Two giants of literature — and one big question

Zoë Heller and Patrick Marber, who have mixed backgrounds, discuss what it means to be Jewish


By John Nathan, June 10, 2009
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Collaborators: Patrick Marber adapted Zoë Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal for the screen, and won an Oscar nomination for his work

Collaborators: Patrick Marber adapted Zoë Heller’s novel Notes on a Scandal for the screen, and won an Oscar nomination for his work

In Zoë Heller’s rather brilliant third novel, The Believers, faith is the theme. Each member of the New York-Jewish, atheistic Litvinoff family is finding that long held beliefs are being severely tested. For the reluctant matriarch Audrey, it is her faith in the marriage to her philandering lawyer Joel that is being shaken; for her long-suffering, meek daughter Karla, it is the belief that happiness is a condition for other people; and for Audrey’s youngest daughter Rosa it is the notion that the fiercely anti-religious brand of atheism in which her parents brought her up may be a less fulfilling credo than Orthodox Judaism.

After the dramatist Patrick Marber finishes writing the screenplay of the book, top actors will vie for the roles. For his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Heller’s Notes on a Scandal three years ago, Judi Dench played malignantly motivated spinster Barbara, while Cate Blanchett played her victim. For the movie version of The Believers the big question will be: who will land what could well be one of the great female cinema roles of recent times? In the book, Audrey’s withering one-liners leave a trail of damaged family and friends. Rosa is the target for more than her fair share for becoming interested in Judaism, a decision attacked by her Jewish parents with particular venom.

“Joel and Audrey had a keen contempt for all religion,” writes Heller, “but Judaism, being the variety of mumbo jumbo in which they were themselves ancestrally implicated, had always inspired their most vehement scorn.”

To coincide with the paperback launch of The Believers, Heller travelled to London last week. Two days before she and Marber took part in a Jewish Book Week discussion at the British Library, they met at a London hotel at the invitation of the JC to discuss some of the themes in the novel, a large part of which describes Orthodox Judaism from the perspective of the sceptical but enquiring Rosa. What followed was a surprisingly frank exchange about being Jewish.

Heller was a Bridget Jones-style newspaper columnist before she reinvented herself as a writer of serious fiction. She lives in the Bahamas with her screenwriter husband Larry Konner and their two daughters who are not halachically Jewish because Heller’s mother was not Jewish. Marber’s three sons share the same status, because their mother is not Jewish.

Zoë Heller: “The Believers grew partly out of serious discussions we’d had about levels of observance we were going to have in the house. Both Larry and I are atheists, although Larry was raised in an Orthodox family. But when he took our daughters to see The Wiz (the African-American version of The Wizard of Oz) he became aware of the black kids in audience who were able to say ‘that’s us up there’. He wondered if, when our children went to see, Yentl or Fiddler on the Roof, whether our children would say ‘that’s us up there’.”

Patrick Marber: “Show them Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. That’s us.”

ZH: OK. But still, whether they would say ‘that’s us’, whether they would feel some connection. And I absolutely understand this. But the problem is, it’s very difficult to maintain some idea of Jewish identity without some religious observance. Otherwise it just becomes bagels and cream cheese. So now we do this strange combination of things. There is no pretence that we believe in God. But there is a thing about why… (Heller jokingly raises her fist in mock pride) it’s great to be Jewish!”

PM: “I thought your father was Jewish but your mother wasn’t?”

ZH: “Yes. I’m not Jewish.”

PM: “Right. And nor are you going to convert?”

ZH: “No.”

PM: “But although you are not Jewish, you are raising your kids in a ‘Jew-ish’ household.”

ZH: “‘Jew-ish’ being the operative word. What I think is really important is to be utterly truthful and unpretentious. I give my children the explanation I’ve just given — that being Jewish is important to their dad and that we would like them to honour that part of them that is Jewish.”

PM: “And do you feel at all Jewish yourself?”

ZH: “I think I have a disproportionate sense of Jewishness because, even though my father was not at all religious — possibly anti–religious — it shaped his early life because he came from Germany in 1937, and because when he was growing up he wasn’t quite sure whether people hated him because he was German or because he was Jewish. He hated Germans with such a passion, because his half sister went to Auschwitz, and survived. So for me all those things are kind of big parts of growing up.”

PM: “Because I think of you as very Jewish. If someone said to me: ‘Is Zoë Heller Jewish?…’”

ZH: “…in the middle of the night with a torch in your face, you’d say: ‘Yes! Yes!’”

PM: “I’d say: ‘Yes. Take her! I would say: ‘Yeah, she’s basically Jewish.’ I know it’s heresy, but I’m for a religion in which you should be allowed to declare yourself as Jewish. It should be enough. My kids are the children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. Our religion should be so lucky to have my boys as Jews. And I feel the same for your daughters.”

(Heller tells how her daughter who goes to school in the Bahamas, opted out of evangelical Christian classes by saying she was Jewish. It was her choice.)

ZH: “I felt that we had done our job.”

PM: “I love that she has declared herself Jewish. But the Chief Rabbi would say she’s not Jewish. And I think that’s foul… ”

(The JC asks Heller if, while researching The Believers, she found herself being persuaded by Orthodox Judaism in the way her character Rosa is)

ZH: “In the book, Rosa wonders whether it may be her own literal-mindedness that is preventing her from understanding the poetic relationship between biblical language and the truth. I had a similar inkling sometimes — that there are such brainy, smart people who are Orthodox, maybe they’ve got some subtlety that I don’t. But I don’t think that for very long.”

The Believers is published by Fig Tree at £7.99

    Last updated: 10:35am, June 24 2009