Ben Zelig, the protagonist in Herb Freed’s Love, Faith and a Pair of Pants, (Bellrock Entertainment Inc.) has life all figured out: graduate from rabbinical school; get hired by a spiritually enriched community; meet a nice Jewish girl, and start a family.
Naturally, nothing goes according to plan, but life can still work out, according to Freed, as long as you have, well, love, faith and a pair of pants.
Freed, who started his adult life as an ordained rabbi and is author of the love story Bashert, is back with a collection of five short stories about the smart, witty, spiritual and handsome (ask his mother) Rabbi Ben Zelig. In five stories about a rabbi’s life, Zelig navigates romance, family ties, colorful congregants and the meaning of faith. Master storyteller Freed takes us from humor to pathos and back again in an uplifting examination of what it means to be human. In this BookTrib interview, he discusses his life, his work and writing under the influence of the Jewish culture.
Herb Freed: Prior to Bashert, the only writing I did was for the screen. I have written and/or co-written over 25 screenplays.
Six years ago, after my wife, Marion, also a writer, passed away, I was determined to write about the magical life we enjoyed together. Marion was an excellent writer and brilliant film editor. Together, we lived a life of love and art, travelling all over the world making our films.
After she died, I no longer had the desire to travel, make films or continue the life we lived. The only thing I wanted to do was relive some of the extraordinary experiences we shared. I started writing about specific events but soon discovered that there were mythical elements, unspoken words, amazing situations – some real, some magical – that provided a framework for the story I wanted to tell.
BT: Why did you turn to a book of short stories?
HF: After spending five years – seven days a week – on the novel, I decided to try writing a short story. I have always been a fan of Roth, Malamud, Flannery O’Conner, Salinger – and the list goes on – of great short story writers. They all wrote about events they lived on some level. I, too, had a lot of diverse experiences in my life. While I was a student at Columbia, I studied dance with Martha Graham and acting with Paul Mann at the actor’s workshop. From there, I went to the Jewish Theological Seminary where I studied and was ordained as a rabbi. The professors at JTS were the inspirational storytellers. They guided my early efforts.
After three years as a rabbi and working on plays, I decided to study film. For much of the next 35 years I wrote, produced and/or directed 15 feature films that were distributed worldwide.
Leap ahead to two years ago. Bashert was released and well received. Finally this year, I felt I was ready to write five short stories. But I needed the help of a strong editor to find a way to connect them. That arc is what creates a wave of adventures that feels like it was always designed to be a novel.
BT: You were a Conservative rabbi and so is your protagonist. What stories were taken from your own experience?
HF: My brilliant wife had a sign above her computer: “All fiction is biography and all biography is fiction.”
BT: The collection is quite a roller coaster ride from humor to pathos. How was this influenced by the Jewish tradition of storytelling?
HF: That description is a good definition of Jewish storytelling.
I grew up with my grandmother who was a voracious reader of Yiddish literature. From the time I was three or four, she read stories to me in Yiddish, and as I learned the language, I was transfixed by the adventures of life in the ghetto, love found and lost, joyous events and tragedy, just a page apart.
Yiddish has always had a lyrical flair for me. When I retold Yiddish stories in English, I found myself writing with an accent. One of the things interviewers have mentioned is that they felt the lilt of the language in my dialogue. I could receive no greater reward.
BT: Why did you use overcoming loss as a repeated theme in the book?
HF: In all my films, there are obstacles to overcome. I believe it is the heart of storytelling.
BT: Why are most of these stories about your main character’s interactions with women?
HF: I am not embarrassed to admit that I am a feminist. I believe that the gender provided with the ability to pro-create and keep our species alive is possessed of magical qualities that are not generally understood by the lesser gender.
The most important lessons I have learned about life came from both my wives: (1) My beloved Anne Marisse, a successful Broadway actress and writer, who was diagnosed with colon cancer and passed away in 1984, the 18th year of our marriage and (2) Marion Segal, my soulmate and inspiration for Bashert. We were married in 1986, She was stricken with lupus and passed away in 2012.
BT: Which is your favorite story and why?
HF: Which child does a parent love more? I love them all!
BT: The content is unabashedly Jewish. How do you think a secular audience will relate to it?
HF: Art transcends origin. If the plot grabs you, who cares where it came from? Bashert is a Yiddish word! Most of the 35 interviews I’ve had with talk show hosts all over the country, I would guess that less than 10 percent had any knowledge of Hebrew or Yiddish, but they all understood the longings, passion, failures and successes of the characters. Occasionally, there were problems pronouncing the title, but that was easy to overlook.
BT: Who would you cast as your main character and his supporting characters if this were a movie?
HF: If he hadn’t retired after his last film, I would have loved to see Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead.
BT: Besides being entertained, what do you hope your readers get out of Love, Faith and a Pair of Pants?
HF: Laughter, tears, passion and an exciting excursion into the lives of fascinating characters.
Love, Faith and a Pair of Pants is now available to purchase.
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ABOUT HERB FREED:
Herb Freed started his adult life as an ordained rabbi and became the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Lake Mahopac, NY, while producing and directing three shows at the Maidman Playhouse in New York City. Eventually, he resigned his pulpit to become a movie director. He has directed and produced 15 feature films, most of which have psychological, spiritual and/or social themes in spite of their commercial categories. He is best known for Subterfuge, a major action film; Tomboy, a teenage romp; the psychological drama Haunts starring Mae Britt; and CHILD2MAN, a story of survival during the Watts riots.