilege and an honor that through this work I've had the opportunity to get to know many of them.
Here it is:
One night some years ago, two powerful Jewish men in media, one from New York and one from Los Angeles, were walking together through the streets of Jerusalem when they hatched a little idea.
Michael Lynton, then CEO and co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and his longtime friend Gary Ginsberg, who served as a lawyer in the Clinton White House before becoming a vice president of News Corp. (and, consequently, a close personal adviser to Rupert Murdoch), were strolling around outside the King David Hotel when they noticed all “these little plaques” on the various buildings identifying the institution inside. “I remember talking to Gary about the fact that in certain other religions — most notably the Roman Catholic Church — there’s a central authority that determines doctrine, theology and policy,” Lynton recalled. But Jewish religious authority in the United States, he realized, “It’s a little bit of a mystery. Who are the people who determine these things? And then we thought: Wouldn’t it be fun, and a little bit mischievous, to put together a list of who these people are and rank order them?”
Read the rest of the story here.
March 28, 2013 | 8:49 am
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The camera opens on a frazzled Philip Roth.
He is futzing with the horseshoe of hair he has left, rubbing his face and furrowing his unruly brow as a look of supreme unease settles over his face. For a man who recently announced his retirement, he seems a bit stressed. And for a writer who has spent the better part of his life projecting outward, Roth, at first, squirms under the scrutiny of the camera’s gaze.
“In the coming years I have two great calamities to face,” he announces at the beginning of the documentary “Philip Roth: Unmasked” for the PBS “American Masters” series that will air on March 29. “Death and a biography. Let’s hope the first comes first.”
From the outset of his denouement, the newly minted octogenarian — Roth turned 80 on March 19 — has been in the news a lot lately. In November, he told a New York Times reporter, “The struggle with writing is over,” which sent shockwaves through the literary world and effectively commenced his retirement. And over the past few weeks, he made headlines yet again for the many birthday celebrations being held in his honor — in Newark, where he grew up, and New York, where he resides part time, there has been a literary conference, a museum toast, hometown bus tours and even a photography exhibit devoted to his life and oeuvre. Now comes the documentary, also timed to his birthday, which features a chatty and reflective Roth looking back on a life lived through words.
In it, he is as candid, open and charming as ever. Quoting the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, Roth observes the truth of his life: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
It follows then that Roth’s most faithful relationship has been to his work. Other than two brief and really disastrous marriages, he has remained at-least-legally unattached and has never fathered children. In 1983, he told People magazine: “I can’t talk casually about home and family, about good marriages and bad marriages and the relationship between men and women and children and parents. I’ve devoted a life to writing about these things. These are my subjects. I’ve spent years trying to get it right in fiction.”
As many presume is the case with his novels, Roth appears in the film as both narrator and narrative. He is entirely in his element as he recounts tales from his childhood and career trajectory for Italian journalist and French director Livia Manera, and expounds on his foremost passions and preoccupations, which, over eight decades, haven’t changed much: reading, writing, Jewishness and sex continue to ensorcell him. “God, I’m fond of adultery,” Roth says at one point, during a discussion of his 1995 book “Sabbath’s Theater” (his personal favorite). “Aren’t you?”
The author of 31 books, among them at least a dozen bestsellers, is also the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, to name a few. But among writers of contemporary fiction, perhaps no one is more closely associated (or confused) with his characters as much as Roth. “People have always assumed his characters are him,” writer Nicole Krauss observes in the film.
And Roth offers some delicious and illustrative anecdotes: In 1969, with the release of his career-making “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth recalls, “Everything people perceived in Portnoy, they then perceived in me.” One day as he walked near his home, a man shouted at him from across the street: “Philip Roth: Enemy of the Jews!”
Roth admits his own life has served as fodder for his fiction, but he prefers to think of this journalistic element as “invent[ing] off of something.” He was influenced in this by another American (Jewish) writer, the incomparable Saul Bellow, who he says, inadvertently gave him permission to draw from his own experience. After reading “The Adventures of Augie March” as a college student, Roth felt free to plumb the depths of his background.
But it wasn’t exactly an exercise in memoir: “I’d have to fight my way to the freedom of drawing upon what I knew,” Roth says. “Life isn’t good enough in some ways. If it was just a matter of putting things down that happened to you, or happened to your friend or happened to your wife, you wouldn’t be a novelist.”
But balancing between truth and fiction can be tricky. He isn’t fond of being called an American Jewish writer, for instance. “I don’t write in Jewish. I write in American,” he says. But that may be a defensive position taken after enduring years of public criticism. From the time “Defender of the Faith,” his first short story was published for The New Yorker, readers held Roth responsible for popularizing Jewish archetypes. “It caused a furor,” Roth remembers of the 1959 publication, “I was being assailed as an anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew. I didn’t even know what it meant.”
Even author Jonathan Franzen admits he had a “moralistic response” when he first read Roth. He thought, “Oh, you bad person, Philip Roth,” though he added, “I eventually came to feel as if that was coming out of envy. I wish I could be as liberated … as Roth is. Here’s a person who’s decided he does not care what the world thinks of him. He is not shame-able.”
The widespread perception of the wanton sexuality associated with many of Roth’s novels is a source of some frustration for the author, who spends some time on camera defending specific characters who have been charged with being “sex obsessed.”
“In nine books,” Roth begins, outlining the plot of each one, “there is virtually no sexual experience.” And yet, the characters, he says, “are described repeatedly as sex-obsessed. Well, that’s because Roth is.”
In matters of sexual appetite, at least, his art imitates his life. To that end, he recounted his favorite line from James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which comes during a scene when the character Leopold Bloom walks to the waterfront to watch a girl and masturbate. “Joyce tells you what’s going on, but you don’t get it — until the next paragraph, Joyce goes: ‘At it again.’ I loved it. I think it should be on my tombstone.”
As Roth wrote in the 2001 novella, “The Dying Animal,” “Sex is all the enchantment required.”
Roth’s candid and sometimes contradictory take on himself, is given added context by friends and colleagues, from fellow writers like Franzen and Krauss to actress Mia Farrow. But the most intelligent and insightful comments come from his biographer, New Yorker critic Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation), whose book “Roth Unbound” will be published in November.
It was Kafka, she points out, who said, “We should read only those books that bite and sting us,” adding that, for her, Roth is that perfect dose of painful pleasure. “If the book you’re reading does not rouse you with a blow to the head, then why read it? I think that Roth writes books that are meant to rouse you with a blow to the head.”
Roth’s pugnacious prose, however, is fueled by a rather ordinary and peaceful private life. He splits his time between New York City and a country home in Connecticut, where, when he is writing, he writes “every day,” standing up, with “lots of quiet … lots of hours … lots of regularity.” At night, surrounded by his books, the faint silhouette of trees swaying still visible through darkened windows, he likes to read for several hours and listen to music. Once or twice the camera intrudes upon him as he listens to opera or Mahler’s Third Symphony and listens intently, with his whole body, much the way he reads. And it is sheer delight when the camera invites us to watch and listen as Roth reads passages throughout from some of his best-loved works, adding new volume to the voice on the page.
His quieter moments are more frequent now, as Roth confronts his mortality. He says he is afraid of death, but not enraged by its coming. What is hard is that he suffers from chronic back pain, and, like other great writers before him — Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi — he admits he has contemplated suicide. “Writing turns out to be a dangerous job,” he says. But, “I don’t want to join them.”
Before he dies, though, he plans to reread the authors he admired growing up, among them Conrad, Hemingway, Faulkner and Kafka. And while he swears he’s through with writing himself, hardly any of his friends — or fans — believe him.
Near the end of the film he tells of a recent walk he took near his Connecticut home when he happened upon a wooden sign in a tree that said: “BRING BACK PORTNOY.”
“It was wonderful, hilarious moment,” Roth recalls. “I actually thought about it for rest of walk: Why don’t I do that?”