The wide, wraparound front porch where Alfred Uhry spent long summer afternoons bears little resemblance to the escapes on tenement-lined streets where legions of Jewish writers gazed out on the world, nurturing their imaginative lives. The Atlanta in which Uhry grew up, which he writes about so well in his plays "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," was worlds away from immigrant neighborhoods in cities like New York and Chicago where most of his Jewish-writer peers came of age.
In fact, if Bellow or Malamud or Roth had visited Uhry's home, they might have asked, as Brooklynite Joe Farkas in "Ballyhoo" does, "Are you people really Jewish?" Uhry's people don't speak Yiddish, they have Christmas trees in their living rooms, they have names like Boo and Sunny and Peachy. Based largely on his own relatives and their community, his characters are highly assimilated German Jews whose families arrived, like those on his mother's side, in the 1840s (his father's family arrived at the end of the 18th century; one relative was a blockade runner in the Civil War). With their exclusive country clubs and their own synagogue, called "The Temple," they set themselves apart from the Eastern European immigrants -- "the other kind," as they're referred to in "Ballyhoo" -- who arrived later and were much more ethnic in their ways. But the close-knit German Jews did remain distinctively Jewish, with their own rituals and customs. They understood that being Jewish meant that they were at once insiders and outsiders in Atlanta society: They belonged to the mainstream by virtue of being white but were relegated tot he fringes for not being Christian. Yes, they put up Christmas trees, but they never placed stars at the top.
This is Uhry's Yoknapatwpha County. Although Uhry has lived in New York City for many years and wrote what may become known as his trilogy of Atlanta plays -- "Driving Miss Daisy," "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," and the musical "Parade" -- up north, the South is still home. "When I write, when I want to be inspired, I seem to go home and write about it in my mind," he says. As another great Southern writer, Eudora Welty, has written in an essay, " . . . fiction depends for its life on the place. Location is the crossroads of circumstances, the proving ground of 'What happened? Who's here? Who's coming' -- and that is the heart's field."
In plays too, location is everything. And Uhry's "heart's field" is the South, the Jewish South. In a rich and authentic voice, he taps in the ironies, subtleties, complexities, and mysteries in the lives of people with multi-layered Southern-Jewish identities. Even to those well-versed in American-Jewish literature, Uhry's milieu seems exotic, as though he were writing about the Jews of Egypt or Argentina. Of course, there have been and are other writers who are Southern and Jewish -- novelists Louis Rubin and Steve Stern, dramatists Lillian Hellman and Octavus Roy Cohen, journalist Harry Golden -- but none have so fully captured this particular world, its rhythms and inner landscapes.
Ruth Abram, president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan, who grew up in Atlanta in the 1950s, says that Uhry's plays "aptly and poignantly" describe the Jewish world she knew intimately. "I was so grateful. This was the first time I'd seen it described anywhere. Someone said, 'I read to know I'm not alone.' Now it wasn't just in my own thoughts." Catherine C. Kahn, president-elect of the Southern Jewish Historical Society and archivist at the Touro Infirmary Archives in New Orleans, where her family has lived since 1831, says, "Alfred Uhry is us. He speaks for the assimilated French and German Jews of the South. We know all those people he writes about."
It may seem like splitting hairs to ponder whether Uhry's writing is more Southern or more Jewish, whether as a playwright he's closer in sensibility to Tennessee Williams or Neil Simon. The answer is neither. And the question is interesting only because he really seems like the quintessential hybrid of things Southern and Jewish, combining the storytelling tradition of the South with the ever-questioning Jewish point of view. What makes a book Jewish was best stated by MacArthur Prize-winning novelist Rebecca Goldstein, who said that being Jewish "has to make a difference on the page"; it takes more than mentions of ethnic language or food or accents. Substitute "stage" for "page," and the same is true of the theater. In Uhry's plays, being Jewish matters.
It shouldn't be surprising that when two distinguished observers of the Jewish South were asked about the tradition of Southern Jewish writing, their opinions were nearly opposite. "Since there are a number of Jews who are Southerners, there are Southern Jewish writers. I'd have to do a lot of inventing to tell you there was a Southern Jewish literary tradition," says Louis D. Rubin, university professor of English emeritus at the University of North Carolina, the founder of Algonquin Books, and a novelist whose latest work is "The Heat of the Sun."
Yet historian Eli Evans says, "I do think there's a growing body of Southern Jewish writing and expanding interest in it." Evans, who has written several non-fiction books about Southern Jews, including "The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South," adds, "there's a classic pattern to it, the interaction of Jewish immigrants with fundamentalism, with race, with culture, and with Civil War history and its aftermath. In a sense, the story of Jews in the South is one element in the complex diversity of the Southern experience, yet it seems to be so little known by the general public."
Evans, who was raised in North Carolina and now lives in New York City, where he heads the Charles H. Revson Foundation, describes Uhry as a "breakthrough creative force." For the Jewish South, he says, the real impact of "Driving Miss Daisy" -- which won a Pulitzer and an Oscar and played in 23 countries -- was its national attention and worldwide acclaim. He foresees that an increasing number of young writers will be attracted tot he subject. "The Jewish South presents a rich vein of untapped stories and history just waiting to be found, discovered, examined."
What places Uhry most clearly into his own category of Southern Jewish writing is the fact that he's telling stories that haven't been told before. While there's no shortage of artistic works about the experience of Jews in northern cities and suburbs -- about their families, careers, adventures, angst, their immigrant pasts and varying degrees of assimilation -- Uhry charts a new course, chronicling the lives of Southern Jews in the early years of this century in "Parade," just prior to World War II in "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," and in the subsequent decades in "Driving Miss Daisy."
When asked about his mentors in writing, Uhry mentions William Shakespeare and Welty. "I aspire to reach their kneecaps," he quips. (He was nominated for a Tony award for his musical-theater adaptation of Welty's novella "The Robber Bridegroom.") He talks about his childhood, and it's clear that he grew up surrounded by stories. His grandmother, who lived with his family, had four sisters and when they'd all visit and gather on the porch, the young man would lie on the floor on his stomach and eavesdrop, taking it all in. "When I write about the past, if I get myself quiet enough I can still hear the voices. I'm just kind of the secretary."
The basis for Miss Daisy was Uhry's grandmother, although he sees the character as a universal figure. "I think everyone had my grandmother in one form or another," he says. He jokes that he's "going to run out of relatives soon." As to how he sees his own identity as a writer, he shrugs, "I guess I think of myself as a Southern Jewish writer. I like to think I can do other things as well." He's now working on a play "that doesn't even have any Americans in it."
Judaism has its own oral tradition of storytelling, and Uhry says that
the difference between Jewish and Southern stories is that the former "always
have a punch line" while Southern stories "are very long and never quite
get to an end." It would seem, then, that Southern Jewish stories
are long, with punch lines. And Uhry's own unfinished tale is a long
Southern Jewish success story.
Sandee Brawarsky, a journalist and author, is the book critic of The Jewish Week, and her weekly Bookmarks column appears in newspapers around the country. Her new book, "Two Jews, Three Opinions: A Collection of Twentieth Century American Jewish Quotations," co-edited with Deborah Mark, will be published in December.