A couple of years ago, I conjured up what I thought was a bright idea: I decided to write a fictionalized memoir of my life as a 17- and 18-year-old in Lincoln in 1982-1983.
I had an unusual upbringing, in that I was the child of an Israeli mother and Indian father. My sisters, my parents and I comprised the only Hebrew-speaking family in town. Like all good olive-skinned children of university professors, I was expected to become a physician (my eventual profession) or, like my father, an engineer.
I never sought to write a book until I daydreamed about it one morning as I labored to finish yet another exquisitely boring run on the treadmill. “Of course,” I thought, “no one has ever had to experience what I had to endure -- not being allowed to date outside the faith in a town that contained essentially no one within the faith, feeling pressured to pursue a career that would make my immigrant parents proud and, at the same time, realize the American Dream. Now there’s a story.”
I would embellish it into a sex, drugs and rock and roll novel called "The Frontman," and I envisioned that, on the eve of my 50th birthday, I would become the next big literary thing.
Fast-forward two years of toiling on my laptop, countless hours of manuscript editing by my infinitely patient wife and friends, dozens of rejection letters from literary agents, dead silence from at least as many others, a writing coach to squeeze the last drop of writers’ juice out of me, and finally -- a publishing deal was struck. The world was about to read my original and heroic, if not entirely real, story.
Recently, my wife, Laurie, and I took a different break from reality to watch "The Big Sick," actor Kumail Nanjiani’s largely autobiographical romantic comedy detailing his simultaneously hilarious, irreverent, terrifying and poignant courtship with writer Emily V. Gordon.
The film chronicles Nanjiani’s struggle for success as a young comedian and, more importantly, for his cultural acceptance as a first-generation Pakistani American, all while watching over his critically ill, non-Muslim secret girlfriend as she fought a life-threatening inflammatory disorder in a medically induced coma.
The movie merges together its light and heavy themes of humor, religion and fidelity beautifully and subtly and reminds us that our human desire for autonomy with validation and approval is nearly universal.
Like Nanjiani, my parents may be misinterpreted as being overbearing, unreasonable or even mean-spirited, rather than sympathetic or even heroic. Both sets entered a land of opportunity and attempted to establish a “home away from homeland” that was simply not amenable to the desires of a young man starving for assimilation and a girlfriend.
Despite my respectable knowledge of Judaism, it was painfully difficult to strictly keep the Sabbath and stay clear of non-Jewish girls; I admittedly didn’t fully comply with either demand. Despite a deep pride in my heritage, the feeling of “otherness” was unrelenting. Interestingly, as I interviewed close friends in writing the book, I was surprised to find that they had little if any idea about my “plight.”
Though it would be overly dramatic to state that I suffered in silence, after 34 years, I’m now ready to speak.
The construct of "The Big Sick" is eerily similar to that of my book. I needed only to substitute the words Israeli for Pakistani, Hebrew for Urdu, Jewish for Muslim, doctor for lawyer. The “immigrant experience” is now also recounted on network television and streaming media in shows like The CW’s "Jane the Virgin" and Aziz Ansari’s "Master of None."
For those of us who have supposedly been assimilated for generations, additional forms of otherness, like differences in race, sexual orientation or body size, would easily apply.
So I’m not as original as I thought. In our current political climate, where a perceived clash of civilizations has become so prominent, perhaps "The Big Sick" and other presentations will remind us all that we are not so different -- and that we all have a story to tell.