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Summer Reading for Island Scribes
By Ashraya Gupta

For most people, summers on Fire Island are a chance to get away from their work. Even a daytrip can provide a well-needed respite from office life. And what better way to escape than a good book on a hot day, with the ocean just in front of you?

But what happens to beach reading when you’re an author, editor, or journalist? Is it too much like working or is it a relief? We asked some of the island’s literati what they’ve been reading lately—and it seems these people are part of the lucky few who honestly love what they do, so much so that even on vacation, they can’t give it up.

Hal Rubenstein, longtime resident of the Pines, is currently InStyle Magazine’s celebrity trend tracker. Previously, he’s worked as a restaurant critic for New York Magazine, Men’s Style Editor for New York Times Magazine, and a fashion commentator on such shows as Full Frontal Fashion. He’s author of Paisely Goes with Nothing, offering such sage advice as “Nothing is fun for the whole family-—unless the parents are under 10.” Witty, irreverent, and always in style, Rubenstein tends to read about four books at a time. These days, he’s been reading two novels: Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, an innovative recasting of the Wizard of Oz and the basis for the hit Broadway musical, and American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s 22nd novel, an elegantly composed exploration of American identity. Rubenstein’s also reading two biographies: Lee Server’s Ava Gardner and Gerald Clarke’s Capote.

Drew Henriksen is a schoolteacher and author who spends his time in Kismet. He teaches biology and writes science fiction, saying he likes to “take the world of science and throw a monkey wrench into its thought process.” He’s published a series entitled “Dragon Tales & Stories.” The first two books are available through ArcheBooks Publishing and the third is due out next year. Currently, he’s reading (i)Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon(i) by Spider Robinson, which he’s been looking forward to picking up since the last I-CON Sci-Fi convention at Stony Brook. It’s a blend of humor and science fiction featuring interwoven short stories centered around a Long Island bar with some very interesting patrons.

 

Gilbert Parker, a longtime literary agent for playwrights at William Morris, retired two years ago. He summers in the Pines and says retirement is treating him well. “All I had time to read was plays,” he says. “Now I can finally read some books.” He usually juggles two books at a time: something nonfiction and something fiction. These days, he’s reading Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, a collection of the musings and experiences of the British actor and playwright. Parker likes being able to pick up the book anytime, since it doesn’t have a plot, but rather features the “workings of [Bennett’s] mind.” For fiction, Parker is reading Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Abide with Me, detailing a 1950s New England minister’s struggle with the loss of his wife.

 

Bruce Tracy, the Editorial Director at Villard, part of the Random House Publishing Group, is busy editing some new books due out later this year. Two memoirs, Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir by Janice Erlbaum and A Good Dog by Jon Katz, due in the fall; and a new novel from Merrill Markoe, Walking in Circles Before Lying Down, which is slated for release in August. As for leisure reading, he recommends Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which describes Bechdel’s experiences growing up in a funeral home with a closeted gay father. And “if it ever stops raining,” he says he intends to “hit the beach” with Gary Shteyngart’s Aburdistan, Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife, and Robert Greenfield’s new Timothy Leary: A Biography.

 

Rebecca Apsan, of Ocean Bay Park, started La Petite Coquette, a lingerie boutique in Greenwich Village, in 1978 and is now proclaimed the “best bra-fitter in the country” by (i) New York(i) magazine. With Sarah Stark, she’s compiled her thoughts on body image and how “the right lingerie can change your life” in a book due out this September entitled (i)Lessons in Lingerie from La Petite Coquette(i). Right now, she’s reading Coffee, Tea, or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses by Donald Bain, Trudy Baker, and Rachel Jones, A Virgin’s Guide to Everything: From Sushi to Sample Sales by Lauren McCutcheon, and she just started Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior by Dr. David R. Hawkins. Apsan can be reached at her website, www.thelittleflirt.com.

David Groff, of the Pines, is a New York-based poet, writer, and editor. He’s author of the poetry collection, Theory of Devolution. Groff is currently reading Grief: A Novel by Andrew Holleran, author of Dancer from the Dance, which Groff calls “the best chronicle of Fire Island love and longing,” and Wayne Hoffman’s Hard: A Novel, which details the movement for HIV prevention in the 1990s through the stories of a group of gay men.

Douglas Whitlock, who spends time in Atlantique, retired from the corporate world and decided to begin self-publishing, saying “the whole idea of writing just really appeals to me.” Whitlock has gone from business letters to beach-reads, releasing four books, including a children’s book. The most recent, The Charms of Fire Island, can be found in stores from Kismet to the Pines and also in local bookstores along the South Shore. Currently, he’s reading Killer Summer by Lynda Curnyn, a murder-mystery that takes place in Kismet, and he’s also revisiting some classics, including The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby. Of Hemingway, he says “I’m not sure why people like him so much,” but he finds Fitzgerald a welcome return.

Estelle Ellis, our featured Island Profile this week, is combining research with leisure. While at work on her new book about conservators and archivists, Ellis is reading the Essays in Memory of John M. Brealey, published by the Metropolitan Museum Journal. Brealey was a leading conservator who revolutionized how artwork was preserved and protected. Ellis is also reading The Future of the Past by Alexander Stille, which explores the double-edged nature of conservation, detailing how our attempts to save and study artifacts can often result in their destruction. Outside of her research, Ellis is reading Journalistas, a collection of 100 years of female journalism, edited by Eleanor Mills and Kira Cochrane, and Crossing Open Ground, a collection of essays by Barry Lopez, beautifully describing his relationship with nature.

SAGE Hosts Gay Authors in July

This month, SAGE will be bringing two authors of recent books on GLBT history and culture to the LGBT Community Center. They’ll be inviting David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, which explores gay culture in the 1960s and reveals new facts about the 1969 raid, and Donald F. Reuter, who recently released Gay-2-Zee: A Dictionary of Sex, Subtext, and the Sublime, an illustrated reference book explaining gay slang and culture. A reading and discussion will be held on Friday, July 21, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Author Examines Jewish Heritage in New Book

Abigail Pogrebin, a Saltaire resident, is the 2006 Alan Caplow Memorial Scholar in Residence at the Fire Island Synagogue. We talked to her about her new book, Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. In the book Pogrebin speaks intimately with 62 accomplished Jews in America about how they feel about being Jewish. Interviews with such notables as Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Joan Rivers, Gene Wilder and Mike Wallace reveal their intimate views on spirituality and culture.

On Sunday, July 9, Pogrebin will give a talk at the temple, in Seaview, at 10 a.m.

Your mother wasn’t such a traditional Jewish mother. You didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah (you or your sister) and yet she wanted you to marry a Jewish man. Why? Can you relate to that? What if your children want your blessing to marry outside of the Jewish faith?

In many ways my mother was a traditional Jewish mother, in the sense that we lit candles every Friday night and celebrated all the major Jewish holidays. True, she didn’t give me a formal Jewish education in the sense of Hebrew School and a bat mitzvah, but she was always trying to make up for it at the same time by instilling a sense of Jewish pride. She also had an unsubtle “Holocaust Mentality,” where we were very aware of her sense that the Jewish people could be threatened again, that it was vital to maintain the Jewish line. So it wasn’t necessarily surprising to me that she would prefer that I marry a Jewish man – what took me aback was the virulence of her reaction when it looked like I actually might. Since her politics were such a part of my life–and they were so strongly based in egalitarianism and acceptance, I was startled that she would be so absolutely rejecting of someone I cared about solely because of his differing faith. That said, I came – on my own time and in my own thinking – to realize that I couldn’t be comfortable marrying a non-Jew. I needed to feel the familiarity and the common vocabulary of a fellow Jew, even if his upbringing wasn’t a carbon copy of mine. There was some ineffable gap with Michael (my Catholic boyfriend for two years) that I came to see we could never bridge. And now that I have kids, I think it will be difficult for me if they choose to be with a non-Jewish partner. But more painful would be their decision to abandon Jewish tradition. And either way, I like to think I would be more able to calmly and empathetically discuss the situation than my mother was at the time.

You write of your meeting with Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, and author of the book Kaddish, and what a great impact he had on you. He called you on your justifications for remaining an “uninformed Jew.” What was your initial response and what did his challenge eventually create?

I really can’t overstate my reaction to my conversation with Wieseltier, though I hate to make it sound like an “awakening” or some religious epiphany, because that’s such a hackneyed notion. But the truth is that I felt as if Wieseltier was throwing down a personal gauntlet to me, challenging the level of ignorance I’d heretofore accepted in my own Jewish life. I felt like he was saying, “You can make time for this. You’ve never really prioritized it, you’ve never really investigated it. Make room for it. See what it’s about. Then decide where you want to put it.” It’s because of him I started to seriously study Torah, and I’m sure he had a lot to do with my decision to become a bat mitzvah at the age of 40 last year.

Several interviewees mention that their Jewish identity was forged more in a political atmosphere than religious (James Rubin, for instance). Did this happen to you also?

I was raised in a very liberal Jewish home on the Upper West Side and on Fire Island, and I think there’s no doubt that I came to equate Judaism and Liberalism. That said, I don’t think my Jewish identity was political. It was much more forged in family gatherings and rituals.

You and Mark Spitz, as well as other celebrities, consciously married someone Jewish. On the other hand this can be looked at as reverse prejudi ce. Can you comment?

I think after my relationship ended with Michael (the Irish Catholic boyfriend), I was more inclined towards finding a Jewish man, but I wouldn’t say I was seeking a Jewish husband per se. I wasn’t searching for a husband consciously at the point where I met my husband. I was just looking for a good date, in part, to get my mind off a couple of messy relationships.

I do understand why some think that preferring a Jewish man could be a kind of reverse prejudice, but I don’t think one can discount the fact that the population is miniscule and fragile when weighing that question. The fact is that the Jewish people are a tiny population; and the ideal of upholding Jewish continuity, in my mind, has to be understood in that context, as long as its done without a sense of exclusivity or elitism.

You interviewed 62 of the most accomplished Jews about being Jewish in America. What were the common threads of their Jewish identity? Differences?

The common threads included a strong, visceral connection to their heritage and culture, and a remarkable lack of religiosity.

Did anyone decline to be interviewed? Who was the most difficult to interview and why? Who was your favorite person/why?

The four big rejections I got were from Barbra Streisand, Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, and Henry Kissinger. They did not give their reasons. Rep. Barney Frank was the most difficult to interview because he was very impatient and not so forthcoming. Dustin Hoffman was probably my favorite because I’ve been such a longtime fan of his and he was so engaging to talk to.

Many of the successful people you interviewed talked about a feeling that they have a strong sense of peril—suspicion about their success—like they are going to be targeted again. How do you think this shapes Jewish identity and actions today?

I don’t feel that same sense of peril personally, but I heard one person after another describe a sense that “it could happen again,” that anti-Semitism is like a sleeping tiger that could wake up at any time, that prowls when we least expect it. It means that many Jews always have one eye over their shoulder, are never quite comfortable.

Kenneth Cole considers entering a Kibbutz in Israel when he was 17 to be one of the most life changing experiences that deepened his faith. What would you say caused your faith to deepen?

I think my faith was deepened first by having children, and feeling – more profoundly than I expected – the miracle of Jewish endurance, despite our history. My faith was also deepened by Jewish study. I was surprised at the extent to which something so simple as keeping up with the weekly Torah portions could make me feel so engaged and challenged by Jewish inquiry and discussion.

Do you have a deeper understanding of what it means to be Jewish now?

I have begun to deepen that understanding, but I see how it also remains elusive, and that that is at the heart of the tradition: there is majesty and electricity in the constant asking, in the never fully understanding or knowing. One is always questioning, never finished, never done.

How do you reconcile being a modern woman with many of the very traditional aspects of the Jewish religion, for instance the reason that Ruth Bader Ginsberg gave for spurning Jewish ritual because of its exclusion of women (sexism).

I was raised with such egalitarian Jewish traditions – namely B’nai Saltaire (our annual High Holy Day congregation in Fire Island, for which my mother was the cantor and co-founder) and also the Feminist Seders each year, that my experience of Judaism growing up was not exclusionary or sexist at all.

In the last paragraph of the epilogue you seem to come to an epiphany that “being Jewish is powerful and unavoidable”— whether one embraces it or not. Can you elaborate?

For so many in the book, and for me and most other Jews in my own life, I see that being Jewish is always potent – no matter how unobservant, no matter whether they believe in God or not. It informs who they are. They carry it proudly and deeply, and it’s unshakable. It’s also still foisted upon them, by non-Jews who are aware of it – for better and for worse. That hasn’t changed.