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A Jewish Beauty’s Journey, in Fiction

Yona Zeldis McDonough: Let’s talk about your protagonist, Maxie Dash – her Jewish background and her upbringing out west.

Susan Dworkin: At first glance, Maxie appears to be totally lost to the Jewish people. Her identity is her career as a professional beauty, actress, model, lifelong object.  But for the first eight years of her life, she was a little Jewish girl from Brooklyn, singing the Zionist kid songs of the 30s, like “Sons of pork and gravy, Join the Yiddish navy…” When tragedy takes that life away from her, she goes to live with her Aunt Gladdy, a socialist revolutionary who teaches Native American kids out in the Arizona desert. Aunt Gladdy too seems lost to the Jews. But scratch the surface and you find the deeper truth: Gladdy’s social revolution is exactly that of the agrarian Labor Zionism that inspired so many of us all during the founding of Israel. Essentially Maxie is getting her Jewish education from a woman who is a kibbutznik-in-training. We’ve got to learn to live now in great farming clans like our ancestors did, Aunt Gladdy says. To work in the fields and make the desert bloom – that’s how you become a free person. She sets up a training farm, just like the ones in New Jersey and Glasgow that prepared so many of my generation to work on kibbutz. At the harvest she throws a First Fruits party, a secular Bikurim. And even though Gladdy’s instruction ends with more trouble when Maxie is 13, the memory of that ideology catches up with her and redeems her when she needs it most.

I cherish a wonderful insight from my hero writer, Cynthia Ozick: “What we remember from childhood,” she says, “we remember forever – permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen.” So it is with Maxie Dash. The last time we see her Red Aunt Gladdy, she is on her way to pick peaches under the guns of the Syrians. It is her agrarian socialist Zionist ethic that eventually makes Maxie into the garden lady. 

YZM: Can you talk about your time at Ms. Magazine?

SD: It was a wonderful time! About 10 years from 1976 to 1986. The magazine was run by Suzanne Braun Levine, a sensational editor who kept this whole unruly gang of creative people in hand and on deadline and knew how to assign just the right story to just the right writer. Gloria Steinem filled our messy offices with her wit and her strength-giving calm despite every setback. We were united by a common passion to create a new justice for women. Many of us signed our letters “Yours in sisterhood.” If we had differences we really tried to bury them for the sake of the movement. Today it seems those differences are coddled and protected like spoiled children, which is just what those who would divide us desire.

I was a Contributing Editor with a “Culture” portfolio. Plays. Movies. Books and  TV. We looked to feature talented women, to give them the exposure they might otherwise never have had. I interviewed Stella Adler, who taught her students that to be a successful actor, you should first try learning how to read a play. I interviewed Jane Alexander, one of the most wonderful and undersung actresses of our era, and the set designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, a world creator who has now become a well known science fiction writer. In a teensy nightclub way downtown, my colleague Susan McHenry and I found a very young Whoopi Goldberg, already attracting her signature audience of racially mixed couples.

YZM: Any other interviews of note?

Suzanne, our editor, asked me to interview this up-and-coming actress named Meryl Streep. It was 1978. She had just finished The Deer Hunter and had come to national prominence in a TV series called Holocaust. I remember her saying how unprepared she and the rest of the cast had been for the project, how they had never learned about it in school, how struck they were by the hideous facts they found on location in Austria. There were some members of the cast, she recalled, who felt so overwhelmed that they simply stayed pretty much drunk the whole time.

The brilliant, radical critic of pornography, Andrea Dworkin also occasionally wrote for the magazine. We were not related but unfortunately a Michigan bookstore got us confused. When I showed up in Ann Arbor, ready with my little speech, my hosts reacted with dismay. “Oh, we didn’t mean you,” they said. “You’re the light one.” I took it as a great compliment, to be “the light one” at Ms.

YZM: You divide your time pretty equally between fiction and non-fiction. Thoughts about the two genres and what they allow you as a writer?

SD: Wow, that’s complicated. Writing non-fiction requires you to study the subject so deeply that you see beyond the story you were hired to write, into the inner story that was supposed to be just background if it was told at all.

Take the story of how Bess Myerson became Miss America in 1945. Plotting promoters.  Mendacious contestants. Smile, smile and some more.  But I was haunted by the story of one Atlantic City hotel that had been transformed into a hospital for terribly wounded veterans. A revolution in prosthetics. Hand-controlled cars. And the cruel madness of young girls in their swimsuits forced to parade before these destroyed men as though that were a patriotic duty which would make everybody feel better.

Take the story of Edith Hahn Beer, The Nazi Officer’s Wife. She survived the Holocaust by masquerading as an Aryan Christian and marrying a Nazi officer who knew her true identity and kept her safe.  She was saved basically because of five decent people. Five. I counted them. And I was haunted, on every page, by one mind-numbing possibility. If every Jew had been helped by five decent people, maybe there would have been no Holocaust.

Those inner stories, just incidentally emerging while writing non-fiction, eventually slither into my fictional work. They are like my husband’s air courier company. Like the kibbutz training farm in New Jersey. Inspiration for novels. Sometimes even plays.

YZM: What’s your next project?

SD: Plays. I had a teacher once who said that despite the inroads of TV and other entertainment technology, we should never despair that the theatre would die out. Because when the political situation gets bad enough, he said, the theatre always returns.