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Simcha Stress and Bridal Blues
The New York Times Divorce Announcement
She calls me from New York Thursday afternoon, July 6, 2006.
Luke: "Could you give me the geography of your life?"
Elisa: "I grew up in Brentwood and then Westwood. I went to Temple Emmanuel for elementary school and Harvard Westlake for [8th - 12th grade, graduating in 1996]. I went to Brandeis, graduating with a major in English with a concentration in Creative Writing and I minored in Women's Studies.
"I worked for a couple of years in New York in publishing. Then I entered Columbia in 2002 and graduated with my MFA (masters of fine arts) in 2004."
Luke: "Where did you go to temple?"
Elisa: "My parents helped found a [Conservative] synagogue in Santa Monica - Kehillat Maarav [Rabbi Michael Gotlieb, who performed Elisa's marriage].
"My parents were incredibly secular. They married. They had my two brothers and me. Around 1980, they went to some kind of weekend at Brandeis Bardin [Institute]."
Luke: "Dennis Prager."
Elisa: "Who posed the 'Do you want your grandchildren to be Jewish?' question. They looked at each other and said yeah.
"My mother had an awakening and instituted Friday night [shabbat] dinners and kept kosher. My father went along with it but never cared that much. They split up in 1986. The split was a long drawn-out process. They divorced in 1995."
Luke: "When did you realize they were going their separate ways?"
Elisa: "I don't know. They didn't really talk to my brothers and I about it. It was one of those strange murky things about my childhood that I can't figure out even now.
"I was a happy kid. At 12, everything started to go insanely downhill. Adolescence was a complete disaster. I was a trainwreck. I was a rebel by default. I didn't have any friends. I didn't do well at school.
"Between 12 and 22, things were pretty rough.
"My older brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 25. I was 15. I was 20 when he died."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Elisa: "I wanted to be an actress. I wasn't particularly talented, but I didn't figure that out until later. I was huge reader. I don't know why I didn't think about writing. There's an old family movie my dad shot. My brothers are playing in the foreground. In the background, I'm about two or three, and I'm pushing a doll carriage back and forth in the backyard, but instead of a doll, there's a book in it."
Luke: "You were reading then?"
Elisa: "I was a huge reader. Being the youngest made me precocious. I talked early. I was trying to hold my own with my brothers who were six and nine-and-a-half years older."
Luke: "Do you think that part of the reason you wanted to become an actress was because you didn't want to be yourself? You wanted to play other characters?"
Elisa: "Sure. When I write fiction, that's the best analogy I can think of. I am inhabiting someone else."
Luke: "What group were you in or were you just excluded in elementary and highschool?"
Elisa: "Elementary school was awesome. In highschool, I tried to be a Drama person but I never succeeded. I was on the newspaper and I wrote a column called 'Phat Albert.' It was my own vitriol all the time. I excoriated everybody.
"I don't blame it entirely on L.A., but it is definitely a strange place to come of age. Harvard-Westlake was a stressful private school. I was considered the ne'erdowell of the century for going to Brandeis instead of Yale or Princeton or Harvard."
Luke: "When did you realize you were a writer who deserved to be published in real books by real publishers?"
Elisa: "I lucked out in college and fell into workshops by visiting writers. Jayne Anne Phillips told me I was a writer. Stephen McCauley. Poet Mary Campbell. Marcy Hirshman. Again and again, I got this incredible support from these disparate writers."
Elisa: "That essay [in the book Body Outlaws] says it all. I was a trainwreck as an adolescent. I was 50 pounds overweight. I was 5'10. I was a size 12 or 14. It was awful, especially in LA I was at this exclusive private school with all these Stepford people. I was not valued at all for my aesthetic presence. I was embarrassed all the time. I thought I was a blight on the landscape. I had a beautiful mother. That was rough.
"I grew up. I got some self-esteem. I became a vegetarian. I'm pretty normal now. It's definitely a contrast. I hated myself."
Luke: "Did you use make-up? Did you like to dress up?"
Elisa: "No, not at all. I was a combat-boots overalls kind of girl."
Luke: "And now?"
Elisa: "Whatever. Sometimes, for something special, I'll dress up."
Luke: "What were you expected to become?"
Elisa: "I had cool parents. They just wanted us to be happy and so something productive. They're lawyers. My father marveled at my verbal ability and said I'd be a great lawyer."
Luke: "What were the Jewish expectations?"
Elisa: "I definitely heard a lot from my mom about marrying someone Jewish and creating a Jewish family.
"Having lost a brother and watch my parents go through that led me to make a really stupid decision and marry young [at 25]. I'm 28 now but I'm appalled at my 23 year old choice of spouse. It was definitely influenced by my wanting to do the right thing by my family and give my parents nachas (joy) and have a gillion children to replace my brother.
"Luckily, aside from a couple of heinous years of going through a separation and divorce, I'm none the worse for the experience."
Luke: "Would it be fair to describe much of your writing as angry?"
I repeat the question.
Elisa: "Not if the word 'anger' has a pejorative sense."
Luke: "Forget pejorative."
Elisa: "I'd like to think of it as righteous anger. I was a huge Ani DiFranco [folk-punk singer] fan in highschool. She was this angry chick singer. There was a quote from one of her songs ("I'm not a pretty girl") that I wrote in a black sharpie all over the walls of my room. She had no interest in playing the part of the nice, placid attractive woman who makes everyone feel good about themselves. There's a verse:
"I remember relating to that.
"My goal as a writer is to tell it like it is, whether it is in fiction or nonfiction, to tell difficult truths, whether or not it is fun to hear or even feels good to say. I tell my students all the time -- you should not bother writing at all if you are not committed to being honest.
"I bristle at that word. I don't think of my stories as angry. As sentimental, and tender and rueful and quizzical, but anger definitely carries that pejorative edge to it."
Luke: "Did you ever get a response from Philip Roth?"
Elisa: "I sent him a little package with the book in it yesterday."
Luke: "Is he your favorite writer?"
Elisa: "He has been. I have a rotating cast of favorite writers. If I'm reading a book I'm really enjoying, that's my favorite writer. He's a pillar. I feel like I've eaten all of his books and they're a part of me. But I guess that metaphor doesn't extend because then I would have to s--- them out.
"Saul Bellow said that we write in response to everything we've read.
"When I read something meaningful, it goes into the stew."
Luke: "Tell me about you and God."
Elisa: "I definitely don't believe in some kind of bearded presence in the universe watching us. It's an evolving sense for me that life is precious. That my life is going to come to an end one day and while I'm here, I have many choices. Bound up in that thinking is a sense of 'god.' I'm a big fan of yoga. I consider that my synagogue/church attendance. I go to yoga a couple of times a week and I feel that I can focus and clear away all sorts of mental and emotional clutter and think about what is important and make contact with whatever is in existence. I don't talk about it that much. It's something between me and myself. I feel that whenever I try to articulate it, something crucial is lost.
"I definitely don't feel 'god' when I go to synagogue. I have enjoyed going to synagogue in the past but it's for a sense of community and ritual rather than a true sense of the divine.
"I never thought about it too much, or I didn't have the skills to think about it this way. As I get older, I think about it more.
"When I feel happy, that's the most that I can associate with a belief in god. When I'm surrounded by people I love. When I feel fulfilled. When I feel like I am doing something good in the world, or I feel good.
"I don't think I have too much of a concrete god belief.
"I believe that life is precious. That we are here for a reason. That we should respect nature and the earth."
Luke: "What's been your relationship with Judaism?"
Elisa: "It continues to evolve. The institutional Judaism with which I grew up -- the day school, Hebrew High School, Camp Ramah for 11 years (Conservative Judaism) -- I loathed all that stuff. I was miserable within that framework of institutional Jewish practice. I have a seething contempt for a lot of the people I grew up with in that milieu. I've tried to leave it far in the past.
"Brandeis was an odd choice for somebody trying to run away from institutional Jews but I had few Jewish friends at Brandeis. I prided myself on having nothing to do with Hillel and anything at all.
"Judaism is something I'm exploring for myself now in ways that make me feel good. I have respect for cultural religious institutions now in a way that I wasn't able to growing up. To this day, I get extreme heebie jeebies when I run into someone from Camp Ramah, which invariably happens whenever I set foot above 69th Street. USY (United Synagogue Youth) is an insular and provincial community. I can't stand it."
The USY website says: "The Department of Youth Activities, of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, inspires Jewish youth to explore, celebrate and practice ethical values, Zionism and community responsibility based on the ideology of the Conservative Movement."
Luke: "What specifically did you hate about it because every community is insular to varying degrees."
Elisa: "True. With few exceptions, there were a lot of people who seemed to have no ambition or curiosity or intellectual depth beyond getting together, trying to sleep with one another, and planning their big Jewish weddings as soon as they finished college. I felt suffocated and marginalized."
Luke: "How did you feel suffocated?"
Elisa: "I just never related to that. I could never play that game. It just felt empty. It felt divorced from any real religion. Judaism seemed like an excuse to have this little club and be shallow."
Luke: "Can you give me an example of a community where you've experienced the opposite (joy, safety, intellectual stimulation, passion, meaning)?"
Elisa: "Grad school. I felt so at home in graduate school, in workshops with fellow writers who became good friends. Different people from all sorts of backgrounds who all value the same thing -- humor, truth-telling, good writing, articulation of things that matter individually and globally. I felt like things mattered. It was a deeper experience. It's definitely an insular world too."
Luke: "The people in graduate school were smarter, more intellectually
curious, and had better values?"
Elisa: "Yes. The people at Camp Ramah didn't seem to question anything. What value does anything have if it doesn't withstand questioning? When I grew up, I found people who knew all sorts of things and were adventurous and curious about many different things. Judaism can stand such iconoclasm and questioning.
"There is a great midrash about all the people in a village putting all their tsures (troubles) on the table in front of them and wrapped up in all their tsures were all their triumphs. You can take anyone else's package but you'll always take your own back.
"I don't begrudge anybody else's happiness or success and I don't begrudge it myself either.
"There was a girl a year behind me in grad school who was in the New Yorker's debut fiction issue. Of course I felt like, goddamn it.
"I don't wish the girl any harm. It was a fantastic story and deserved to be recognized."
Luke: "Regarding your essay in The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt, how do you wish your friends would've reacted to your dissolving marriage? You write that you wished they'd have studied the laws of Lashon Ha Ra. How should they have reacted when they had a piece of juicy gossip?"
Elisa: "I'm referring obliquely there not to my friends, who are wonderful, but to the Jewish communal yentas (gossips). I read somewhere that when it's someone you know, it's not gossip. It's news.
"It was the element of schadenfreude that I found hard to take. I felt implicated everywhere I went. For a good year, I felt like I wanted to burst into tears every time I left my house. There was almost this glee - 'Oh, guess what happened?'
"I grew up among these people. My older brother works in the Jewish community. He loved Camp Ramah. Those are his people. My mom works in the Jewish community.
"Even the way people tried to console me made it clear that I was the object of a lot of pity.
"How should people have reacted? 'Good for her. She got herself out of a terrible situation quickly without having children or further ruining her life. How difficult. I'll send her a card.' But instead there was a lot of smirking.
"Something hit home for me after my brother died when I'd be out and about and running into people and people wouldn't mention it. It was as though they were afraid of it. It happens to this day. I run into people I haven't seen for ten years. Obviously they know my brother died and they just [say], 'Hi, how are you? Good? Great.' Or, 'That's a bummer. Oh. Have a nice day.'
"I've developed this real anger at that. It doesn't seem right not to acknowledge enormous tragedies in the lives of people around you. It's a lie that really bothers me. I felt the same thing around the marriage. My life is in tatters and people say, 'Oh, great. Everything's sunny. Nice to see you.' When real s--- is happening, it's important to [acknowledge it]. It's immoral not to acknowledge. So much of the sorrow we carry around is helped by simply acknowledgment.
"My experience of the Jewish community I grew up in was that a lot of times things did not get acknowledged."
Luke: "At the depths of your pain, you wish that people would observe some of the laws (Lashon Hara) of your religious tradition."
Elisa: "Absolutely. This isn't just about Judaism."
Luke: "But you chose to use the word Lashon Hara."
Elisa: "The point of religion is to make us better human beings. If all Christians were Christlike, this would be a beautiful world to live in."
Luke: "How often do you see religion making people better?"
Elisa: "I see it more often with people who identify idiosyncratically, who intellectualize it, people without blind faith, people who struggle with it."
Luke: "I don't think most people want to be challenged. Only a tiny percentage of people want to struggle with these things. Only intellectuals such as yourself."
Elisa: "I sadly agree but you can surround yourself with such people and you don't have to get frustrated or sad when you have to run into your old Hebrew school classmates at Whole Foods on the Upper West Side."
Luke: "Was your highschool like Lord of the Flies?"
Elisa: "I call Camp Ramah the Jewish Lord of the Flies. There were no adults around. There were adolescents playing adults. There were rampant inappropriate relationships going on between the 'adults' and the teenage campers."
Luke: "Between the counselors and the kids?"
Elisa: "Oh yeah."
Luke: "A lot of predatory?"
Luke: "What about staff and kids?"
Elisa: "That's what I mean. One person at camp was over 40.
"There's a great story by Ellen Umansky in the Lost Tribe anthology -- 'How to Make it to the Promised Land.' It's the definitive Jewish summer camp story. The place is hell on earth.
"My blood pressure goes up just talking about it."
Luke: "Did anyone get busted at Camp Ramah for statutory rape?"
Elisa: "Not that I know of. It was encouraged. Anything that resulted in a Jewish couple was encouraged. That was the goal of Camp Ramah.
"There's a wonderful, famous, respected [Conservative] kindly old rabbi who I like personally, but who is notorious for showing up at Camp Ramah and a few dayschools around town to give a little speech to 14, 15, 16 year old girls about how they need to prioritize getting married and having families as soon as possible. If they are late to do those things, not only will they die barren and alone, but the Jewish people will die out. It will be their fault. You can have a career later.
"It's completely outrageous. It's anachronistic. It's antifeminist and completely misguided and doesn't take individuals into account. I hated it because it encountered virtually no resistance at Camp Ramah. This is a line most people bought into.
"Camp Ramah puts out an alumni newsletter and like JDate, there's a whole corner of mazal tovs. 'We met at Camp Ramah.' This fetishized niche. That's what Camp Ramah is for. If you met your spouse at Camp Ramah, you get a crown of rubies. It's a sick little world."
Luke: "If you were talking to that same group about the same topic, what would you say?"
Elisa: "You have a lot of time. You need to experience the world and figure out who you are in it and take care of yourself and you'll know what you want and who the right partner for you is. You'll be able to create a life that is satisfying to you in the long-term."
Luke: "What should be more important to an 18-year old girl? Get a good education or get a good man?"
Elisa: "Obviously the former, though I don't deny that different people have different capabilities. Some people don't want an education."
Luke: "Would you rather have written a great novel or have a great marriage?"
Elisa: "That's a ridiculous question because one doesn't preclude the other."
Luke: "No, but we can't have everything we want in life. Which is more important to you?"
Elisa: "It's apples and oranges. It's a false choice. Write a great novel or become a great doctor? That you have to choose. I have every intention of having a family, if that is what I want, and continuing to write. I don't see the choice."
Luke: "Which part of your life have you been the happiest?"
Luke: "The reason is?"
Elisa: "I know who I am and what I want. I know how to honor myself and my feelings."
Luke: "What does it mean to honor yourself and your feelings?"
Elisa: "To know that my feelings are important and that if I feel happy or sad or uncomfortable, it's not me. If I'm sitting across the table from somebody and I want to stab myself in the eye with a fork, it's not because there's something wrong with me, it's that I don't like this person and I don't like the vibe.
"I don't beat myself up for things."
Honoring her feelings, Elisa starts crunching (on what I find out later are) raw, unsalted almonds.
"I live in an insular world of writers and sometimes it slaps me in the face that a lot of people out there don't understand, or willfully ignore, the difference between fiction and nonfiction."
Crunch, crunch, crunch.
I try to bring my questions to a close.
Luke: "What do you love and hate about New York? What do you love and hate about LA?"
Elisa: "I love about LA that my mom and dad are there."
Elisa: "I can go back now feeling great about life and revisit old places and not feel terrible about the awful years we discussed earlier. I hate about LA that it is a minefield. Without warning, I'll stumble into a weird feeling of being 15 again and not knowing that there's a whole world out there beyond this insular miserable community and just not thinking there's a place for me anywhere in the world. It's a place full of ghosts -- my grandparents, my brother, a whole family identity that just doesn't exist anymore. That can be empowering too if I don't let it penetrate and just live with it.
"New York I love because I feel completely at home here. I feel like the person I am is valued here. I feel like I found my place here. I found my people. I am allowed to be who I am and honor myself.
"I hate that it is far away from my parents. I hate that because I didn't grow up here, I don't have all those convenient associations. I don't know who the good waxer is. I don't know where you go to get the best manicure."
Luke: "What did your older brother most want for you?"
Elisa: "To be happy. I don't feel like I got to know him well. He was off to college when I was eight."
Luke: "Was he able to communicate with you when he knew he was dying?"
Elisa: "Not so much. It continues the theme of things not getting discussed or acknowledged in my family. He was really optimistic as was everyone. It wasn't until he'd had a second brain surgery, which diminished his personality, it took away the essence of him, that it was clear he was not going to make it. By that point, he was just a shell. We didn't get to mull it over too much.
"I remember saying at one point -- 'He's going to die.' And getting in trouble for that, getting admonished. 'Don't say that! How dare you say that!' As if my saying that is going to make it happen. That's where my penchant for honesty at all cost comes from.
"I'm approaching the age he was when he died (29)."
Luke: "How did your family and friends react to your writing?"
Elisa: "Really well. My dad is plainly thrilled and proud. My mom less so but only because she operates in this insular little lashon hara world. She gets worried about other people thinking X, Y, Z. She moves in this little world and everybody's sniping about everything. The first story [in Elisa's collection] is called, 'The Mother is Always Upset.' She says, 'People are going to look at that title and think it's about me.' I said, 'Mom, if they read the story, then they'll know it's not.' 'But people aren't going to read the story. They're just going to read the title.' 'Mom, if people are that dumb, then who cares?'"
Luke: "Did the people who you described in the Guilt book as gossiping about you, did any of them apologize?"
Elisa: "No. I keep my distance as much as I can from that crew. I can imagine what they think of me. What the camp people I skewer think of me."
I'd like to hear from these people what they think of Elisa Albert and her writing.
Luke: "Is there any pleasure in revenge in your writing?"
Elisa: "I hope not. I'm going to be honest with what I feel, but I think revenge is a bad reason for writing."
Luke: "How did your ex-husband react?"
Elisa: "It was pretty hard but he's a big reader. He understands. He's not thrilled. He wasn't touched by the essay in The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt. His happiness that I had gotten published..."
Luke: "So much of Philip Roth's writing is revenge."
Elisa: "You think? Sometimes. I think he's at his weakest when he does that. That stuff reeks from a mile away."
Elisa and I chat for a few minutes after the interview. We lament the quality of Jewish journalism. "Jewish journalism is many things," she says, "but gritty and hard-hitting is not among them."
Luke: "It's just so sanitized."
Elisa: "It's crap."
Luke: "I pick it [the Jewish weeklies] up and I just don't recognize Jewish life."
Elisa: "When you criticize any insular group, that Jews are so beleaguered and have so many enemies in the world, you're not allowed to say anything questioning. The minute you do, you're not a friend of the Jews and the door is shut. We live in the 21st Century. We're clearly not threatened here. We're pretty powerful."
Later, I email Elisa a couple of questions. "How would the people you grew up with at Camp Ramah, Hebrew High, USY, Harvard-Westlake describe you?"
Elisa: "First there'd be an awkward pause. Then? Oh, I don't know. Weird. Loud. Ugly. Obnoxious."
Luke: "How would your closest friends you've made since grad school describe you?"
Elisa: "That's what friendster is for, no? Cool. Attractive. "Cheerfully acerbic," according to one friend. Smart. Funny. Good things."
Great Book Or Great Marriage?
Whenever I ask high-achieving women if they'd rather write a great book (or direct a great movie, etc) or have a great marriage, they usually take offense and maintain they can have both and there is no need to choose, and no, they won't rank which objective is more important to them.
One who did not take offense to my question was married novelist Binnie Kirshenbaum, who emails me that she'd rather write a great book.
Elisa emails me: "That book or marriage/family question is laughable at best. I'd love to see you pose it to a male writer, if only for a true realization of its absurdity."
I ask myself that question and answer that I'd rather have a great marriage.
I email Elisa Albert for the first time July 4, 2006:
After transcribing our interview of July 6, I email Elisa at 11:16 a.m. July 7:
Elisa responds Saturday afternoon, July 8:
I respond Saturday night:
Elisa responds Sunday morning, July 9:
This reminds me of my experience with Benyamin Cohen of Jewsweek.com in 2004.