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Your paternal grandparents went along with this deception?
My grandfather died when I was very young, and my grandmother — a fascinating Polish-born woman who could speak five languages but read or write none — lived in Southern California, and we lived in Northern California. She was a practicing Jew and a supporter of Israel, but we knew nothing about it. My father insisted we not know, and she did anything he told her. My cousins, children of my grandparents’ two daughters, were also not raised as Jews. My aunts did not want their children to know they were Jewish, either.
How do you define yourself today?
I tell people I’m Jewish but brought up as a Catholic. I went to Holy Cross, a Jesuit college in Worcester, Mass., and taught in a Jesuit high school. I don’t practice anything. My wife is not Jewish, and our kids go to the Unitarian Church. We want them to be exposed to all faiths, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable raising them in a Jewish household. I don’t have that subconscious connection to the religion, though I do have that connection with the culture, and my artistic skill comes from being Jewish. But it also comes from being Catholic.
My greatest artistic influence is the great Polish avant-garde theater artist Tadeusz Kantor. He was half Jewish and half Catholic, and I am most connected to that aesthetic tension. I don’t think you have this Catholic side or Jewish side if you’re an artist, but I suppose my Catholic background has made me aware of certain references in the language, while a Jewish tradition helps me feel copacetic with Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose politics are within their aesthetics. In some ways, we operate subversively within the culture. My Jewish background has also helped me with Odets — his emotions, spirit, intelligence, humor and the rhythms of his language.