Coming Out Fighting

New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr's debut novel is a poignant, semiautobiographical treatise on Hollywood and the hypocrisies of Judaism.

BY Nicholas Fonseca

June 23 2009 11:00 PM ET

CHANDLER BURR 02 XLRG (MATTHEW FURMAN) | ADVOCATE.COM

In the late 1980s, just before beginning graduate school, Burr set off on a worldwide backpacking adventure. The trip took him through the southern rim of Asia and eventually to Israel, where he attended a yeshiva for the first time in his life. Burr's father, Ralph, is a Russian Jew by birth; his mother, Nancy, was reared as a Christian Scientist. By the time Burr was born, both his parents had turned to Christian Science. Neither of them ever sat down to explain to their son that, according to halakic rules (Jewish religious law), he is not considered Jewish because his mother never was. "There was always this tension with my Jewish family [about my not being a Jew]." Burr says. "You learn it through osmosis. You learn that there is this problem and you learn not to talk about it in the same way that you don't talk about homosexuality. You hide it."

At the yeshiva, however, Burr was sitting at a table with a young man who started to ask about his upbringing. "I let drop that my mother was a Protestant," Burr says, adding that that's when all hell broke loose. "The blood literally drained from his face. He gets up and turns me in. Immediately. And two big Israeli guys come in within 30 seconds, take me to the rabbi's office, and he says to me, 'You are racially impure. You have polluted my yeshiva. You have caused us to sin by teaching Torah to a non-Jew. And your father is engaging in the ongoing Holocaust of Jewish people.'" Burr spits out his words with eloquent force, as if willing the brazenness of those comments to sink a little deeper. "That's extremely sick."

Burr has spoken of his encounter for two decades, but he has now also written about it. You or Someone Like You tells the story of Anne Rosenbaum, the British-born wife of high-powered Hollywood executive Howard, who inadvertently becomes the grand pooh-bah of a book club that quickly develops into the hottest kaffeeklatsch in town.

The novel is peppered with references that will delight devotees of Variety and IMDb.com -- everyone from J.J. Abrams to L Word creator Ilene Chaiken pops by the group to share their views on literature and life with Anne. The strange, looming subplot -- the decision of Howard and Anne's son, Sam, to explore his Jewish lineage via a trip to Israel -- becomes the novel's fulcrum. Burr reimagines his own long-ago incident in the yeshiva through Sam Rosenbaum's eyes, and when the 17-year-old returns to Los Angeles, bewildered and emotionally wounded, Howard -- a lapsed Jew -- undergoes a spiritual crisis that leaves his marriage in tatters. Sam also comes out of the closet at this point (but Burr views this revelation as tangential).

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