Kochavim / Stargazing

Jewish World Review May 24, 2002 /13 Sivan, 5762

Julia Gorin

Julia Two Happenin' Hebes

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | One is an actor who first caught my attention a few years ago when I started noticing a Yiddishe punum insinuating itself into Hollywood movies like "Scream," "Hamlet" and "Kate & Leopold." It was conspicuously different from the usual young, overly photogenic fare, but not in the Adam Sandler/Jason Biggs mold, especially since it was sitting atop a six-foot-two body. I found out it belonged to a man named Liev Schreiber, and if it doesn't ring a bell, you're probably not female and Jewish.

The other one is a writer who just exploded onto the literary scene, with the release last month of his first novel, called "Everything is Illuminated," about a young man on an adventure in Eastern Europe, in search of his family's history and the righteous female gentile who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. His name is Jonathan Safran Foer (pronounced like the number four), and he's just completed a month-long book tour for this novel, which sold to Houghton Mifflin for $500,000 and garnered him enough attention from the literary establishment to confirm his status at 25 as an official literary darling-slash-prodigy. This one, who is of standard Jewish size, started writing the book in college and finished soon after graduating. I could plotz.

The paths of the actor and the writer crossed last year, at a fiction-reading series that the 34 year-old Schreiber does every year for The New Yorker. He was asked to read an excerpt from Foer's novel that was printed in the Debut Fiction issue last June. But this excerpt gave the actor some pause: He could just do the usual, and read with feeling from a stage, but this story was funny. Quality funny. It also took place in the former Soviet Union, where Schreiber's roots took place. It was Beshert (destined from On High): The actor found the missing link to actualizing his visions of directing/producing/writing. He moved quickly to option the rights to Foer's book, so that now the two had a lot more to discuss. And I had my excuse to talk to them.

"It was a hilarious short story," recalls Schreiber, "And I had been looking for material for a long time to make a film--for about seven years, actually -- and this story, not only in its imagination but in its style and its sense of humor, suited to a tee the kind of film I'd imagined making. [The story is] in the Ukraine and Russia, which was another fantasy of mine --- to make a film in the Eastern Bloc."

"I was very lucky," Foer says, "My agent went blind--"


"She went blind reading the book, actually," Schreiber interrupts. "It ended her career."

"Her sense of smell got very good, though," Foer plays along. "But seriously, I was only with her for about a month or two, and then she went blind, and it wasn't going to work out. So I sent it to another agent [who] wrote me back very quickly and then sent it out. It all happened almost immediately."

Twenty-five years old? I guess it did. Although such talk risks diminishing the rigorous two years, hundreds of drafts and work days starting at 5:00 a.m. that went into writing the book. Since then, "Everything is Illuminated" has been translated into 11 languages, rights have been sold in more than 12 countries, it made it to Book-of-the-Month Club, and in early May it hit the New York Times Bestseller List. Last week paperback rights went to Harper Collins for $925,000 after a heated auction.


Anyone who has any familiarity with that distinct Russian personality that craves all things pop-Americana will appreciate this novel, narrated in the broken English of a young Ukrainian tour guide named Alex Perchov whose family's travel agency caters to Jews interested in exploring their ancestral shtetls (hamlets), as the book's other hero -- American college student Jonathan Safran Foer --is. Very loosely based on the real Foer's own trip to the Ukraine, as a Princeton student, to research his zeidy's (grandfather) past, the story-within-a-story plot spans three centuries and alternates between the search in the present and the shtetl of the past.

But the book promises also to be the culmination of a few of Schreiber's own ambitions. Schreiber had wanted to be a writer before becoming an actor, and studied playwriting in college.

"I was a writer," Schreiber, which means "writer" in Yiddish, amends. "I just wasn't a very good one. I was lucky enough to have a playwriting teacher who told me that I'd be a better actor than I would a playwright."

He's also been a carpenter, a bartender and a mason's assistant.

Meanwhile, Foer, who grew up in Washington, D.C. and now lives in Queens for some reason, has been a math tutor, an archivist, a receptionist, and has worked in a morgue. He also was a ghost writer for the Prostate Health Journal.

"Go to Amazon.com and look up 'The ABC's of Prostate Health'--I wrote that."

Expressing my interest in the pair because of their open Jewishness amid the chic, high-profile circles they swim in, the actor demands, "I'd be curious to know in what way you think either of us addresses being Jewish."

Foer: "Yeah."

Well, obviously the writer chose to write something that is Jewishly centered. About which, Foer admits, he gets "uncomfortable."

"Because it's not something that I would say I'm actively interested in, but the evidence speaks otherwise. The thing I did was obviously, inarguably Jewish--but in sensibility much more than in subject matter."


The actor interrupts again: "He obviously delved into the whole Jewish thing because of family history. I mean, that's just a fact: The guy's born to Jewish parents. If he writes a book, it's going to be about Jews."

How charmingly Gen-X of them both to deflect, particularly when Foer is reputed to have an Encyclopedia Judaica collection to rival any ninety year-old Jewish intellectual's.

Furthermore, Schreiber's favorite character of those he's played was a young Jewish father in the Catskills, in 1999's "A Walk on the Moon," co-starring Diane Lane.

"The character was essentially my grandfather," says Schreiber.

That would be Alex Milgram, father of his mother, Heather Schreiber, the Jewish parent that raised him poor on New York's Lower East Side before running off to live on a hippie commune. But the actor's last name is his father's, and it's not Jewish even if it sounds Jewish.

Schreiber, who a few years ago was nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Orson Welles in the HBO original movie "RKO," also played a Jew in "Jakob the Liar," a Robin Williams movie in 2000, which was set during the Holocaust and filmed on the heels of the huge success of "Life is Beautiful." Then there was his character in the 1998 sci-fi motion picture "Sphere," starring Dustin Hoffman, who saw something of himself and took a liking to young Schreiber. Was that a Jewish astronaut he was playing?

"I don't know. He was definitely nebbishy-G-d, your questions for me are so much less intellectual than your questions for Jonathan."

(I was just kidding.)

"It's because I'm an actor. Everyone assumes that novelists are smarter and more interesting. They're generally smarter and more interesting, but they're often very short. So it kind of cancels all the smart and interesting stuff out."

Now that we've hopefully come to terms with the Jewish thing, there seems to be an issue with the career thing.

Asked if he knew he was going to be a novelist, Foer answers, "I still haven't really decided about it. It's just what I do. I never felt pre-professional or professional about it. It's just a thing I do. Just like seeing friends is a thing I do. Or having a conversation is a thing I do. It happens to be a thing I spend a lot of time and energy on, but I think it's very unhealthy to think of it in any other way--or at least it would be for me."

Any second novel, then?

"It's done."

Well then.

"I think it's what I'll do forever. But if there's something that interested me more, then I would do that. Like making films. Or dancing."

"Or being a cage boy [in a club]," offers the actor.

I really need to stop calling him that. Schreiber wants to do more than just be in pictures, and he shows more intelligence than many actors, both in his sense of humor and in the fact that he has yet to crash his car into anyone, get arrested for anything, or overdose on drugs like his California counterparts.

Furthermore, he and Foer are collaborating on a theater project, in the town hall tradition--a sort of open public forum with a style similar to Garrison Keillor's PBS radio show, except it will be a live performance venue for musicians, poets, writers and actors.

Speaking of open forums, have the two been following events in Israel?

"Uh-oh," the answer comes in stereo.

"Where?" asks Foer.

"Yeah, I have been following events in Israel," Schreiber admits, "and I find it all very disturbing. All the more reason to make a film like "Everything is Illuminated."

Ooh--a veiled admission that the Holocaust never really ended and that what we're witnessing today is merely Part II of the same story?

Fat chance: "Part of what appealed to me about the book is that Jonathan's such a young man and he makes a remarkably mature effort to jump continents and unite people. It's human nature rather than politics or religion, and that meant a lot to me. And I think that one of the things that we struggle with in America is a fairly isolated mentality. The all-powerful mighty nation that we are, we kind of forget to ask, forget to respect, to take perspective on the rest of the world, and it's very easy for us not to do that because so often the rest of the world comes to us, particularly if you live in one of these cosmopolitan places. And I think there is backlash against that kind of-well, I won't say that."


"There's a lack of curiosity," Foer paraphrases.

"I think to a degree that policy has become more important than humanity, and I think we're seeing evidence of that in Israel. But if you write that I'll probably get in a lot of trouble with my family."

Good. Any family in Israel?

No for Schreiber; yes for Foer: "Cousins--not first cousins. The kind of relatives I don't see very often and whose names I don't really remember."

Lack of curiosity, perhaps.

"I'm really not qualified to talk about Israel. You should never ask actors about politics," Schreiber advises.

Already he's smart for an actor.

"I would consider myself someone who believes very much in the nation of Israel," continues Schreiber, "and that all of these displaced [Jews] have a right to a home, and I would defend that to my death. The only thing is that I don't think it should come at the cost of another race, and it's at the expense of another nation. Now, in terms of particular boundaries--the specific policy right now--I do think we should pull out of the illegal territories."

Did the Jew say "illegal"?

"I know [that was offered under Ehud Barak], but I now think it's escalating so much that the anti-Israeli sentiment and the anti-American sentiment is something that really worries me, because it means more violence and it means more terrorism. And I'm worried about that, and I wish someone would take some compassionate action and step back, that at least someone would do that. But I don't know how.

(Try Israeli soldiers risking their lives doing door-to-door searches instead of just launching?) Would these guys at least defend Israel and/or Jews in conversations that may crop up in their presence? Or would they resort to issue avoidance?

"We've both chosen as our careers a way of going around things obliquely. There are certain truths that are related to everything, and as long as you're sort of on target with those, it expects an opinion that is just as valid if not as specific. So for instance the only thing I really honestly feel about the Middle East-I really wish everybody involved could act with a little more compassion. It's a terribly hippie thing to say, but I really believe that would be ideal.

"Of course, it's near impossible at this point, but if everyone could just take three steps of compassion--and I think that in your work as a writer, or as an actor, or as a painter or as a musician, you express those sentiments in a way that, to me, I know without asking how someone would address a particular situation. Does that make any sense? How someone would address, for example, Israel or Palestine. But it's difficult because people want you to be delineated--they want you to take sides."

People with moral clarity usually do.

"I can very well understand," adds Foer, "why somebody who wasn't Jewish would say, 'Why on earth would I jeopardize my own safety or my country's economy for a people about which I care almost nothing and whose right to the land they're currently on is questionable at best?' I think Jews have a different message of the situation and rely on something that's more than just logic, they rely on identity."

Noting that many people are now realizing that the animosity in the Middle East toward Israel is part of an overall anti-Western sentiment, and that Israel has quite possibly been serving as a body shield for the rest of us, Foer responds, "It so happens that the shield was put up in the middle of somebody else's territory. It's not just the case that they might hate the West. There are also very legitimate land claims, which are part of the problem. It's a very complicated issue. I'm not saying that I necessarily agree with the other side, but I can understand the other side, and I feel pretty sure that if I were an Arab American, my allegiance would be different from what it is now."

Did anyone sense an allegiance?

"Having the same information about the situation, having the same kind of intelligence. I think there's another side to be seen," he adds. "A lot of it has to do with identity and not straight-forward policy. But what Liev was alluding to was the arts--the arts are about identity. That's why it's so important now to explore it."

Schreiber takes over: "We can delineate ourselves any number of ways--by race, by size, by power, by religion--and the great thing about the arts is that it's the one area where we are not delineated; it's where we all share everything--there's common languages, common culture, and I think that sometimes a lot of people who feel sadness over that kind of rift between people drift toward the arts, because you're allowed closeness and it doesn't matter whether you're Jewish or Arab, or Catholic or Scandinavian-none of it matters.

"The only thing that matters is your feeling and your expression, and your feeling and your expression tells us something about your humanity, and telling you something about my humanity tells you something about me, which brings me closer to you and to an understanding of myself.

"So that's what I was trying to say about how it's very hard for me to enter a political thing like Israel and Palestine when I know that part of the reason to have me enter that conversation is to have me make a decision and land on a side where it's not in my nature to do that. My nature is to try and see people. If you show me a documentary on Israel, I'm going to get all emotional about Israel, and if you show me a documentary about Palestinians, I'm going to get all emotional about Palestinians, but that's what's so wonderful about it. And if we could see that, maybe there's some solution."

But there is a good guy and a bad guy here, no?

"That's just because you don't know [the Palestinians.]"

Oyyyyyyyy my stomach! Waiter--we need a mop here!

One has to wonder how artists manage to keep all the platitudes and moral equivalence out of their work when it so dominates their real-life sensibilities. Dare I even ask if these two ever engage in the previous generation's art of delineating everything in terms of being good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?



Schreiber: "Bridget Bardot--good for the Jews. Darth Vader--bad for the Jews."

"Terrible for the Jews," agrees Foer, adding, "Velcro--good for the Jews."

"Krazy Glue--bad for the Jews."

"Peter Sellers--good for the Jews."

"Tom Cruise--bad for the Jews."

"Can you think of anything else?" Foer asks.

"Steven Spielberg--good for the Jews."

"I would say Steven Spielberg bad for the Jews."

"Steven Spielberg good for the Jews. Steven Spielberg bad for the Jews."

Do they find themselves becoming more interested in their Jewish roots as they get older?

"I think when I was younger, I sort of blindly identified as being Jewish," says Schreiber, "As I became older, I specifically identified as being Jewish. And the older I get, the more specifically I identify."

Does he plan to marry Jewish? (He's been linked to a few not-so-Jewish society girls, including CNN social correspondent Serena Altschul, as well as actress Julie Bowen, and Kate Driver, sister of actress Minnie (could be Jewish).

"I think I'd like my kids to know about Jewish tradition, because I like it, and I believe in it. I like the idea of a seder. I love seders. Every year [my brother has] a seder. But the idea that you remind yourself constantly of your inter-relatedness, I like that very much about Judaism."

Foer: "And it's a great story."

"It's a really good story," Schreiber intones. "There's math. There's a lot of good math. Because if one finger of G-d's hand equals five…five…five… I can't remember right now. There's that, there's genealogy--it's great. So even if my wife weren't Jewish, I'd still want to tell my kids about my history."

"I would answer in almost the same way," says Foer. "I identify with everything a little bit more. The things that I had been doing without understanding why I was doing them or even intending to do them. And now I just feel more serious."

And marriage?

"What--to a Jewish girl? It would probably make my life easier, but you know, what will be will be. And kids--I can't even think about it."

Schreiber: "Why--how many do you have?"

"That I know of?"

So are Foer's parents kvelling over all the naches?

"They're very happy, but they're both afraid of the evil eye, so they keep it all to themselves."

While Foer, who does his writing at the main research library on Fifth Avenue, considers a title for his finished second manuscript, the May 31st release date of Schreiber's next movie is fast approaching. It's "The Sum of All Fears," based on Tom Clancy's novel and starring Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman and James Cromwell. Schreiber plays a former spy who's sucked back into duty by Freeman's character.

One final attempt to engage these two hipsters in politics: How do they think our president is doing?

"For such a short man, he's doing very well," Schreiber starts.

"Yeah, I was worried about that," Foer sympathizes.

Continues Schreiber: "I thought the height thing was gonna become a factor. I just love his politics, but his height… I don't know anything about politics; you saw how easily I got carried away with the Israel thing."

Foer: "It's not really my uh…I don't have anything particular to say."

At least they waited until everyone at the table was served before eating. That qualifies for nice-Jewish-boy status. So they don’t want to pick political sides--that’s alright. A side will pick them. It always does. Then Everything will be Illuminated.

JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.


© 2002, Julia Gorin