A Dose of Jewish in Our Chick Lit


Thanks to Laurie Gwen Shapiro, we at last have a mainstream chick-lit novel with a sexy, funny, Jewish heroine.

Featured Book: The Matzo Ball Heiress (Red Dress Ink, 2004)

In this fun and romantic novel, Heather Greenblotz is an heiress to Greenblotz Matzo and a documentary filmmaker on the side. When the Food Channel producers ask Heather if they can film her family Passover seder for television, Heather freaks out. On the one hand, Greenblotz Matzo could use the PR; on the other hand, her family is far from the close-knit traditional Jewish family she is sure the producers are expecting. Instead, Heather’s self-absorbed mother is constantly off traveling, while her father is living with his gay lover in Amsterdam. How can Heather possibly get the whole family to gather in one place? And will it be possible to cram for the seder so it will look like the Greenblotz family has a clue about Jewish traditions? Heather is going to have to figure this out fast, while also navigating a new relationship with a Jewish man who wants her to become kosher.

Why did you want to tell the story of a Jewish woman in your book? Is it something you set out to do as a mission or were you just writing from what you know?

I know a lot about being a non-practicing Lower East Side Jew. I married a non-Jew, who is also a non-practicing Catholic. We were both raised in dense urban enclaves—me: Lower East Side of Manhattan, him: St. Kilda, a vibrant community in Melbourne, Australia, where people actually walk just like in Manhattan. While my parents embraced my husband—anyone who put up with my level of messiness was met with a sigh of relief—I know there were issues; my family is not religious, but rather very culturally identified as Jewish. And, sure, they wanted a Jewish partner for me. However, they acknowledged that, as a woman, I get the loophole: My child with the Irish surname is automatically Jewish. I have written in the anthology Modern Jewish Girls Guide to Guilt (edited by Ruth Ellenson, which won the National Jewish Book Award) that, while my husband and I never have a Christmas tree, we eat plenty of ham and lobster. Somehow my being a stickler about maintaining a treeless Noel makes me feel better about marrying out of the tribe, as the slang goes. My husband also does not want to raise our child Catholic; he is atheist, but willing to accommodate my desire to identify our daughter as a Jew. Now, for my brother, who has a son whose name sounds like a nineteenth-century Talmud scholar, but a not-very-religious, but Christmas-loving mother, the issues are harder.

So being an expert on not being married to a Jew, I wondered what it would be like for me to fall in love with a Jew. Not just any Jew, a practicing Jew. Would I keep kosher? Would I go to synagogue more than on the High Holidays and gobble up all the whitefish salad and herring rollmops at second cousins’ bat mitzvahs? (Whitefish and herring is my weakness!)

Do you consider your book a “Jewish” book or is it a book in which the lead happens to be Jewish?

I think The Matzo Ball Heiress has been considered the first, mainstream, “blatantly Jewish” chick-lit novel, which is ironic, since so many writers are Jewish but go to great pains to cover up their last name and characters. My surname is Shapiro, and I proudly put it prominently on the title page. Many authors will use other names that seem more romantic. I remember when I was younger, I even toyed with Lauren Stanbury, which sounded so… not Jewish, I guess. My lead character is a sexy woman, whose name is Greenblotz.

What inspired you to write your book in the first place? What excited you about the idea?

Well, my agent Nancy will laugh, because The Matzo Ball Heiress continues to sell the most copies of my four novels to date, and I was almost talked into it. I wanted to write bigger, even though I was pregnant with my daughter and exhausted. Nancy suggested I write what comes easiest. Time and again I’ve learned that what you know about (for me the Lower East Side, filmmaking, etc.) does often make your writing pop more.

What do you hope that Jewish women readers will take away from your book? Is it different than what you hope all readers will take away?

I want Jewish women to feel sexy. My college boyfriend was from a very famous Old New York family and I dressed like I thought a non-Jew should dress. We recently had a reunion and he confessed what he loved about me was how Jewish I was. I want all readers to learn a bit about gentrification of the Lower East Side and even more importantly to think and, yeah, simply laugh.

Do you have a favorite book with a Jewish lead, fiction or nonfiction, and why that book?

A tough question…

I always like Isadora Wing in Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. I very naughtily bought an old, beat-up paperback book at Barnes and Noble Sales Annex in New York for 17 cents when my mom was buying me some respectable teen book. I read it without telling her, and it was the first time I realized a Jewish female character could be way sexy. I also later in life discovered Anzia Yezierska (The Bread Givers), who had written about my neighborhood and was famous for a movie stunt for a film adaptation of her then fabulously popular book. I have a column called “River View” for a Lower East Side paper called Grand Street News (GrandStreetnews.com) and I do it solely to feel connected to Yezierska, who chronicled the same streets.

What kind of books would you like to see written for Jewish readers (or readers who are just interested in Judaism). Are there voids or topics you’d like to see tackled?

I am tackling one of those voids: secular Judaism. I don’t feel like I have to deny my heritage or get more religious to feel comfortable as a Jew. I have said this before; I love my husband. I am not ashamed that I married him. That’s my right as an individual. I am of Jewish heritage. The quickest way to drive people who still feel connected to their culture away is to demonize them. I am appalled when I am told on book tours that someone who has intermarried is the cause of Jewish extermination. Talk about chutzpah! Someone who meets me for ten seconds can talk to me like this? I happen to be raising my daughter Jewish, she knows her gefilte from her kippers. She has asked me about God and I have expressed many viewpoints and what Jewish people have believed. She asked me why we are not kosher. I told her that it is not something I personally follow, and why, but to respect people who do. She is starting Hebrew school sessions, but I have told her to keep an open mind when it comes to what the greater truths of the universe are.

Practically everybody in her class has only one Jewish parent; this, on the Lower East Side. Demonize me, demonize these parents, you bet our children won’t feel connected to our heritage.

I should admit here that, like many New York City Jews, I take her to Santa at Xmas to get that stuff out of her system, and then do a bit of January sale shopping. As my aunt would say, “Which alone makes the day a Jewish experience.”

When, in general or specifically, do you feel most Jewish in your life?

I felt the most Jewish at my mother’s funeral. I have always feared my parents’ deaths, and had a very specific cemetery fear that developed at age 6 when, looking at the dates on gravestones, I realized that young kids could die. By shoveling dirt on my mother’s grave—something that, from my understanding, is a very Jewish tradition (not sure if it is just Ashkenazi)—well, anyhow, I nearly crumbled. But my father and brother and husband held on to me and I understood later why this is done.

What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it? Anything you want to say about it?

I am currently working with Beverly Horowitz an amazing editor and publisher at Random House. I was working on a book set during the Holocaust; I even travelled to Europe to write it. My family, however, did not go through the Holocaust; my father’s parents came from nineteenth-century Zionist settlers in Jerusalem and my mother’s came in the very early nineteenth century. I found this topic overwhelming. Not that I wouldn’t try it again. At the same time, my mother passed. She was a force of nature, and then, this is beyond sad, but I would go to the hospice and see the dying bodies, and write the Holocaust pages, and vomit.

Then I started a comic novel which, given my mental state, was not funny. I was in mourning for my mother and found myself the opposite of funny. And I realized I needed to do something drastic. I realized that as a famously not depressed person, who never has writers block, I was depressed. As soon as I got in shape, physically, the words have started to flow again. I am also working on an adult novel, not actively, but I have it outlined for after I hand in my YA.

Filmwise, I coproduced a documentary film about a procrastinating Jewish filmmaker that will be on HBO in early 2009 called Finishing Heaven. My brother David and I shared an Independent Spirit Award for Keep the River on Your Right (about Fulbright artist and supposed cannibal Tobias Schneebaum) in 2002. Finishing Heaven, our collaboration with filmmaker Mark Mann, is the second film we’ve survived together. Survived is a carefully chosen word, for I love my brother dearly, but working with a sibling can be rough. Any argument can bring back another one from 20 years prior. But when you have the chance to succeed together, the thrill is phenomenal. I can’t wait for the HBO premiere. We’re going to roll my father into the screening room. He lost his wife during this movie. Can you imagine what he will feel when he sees our names in a joint card?

I also have an animated show in development with a writing partner. Not everyone understands the pressure. My parents, my husband, my brother. What are you doing? They plead. You are falling apart. I was healing. There was one month I did nothing but read great poetry. Years ago, I wanted to be a poet. I can’t read poetry when things are going great. But there I was every day reading Yeats and Wordsworth and Sara Teasdale. It’s actually a bit embarrassing and I’m afraid my husband will read this and mock me relentlessly. And then another month when I got completely absorbed in learning the difference between Schumann and Schubert. But all along I was writing. The experiences are now in the words. Also, I feel funny again. Maybe I’m sorely mistaken. Have I been funny at all in this interview?

What question do you wish a journalist would ask you, and what is your answer?

I think I would like to be asked why do you write? But then I would like the journalist to give me the answer, too.

About the Author

Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Writer and filmmaker Laurie Gwen Shapiro lives in New York City, her hometown, with her young daughter and Aussie husband, who can now curse in Yiddish. Shapiro has written three adult comic novels to date. They have been the subject of major feature stories in the New York Times. She is currently completing her second teen novel for Random House. Laurie’s humorous essay, “Oy Christmas Tree, Oy Christmas Tree,” was published in 2005 in the Penguin anthology The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt.

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