2016-06-30
Sex and Shopping: The Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl
By Judith Krantz
St. Martin's, 352 pp.

The book jacket of Judith Krantz's memoir "Sex and Shopping: The Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl" promises a read every bit as sensationalistic as her breathless best-sellers. "While I seemed like another 'nice Jewish girl,' underneath that convenient cover I'[ve] traveled my own, inner-directed path and had many a spicy and secret adventure," Krantz confides.

If you're looking for tales of sex and glamour, stick with "The Mistral's Daughter" Krantz's life is actually rather dull. But in "Sex and Shopping," readers will find something that ultimately more satisfying--a surprisingly insightful description of how non-observant Jews find their identity inextricably intertwined with their religion.

Both of Krantz's parents rose from humble immigrant roots to become successful professionals. Her father was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, just a few years after his Orthodox parents emigrated from Russia. Forced to drop out of high school to help support his family, Jack David Tatachook sharpened pencils in an ad agency before he opened up his own publicity shop at the age of 24. Reinventing himself as Jack Tarcher, he ultimately pulled in enough cash to install his family at a Central Park West address. Krantz's Lithuanian-born mother was similarly self-made. Mickey Brager left school at 14 to work in a candy factory and finished her degree by taking classes at night. After marrying Tarcher, she earned both a masters in economics and a law degree, and became a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

The Tarchers participated in a number of Jewish philanthropic organizations, but they were strictly "delicatessen Jews." The household celebrated Christmas rather than Hanukkah or the High Holy Days. Krantz remembers attending "one or two Seders" but it wasn't until college that she learned about the existence of the Old Testament.

But if Krantz was not a bat mitzvahed, synagogue-frequenting Jew, her religious affiliation nonetheless had far reaching consequences in her life. Krantz attended Wellesley when the school had a strict ten percent quota for Jews and Catholics, and none of the Jewish girls roomed with the goyim in the freshman dorms. Nor was there any cross-religious dating. According to Krantz, she held a geisha-like allure over college men, at one point having "thirteen dates with thirteen men on thirteen consecutive nights" during her senior year. While the photographs of a pudgy girl would seem to belie her boy-magnet pretensions, Krantz offers up an explanation for her active dating life: aside from being a Jew, she had a gentile-looking nose. "For a Jewish girl not to 'look like' a Jew, whether anybody would admit it or not, was extraordinarily important," she writes.

Rather than settle down with a nice Jewish boy after graduation, Krantz spent a year in Paris. She lost her virginity, shacked up with her freeloading boss, and helped hawk women's hats. Krantz describes this period as the happiest of her life, but once her parents refused to continue bankrolling her stay, she was forced to return home.

A stint at Good Housekeeping followed, and at 26 Judy married the television producer Steve Krantz. After they had the first of two sons she freelanced for women's magazines. The family relocated to California, where Krantz spent the better part of her days visiting her shrink, working out at the gym, and (surprise!) shopping. Krantz says it was partially to dislodge her from Beverly Hills boutiques that her husband urged her to take up fiction writing. And so at the age of 50, she wrote "Scruples." A fifteen-city publicity tour nudged the novel to the top slot on the New York Times bestseller list--a feat Krantz managed to repeat with each of her nine subsequent books.

Krantz is disarmingly honest about the limitations of her oeuvre--as she puts it, she writes "successful commercial novels" rather than "serious, poetic 'high fiction.'" Elegant prose is not her hallmark, as this rambling, superlative-laden memoir makes amply clear. And the book jacket's promises aside, Krantz's life is no match for the dramatic plots she weaves in her novels.

Still, there is a laudable ambition behind this autobiography. Krantz succeeds at plumbing her childhood, family life, and Jewish roots in an effort to understand who she is. She freely admits she is not the equal of her protagonists, and that could be a major component of her resounding success. By creating impossibly gorgeous, fearless heroines (almost all of whom are gentiles) a bourgeois, nice Jewish girl has tapped into the dreams and imaginations of readers around the world. Krantz writes that "ordinary life-size just doesn't do it for me." Luckily for her book sales, it doesn't do it for her millions of readers, either.

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