‘Measure of a Man’

‘Measure of a Man’

Blake Cooper plays Robert Lipsyte’s more-or-less alter ego in “Measure of a Man.” (Photos courtesy Great Point Media)
Blake Cooper plays Robert Lipsyte’s more-or-less alter ego in “Measure of a Man.” (Photos courtesy Great Point Media)

Bobby Marks’s religion isn’t specifically mentioned in either the film “Measure of a Man” or the 1977 young adult novel, “One Fat Summer,” on which it is based.

But he certainly was Jewish in author Robert Lipsyte’s mind.

Mr. Lipsyte, who lived in Closter for 20 years, and whose children went through the town’s public school system and then on to the regional Northern Valley High School in Demarest, elaborated. “I don’t think it comes through in the film, but I always thought of him as Jewish,” he said. “And his parents are Marty and Lenore Marks, and that sounds Jewish to me.”

More to the point, the book is autobiographical. It’s based on, well, one fat summer in Mr. Lipsyte’s life.

In the book, Bobby (Blake Cooper) and his family spend the summer at a cabin at fictional Lake Rumsen. One of Bobby’s few pleasures there is his relationship with Joanie Williams (Danielle Rose Russell). But the pair are mercilessly picked on by local teens, she because of her large nose and he because of his weight.

What Bobby, particularly, goes through is familiar to anyone who ever has been bullied: he is constantly on the lookout for tormentors. He never knows where or when they will appear or what they will do when they do show up. It is almost claustrophobic.

New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte lived in Closter for 20 years.

Bobby takes a job caring for the estate of Dr. Kahn (Donald Sutherland), who in the film (though not the book) is a concentration camp survivor. Over the course of the summer, the young boy learns responsibility and to stand up for himself.

Mr. Lipsyte, 80, grew up in Rego Park, Queens, and did all the things Jewish kids his age in Queens did. He went to Hebrew school, was a bar mitzvah, and even continued on toward a confirmation until his beloved rabbi died unexpectedly. “That really tested my faith and turned me off,” he said.

He was the son of two New York City school teachers, and the family had a second home in Monroe, N.Y. “We” — parents and children — “had the same vacations,” he said. “We went up there every weekend, every holiday, every summer.”

Like Bobby, young Robert Lipsyte was overweight. “I didn’t play any sports,” he recalls. “I was good at underwater swimming,” which plays a key role in the film and book. And like Bobby, Mr. Lipsyte also had to put up with bullies. It was the townies against the summer people, he said. “There was a lot of anti-Semitism up there.”

Many of the locals resented the wealthier summer people and wondered if they should rename the area “Lake Wop or Lake Kike,” he added.

Mr. Lipsyte got a job mowing lawns and generally caring for the estate of a Jewish man, but here real life and the film diverge. Mr. Sutherland’s Dr. Kahn “was much nicer than the character in the book,” he said. “I thought he was a terrible man.”

In the film, too, the townies are far more violent than those with whom Mr. Lipsyte dealt. “There was a long walk from my house to the house where I worked, and I really had to keep my eye out,” he said. “But they just kind of harassed me and pushed me around, but they never did any real damage,” as they do in the film. “As the summer progressed and I became stronger, I became less and less afraid of them.”

Donald Sutherland plays a concentration camp survivor in the film.

Ironically, in the film Bobby doesn’t lose weight. But Mr. Lipsyte did, some 40 pounds, that changed his life. He joined a traveling softball team in Monroe and even went out for his college tennis team. “I tried to make up for lost time,” he said.

His life in the sports world continued. If his name is familiar now, it may be because in addition to being a respected and award-winning author, he also was a sports columnist for the New York Times, a job he landed “totally by accident.

“I’d just graduated from college and needed a summer job before I left for grad school in California,” Mr. Lipsyte said. “I saw an ad in the New York Times that the paper was looking for an editorial assistant. The job turned out to be a copy boy in the sports department. I hated the job and wasn’t all that interested in sports, but I kind of loved the Times.

“I loved the idea of journalism as a calling and being part of something other than yourself. I guess if the job had been in the art department, that’s what I would have wound up doing — art.”

Mr. Lipsyte never made it to California. Ironically, at a time when there were three baseball teams in town, Mr. Lipsyte had been to only two games his entire life — and found them disappointing.

“I’d listened to baseball on the radio, and by the time I got to Yankee Stadium with my dad I’d expected something bigger and much more beautiful,” he said. “Mel Allen was a great announcer and he painted a picture that really impacted my imagination, and made me believe it was much more than it was.”

But obviously that changed. He did go back to baseball. His third game was as a reporter for the Times.

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