A funny thing happened to the young Jewish heroine of I Never Promised You A Rose Garden on the road to Hollywood. The current film of this classic novel about a schizophrenic teenager completely eliminated 16-year-old Deborah Blau’s Jewish identity. Somewhere en route to the silver screen, Jewish Deborah Blau became ethnically-neutered Deborah Blake.
In her powerful, semi-autobiographical novel, author Joanne Greenberg (alias Hannah Green) depicted anti-Semitism at the root of the young woman’s schizophrenia. In the novel, Deborah Blau, the lone Jew in an affluent Midwest neighborhood, was the target of vicious anti-Semitism at school and summer camp for years. By the time a camp counselor told her that “Hitler was getting rid of the garbage people,” Deborah had been called a dirty Jew enough to cherish the remark as fuel for the self-hatred at the core of her illness.
In the novel, the cruel gods of Deborah’s imaginary world echo that anti-Semitism, constantly reminding her that “You were never one of them, You are not of them. You are wholly different.” But the film robs these same refrains of their source. Neither sanitized-for-celluloid Deborah Blake—nor her family—are Jewish.
In a real “gentlemen’s agreement,” Hollywood erased the Jewish ethnicity so crucial to the novel. It thus deprived Jewish women—and the American movie audiences—of a valuable window into the Jewish experience. The anguish of Deborah Blau is but a heightened version of the cultural schizophrenia that haunts the lives of most Jewish women—and men—in America.
Rochelle Lefkowitz is a founder and editor of Sister Courage, a feminist news journal for the Boston area.