When Chandler Burr was 23 and backpacking around the world, he made a last stop in Israel. At the Western Wall, he was approached by “a young, shortish man of indeterminate age. Wispy beard, a little overweight, white and blue knit kippa” who asked, “Are you Jewish?” Burr said, “Yes.” The man then asked if Burr “would like to understand who you really are?” “Yes,” again.
Burr was brought along with some others to a yeshiva where things went smoothly until he mentioned that his mother wasn't Jewish. Swiftly taken to the head rabbi's office, Burr was soon kicked out the front door for polluting the yeshiva—“if your mother is not racially Jewish, you're not racially Jewish,” Burr recalls the rabbi saying. This episode became the seed for Burr's novel, You or Someone Like You, published by Ecco Press, from which the above quotes are taken. In the book, though, this happens to Sam, the teenage son of the two main characters, who is Burr's stand-in.
Until at least a third into the book, most readers will be pretty sure they're getting a novel about Hollywood big shots and book groups, which name checks real-life players in the worlds of literature and film. “I have orbited Hollywood for 25 years,” says Burr, 46, who is a screenwriter and the scent critic for the New York Times, in addition to being the author of several books of nonfiction. This is his first novel, however. He calls it just a natural extension of his other work, having written screenplays and plays prolifically since college.
The heroine of You or Someone Like You is Anne Rosenbaum, the headstrong, fiercely intelligent wife of Howard Rosenbaum, a powerful player in Hollywood who turns books into movies. The two met while pursuing English Ph.D.s at Columbia, and literature—the poetry of Blake and Frost, the novels of George Eliot, among countless other books—is deeply woven into their relationship, as well as into Burr's novel. An unassuming request from one of Howard's movie-biz colleagues for Anne to suggest some books to read snowballs, almost accidentally, into a series of book clubs led by Anne and attended by Hollywood's most powerful. Anne becomes, almost before she knows it, one of Tinseltown's major tastemakers. Her opinions spread through the grapevine; it seems like Hollywood is hanging on her every word about what books should be adapted, and even how sentences in screenplays should flow.
But the only person Anne wants to reach is Howard. After the couple's son, Sam, goes to Israel alone just before graduating from high school, where what happened to Burr happens to him, he comes back to L.A. fed up with his Jewish roots and ready to come out of the closet. No surprise on the latter, but the former knocks something loose in Howard, sending him into a downward spiral of guilt about abandoning his own Jewish faith and marrying a non-Jew. Howard's crisis threatens to collapse his marriage and his career, and the only way Anne can get him to respond to her is through the literature she shows her book club, which gets gossiped back to Howard. What at first seems like a story about love and the power of literature turns out to also be something much more surprising: a careful argument against organized religion, culminating in a talk Anne gives in which she compares the racism Jews have toward non-Jews to Nazi rhetoric.
This is a book that's going to deeply anger and offend some people, but it also makes a good case. “I have to stress that this book is fundamentally critical of Judaism,” says Burr, pulling no punches. In his own life, Burr has found ample proof that religion begets intolerance, beginning with his own family. “I was raised religiously observant Protestant,” says Burr, “and always with this weird discussed but not discussed Judaism on my father's side. The people in the family who objected to my father and mother's marriage were the Jews, not the Protestants.”
In his travels as a correspondent for papers like the Times and the Christian Science Monitor, Burr went all over the world, always alert to the resonances and hypocrisies of organized religion. “I've lived in six or seven countries, I've traveled 60 plus, I speak arguably three foreign languages. You can't remain coherent and believe in these ideologies,” he says. “I experienced leaving all organized religion as the most astonishingly, wonderfully freeing event in my life.”