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Turning Shiva Into Comedy

Turning Shiva Into Comedy

The novel that became the film 'This Is Where I Leave You' is the first explicitly Jewish work from a prolific writer.

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

Jonathan Tropper, the best-selling author whose film version of his novel “This Is Where I Leave You” opens nationally this weekend, says he was reluctant to make his characters explicitly Jewish in his first four books for fear “of being pigeonholed as a Jewish writer.”

But when the 44-year-old Westchester native and resident, a graduate of local Jewish day schools, was working on a novel about a dysfunctional family, he came up with the idea of the mother and adult children sitting shiva together as a structural means of keeping the characters interacting in close quarters for a week.

That’s the setting for “This Is Where I Leave You,” a comedy-drama starring Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Jason Bateman, Adam Driver and Connie Britton in the screenplay adapted by Tropper from his novel. It’s about the Foxman family, thrown together by the final request of their husband and father that they sit shiva together when he dies. Given their love-hate relationships, the challenge is to keep their family ties without turning on each other.

The protagonist is Judd Foxman, recently divorced and jobless, and, like other central characters in Tropper novels, a troubled, anxiety-ridden nebbish with elements of warmth, wit and soul. And a Jewish sensibility.

Tropper mentioned a revealing conversation he had with a producer who referred to Tropper’s Jewish characters in his writing. “I said they’re not Jewish,” the author recalled. “And she said, ‘Every character you write is Jewish.’”

He described his protagonists as “characters who reach their lowest point before they can make a comeback,” adding: “I guess my sweet spot is writing brutally honest observational narratives about middle-class men having moments of introspection and finding the truth in their lives.”

That applies to Judd Foxman and, in Tropper’s most recently published best-seller, “One Last Thing Before I Go,” Drew Silver, a has-been musician washed up at 44 who rejects a much-needed heart operation to spend his remaining time patching up his messed-up family relationships.

Somehow, despite the plot line, it’s an often hilarious and sometimes poignant story, however improbable and decidedly raunchy. That’s the Tropper style, and it certainly has been successful. Director-producer J. J. Abrams is scheduled to film “One Last Thing” next year.

In addition to working on his seventh novel, about a father and a teenage son, Tropper is a creator of the television crime drama “Banshee,” which has a strong, loyal following on Cinemax.

Acknowledging the superficial level of Jewish identity among the characters in his novels, Tropper says he “surprised” the siblings in “This Is Where I Leave You” by creating a scene in the book where they say Kaddish for their father and “find comfort in the ritual — it really speaks to them.”

And while the rabbi in the book is a shallow young man, Tropper says he tried to make up for it in his next novel, “One Last Thing.”

“I felt I owed them [rabbis] one so I made the rabbi,” who is the father of the protagonist, “the wisest character” in the book.

In all of his novels, Tropper’s underlying message about family, he says, is that “whether you love or can’t stand your family, they can save you, whether you want them to or not.”

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