One writer’s love for ‘Marjorie Morningstar’

I have a lot of very full bookshelves.  There’s not a room in our home that doesn’t have books, and yes, I mean that room, too. I’m at the point of saying we have too many books, and then I see just one more I would love to read.   I get the Jewish Book Review, and I collect titles I will never get around to.  My whole year is Jewish Book Month.  Yet, when I hear the phrase “Jewish books”, one always comes to mind first:  Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk.

I don’t remember when I read it, but it was probably back in high school.  So many girls read this book, wanting to be just like Marjorie—to find the guy her parents hate, to seek the life that make her parents shudder. Marjorie wanted to step on the brakes of a car that someone else was driving, and simply get out. And young women all over the world said, “You go, girl!”  But when I read the book, all I could think of was, “Marjorie, what’s wrong with the life your parents want for you?”  Because it’s exactly what I wanted, and if that was the boring choice, what did that make me?

I didn’t color outside the lines. I didn’t break curfew (ok, once I did.) I didn’t come home “compromised” (ok, once I did, but I think I got away with it….um, until now, Mom. Sorry.)  I liked Hebrew school.  I was in Jewish youth group, got good grades, and had there been anyone to ask me out (there wasn’t) it would have been a Jewish boy. 

I immediately identified with Marjorie’s struggle with her identity, of course, but couldn’t understand why she was having such a hard time with it.  It seemed pretty simple to me.   I watched my sisters cross the Jewish and secular boundaries set by my parents, and their limit-pushing made the volume level in my house go up.  I don’t mean to do a quick pseudo-psych assessment based on my own experience, but if I were to have met Marjorie, I’d have tried to talk her out of running after Noel; it would have made her house too noisy.   I also would have asked her what was so bad about a stable, loving, Jewish husband, raising healthy Jewish children, and living in the suburbs?  It sounded pretty good to me.  After all, that is where I ended up, though it took me a lot longer than I expected, and not for lack of trying.

I re-read the ending of Marjorie Morningstar before writing this column.  I paused over the oft-quoted line describing Marjorie Morgenstern Schwartz, 15 years down the road: "You couldn't write a play about her that would run a week, or a novel that would sell a thousand copies—the only remarkable thing about Mrs. Schwartz is that she ever hoped to be remarkable, that she ever dreamed of being “Marjorie Morningstar."  

For Marjorie, there were only two choices, and she took the one that seemed most attractive to me when I first read the book.  But then, as I think about it, I read it before I had any interesting “Morningstar” ideas of my own, and could only think in terms of “Morgenstern”. Many people had a problem with Marjorie’s choice at the end.  Today, my argument isn’t with her choice, it’s that she doesn’t seem to value her Morningstar years.  She chose a safe, stable and loving route; I’m all for stability and love. 

But it seems she doesn’t remember her Morningstar years; they don’t matter to her, and now I’d like to tell her that those years were vital and important, and just as much a part of who she became as what happened after she “settled down.”   I’d like to tell her that she doesn’t have to eliminate her younger self from her memory to be happy.  I couldn’t have said this to Marjorie back then, because it was too scary to think that crossing boundaries weren’t fateful. I couldn’t envision that her time with Noel and her eventual life choice could co-exist with equal value, and now I know they can.  One doesn’t deny the other; one isn’t destroyed by the other.

I have daughters around Marjorie’s age, and I watch them work to create their adult Jewish identities. I’m sure there will be Noel-moments—I hope so, actually.  I hope they color outside the lines...ok, admittedly, maybe not too much. I’m still me, after all.   I hope they end up with the blessings I have,   but mostly I hope they figure out how to be both Mrs. Schwartz and Marjorie Morningstar.  And I hope they finally read the book.

Anita Silvert is a freelance writer living in Northbrook.  

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