I was born in the former USSR, immigrating to San Francisco with my parents when I was seven. And although I spent the bulk of my growing up years in America, the fact was, having parents who were immigrants, speaking a different language at home, eating food no one had ever heard of (Cow tongue! Baked buttermilk! Congealed fat!), not eating food everyone else had actually heard of (Why would you ruin butter by adding peanuts to it?), wearing the same clothes every day of second grade (People who wore something different were clearly just showing off), and failing to understand the mysterious appeal of Barbie dolls more or less made certain that I would never be a part of the mainstream. That I would never be “normal.”
Thank goodness, then, for television! Television is where the normal people were, the real Americans. From television, I learned that real Americans had stairs in their homes with banisters for sliding (thank you, Brady Bunch!). Real Americans had fathers who went off to work “in the city,” and mothers who stayed home, and dogs, and rooms just to play in, and they rode their bikes everywhere and got braces and ran for Class President. Oh, and some of them were also witches living in suburbia.
When I got a little older, my ideal American family went from the Bradys and the Partridges to the Ewings and the Carringtons and the Channings and the entire daytime line-ups of ABC, CBS and NBC. I was going to be a real American. I was going to live on a soap opera. And failing that, then I’d settle for the next best thing – writing a soap opera.
I did it, too. After stints at E! Entertainment and ABC Daytime, I landed at Procter & Gamble Productions and their two classic daytime dramas, “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light.” I produced the shows’ official websites and authored their tie-in novels, “Oakdale Confidential,” “The Man From Oakdale,” “Jonathan’s Story,” and an online property called “Another World Today.” I was finally where I’d always wanted to be – writing about the tortured, soapy lives of real Americans.
Except I didn’t know a thing about it. Or them.
All of the P&G stories took place in small Midwestern towns in Illinois. I’d never even been to Chicago, much less anyplace as homogenous and wholesome and Christian and White as Springfield or Oakdale or Bay City.
I was writing about people I didn’t know doing things I’d never done for reasons I couldn’t quite understand.
So I did what any writer does. I made stuff up. I wrote about minister-presided weddings and baptisms and family Christmases and community-wide Thanksgiving celebrations.
Sure, we celebrated Thanksgiving at my house growing up. Only we served potato, egg and beet salad. And smoked salmon with onions and olives. Not exactly the makings of a standard American “turkey day”.
The only Christmases I knew were from television (remember when all the shows used to have holiday specials? Wasn’t that awesome?). Same with the only weddings that didn’t feature the bride and groom being lifted up on chairs, and buffet tables overloaded with cow tongue. And smoked salmon with onions and olives. And vodka.
So I did what every aspiring author is instructed to do. I wrote what I knew – from television.
It wasn’t until years later that I read Neal Gabler’s book, “How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” and his assertion that it was the original studio heads – all immigrants, mostly Jews – who created and idealized small-town America to the point where even “real Americans” began to believe that the fantasy up on the screen was their actual heritage. That shows like “The Adventures of Andy Hardy” were a hair’s breadth away from being documentaries…and not the fanciful creation of men born elsewhere, longing for a perfect world at odds with the hell they’d narrowly escaped from.
I really related to those guys. Just like they broke away from Cossacks and Nazis to bring forth a kinder, gentler Main Street, USA, so did I voluntarily lose myself in the small-screen intimacy of families that didn’t have a long list of relatives “killed in this pogrom,” “massacred at Babi Yar,” or “disappeared after a midnight knock on the door.”
And, just like the original Hollywood Jews, I made my contribution to the national narrative with my books and other tie-in writing.
By living inside their skins, even for a little bit, I became a real American.
Even if I still don’t know a thing about it.
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