Sarah Rose and Joel Derfner have been best friends since they met in a Harvard dining hall 17 years ago. Both are Jewish, writers, and live in New York. (I probably only needed to say “writers” and you would’ve figured out the rest.) And now both of these authors — her book is For All the Tea in China and his is Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead — are featured on a new Sundance Channel reality show, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, which is about gay men and the straight women devoted to one another (It’s way more platonic than what went down between David and Jonathan).
Though the show follows three other gay-hetero pairings, the couples aren’t forced to awkwardly interact, throw dinner parties and bitch slap each other so Sarah and Joel’s arc is devoid of typical reality show drama. Instead theirs is about love – one has found it, the other desperately seeks it. But there’s a twist. It’s the curly, red headed gay man who is getting married in Iowa and the attractive woman who is still looking. Actually, that’s doesn’t sound like a twist. That’s just life as a Jewish woman in New York.
Sarah and Joel kindly (and quite humorously) agreed to take us through their journey on the show.
How did you guys first become involved in Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys?
Sarah: Joel is a composer and a friend from the musical theatre world – Jack Lechner, the executive producer – suggested Joel audition because of his book Swish. I was the natural choice for the Girl who likes Joel (who likes boys).
Joel: They realized that nobody on The A-List (aka Bravo’s Real Gay Housewives of New York) was Jewish, so they had to rush to fill the vacuum.
How do you guys feel, as stereotypically neurotic Jewish New York writers about having your lives broadcast on television?
Sarah: It has been a lifelong dream for me to be a stereotypically neurotic New York writer because a) I’m from the Midwest and b) stereotypical New York writers are smart people, putting out great material, with gigs that afford massive prewar apartments on the Upper West Side. I only wish I was that stereotypical. As for neurotic? How is New York’s neurosis different than all other Jewish neuroses?
Joel: I’m still trying to work that out with Dr. Kleinbaum.
More seriously: I can’t speak for Sarah, but while I’m a stereotypically neurotic Jewish New Yorker I’m also a stereotypically narcissistic gay New Yorker, so the whole thing has been a bizarre combination of bliss and agony. There’ll be a scene with me and I’ll be like, “Oh, my God, I’m on TV! I love myself and America will too! But oh, my God, look at my eyebrows! I hate myself and America will too!”
Sarah, how did you feel about being cast into the role of the female “Jewish spinster” in her 30s (ala Grace)? They sort of made you seem desperate. And Joel, what do you think of her portrayal on the show in that regard?
Sarah: All comparisons to a comedienne of Debra Messing’s stature are most welcome – especially to her stature, since she’s 5’8” and smokin’ hot. As for the rest: it actually *is* a drag to be Jewish and single at 36, but not desperately so. There is, nevertheless, total magic to be found in reality TV editing.
Joel: I’ll be a little more explicit and say that that aspect of Sarah’s characterization on the show is 50% a product of the editing room (it’s hard not to come across as desperate when you say “I don’t think he’s living my fantasy” and they cut the first three words) and 50% a product of the director saying, “Can you say that again, but this way?”. That said, we’ve both found being on the show a very positive experience.
Can you guys think of any Biblical or famously Jewish relationships that follow the straight girl meets gay boy trajectory?
Sarah: Hmmm. Mordechai and Esther? Um, Deborah and Barak? We’re pretty certain about Mary and the 12 Apostles – but it’s the wrong book.
Joel: Abraham and Sarah. Why do you think it took her 90 years to have a kid? And as far as the other book, if Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived, then she and Joseph had never had sex, which I think is highly suspicious.
Joel, I heard that you had a ketubah for your wedding. Did it deviate significantly from a typical ketubah?
Joel: Well, Mike didn’t give me three goats and a ring in exchange for my virginity, if that’s what you mean.
Our ketubah text was: “I betroth you to me forever. I betroth you to me in everlasting faithfulness. I will be your loving friend as you are mine. Set me as a seal upon your heart, as the seal upon your hand, for love is stronger than death. And I will cherish you, honor you, uphold, and sustain you in all truth and sincerity. I will respect you and the divine image within you. I take you to be mine in love and tenderness. May my love for you last forever. May we be consecrated, one to the other, by these rings. Let our hearts be united in faith and hope, to beat as one in times of joy as in times of sorrow. Let our home be built on understanding and lovingkindness, rich with wisdom and reverence.”
So it wasn’t halachically correct in any way, but I figure if it was good enough for Solomon it’s good enough for me.
Sarah, when Joel brought you to the matchmaker and was asked to describe your type, you immediately said that he must be Jewish. Is that an absolute requirement? And Joel, was the idea to go to a matchmaker yours or the show’s producers? Were any of the matchmaking attempts were successful?
Sarah: I have given up on absolute requirements, Jewish or otherwise. It would be nice, I like Jews.
Joel: The very best pairing didn’t get to screen, alas – the matchmaker found a plastic surgeon in Westchester with a “secret passion” he thought would be a good fit for TV. At the last minute, he dropped out because he didn’t want to be affiliated with anything too gay. His “secret passion” was rap –the rapping MD. (Roads not taken, sigh!)
Otherwise, no. Sarah is still accepting applications. If having your face plastered across 350 MTA buses isn’t the world’s biggest J-Date ad, then she’s probably doomed.
The idea was partly ours, partly the producers’. Sarah was talking about having been to a matchmaker before (though the matches set up for her didn’t end up working out), and the producers were like, ‘Ooh, would you be interested in trying again?’ And we went from there. The agency was called something like VIP Club, which made me think I was going to walk in and see Eliot Spitzer, but the office was actually gorgeous and the matchmaker was very nice.
And finally, here is the obligatory question: how is GWLBWLB good for the Jews?
Sarah: Tolerance, baby. Jews need every last ounce of tolerance we can get.
Joel: Well, you ask the question humorously, but I think there’s a very serious answer. Throughout history, people have seen Jews as outsiders, and it can be difficult to feel empathy for outsiders. But I think empathy is a muscle. When you lift weights, your biceps get stronger, for example, but not just stronger at lifting weights; you get stronger at lifting boxes, holding a Torah, impressing somebody you have a crush on. In the same way, when you exercise empathy with somebody you see as an outsider, you develop a stronger sense of empathy for all outsiders. So in a way, if this show is able to help some people feel that gay people aren’t necessarily the outsiders they thought we were, I think it’ll help them feel the same about other kinds of outsiders—including Jews.
In other words, what Sarah said.
Dvora Meyers is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn.