Bruce Jay Friedman says his writing has always been sprinkled with Jewish themes.
Photo by Molly K. Friedman
October 16, 2008
You can find an excerpt from Bruce Jay Friedman’s 1966 debut novel Stern in The Rise of American Jewish Literature, an anthology of the works of prominent Jewish authors. The contributors include such legends as Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud, among many others. Pretty heady company.
“For them, yes, I agree,” said Friedman, tongue-in-cheek, during a phone interview from his home in New York City.
Perhaps if the 30-year-old anthology is revised someday, it will include something from Three Balconies: Stories and a Novella (Biblioasis), Friedman’s new release.
Friedman aficionados will no doubt note the gradual change in themes and characters since he began publishing. His characters tend to be older now, more preoccupied with the meaning of life and worried about opportunities missed, impending illness, and death, tiptoeing the fine line between humor and desperation.
In comparing his new work with his more recent output, “the early ones were more frantic and hyper and crazy,” said the author. “I’m older and these [stories] are probably more dimensional.”
Friedman has always sprinkled Jewish themes in his writing. In his latest collection, “The Convert” considers two schoolboy adversaries turned friends, then returned to adversaries, while in “Mr. Wimbledon,” a Jew moves to a distant suburb expecting to find anti-Semitism and is somewhat disappointed when it isn’t there. “It’s like the Stockholm Syndrome in a funny way,” Friedman said. Compare this with Stern, in which the eponymous protagonist winds up in a sanitarium because of his paranoia about anti-Semitism.
“Stern was written pretty much when I was a kid,” said Friedman, now 73. “I was in my 30s, and I suppose if I had to write that book again, I’d write it in a different way.” He quickly amended his comment. “I’m only saying that I probably would have done it differently, but I don’t regret doing it the way I did. I was surrounded by that time and period and I was that person.”
Freidman has written in several genres: novels, short stories, screenplays, and theatrical plays.
In his stage play Have You Spoken to a Jew Lately?, two friends in an isolated area of America begin to suspect they’re the only Jews left in the country. “They try to verify it and sure enough, they can’t find anybody. They can’t find a lawyer; they can’t find the Second Avenue Deli in the phonebook. It gets more and more suspicious until they’re convinced of it.”
Freidman enjoys the short story format best. “I always come back to it,” he said. “It’s like coming home. That’s where I began.”
Nevertheless, he penned hits movies such as Splash and Stir Crazy and received critical acclaim for Steambath, which was way ahead of its time when it aired on PBS in 1973. Who knows what was more shocking: a nude scene or the fact that God was depicted as a Puerto Rican spa attendant?
What might have been
Even though he denies consciously “writing Jewish,” he concedes, “I was born a Jew, I’m still a Jew, and it’s one of many themes.”
Friedman grew up in the Bronx. “Lower middle class, but I think we were poor without my really realizing it.” Friedman remembers sleeping upright in a folding chair in the cramped apartment until he was 17. He wrote about some of those experiences in his second novel, A Mother’s Kisses.
His was a “marginal” Jewish upbringing. “Some attendance at synagogue — [it] never interested me.” After all these years, he still recalls the trauma of attending Hebrew school, his introduction into the Jewish community.
“The instructor hit me across the face with the Five Books of Moses for whispering to the guy next to me,” Freidman said, amazing himself with the memory. “Mr. Kaminetsky…you don’t forget that kind of name. I’ve thought about that for years and I ended up sympathizing with the poor man. Who knows what kind of pressure he was under.
“I always feel if I had one guiding individual to take me through what the religion was all about and get me interested, my life would have been a bit different.”
For one thing, his attempt to get into medical school — basically because many of his friends were going and he didn’t want to be left out — might have deprived the literary world of a biting, humorous voice. “It would have been a very unattractive thing for the community in general,” he said. In retrospect, Friedman thought he might have made a good therapist. Until his wife reminded him he didn’t know how to listen. “Oh, that,” he told her.
He applied to Columbia Medical School “never dreaming that anyone would reject me.” But the dean explained to him that returning World War II veterans would be allocated all the openings. He suggested that Friedman develop his talent as a writer and apply for the school’s arts and science program with the possibility of later switching to pre-med. With a mixture of confidence and ethics, Freidman refused, thinking the subterfuge dishonest. Long story short, he received notification while working at a summer camp that all the spots were indeed taken as predicted. He wound up at the University of Missouri journalism school, “which was pretty much a waste of time.”
When not writing, Freidman loves to share his knowledge of the craft. He currently holds the Leila Hadley Luce chair at Marymount Manhattan College and for the last 12 years has taught an intensive writing course at the Humber School of Creative and Performing Arts in Toronto. “I always compare it to hitting the ball back and forth and having fun on the tennis court and then you take a lesson with a pro. I’m the pro.”
He finds working with novices — his students have included a neurophysiologist and a race horse trainer — “not in the least frustrating. It’s a learning experience for me…. It brings me back to fundamentals. As I’m teaching, I remind myself of some of the rules.” The classes have served as inspiration for some of his own work. “I’m staggered by how little I know and how much I’ve forgotten.”