The Jewish side of Nora Ephron

Although she was not an observant or traditional Jew, being Jewish was an essential part of who she was, a cultural identity that she neither denied nor embraced.

 NORA EPHRON from the documentary ‘Everything is Copy’ by Jacob Bernstein. (photo credit: HBO/Yes Docu)
NORA EPHRON from the documentary ‘Everything is Copy’ by Jacob Bernstein.
(photo credit: HBO/Yes Docu)

It’s been 10 years since the brilliant and influential American Jewish journalist/novelist/screenwriter/director Nora Ephron died, much too early, of leukemia at the age of 71, and it seems like a good time to look back on the Jewish themes running through her work, which included the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally... and the movies, Sleepless in Seattle and Julie & Julia, as well as many books of essays.

Although she was not an observant or traditional Jew – her parents were Hollywood screenwriters who served bagels and lox but also celebrated Christmas – being Jewish was an essential part of who she was, a cultural identity that she neither denied nor embraced.

She referenced Judaism a number of times in her only novel, Heartburn, a roman a clef about the breakup of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. The heroine, a cookbook writer, is frustrated in her attempt to launch a network TV cooking show: “‘Too New York’ is what the last network that was approached about me responded, which is a cute way of being anti-Semitic, but who cares? I’d rather be too New York than too anything else.”

Living in Washington, DC, was also a challenge for the main character: “Washington makes you feel really Jewish, if that’s what you are. It’s not just that there are so many gentiles there, it’s that the gentiles are so gentile.” In Heartburn, she also mentions her “Jewish prince routine,” a little skit her heroine/alter ego performs that ends with the line: “I’ve always believed that the concept of the Jewish princess was invented by a Jewish prince who couldn’t get his wife to fetch him the butter.”

Although she never wrote about Zionism per se, it’s notable that she covered the Yom Kippur War for New York Magazine, apparently the only time she worked as a foreign correspondent. In the first of two pieces she published, she wrote mainly about the strange truth that war correspondents find covering wars fun. But in the second article, she went much deeper and exhibited her trademark honesty and wit.

 IDF medical crew evacuating an injured soldier from the battle field during Yom Kippur War (credit: IDF FLICKR) IDF medical crew evacuating an injured soldier from the battle field during Yom Kippur War (credit: IDF FLICKR)

At the Tel Aviv Hilton, she was told by a housekeeper that Russian troops would soon be sent into the battle and a New York Times reporter said that her hotel might be bombed. Her response? “I decided to have my hair done,” she wrote.

Truths about Israel

ALL KIDDING aside, she discovered some truths about Israel during this trip. “People here keep saying – and it has been written dozens of times – that one of the major differences between Israel and this war and, for example, the United States and the Vietnam War, is that here everyone knows at least one man who was killed. It is closer to the truth to say that everyone here knows 10 men, and their children 10 more.’

"People here keep saying – and it has been written dozens of times – that one of the major differences between Israel and this war and, for example, the United States and the Vietnam War, is that here everyone knows at least one man who was killed. It is closer to the truth to say that everyone here knows 10 men, and their children 10 more."

Nora Ephron

‘There is no way to imagine what that is like, no way to imagine life in a country so constantly and literally traumatized by war, and I suppose that it is not at all strange that so many of the young people have reacted to it with a kind of stoicism that at times resembles numbness. But I have been most moved here, most connected, not when I hear the endless tales of heroism and Spartan behavior, but when I see the emotion and feel the isolation of this country.’

‘I have been most moved by the Jews here as opposed to the Israelis, by the Zionists as opposed to the sabras. As I left the cemetery, I saw an old woman who refused to leave. She caressed the headstone and of her son’s grave, weeping and crying, ‘Lama? Lama?’ (Why? Why?).”

Leaving this scene, Ephron met a young Israeli woman who was a lieutenant colonel and who told her this war was only the beginning. “This remark seemed cold and hard compared to the older people,” Ephron wrote.

She followed up her Yom Kippur War pieces with an article, “Women in Israel: The Myth of Liberation,” for New York Magazine, in late 1973, in which she characterized then-prime minister Golda Meir as “a classic example of a successful woman who believes that because she has managed to rise to the top, anyone can.” She examined the ways in which women are discriminated against in Israel, mainly by the religious bureaucracy, including the fact that a wife cannot get a divorce without her husband’s consent and the status of agunot (women who cannot get divorced). What is particularly sad in reading this essay today is that in the intervening 49 years, almost nothing has changed regarding these issues.

A footnote to her visit to Israel is an interview she did in the late 1960s for the New York Post. In a series on what foreigners think of New York, she spoke to an Israeli tasked with setting up a new Israeli program for American Jewish youth. The man was Aryeh Nesher, the father of leading movie director Avi Nesher. She let the late Aryeh Nesher and his wife, Lilly, do most of the talking, but Avi, who at 16 was less than enchanted with the Big Apple, got in a few words: “...what has brought me the most status in the class is that I have long hair.” His sister, Tali, then age 6, was not quoted, although it was she who passed along this clipping.

While in Ephron’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for When Harry Met Sally..., the Jewish/gentile divide is never mentioned, she was always clear about who she was. In Heartburn, the heroine’s therapist communicates through quintessentially Jewish parables, including one about a boy who hates the traditional Jewish dish, kreplach. No matter how much his mother tries to fool him into eating it, telling him it tastes like other foods, he rejects it, screaming, “‘Aaaah! Kreplach!’”

I think her own Jewish identity was a little like that. She wasn’t crazy about it, but she always knew it was there and why it mattered.