Josh and Zach Braff are all grown up and living on the opposite side of the country from their childhood home in South Orange, N.J. But together the brothers have opened a vast panorama onto the experience of being young in the spiritual wilds of northern New Jersey.
Zach Braff’s recently released first movie, “Garden State,” and Josh Braff’s soon-to-be released first novel, “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green,” both explore the mental turf of Jewish suburban homes and the way they have slowly, almost imperceptibly, fallen apart during the past few decades.
“We had at one point been going to Friday night services, and then, like so many other families, we began to only go on the High Holidays,” Josh Braff said of his family in a recent conference call with his brother and the Forward.
“And then just on Yom Kippur, and then not ever,” Zach Braff added, in the gracious, complementary manner the brothers have when talking together.
This relationship extends to their art. Although the younger Braff’s movie and the elder Braff’s book tell stories that are not explicitly connected, they complement each other in manifold, delicate ways. With what might be called a Braffian sense of alert, playful humor, the protagonists of both stories slip and slide around the angst of suburbia as their families and metaphysical moorings fall apart.
Jacob Green, the narrator in Josh Braff’s novel, is struggling through the insecurities of an adolescence made more difficult by his parents’ dissolving marriage and endless hours of Hebrew school insisted upon by his father. The novel moves at the fast pace of childhood, as the changes imposed on him by his family and by biology sweep Jacob along. “Garden State” — which Zach Braff wrote, directed and stars in — picks up a similar character about 15 years later, as he returns home for the first time in nine years, after his mother’s death.
“There is a loneliness in both protagonists — a searching,” Josh Braff said.
Josh, 37, spoke with the Forward from his home in Oakland, Calif., where he lives with his wife and two children. He is readying for the September 10 release of his novel, after which his book tour will take him to Jewish community centers across the country.
His younger brother, Zach, 29, joined in from Los Angeles, during a weeklong vacation from his hit-television show “Scrubs,” where he plays the medical intern John “J.D.” Dorian. Like the protagonist in “Garden State,” Andrew Largeman, Zach was, until recently, a young actor struggling to get his break.
Because it deals more strictly with family, Josh’s novel provides the most autobiographical peek into the Braff family. There is the animated father and the four children — three boys and one girl — with Josh Braff and Jacob Green both the second born. But the deeper inspiration for the story came from Josh’s own experience at yeshiva and Hebrew school, as he was pushed to take on a set of rituals that became more unattractive with each holiday.
“We didn’t have Judaism presented to us in a way that said, ‘Take this,’” Josh said of his own life. “It was more like ‘Eat this … .’”
“Strap this to your head,” Zach added, deadpan.
Josh’s novel illustrates an era — the late 1970s — when intermarriage in the American Jewish community began to take off and synagogue attendance began to dwindle. But neither of these factors fully explains the estrangement of Jacob Green from his religion; they only provide him with a way to escape — just as the author did. In the climactic scene of the novel, Jacob literally runs from the synagogue building after the Torah lessons become too oppressive.
By the time we join Zach Braff’s alter ego, Andrew Largeman, he is in his 20s, and Judaism has entirely lost its hold. The movie opens in a clean, white room, devoid of any history or tradition. He jets home for his mother’s funeral, and the only Jewish institution we ever see is the cemetery, where his friend works as a gravedigger.
While speaking with his budding love interest, Sam — played by Jerusalem-born Natalie Portman — Andrew explains the attenuated religious commitments of his social circle: “I don’t go to temple or anything. But I don’t know any Jews who go to temple.”
True to modern-day restlessness, Zach Braff eschewed any formal plot movement, and opted for a more episodic structure that suits the film’s quirky characters. Andrew’s constant movement seems driven in part by his desire to avoid his stern father, a psychiatrist who fills Andrew’s lithium and Zoloft prescriptions but is ultimately too self-absorbed to provide any real empathy.
During the conversation with the Forward last week, the brothers were both busy packing to leave for a celebration of their own father’s 70th birthday in Mexico.
Josh’s novel presents a much truer picture of the man they are going to celebrate. Like Josh’s own father, Jacob’s father, Abraham is a larger-than-life devotee of community theater (Zach Braff says his own acting career got a kick-start when he went to see his father in a local production of a Neil Simon play). In “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green,” Abraham Green also runs his own family like an amateur troupe, pushing his children to perform at every turn.
Abraham — who, not coincidentally, takes the name of the Jewish patriarch who was willing to sacrifice his own son — is so concerned about his standing with family friends, that he personally edits each of Jacob’s bar mitzvah thank you notes and pushes his son’s preternatural ability with Hebrew because it impresses his friends at synagogue.
Jacob’s older brother, Asher, already has rebelled against all this and seems to be constantly hovering in the background of the book with an open beer can and a lighted joint. Asher might be the character who provides the most natural segue to Zach’s movie.
Andrew spends the four days after his mother’s funeral flitting between the parties of his slacker friends with their profligate recreational drug use. A friend who made a fortune by inventing silent Velcro, and spends his days in an empty mansion, frequently hosts the gatherings.
But the Braff brothers do not wallow for long in the morass of suburban anomie that was so pronounced in the Philip Roth novels covering the same territory. Zach says that his title was not meant ironically, and neither brother has any trouble finding the little glistening points of beauty in the cracks between all that disappears.
“Garden State” is filled with gorgeous shots of Andrew and Sam whirring around the sun-dappled streets of New Jersey on Andrew’s vintage motorcycle. Even a local derelict construction site turns out to be a place of wonder, with a Grand Canyon-like abyss inside. Where Zach relies on visual beauty and his lush soundtrack, Josh uses meticulously drawn scenes of childhood antics to give his novel its almost effortless momentum.
But it is a sense of humor that allows both Braff brothers to escape the toughest moments. They have a similar eye for the absurdly comic moments of everyday life, and their characters come off as straight men in a world gone funny — very funny. Both brothers say that humor is one of the primary ways they still feel bound to Judaism. So, as with so much else in the stories, the brothers don’t lose their tradition. They remake it to confront a new world.