The sex and me monologues

How do you discuss virginity with a class of American university students without the conversation sounding irrelevant to their lives or, worse, an exercise in exoticizing another culture?

Women, sex and culture can be a Bermuda Triangle that threatens to demolish discussion through either defensiveness — when students feel compelled to defend a cultural practice — or superiority — when students feel compelled to parade their culture as being above whatever cultural challenges are being discussed.

The personal is not only political, but it demolishes that Bermuda Triangle. I got a powerful reminder about that in September when I taught a course on gender and new media in the Middle East, in Oklahoma. We had watched the Lebanese film “Caramel,” directed by and starring Nadine Labaki, as the owner of a Beirut hair salon whose friends and co-workers portray a cross-section of Lebanese female experience.

One friend undergoes hymen reconstruction just before her wedding to a man she fears will reject her if he finds out she isn’t a virgin. Students didn’t miss a beat.

“Have you heard of purity balls?” asked one young woman, referring to formal dances in the United States between fathers and daughters at which teenage girls pledge to remain virgins until marriage.

Yes, I thought! It was an especially sharp class. Most of them were majoring in women’s and gender studies. They were comfortable with the personal and with making those connections. I had, indeed, heard of purity balls through news articles, but they seemed to be as foreign to me and to the class as hymen reconstruction.

Until the personal shook us out of our complacency. “I just want everyone to know that I signed a purity pledge with my father,” one of the students said.

I could not have engineered it better myself. Her courage in sharing reminded us all that virginity wasn’t just over there, in Lebanon. It was right in class with us. Oklahoma kept doing that to me. I joke that going there was like going to the Middle East: a similar mix of religion and conservative politics. (Oklahoma is the only state in which every county was red after the 2008 presidential election.)

Some of the other students tiptoed toward questions for the student who had shared her purity pledge experience. We were all adjusting.

“I respect that you think you’ve made a free choice,” one student told her. “But [U.S. playwright] Eve Ensler said that when you sign a pledge to your father, your sexuality is being taken away from you until you sign it to your husband when you get married.”

Teaching is like alchemy: You take a few students, mix them with some difficult subjects, and you are bound to be stunned by the results.

I make my classes as personal as possible. I offer my experiences to keep a face on the issue we’re talking about, and so the least I could do to appreciate the generous sharing we had all witnessed — and to express solidarity with a conservative position I once shared — was to tell the class how long I had waited to have sex. There were no purity pledges in my past. But there was a time when I, too, believed I should wait till I got married before I had sex — but then it took forever to get married, and I got fed up waiting.

When I was younger, I had no one to share that with. The guilt was exacerbated by secrecy, and for a long time I could talk about sex only with non-Muslim women friends.

But I’ve become bolder. It’s not always reciprocated or appreciated. At one Muslim women’s conference, after I shared how difficult it had been to overcome the guilt of premarital sex, another Muslim woman bluntly told me that the Koran clearly stated that “fornicators were for fornicators,” so there was a “fornicator” out there for me somewhere.


Undeterred, sometimes driven by an insatiable need to share — share and shed the guilt — my skin has thickened. It was made more resilient in Oklahoma — so familiar that some evenings, alone in my hotel room, weeping was the only way to let go of memories, some as far back as 20 years, but still close to the bone.

Oklahoma prepared me well for Amsterdam. Differences in moral ethos aside, my reward for all that sharing with my students was a group of Dutch Muslim women of Moroccan descent with whom I could talk honestly about sex — safely and without any self-righteous references to “fornicators.”

“When I first had sex, it was as if my mother, my father, my grandparents, the entire neighborhood, God and all the angels were there watching,” one of them said. The rest of us convulsed with laughter and all-too-familiar memories.

Male-dominated religions and cultures that cater to male sexuality, with barely a nod to women’s desires, are difficult enough without the judgments of fellow women. I know where it comes from; I recognize its need to conform. And, like our virginity discussion, the best way to defang the self-righteousness is with the personal.

Women’s stories are too often dismissed. A male editor I once worked with tried to dissuade me from the personal: “Who cares about what happened to you?”

The most subversive thing a woman can do is talk about her life as if it really mattered.

It does.

This essay originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues.

Rivers Makes Waves

To prove she could still tawk Joan Rivers created "Broke and Alone in L.A."

"I wanted to see if people who didn’t know me would think I was funny," said the comedian, who premiered the monologue two years ago at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival.

At the time, Rivers was alone, but not broke, after splitting with her multimillionaire boyfriend.

"I didn’t want to sit around and mope, and the show got me off my tush," she said.

In "Broke," the caustic Rivers’ lambasts others who won’t get off their own tushes. She skewers Princess Di and Anne Frank as examples of "The great whiners in history." She trashes Monica Lewinsky: "If I’d known that by giving oral sex to the president you could get your own handbag company, I’d have had a different life," she said. She even jokes about her extensive plastic surgery (her grandson calls her "Nana Newface").

These days, E! fashion guru Rivers isn’t broke or alone, but she’s been there, she said. When the former Joan Molinsky announced she wanted to be an actress, her Jewish doctor father promptly cut her off. She tried standup because it paid $8 a gig; eventually Rivers served as permanent guest host on "The Tonight Show" before bolting to her own Fox program, earning Johnny Carson’s wrath.

But in 1987, the show was canceled; Rivers’ estranged husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide; and her daughter, Melissa, refused to speak to her for two years. Meanwhile, a business setback placed Rivers in debt: "I had to sell everything to stave off becoming bankrupt," she told the Mirror.

Rivers immediately began discussing Edgar’s death in her act, "so people would just relax about it," she said. In "Broke," she still jokes about scattering his ashes at Neiman-Marcus "because he said he wanted me to visit him every day."

At 70, however, Rivers’ approach has changed a bit.

"I used to say, ‘Can we talk?,’" she said. "Now it’s ‘Am I wrong?’"

The show runs Nov. 11-15 at the Canon Theatre, Beverly Hills, (310) 859-2830.

Meyer: Hero or Anti-Hero?

“A Jewish friend of mine loves ‘The Sopranos,'” Italian American actor Joe Bologna said with a groan. “I told him, ‘How’d you like to see a show called “The Goldsteins” about white-collar criminals and the biggest shyster is Izzy Goldstein?”

Bologna isn’t about to play Izzy, but he is the co-author and star of a monologue he said breaks ethnic and gangster stereotypes. In “Meyer,” he portrays Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky — previously depicted in films such as “Bugsy” (1991) — as both a ruthless thug and a pathetic alter-kacker. At the beginning of the play, the character sips Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda and kvetches about Israel denying him citizenship under the Law of Return.

While Bologna usually eschews mobster roles, he was receptive when Richard Krevolin asked him to co-author “Meyer” in the 1990s. The 38-year-old Jewish author (“King Levine”) told Bologna he’d interviewed Las Vegas hoteliers who’d described Lansky as “ice-cold” and others who remember him passing out candy while walking his Shih Tzu. He said his fascination with the gangster began when a con-man bilked his Connecticut neighbors by posing as Lansky’s nephew around 1980. “This guy played into the Jewish reverence for the tough Jew,” Krevolin said. “So I began wondering, was Lansky an American Jewish hero or was he an anti-hero?”

Audience members were so divided on the issue that they screamed at each other after “Meyer’s” debut in San Diego several years ago. But Bologna — best known for writing and performing comic plays with his wife, actress Renee Taylor — sees the mobster as poignant. Lansky’s persona reminds the actor of his gruff father, who also grew up in a cold-water tenement but chose the family shoeshine business over the mob. “Lansky decided not to ‘carry a lunch pail’ and ultimately paid the price,” said Bologna, 67. “And that’s tragic. It’s Shakespearean.”

Like He Never Left

The ghost of Lenny Bruce still haunts North Hollywood.

Just around the corner from the Lankershim Boulevard hobby shop where Bruce was busted for heroin in 1962, "Lenny’s Back" at the American Renegade Theatre offers a thoughtful, stinging monologue from the grave.

The hobby shop, long gone, is now an upscale pizza place. Lenny Bruce, (nee Schneider) may be 35 years dead, but he’s neither gone, nor gentrified. The Lenny we meet on stage is still talking dirty and influencing people. Sitting beside his grave in Eden Memorial Park Cemetery, actor Barry Pearl inhabits the role of the junkie provocateur, mellowed by eternity but not quite finished with us yet.

"You know what pisses me off? I’m the hippest guy in the world and they bury me in the [expletive] San Fernando Valley."

Yes, this is Bruce the "sick comic" — but it’s also the Jewish boy who loves his mother; the heroin addict who grieves for the daughter he left fatherless; the lover of words and husband of a stripper; the frequently jailed First Amendment advocate; and the lawyer with a fool for a client. Pearl’s Bruce stalks the stage, pacing and smoking and funny, but just as natural while sitting alone at his own grave, quiet and sad.

Bruce was not the first famous Jewish comic, but he was one of the first ones to push the envelope in his choice of topics and language, with choice Yiddishims that cannot be printed in a family newspaper. (He often got arrested for obscenities in both Yiddish and English.)

"I was a very positive guy. That comes from being Jewish. Because when you’re Jewish, no matter how bad it is, there’s always someone around to say ‘It could be worse.’"

Barred from using Bruce’s actual material (an entrepreneur bought the rights within a week of the comic’s 1966 heroin overdose), playwrights Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein gave Bruce his convincing voice through a year of research and interviews with acquaintances. Bobrick’s long television and theater career has included writing for "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Get Smart" and the plays "Murder at The Howard Johnson’s" and "Remember Me?" Stein, a former stand-up comic herself, has also worked as a researcher for documentaries.

Recently married, Bobrick and Stein’s previous work together includes the parody book "Sheldon and Mrs. Levine," which they have also turned into the play "Dear Sheldon." A workshop version of "Lenny’s Back," their first one-person show, opened in 1999 at New York’s Studio 54.

With some help from Daniel Saks’ intimate set design featuring sad-looking sculpted mannequins as fellow dead people, Barry Pearl’s natural performance makes even some of Bruce’s outdated language — "It’s crazy, man, dig?" — feel new. Under Bobrick’s direction, Pearl overcomes the potential awkwardness of the show’s from-the-grave conceit, with an easy charm and energy.

The extensive research and personal interviews that went into the writing shine most effectively in the show’s reminiscences about Bruce’s mother, burlesque performer Sally Marr. Before her 1997 death, Bobrick and Stein found Marr eager to share memories of her little boy who would grow up to shock the world. Together, Bobrick, Stein and Pearl humanize an icon without flinching from the often-pathetic truth about their subject.

At the American Renegade Theatre, the American renegade comic gets to speak from the grave to prove he wasn’t so obscene, just ahead of his time. "What I wouldn’t give to be alive today. You can talk about [sex] on the 6 o’clock news, and no one gets arrested."

If you think you’ve seen all this before in the "Lenny" biopic with Dustin Hoffman, "Lenny’s Back" has a few words of complaint about that, too.

"Why couldn’t they give it a happy ending? Why’d I have to die at the end?"

You didn’t have to Lenny, but you did. Now we all have Bobrick, Stein and Pearl to thank for bringing you back.

"Lenny’s Back" produced by Theatre of Will at the American Renegade Theatre, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m. through Nov. 10. $15. For tickets, call (818) 763-1834.

Going Underground

The whole time Stacie Chaiken was growing up, nobody discussed her great-grandfather, Louie.”My Grandpa Irving refused to speak about his father. Ever,” says Chaiken, whose monologue, “Looking for Louie,” is premiering at Pacific Resident Theatre.

Louie was just one secret in a family of secrets. Growing up on a Catholic block in Covina, Chaiken hungered to learn about her Jewish immigrant roots. But no one was talking. “Fancy houses. Fancy places. That’s all I knew. That’s all they wanted me to know,” she says. There was nothing about the New York tenements. Nothing about Uncle Al, the gangster. Nothing about Louie.”Immigration is the perfect opportunity to re-create yourself, but what is lost is a tremendous richness,” Chaiken says.

So she went looking for Louie. At 20, she appalled Grandpa Irving by moving to East First Street on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood he had worked so hard to escape. She donned a pair of 1920s alligator shoes and walked her great-grandfather’s old streets.

But eventually, the family shame about Louie caught up with her. “I’m a dark soul with a sordid past I don’t even know,” she says in the play.

Perhaps that explains why Chaiken converted to Catholicism when she married another Jewish convert. She was wed in “a big Catholic church wedding with all Jews,” not all of them pleased, she notes. Every time the priest intoned, “Please stand,” her aunt hissed at all the relatives to sit.

Chaiken, the self-professed “uber-Christian,” befriended cloistered nuns. She wore Brooks Brothers outfits. But ultimately, Louie called to her. “You can’t go underground that deeply and live fully who you are,” she explains.

“Looking for Louie” began a couple of years after Chaiken’s divorce, when she decided to write a play about the past that her family devalued.

She pestered relatives for information and pored through records at the Immigration Building in lower Manhattan, where she found Louie’s old address at 61 Norfolk Street. She discovered a housing project where the tenement had been but imagined her great-grandfather davening at the decrepit old Orthodox shul across the street.

Six weeks before a workshop of “Louie” was to open in New York, Chaiken suddenly heard from her grandfather. Bring a video camera, he said. Grandpa wanted to talk.

Over five days in August 1997, 91-year-old Irving broke his lifelong silence and divulged Louie’s secret; the revelation was healing for both grandfather and granddaughter. “It was the release of the shame that had come down through the generations,” she says. “Now we can embrace who we are.”

“Looking for Louie” is at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice through Sept. 10. For information, call (310) 822-8392.

Another assimilation saga is “Everett Beekin,” by Pulitzer Prize finalist Richard Greenberg, which follows the process of assimilation of a Jewish family from a tenement apartment on the Lower East Side circa 1946 to Orange County in the late 1990s. The idea for the comedy-drama came to Greenberg as he was ruminating about his own Jewish childhood amid the malls and split-level homes of Long Island, where life was “assimilation as cliché,” he says. At South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa Sept. 1-Oct. 8. For information, call (714) 708-5555.

Other Jewish-themed plays in L.A. include:

Deborah Pearl’s acclaimed solo cabaret show, “Chick Singers,” in which we meet an octet of chanteuses, including an over-the-hill diva, a French blues singer, and a Jewish woman who changes her name to make it in country-western music (she ends up becoming a cantor). At the Cinegrill through Aug. 28, (323) 466-7000.

“Emma & Teddy” by Lonny Chapman, a fictional encounter between the anarchist Emma Goldman and then-vice president Theodore Roosevelt. Opens Aug. 25 at NoHo Arts District in North Hollywood, (818) 769-PLAY.

“Taking Sides,” Ronald Harwood’s powerful play about the controversial Nazi-era conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, has just been extended through Oct. 10 at the Odyssey Theatre, (310) 477-2055.

Those who missed David Hare’s “Via Dolorosa” on Broadway can catch the one-man show on KCET Aug. 30 at 9:30 p.m. The simply staged piece is drawn from the playwright’s experiences and interviews with Jews and Palestinians during his first trip to the Middle East in 1997.

A Jew from Nogales

Fred Rochlin can’t understand all the fuss over his monologue, “Old Man in a Baseball Cap,” about his adventures during World War II.

“I’m not an actor,” he insists. “I’m an old guy.”

Never mind Rochlin’s invitation to the renowned Louisville arts festival; his residency at the prestigious MacDowall writer’s colony in New Hampshire; his rave review in the New York Times; the lucrative book deal (“Old Man in a Baseball Cap,” Harper Collins, $20, due in bookstores this month).

“His success came with a rapidity that made all my struggling actor friends heartsick,” Rochlin’s journalist daughter, Margy, said in her public radio piece on “The Artist Formerly Known as Dad.”

Rochlin’s response: “I don’t suffer from overconfidence. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”

If the 76-year-old retired architect is modest, his reviews have been anything but. The New York Times said his show has “the elements of an epic: love and death, honor and betrayal, vengefulness and martyrdom … war as seen through the eyes of an innocent.” His admittedly exaggerated stories are haunting, blunt, blackly funny and in Rochlin’s words, “pretty raunchy.”

When the unassuming senior citizen ambles onstage wearing rumpled khaki pants and a baseball cap, he introduces himself as a Jew from Nogales, Ariz., a border town. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he grew up speaking Spanish, English and Yiddish, and eating tamales along with the blintzes. Rochlin “got very patriotic” after Pearl Harbor, when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps because he was flunking out of the University of Arizona. He became a navigator because, as his drill sergeant explained, “You Hebes are good with numbers, and all a navigator is, is just a fu–in’ flying accountant.”

During Rochlin’s first mission, his friend’s head is blown off and he is covered with the man’s blood, skin and bone. Later, he helps to deliver a baby hours before his unit annihilates a tiny Hungarian town that turns out to be the wrong target. The little village is “gone, finished, finito, a hole in the ground, a pile of Hungarian dust,” Rochlin recalls.

In another adventure, the navigator is shot down over Yugoslavia and walks 400 kilometers back to Italy while suffering from a fractured jaw and cracked ribs. During the month-long journey, Rochlin and his guide, a partisan named Maruska, booze and bicker and nearly die after drinking poisoned creek water. Covered in vomit and diarrhea, they take turns cleaning each other. In a remote village, the “Americanski” is forced to shoot three German teen-agers who are chained like dogs under a shack. “I pulled the trigger and the gun went burp and I sawed those three boys in half,” Rochlin says. “I was half numb. I saw one boy look at me and he cried, ‘Mutter.’ ”

Some hours later, Rochlin makes love for the first time to Maruska, who has insisted that she does not want to die a virgin. The next day, he contracts crabs and gonorrhea.

Since the war, Rochlin has led a relatively quiet and privileged life. He attended Berkeley on a veteran’s scholarship in the late 1940s, then moved to Los Angeles and founded an architectural firm, Rochlin & Baran, which designed St. John’s Hospital and other prominent health care facilities around town. With his novelist wife, Harriet, he traveled the American West and co-authored a ground-breaking book, “Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West.”

But he never forgot the war.

“I shave every morning, and I look in the mirror,” he told The Journal. “I remember that in my crew of 10 guys, only two survived. And I wonder, ‘Why me?’ “

For years, Rochlin wrote his experiences down on scraps of paper that he stashed in a drawer. He didn’t speak much about the past until 1993, when on a whim he took an Esalen seminar by the famed monologuist Spalding Gray. The septuagenarian, who had felt “a bit lost” since retiring in 1987, recited a few tales from the drawer stash and found his new calling. Fred Rochlin, the retired architect and grandfather, became Fred Rochlin, the performance artist.

The “square” senior citizen began attending “how-to” classes with tattooed and tongue-pierced artistes less than half his age. Margy Rochlin thinks her dad liked the age difference: “It made him exotic,” she said in her radio piece.

But Laurie Lathem, Rochlin’s teacher at Highways, wasn’t initially impressed with the elderly beginner. “I was pretty skeptical,” she told the New York Times. “And then he started reading these stories he had written. And it was one of those moments that everyone in the room knew it was going to go on beyond these walls. He didn’t know that anyone would ever care about this stuff. A lot of my job has been convincing him that people really respond to this.”

Lathem scheduled group shows to lure the reluctant senior onstage; before long, Rochlin was one of four artists selected from 200 applicants to perform at the renowned Flying Solo Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Patrons argued over the few remaining tickets to his sold-out shows. More sold-out performances ensued at prestigious theaters in La Jolla, Calif., New York and Sacramento, Calif.

After a New York Times feature story on Rochlin last year, producers and screenwriters descended on the senior citizen. Rochlin secured a high-powered New York literary agent and talked with Hollywood insiders about a film deal.

Rochlin, perhaps the oldest novice monologuist in the world, remains “dazzled” by his success. “It’s just a huge adventure,” he says. Of why Rochlin is motivated to reveal his most painful memories to strangers, he says, “I’m very aware that this is the last decade of my life. And there is a kind of summing up, a need for closure.”

But writing the show hasn’t exorcised his wartime demons. “I have a stain on my brain,” he says. “I spent years trying to get over the war, but now I know I will never get over it.” “Old Man in a Baseball Cap,” Sept. 9, 7 p.m. at the L.A. Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St. Tickets may be available at the door on a standby basis. Information: (213) 228-7025.

Great Exploitations

“I went into therapy because I needed to resolve a horrible conflict,” Martin Lewis reveals in his delightfully cheeky one-man show, “Great Exploitations! An Audience With Martin Lewis.” “I happen to be obviously British, but also Jewish.”

Lewis, who believes he’s “the only British-Jewish humorist in the 323 area code,” has provided satiric political commentary for MSNBC and “Politically Incorrect.” He has been playfully slapped by Sharon Stone while covering the Oscars for ABC and E! and has produced records and movies with Monty Python, plus TV specials on the Beatles and Princess Di. He has created and hosted nine film festivals for the American Cinematique, the latest of which, “Mods and Rockers: Groovy Movies from the Shag-a-delic Sixties!” opens next week and features his one-man show. In his monologue, Lewis reveals that during the ’60s and beyond, he “never even took a puff of a joint. Emes.”

Rather, he rebelled against the Jews in bowler hats who tried to “pass” as upper-crust Anglo-Saxons at his childhood synagogue. From the age of 5, he stubbornly refused to drink tea. He later cut up his mother’s cookbooks and flashed pictures of food at shul on Yom Kippur.

His parents warned him “Don’t stand out, don’t show off; people will know you’re Jewish.” Lewis didn’t listen. When his snooty Latin teacher proved anti-Semitic, he arranged for the man’s obit to run in The Times of London. The teenager was promtply expelled from his exclusive prep school; more innocuous childish pranks set off a series of Kafkaesque events that landed him in a psychiatric clinic for a short period. By the age of 19, however, Lewis had grown up and had secured a writing job with the famed former Beatles publicist, Derek Taylor.

The naughty commercial Lewis created for “The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball,” a 1982 film starring Monty Python, was censored from practically every TV station in America, he gleefully reports. In the spot, Python’s Graham Chapman says he is from the “Oral Majority” and calls for the film to be banned before “It turns us into a nation of perverts.” Chapman then stands up and reveals he is wearing black fishnet stockings and a pink tutu. “I was very insistant on it being pink,” Lewis says. &’009;

After the spot aired on “Saturday Night Live,” Lewis decided to move to America, where he finally felt at home as a Jew. “I felt,” he confides, “as if I had arrived in the shtetl.”

The “Don’t show off” Jewish mandate kept the Brit off camera and offstage for another decade, however. The repressed performer emerged with the help of psychotherapy, and Lewis tentatively ventured into humorous TV work, offering junk food to skeletal supermodels, for example, or querying Anthony Banderas about whether he felt sexy. Lewis became the “Di Guy” for CNBC, E! and other stations, thanks to his unique qualifications. “I had a British accent,” he quips.

In his one-man show, Lewis reveals that “Half of me is a stunningly incompetent Sherlock Holmes, consistently failing to solve the mysteries of life, career and romance. The other half is a gloriously bitchy Dr. Watson, gleefully chronicling all my failures. It’s very economic. I’m my own Boswell.”

“Great Exploitations!” shows June 26 and July 3, 9 p.m., at the Steven Spielberg Theatre at the Egyptian Theatre. Tickets are $10. For information, call (323) 654-4244 or check out Lewis’ website at