Nora Ephron’s holy chutzpah

Breaking up is hard to do.

Just ask Nora Ephron, whose divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) in 1980, apparently scarred her for life.

First she poured the emotional energy of her grief into the novel “Heartburn”, an acerbic tale of Bernstein’s affair —while she was pregnant with their second son—which, three years later, she turned into a screenplay, and three years after that, a Hollywood movie starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. The ghosts of lost love, of a woman scorned, of a mother trying to make sense of an adult problem that hurt her kids, resurfaced in her 2006 bestseller “I Feel Bad About My Neck And Other Thoughts on Being A Woman”. And now, again, Ephron’s meditations on divorce, which she refers to as the relationship that “never ends” appear in her latest essay collection “I Remember Nothing.”

In “The D Word”, her most recent essay on divorce, Ephron writes:

The most important thing about me, for quite a long chunk of my life, was that I was divorced. Even after I was no longer divorced but remarried, this was true. I have now been married to my third husband for more than twenty years. But when you’ve had children with someone you’re divorced from, divorce defines every¬thing; it’s the lurking fact, a slice of anger in the pie of your brain.

But as a writer, the fact that Ephron became subsumed with grief and heartache was a very good thing. It drove her to the pen (or keyboard) and spawned a variety of works that catapulted a prolific writing career and eventual prominence in Hollywood.

In the New York Times Book Review, author Alex Kuczynski wryly wondered:

“Does Carl Bernstein lie awake at night wondering how the hell his ex-wife of so many years ago turned his marital indiscretion into a multimedia juggernaut spanning the decades?”

Perhaps; but what did he expect? It was quite simply the Jewish thing to do.

Ephron is a case in point for the Jewish imperative of turning pain into possibility (Nevermind that in her book, which focuses on aging, she writes that one of things she’ll miss when she dies is bacon; and what she won’t miss: “Bar Mitzvahs”). Ephron was raised in a Jewish home in Beverly Hills in which the family religion, as she describes it, was “get over it.” Which coheres with Judaism more than Ephron probably realizes; Jews aren’t allowed to wallow. Even mourning has its limits: 7 days of utter despair (no chairs, no grooming, no sex) followed by a month of mourning (no shaving, no music) and then a year in which life isn’t fully lived (no theater, no concerts, no parties).

Even while wandering through the desert, after a dramatic exodus from the horrors of slavery, God had little tolerance for a mob of complaining Jews. Moses had to intervene to catch them a break.

There is a time for everything, says Ecclesiastes, which includes a time for “getting over it.”

Ephron did just that by telling stories.

Jewish suffering, of course, is legendary. And like the consequences of Ephron’s divorce, it doesn’t end. Even as Israel faces myriad existential threats, suffering persists: Just last week, 8,000 acres of the Carmel Forest went up in flames, and many people died.

The rabbis teach that the point of suffering is not to proclaim the magnitude of your victimhood, but to respond to the suffering of others. Pain should lead to compassion – and purpose.

In one of her writings on Hanukkah, which Jews are currently celebrating, Rabbi Sharon Brous introduces a question asked by the ancient rabbi, Rava: ‘Did you engage in the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply?’ This is usually interpreted to mean the mitzvah of having children, because, let’s face it, no Jew thinks the world has enough Jews. But Rabbi Brous suggested something different. Making a mark on the world can be something well beyond expanding the gene pool.

“It doesn’t have to be the mark of a revolution, or even a social movement,” Brous wrote. “It could be a book. An idea. A piece of art. A song. A truly enduring love.”

Ephron responded to the pain in her life and the failure of her marriage with incredible chutzpah; who else could write a charming book smearing the man who brought down Nixon? And among other things in her long, brilliant career, she recently became the founder of the new divorce section on the Huffington Post, where she blogs regularly.

Hollywood, as a whole, operates much the same way. It is an industry founded in the wake of Jewish suffering, by Jews reluctant to embrace their Judaism, but who nonetheless had within them the will to dream. To imagine the world as it could be. Hollywood is no social movement. Whether it has, or even could, change the world is uncertain. Even irrelevant. What Hollywood does do is respond to the realness of life with audacious vision, with the daring to cull from the real—and imagine the ideal.

After all, in the darkness of a movie theater, anything is possible.