The book “Wherever You Go, There They Are” opens with author Annabelle
Gurwitch looking at her family gathered around the table for Thanksgiving and asking herself if “there’s been a big mistake.”
“We, as a species, evolved to live in communities, but there is that push-pull thing that we all deal with in our families of origin and our chosen families,”
Gurwitch explained in the greenroom/teen lounge inside Congregation Or Tzion in Scottsdale. “That’s always been a really interesting topic for me because I come from a really big Southern family.”
The actress, commentator and author was promoting her fourth book as part of a national tour with the Jewish Book Council. Each of her nonfiction, memoir-inflected books is built around a single theme.
Her first book, “Fired!,” explores the stories of different performers being let go from their jobs, starting with Gurwitch being fired from a project with Woody Allen. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily in some cases, you can’t be fired from your family. However, as Gurwitch points out, we all have different “tribes” — groups of co-workers, friends or others that often serve as surrogate families.
“Whenever someone wants something from you, whether they want your vote or your time or your love or your money, they’ll invoke family,” Gurwitch said. “They’re always like, ‘We’ll treat you like family.’ Maybe what they ought to say is, ‘We’ll treat you like cherished friends we rarely have a chance to see.’”
For Gurwitch, her most cherished friends are in the theater tribe.
“When you do theater, you’re always in the theater on holidays,” Gurwitch said. “It’s a great way to not come home and do family holidays.”
Despite her jokes and airing of family secrets, Gurwitch’s book isn’t without its loving family moments. Near the end, Gurwitch writes about moving her parents into a Jewish assisted living facility.
“In the last few years of my parents’ life, I found myself in the role of caregiver,” said Gurwitch, who lived in the facility part-time for two years to ease her parents’ transition. “It was a return for my parents, particularly my mother, to her tribe. She gained so much by taking her place amongst the Jewish women in that home.”
But Gurwitch’s father, a Southern Jew from a line of bootleggers and other roguish characters, had a more difficult time.
“My father was caught smuggling bacon into the Miami Jewish home,” Gurwitch said. “After he died — they both passed while I was writing this book — I found out it wasn’t just bacon, it was also crabmeat. I just appreciate that commitment, I do, because part of his Southern heritage from growing up on the coast in Alabama was that he made amazing gumbo.”
Gurwitch said the idea for the book first occurred to her around the time of Hurricane Katrina. She was on the phone with her father inquiring about various relatives, and he said they were fine but that her land had taken a beating. Having grown up without much money, Gurwitch was surprised to learn she had property on Dolphin Island, Alabama. When she told the news to her son, he said he didn’t know there were Jews in Alabama and inquired about how his family got there.
“The more I researched and learned about this really vibrant Jewish population in the South — the Shalom y’all tribe — I thought, ‘I really want to tell this story,’” Gurwitch said. “However, it was still shtetelized and I wanted to write about that, because I felt it was timely in terms of thinking about how we assimilate, how we retain our identity and the families that settled there. It was only in 2015 that a Jewish girl was able to become a debutante in Mobile, so that really tells you how recent that story is.”
In the book, Gurwitch also wrote about a then-obscure senator, Jeff Sessions, and his attempts to block Syrian refugees from coming to the state. She laughs when she remembers how she worried he was so obscure that no one would know who he was. Despite her concerns, she included him in the book because she wanted to confront what she perceived as a dangerous shift in the country.
“All of the book is really a plea to not otherize people and a plea for more integrated society in all ways, whether it’s immigrants or age-related,” Gurwitch said. “We were those people showing up on the shores. It really is important to remember these roots.” JN