Neil Simon’s gift to American Jews

Neil Simon’s gift to American Jews

He reminded us of what it was like to be Jewish in the 20th century

Neil Simon, at left, on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” June 26, 1980. Getty Images Paul Hawthorne
Neil Simon, at left, on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” June 26, 1980. Getty Images Paul Hawthorne

Neil Simon and I never met. But he played an extremely important role in my life nonetheless. The writer, who died last Saturday at 91, penned so many plays, which were produced so frequently, that there was always one playing somewhere in the world. Perhaps because he was so prolific, and I saw so many of his plays, some of the most important moments of my life occurred in connection with productions of his work.

One such moment happened not in the course of a Simon play, but during the intermission. I had bought a pair of tickets to a Saturday night preview of “Proposals” and asked the press agent if I could go up on the stage during the intermission and ask my girlfriend to marry me. “Are you crazy?” was the response. “Neil Simon doesn’t allow any stunts like that.” Upon arriving at the theater, I looked around for another platform and found one — the bar at the rear of the orchestra.

When the curtain came down on the first act, I led my date to the bar and, to her amazement, went around the back, where I climbed on top of the bar and went down on one knee (having previously enlisted the bartender in my scheme), held out a glass of champagne, and asked her to marry me. She said yes — our 20th anniversary is coming up in a few months — but no one else paid attention; they were all too busy buying their own drinks or heading to the bathroom.

Marvin Neil Simon, by contrast, commanded a great deal of attention, especially from the middle-class Jews who formed a large segment of his Broadway audience. Born on the Fourth of July in 1927, the “Patron Saint of Laughter,” as Time magazine dubbed him, was the most bankable American-Jewish playwright; in 1966 he had four plays running on Broadway simultaneously. His comedies were catnip to second- and third-generation American Jews who craved acceptance by a majority Christian culture that alternately reviled and grudgingly admired them. Yet he rarely talked publicly about being Jewish, other than once telling an interviewer, Jackson Bryer, that his Jewishness is “so deeply embedded in me and so inherent in me that I am unaware of its quality.”

Simon’s comedy stemmed to a large extent from great pain; his father, Irving, was a garment salesman who periodically abandoned the family during the Great Depression, leaving Simon and his brother, Danny, to be raised by their mother, Mamie. The family had to take in boarders in order to make ends meet; Simon was terribly disturbed by seeing a parade of strangers sitting in his father’s seat at the dinner table. The two boys gravitated to writing for stand-up comedians and for radio performers. After World War II, in which Simon served stateside, the pair began supplying scripts to iconic television variety shows like “Your Show of Shows” (starring Sid Caesar, who died in 2014, also at the age of 91) — the program’s group of writers included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Joseph Stein.

25 years later telling stories during a memorial tribute to Cy Coleman at the Majestic Theatre in New York City.
Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.

But it was when Simon turned to solo playwriting in the early 1960s, beginning with “Come Blow Your Horn,” “Barefoot in the Park,” and “The Odd Couple,” that he truly found his métier. Simon’s early plays, along with the film versions that were made of them, brought the everyday conflicts of Jewish family life to the fore in American comedy, even as his characters’ Jewishness was typically subterranean. By the 1970s, his work took a more serious turn, with plays like “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” and “The Sunshine Boys,” in which characters suffer serious crises — Simon was coping during this period with the terminal illness of his wife, Joan Baim. (He later married four more times.)

It was in the 1980s that Simon finally explored Jewish themes head on, and that his richest and most resonant work was produced. Simon’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues,” and “Broadway Bound,” featured Jewish characters struggling with their Jewish identity and sense of marginalization in America. As a teenager watching Matthew Broderick in his Broadway debut in “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” playing Simon’s wide-eyed, 14-year-old alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome (“How am I ever going to play for the Yankees with a name like that?” the character wonders mournfully), I felt the kind of validation that members of my grandparents’ generation felt seeing themselves represented on the stage in the Depression-era plays of Clifford Odets. My interest in Jewish theater, and in American-Jewish drama in particular, was kindled.

Yet it was in the third installment of the trilogy, “Broadway Bound,” that Simon broke through to an unprecedented level of emotional truth. It is still a comedy; Eugene’s mother, Kate (played originally, and unforgettably, by Linda Lavin), talks about how when the Jewish immigrants arrived in New York Harbor and took their first look at the Statue of Liberty, they started to weep — not from joy, but because they realized that “that’s not a Jewish woman. We’re gonna have problems again.”

The play’s more serious high point comes when Kate remembers a day long past when George Raft asked her to dance. Her memory, in the words of Frank Rich of The New York Times, “spirals upward like the opening clarinet glissando in Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’” Rich, who until then had been a frequent detractor of Simon’s work, along with Clive Barnes and other New York critics, called the monologue a “mesmerizing journey to a bygone working-class Brooklyn where first-generation American Jews discovered the opportunities and guilt that came with the secular temptations of a brash new world.”

Nevertheless, Simon’s masterpiece was yet to come — the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 “Lost in Yonkers,” about two boys who, upon their mother’s death, are left by their father to live with their abusive German immigrant (and Holocaust survivor) grandmother above her candy store. It was the last Broadway play that I ever saw with my own grandparents, who had instilled a love for theater in me.

We were sitting in the last row of the orchestra, and my grandmother complained that she could barely hear the actors. My characteristically taciturn grandfather said only one thing: “My mother was just like the grandmother in that play.” I suddenly understood him in a deeper way than ever before — his own dysfunctional family of origin, his own traumatic childhood about which he had never spoken.

It was a gift from Neil Simon, the playwright whose indelible Jewish characters will always remind us of what it meant to be Jewish in the 20th century in America, as Jews rose from obscurity and struggled to gain a sense of decency, of self-respect, of pride, and of dignity. For Simon taught Jews to laugh at — and even to start to like — themselves at last.

Ted Merwin writes about theater for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

read more: