Tony Kushner says his Jewish identity helped him in his struggle to “come out” as a gay man. Wendy Wasserstein says the play she most wants to write is about her mother, who “met a socialist at Ratners” and, nine years later, after he died, married his brother.
During almost two hours of open and often personal conversation last Wednesday evening with moderator Richard Siegel, executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, the two Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights emphasized how important their Jewishness is to them and how it informs their work and views of life.
Kushner, who grew up in a small town in the South, told of the difficult verbal bouts he had as a young man with his father before making his sexual identity public. He said his parents raised him to be a proud Jew, despite being “despised and rejected” because of their religion by some in their Louisiana town, and he used those same arguments to try to convince his father to stand up for his son’s homosexuality as he did for the family’s Jewish identity.
The struggle “made me cherish my Jewish identity more deeply because it was useful for me,” he told a rapt audience at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, which co-sponsored the evening with the NFJC. Kushner said the experience “forced me into a confrontation with Judaism as a religion and identity I loved, because I was no longer willing to feel that my homosexuality was unacceptable.”
He said he overcame his “antagonism” to the religion primarily through reading fiction authors like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick, and discovering the music of the Klezmatics, which “awakened something sensual and powerful in me.”
“It’s been a slow process, but I feel very powerfully identified as a Jew,” Kushner said, noting that he has come to study Jewish texts and probably could have been a “fairly competent” Reform or Reconstructionist rabbi, though he is an agnostic. “What Jew isn’t?” he quipped.
Wasserstein, who attended a yeshiva in Flatbush during her early childhood, recalled how the Holocaust was not mentioned directly at home, but was “definitely there,” just under the surface, “like a nightmare.” She said her mother’s sister perished in a concentration camp, but her mother did not tell the children the truth. “She said they went to Europe.”
She marveled at how, watching television as a family, her mother would identify the Jews they saw, including Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican who ran for president in 1964. “I’ve always felt I had the good fortune of knowing who I was,” she said, though she came to notice that “there was no one like us” on television, and “no one fell in love with a Jewish girl on TV.”
While the topic of the evening — “Jewish Culture Today: Renaissance or Decline?” — was little discussed directly, it was clear Kushner and Wasserstein believe this is a time of renewed and emboldened Jewish identity in the arts. They spoke of how they have seen characters on television and in the theater become more openly Jewish in recent years.
Wasserstein said that before her play, “The Sisters Rosenzweig,” was to appear on Broadway in the early 1990s, the producer worried aloud about the title and if it would succeed outside of New York. She said she told him she “had a hunch that people have sisters,” but it was clear the concern was that the play was “too Jewish,” a complaint she said she has had about other plays she has written and which she continues to find mystifying. “No one says plays are too Irish or too Southern,” she observed, adding that she deliberately made the lead character of “The Heidi Chronicles” a woman who is not Jewish.
Neither playwright is religious in conventional terms, but both feel strongly connected to the faith. Wasserstein said she believes “religion, and particularly fundamentalism, has gotten the world in a whole lot of trouble, and continues to,” and for her the spiritual dimension is “what comes from your heart and how you live your life.” She said she is an advocate of the arts, in the Jewish tradition.
Kushner described at length his grappling with the religious tradition and his appreciation for the Talmud and the rabbis’ “bottomless appetite for extracting meaning from life.” He said that in mourning for lost loved ones, he takes comfort in reciting the Kaddish, a prayer he said was “so huge and deep” that he can “feel the connection back to Abraham.” He also spoke of “longing for the mystical” in Judaism.
“I want to be like [the poet William] Blake, but I never saw an angel,” said Kushner, whose “Angels in America,” now revived on a six-part HBO series, has been acclaimed as one of the great plays of the 20th century. (His musical about life in the South in the 1960s, “Caroline or Change,” is on stage at the Public Theater.)
Kushner’s religious ruminations prompted the more secular Wasserstein to exclaim at one point, “Tony is aspiring to holiness and I’m aspiring to shrimp.”