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Happy Birthday, Judy!

Judy Blume turns 70 next week, and The Guardian profiles the author for the occasion. “I’d imagined her as a busty Jewish mamma, dishing out advice in gigantic, homely portions,” writes Melissa Whitworth. “But in person she’s delicate and small, with the body of a ballet dancer. She’s wearing a loose-fitting turquoise shirt and black capri pants. Her hair is in a short, girlish bob. With her high cheekbones and wide, easy smile she could be mistaken for Jessica Lange.”

When I was a kid, I had some interesting ideas about what some of my favorite authors looked like. But I never had any illusions about Judy Blume. On the back of my 1981 edition of Tiger Eyes (a hand-me-down from a favorite babysitter) was a black and white photo of the beaming author, with what I assume is the Sante Fe desert to her back. The portrait was sort of an odd juxtaposition with the painting on the book’s cover, which featured a sallow-cheeked girl, looking seriously haunted.

I read that amazing, unsettling book about a thousand times. Actually, I don’t think I read any of Judy Blume’s books just once. I studied the tense friendships in Just As Long As We’re Together until the yellow paperback fell apart. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, with its paranoia and Holocaust ghosts, spooked me deliciously. I read and re-read Deenie and Iggy’s House under my covers with a flashlight. Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret may be considered Blume’s ultimate classic, but it didn’t have the same impact on me as the others. It featured characters memorably chanting, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust,” which sure resonated with me as a kid, but all the stuff about menstruation didn’t shock me as much as it might have. By that point I’d already learned about periods from some other novel that I was too young to really understand.

I pored over the famous sex scenes in Forever; spent tent cents on a copy of Wifey, one of Blume’s “adult” novels, at a garage sale, but never got around to reading it: my well-meaning mother thought it was a little too advanced for a ten-year-old. I was lucky that there were plenty of other steamily intriguing paperbacks in the swivel rack at our local library. Thanks to Norma Klein, there were books even more unabashed in their sexuality than Blume’s, with titles like Beginner’s Love, Love Is One of the Choices and It’s Okay If You Don’t Love Me. I didn’t know at the time that Klein had died in 1989 at the age of 50, after a brief and somewhat mysterious illness. And I’m not sure how conscious I was that both of these masters of Young Adult fiction were Jewish.

Blume is maybe best known — and people are most grateful to her for — her frank talk about sex, which many of us read before we knew quite what we were reading. In that spirit, Rachel Kramer Bussell recently interviewed Rachel Shukert, whose memoir Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories comes out in April. They talk about a piece Shukert wrote for Heeb about Jewish women and blowjobs, which can now be found in Best Sex Writing 2008, edited by the ever-prolific Bussell. Shukert reflects, “I don’t necessarily subscribe to the theory that if you eat like a pig, that must mean you’re great in bed, but I think there’s some kind of link. I think it’s appetite, and more than that, it’s a kind self-determination that Jewish women have, which I think we actually acquired from never being part of high society, from never really being seen by men as these kind of dainty flowers.” The whole thing is worth a read.
–Eryn Loeb