It was early, too early for a Sunday. But Esther was a woman with a mission, a quest that would take her to the southernmost reaches of The Garden State, in search of novelist and fellow New Jersey native Josh Braff.
There was an odd peacefulness to her Upper West Side neighborhood as she left her apartment, a stillness in the air and in her spirit. Still dulled by sleep, she descended into the subway, and made her way to Penn Station. It was definitely coffee-time, she yawned, as she joined the queue at Zaro’s. She sipped—way too bitter, burnt almost. She wondered if this was what the coffee was supposed to taste like. “New Chernobyl Roast,” she named it. Two Splenda didn’t help matters. But she didn’t care—she was on a mission. At the rendezvous point, she’d meet up with that day’s partner-in-crime, a mysterious woman known only as Ginger, but this leg of her journey, she’d have to travel alone.
The train trip was uneventful, people boarded and left the train at every stop, and few people remained constant. She traveled past her New Brunswick college stomping grounds and found herself in a land she’d only heard of. She was trusting that her contact would find her at the station—if anything about her going south went south, she’d abort the mission and head back to Metropolis.
But she had nothing to worry about. There she was, resplendent in pink scarf in the south New Jersey sunshine. The two met like old friends (part of their cover, should any evil forces be spying) and went off to an unmarked vehicle. The rest of the trip was smooth sailing.
The dynamic duo arrived in time for mingling with Jews amid books in the Braff-Gerber lobby of the Katz JCC, and spied their target, a lanky guy in his thirties with a somewhat-unruly mop of what a friend of Esther’s had once called “Jewish blond” hair. He would tell them all they needed to know. But first, Ginger had to calm down. “I love tall people, I can’t control myself!” she burst out. “Calm down,” said Esther soothingly, as they took their seats in the second row. “He’s going to start.”
After a brief introduction, Joshua Braff stepped to the podium. He spoke about the process of becoming a fiction writer, which began when he was living in Japan, teaching ESL, and during Yom Kippur services, his imagination imbued the Torahs with voices. The Torahs, he imagined, were talking to each other, wanting to be somewhere else. This was Josh’s first sign that he wanted to be somewhere else, and he began trying to get published in literary magazines. He found himself a mentor, and got an MFA “to justify my time in writing.” He set deadlines for himself, workshopped his stories with other writers, and finally published three short stories in national literary magazines. “You don’t know you’re in this business until someone says yes,” he recalled.
When Braff’s yes came, he began to mine his own truth: his experience in a Perth Amboy yeshiva followed by a move to South Orange proved fertile terrain for the work that became The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green. The eponymous hero, Jacob Green, according to his creator, “needs a hug very badly.” After years of yeshiva education he has been dropped into a public school environment. His father’s on his case to finish his bar mitzvah thank you notes and he’s in love with the non-Jewish babysitter who lives in his house.
The book, which is ultimately about Jewish family life in New Jersey, also delves into sexuality and coming-of-age issues, Judaism, family dynamics, fish-out-of-water reactions and provides a character study of narcissism, and portrays scenes from a troubled marriage. The Green pater familias, Abram Green, is the classic narcissist—his children are mere reflections of him; according to Braff, “their successes and failures belong to him.” The book also explains the Green Family rules, a series of italicized edicts that constitutes an internal Torah for the Green children—conveying the fire-and-brimstone message that the house rules are not to be violated: transgress these commandments, and thou shalt feel the wrath of thy creator.
Throughout, the tragedy of living in a family where the children are treated as offshoots of the father is undercut by epistolary interludes: in bar mitzvah thank-you notes and letters to his babysitter, Jacob Green’s teenage voice is clear, honest, and hilariously spot on, providing a voice for the protagonist’s “Unthinkable Thoughts.” Esther remembers having laughed heartily at some of these passages; when Braff performs them at the JCC, she hears her own laugh re-reverberating. Clearly, there’s comedy and performance in the Braff blood. She feels a kinship.
Braff continues to talk about his process: how he drew from truth to create an organic story, how he learned from editing one chapter how the next chapter was going to take shape, how he perceives relationships to be an endless well of writing fodder. All the while, Agent Ginger is spellbound, one can assume by the extreme tallness and talent of the artist.
Meanwhile, Esther is riveted to Braff’s process, looking for her own answers. Must she court literary journals and magazines like the New Yorker in addition to inappropriate singles from JDate and the Upper West Side? Must she go the MFA route? How can she translate her own experience into fiction without it becoming a memoir? How can she write a memoir without fictionalizing it to protect the innocent? Whatever her book is, she wants it to be funny because it’s true, and truthful because it’s funny. Lofty goals.
The event ends, and the crowd files back into the Braff-Gerber lobby for the book signing. While Braff signs her book, she gives him the highest compliment she can muster: “It really made me laugh.” He doesn’t understand then that those words, so simple, are high praise indeed. At least not now he doesn’t. But he will someday.
Click here to read Joshua Braff’s weblog.