It’s Hanukah and I’ve been immersing myself in Jewish culture – lots of latkes with applesauce and sour cream, that dreidel song, and candles on the menorah.
I just finished Abigail Pogrebin’s Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. Pogrebin interviewed dozens of Jewish celebrities about their relationship to Judaism. I bought this book for a friend in November, and it looked so intriguing I rushed to the library for my own (temporary) copy.
Pogrebin is a former producer for 60 Minutes. Her mother Letty Cottin Pogrebin was one of the founders of Ms Magazine and her twin sister, Robin, writes for the New York Times. Those kind of connections mean access, and Pogrebin talked to 62 of the nation’s leading actors, artists, writers, politicians and media people of our day.
She interviews Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kyra Sedgwick, Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kenneth Cole of the shoe company, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Beverly Sills, Tony Kushner, Neil Simon, Joan Rivers, and many more.
I didn’t even know some of these people were Jewish. Beverly Sills? Who would have thought? Mike Wallace? It turns out that he says shema (Jewish prayer) every night before going to sleep.
Pogrebin wanted to understand how these celebrities were affected by their Judaism, as she explains in her preface:
"I found myself looking at public figures that happen to be Jewish and wondering how Jewish these people felt. It occurred to me that we might share a kind of figurative secret handshake – not just pride in the heritage and endurance of the Jewish people, but uncertainty about what it means to be a Jew today Did they care if their Jewish daughter decided to marry a Michael?"
The interviews are short and engaging and I can see this book becoming an evergreen bar or bat mitzvah present. None of those interviewed said they had experienced overt anti-Semitism that curtailed their careers. A few even said being Jewish had given them unexpected access. Most hated Hebrew school. But aside from a few compelling interviews, I felt disappointed, less with Pogrebin’s interview techniques than with the bland answers of the celebrities.
The vast majority of those interviewed identify themselves as Jews, but make little or no attempt to practice the religion or actively pass it on to their children. They regard Judaism as a culture, an inherent part of their character, but something not important enough to explore or engage in actively. In some of these interviews, the celebrities say I am Jewish because I think I am. I don’t go to synagogue, light candles, or try to teach my children anything about Judaism. Of course I want my children to be Jewish, but it’s not something I would force on them.
Perhaps this attitude is an East Coast thing. There are so many Jews in New York that it’s easy to feel Jewish – you just have to watch Seinfeld reruns, go to Gus’ pickles every once in a while, and nod at the Hasidic Jews in the diamond district. Schools close automatically on Yom Kippur. Judaism is in the air.
That’s exactly how I was raised. No temple, no ceremonies, nothing religious, just a sense of my Judaism. So I grew up feeling like I was a fraud. It was not until I had children that I began to practice Jewish rituals. I now see that activities like lighting Shabbat candles, eating matzo on Passover, and going to temple help instill that sense of self, the awareness of Judaism.
For that reason, I found the interviews with those who were strongly Jewish-identified to be the most satisfying, perhaps because these people had strong opinions which jumped out on the page, not just tortured explanations of why they feel Jewish even though they don’t know a thing abut Judaism.
Dustin Hoffman is the first interview in the book, and deservedly so, since his Judaism permeates his life. His second wife, Lisa, is Jewish and they have raised Jewish children who have gone on to become b’nai mitvah.
The interview with Kenneth Cole was the most painful. He reads the Torah and feels Jewish. But he married Maria Cuomo and agreed to let his children grow up as Catholics. While he has taken his children to Israel, their Catholicism is clearly difficult for him.
On another note, I saw Steven Spielberg’s Munich last night. The message of this excellent, disturbing movie: If you are a Jew, you’re damned if you retaliate and damned if you don’t.