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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Annabelle Gurwitch

The author and actress on gambling Alabamian Jews and an unforgettable dinner with the family of a Syrian cab driver

Periel Aschenbrand
April 21, 2017
Image of Annabelle Gurwitch: Dave Stewart; Photo collage by Tablet magazine.
Image of Annabelle Gurwitch: Dave Stewart; Photo collage by Tablet magazine.
Image of Annabelle Gurwitch: Dave Stewart; Photo collage by Tablet magazine.
Image of Annabelle Gurwitch: Dave Stewart; Photo collage by Tablet magazine.

When New York Times bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch was growing up in Alabama—or where the “Shalom y’all” Jews live in the South—she fantasized about having a family. That is, any family but her own. In her new essay collection Wherever You Go, There You Are, Gurwitchwrites about her “cast of epically dysfunctional relatives” and her own family of “bootleggers, gamblers, and philanderers, as well as the sisterhoods, temporary tribes, and communities who have become surrogates along the way.”

Gurwitch, a theater actor with countless television appearances, including Seinfeld, Dexter, Boston Legal, is well known for co-hosting Dinner & a Movie on TBS and years as a regular commentator on NPR. In her non-work life she is beautiful and kind, and her thoughts on family are contemplative and feel essential to the lunatic world we are currently living in. We recently sat down at one of my favorite diners in Tribeca where she told me, among other things, how a chance taxi ride with a refugee driver from the other side of the world helped her figure out what really makes a family.

Periel Aschenbrand: You now live in L.A.

Annabelle Gurwitch: I never thought I would leave New York but I never had a great apartment. If I’d had a great apartment…

PA: Where are you from, originally?

AG: I was born in a part of Alabama, which is where the “Shalom y’all” Jews are from, but we got kicked out of there because my dad owed everyone money.

PA: Why?

AG: He was a gambler.

PA: That’s amazing—not for being a father, of course, but for a story.

AG: Yeah. One of the things about this book is that I start with why I was trying to escape my crazy family and then I look at families I’ve tried to join.

PA: It’s a little bit unusual to have a gambling Jew, right?

AG: Not in my family. Everyone was a gambler. They lost money on craps tables and in poker. Both my dad and his dad were like the black sheep in their families, they both had lots of businesses that just failed.

PA: Is your father still alive?

AG: He just died. Everyone died while I was writing this book. My father, my mother, my cat that I wrote about in this book died.

PA: I’m sorry. Also, that’s probably a blessing in disguise. So your dad was from Alabama, originally?

AG: Yes.

PA: Are there any Jews in Alabama?

AG: Yes. And I’m related to most of them. But the hilarious thing is, like in most places, there were two competing temples in my town, in Mobile. My grandfather was the president of one and then there was the other one, which was more liberal. We were more conservative but we were really more shtetl Jews, is what it was.

PA: How old were you when you left Alabama?

AG: I was 5. But my family came to America in the first half of the 20th century. They were fur trappers. They worked on the Mississippi.

PA: And where was your mom from?

AG: Delaware. And we lived in both places. When we burned every bridge in Alabama, we had to move to Delaware and we lived with my aunt and uncle. We had to live in their house because we had nothing, we were broke. We wound up moving to Miami Beach and eventually then I moved to L.A. And I love L.A.

PA: Me too, actually. Tell me a good story about your dad.

AG: The Truman Justice Department sent my uncle to prison for embezzlement and my dad, when he was 12, was sent to Washington, D.C. with $50,000 strapped to his waist—to bribe a federal prosecutor.

PA: No fucking way.

AG: They took the bribe, but it didn’t work so my uncle went to jail.

PA: They took 50K from a 12-year-old?

AG: Mmhm. The thing is that my dad was kind of a fabulist so you never knew if his stories were true or not. But he told me that he was sent to New York with a bunch of other boys from the South, when he was in military school, to pack arms when Israel was founded. And he said they worked on the docks and they put the arms in big shipping containers labeled “Farm Equipment.” Now, that is true. Boys from the South were sent to New York. They were just, you know, labor. And the Lehman brothers were part of that whole thing, part of organizing help when Israel was being founded. Whether my dad was part of that, I don’t know. But the story about the federal prosecutor, I found it, actually, in a news article. So now I know it’s true.

PA: And what was being a Jew in Alabama like?

AG: It just took a certain amount of concessions because you’re on the gulf coast. Like my grandmother tried to keep kosher but she had an exclusion for seafood. Because what are you going to do? Not eat oysters? It’s impossible. They were very much like the Jews who settled in the North at that time. They were very insular. My parents were cousins, by marriage. Two people with the exact same name—two Shirley Guwitches—married people in my dad’s family. They met a cousin’s wedding. That’s very Jewish. They were very much shtetl people. Some of them became very wealthy but they were in very involved in Jewish life, in founding a temple there, in keeping tradition alive, but they were, again, very shtetl people. Being a Jew in Alabama was very challenging. For example, it wasn’t until 2015 that a Jewish girl was allowed to be a debutante in Mobile.

PA: Whoa.

AG: My cousin wanted to join a sorority called the Betas. She couldn’t. Because she was Jewish.

PA: So there was very clear anti-Semitism.

AG: Yes. But you’re Southern—we also had all of the names like Bubba. And I had a cousin named Brother. I don’t think I ever knew his real name, he was just “Cousin Brother.”

PA: Come on! Was Brother his real name?

AG: I don’t know. My cousin, Bubba, was the President of AIPAC. He was so wealthy, so influential, so philanthropic but the first time he tried to join the Mobile country club, they said to him, “We don’t take your kind.” When he became even more powerful and influential, they asked him to join and I believe he just said, “Fuck you.”

PA: Good for cousin Brother Bubba.

AG: They formed their own clubs. The Jewish Progressive Club, which was philanthropic. But also, they gambled there, too. Everyone played cards. Everyone.

PA: One of the things I’ve learned from writing this column, is that Jews do the same thing no matter where they are. Which is fascinating.

AG: In a way, one of the reasons why I wanted to tell this story is because I wanted to tell the story of looking for family. So many people feel like there’s been a terrible mistake and they should have been born into a family that’s more like they are. And so you go and you find other families.

PA: So what did you find?

AG: I found many families. I found my theater tribe. There are stories in the book how when I was in my 20s I was in a UFO cult. So, looking for family and what it means to be family. And I argue that, yes, these chosen families are families. And this is the way we live, as people, now. One of the things I did when I was reading this book was get really into Yuval Noah Harari’s book about homosapiens and it’s really fascinating because we have the same brain we had 70 thousand years ago. We think we have evolved but we haven’t. We’ve put ourselves in a world that doesn’t necessary support our species’ need for community. We’re built to live together. So that’s why I think these chosen families are just as important because we just don’t live near our families anymore. And one of the reasons why I wanted to tell my immigrant story is because ultimately it’s a story of assimilation and I do believe in that as a value. I think that’s the future. I love Jewish holidays—I’m not a congregational Jew or a ritual Jew. The lens through which I see the world is Jewish, but I really believe in a future where we live with these traditions but we get beyond tribalism. That’s really the message of this book.

PA: That’s a very beautiful way to think about community and especially relevant at this moment.

AG: I was on my way to Alabama, where I hadn’t been in about 30 years. So I’m on my way to the airport and I’m telling my driver that I’m so excited I’m going home and suddenly I think maybe I won’t get a 5-star rating if I don’t ask him about him, so I ask, “Where are you from?” And he says, I can’t go to my home, because of the war, because I’m from Syria. And I’m like, “Oh my god, we’re both immigrants with this connection to our homes but I can go home and he can’t.”

So I go down to Alabama and I have this amazing experience that people call “having a sense of place.” And while I’m down there, Jeff Sessions, who was the Senator, tries to pass a ban against Syrian immigrants coming to Alabama. So I think of my Uber driver. When I get back to L.A., I track him down and he invites me to his house for dinner. And I find out that he lives just a couple of miles from me. All these Syrians live just a couple of miles from me. And they make me this traditional Syrian dinner and I meet their family and I think, they’re my family too. And this is what we have to do. I need to meet my neighbors. We don’t let them stay in a shtetl. We help them to get out. We couldn’t do that as Jews in Alabama. We weren’t accepted. So my responsibility as a second generation American is to extend community to these people.

PA: That’s a really beautiful story.

AG: It’s the only way forward. You know, I consider myself a left-wing liberal and I realize, I don’t know any Syrians. Why not? And then I realize, this mentality that “these people could be dangerous,” is ironic because my family was made up of actual criminals.

PA: Right, right. On that note. I’ll drink to that. Speaking of which, what’s your favorite drink?

AG: Coffee.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

AG: All day.

PA: How do you eat your eggs?

AG: I’m trying to eat vegetables but I really am Southern. I would just eat steak and eggs.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday or ritual?

AG: Tashlich. Can’t cast enough sins into water.

PA: Did you have a bat mitzvah?

AG: I did. I still have the dress.

PA: What did you wear?

AG: It was peach colored, with a shrug. And the night before my bat mitzvah I told my father I was an atheist and he said, I don’t give a fuck what you believe in, you’re getting bat mitzvah-ed. And then he lost all my bat mitzvah money at a poker table.

PA: My God… What shampoo do you use?

AG: Malin and Goetz.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

AG: Lox.

PA: Five things in your bag?

AG: Expired subway cards, a poker chip I inherited from my dad and breath mints. I’m always cold so I always have fingerless cashmere gloves. And I always carry a notebook.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

AG: My Miu Miu patent leather shoes that look like they were grandmother’s in the 1940s.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.