Excerpt: ‘Stars of David : Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish’ by Abigail Pogrebin
Journalist Abigail Pogrebin first began to grapple with her Jewish identity at 25, when her Jewish mother disapproved of her Irish Catholic boyfriend. Fifteen years later, married (to a Jewish man) and raising two children, she was still trying to understand her own relationship with Judiasm. She decided that speaking with other Jewish people would help her find her own answer.
In her new book, “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” Pogrebin interviewed 60 people about their cultural and religious experience. She spoke with Hollywood stars, such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Dustin Hoffman, and luminaries such as Gloria Steinhem. Barney Frank and Tony Kushner talked about what’s like to be gay and Jewish.
Below is the prologue of the book and the “Sarah Jessica Parker” chapter.
When I was twenty-five years old and dating an Irish Catholic, my very liberal Jewish mother became an instant reactionary. All her teachings about tolerance and open-mindedness seemed to evaporate overnight. When she suddenly grasped that I might actually end up married to this man, and produce grandchildren who would celebrate Christmas, she panicked. The tension between us was startling. It lasted almost two years.
I didn’t end up with Michael, but two lessons stayed with me: first, that my mother had one benchmark issue that was nonnegotiable. And two, that no matter how angry I was at the way she handled it, when I really played out what my life would be like with a non-Jewish husband, I couldn’t do it. No matter how close I was with Michael, there was some unmistakable barrier. I knew that navigating our different backgrounds would be too hard.
Jewish identity has crept up on me. And now that I’m forty and ten years married (to a Jew from Skokie), with two young children who are ours to shape, I’m aware of both of how connected I feel to other Jews and how confused I feel about Judaism.
Which is what led me, in part, to this book. 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. Was their ethnic and religious identity crucial to them, incidental to their lives, or meaningless? If they were raised with rituals, had they maintained them? Did they care if their Jewish daughter decided to marry a Michael?
I realize that choosing to talk to prominent Jews instead of regular folks is slicing off a narrow population, but that was the point. I consider myself a journalist, not a sociologist, and I wanted to focus on one snapshot of American Jewry — albeit a random sample within that group — who have in common a level of achievement that represents the American Dream. If an obvious goal of Jewish immigrants was to reach the highest rungs of American success, then what happened to the religious underpinnings of their children and grandchildren? Did being in the American spotlight require them to neutralize their ethnicity? Had they felt pressured to downplay their Jewishness at any point in their careers? Or had they benefited from it? Been ashamed of it?
Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” (in which he lists — and in some cases, outs — famous Jews), is hilarious precisely because it gets at something true. Jews feel a particular ownership of public figures who are members of the so-called tribe. We see Steven Spielberg and Joe Lieberman, for instance, as representing us. I know my parents still look at the newspaper headlines and cringe when a Jew is the one indicted, feel proud when it’s a Jew who’s won the Pulitzer. I wondered, is that a generational phenomenon? Do we still feel that any Jew fortunate enough to have become famous has a duty to be a credit to the Jewish people because their behavior reflects on us all? And if that’s true, are Jewish celebrities aware of it and do they embrace or reject this burden?
The majority of prominent Jews are not prominent for being Jewish. Most Jews with boldface names don’t hide their Judaism, but they don’t flaunt it either. And it’s certainly not a staple of the typical celebrity interview. So I set out to ask how being Jewish fits into a public life.
For my parents’ generation — children of immigrants or first-generation Americans — the framework for being Jewish was heavily influenced by their parents’ experience of poverty, bigotry, and the Holocaust. They absorbed a sense of peril, the need to prove themselves, to stay connected to the Jewish community and hold fast to rituals that were ingrained since childhood. My generation, on the other hand, has been given Cafeteria-Style Judaism: We can pick and choose. Nothing is required. There’s no sense of urgency or menace, of having to boost up or protect our people. Some of my friends fast on Yom Kippur, others come to our annual break-fast party having already eaten. Some go to synagogue only on the High Holy Days, others only when they’re invited to a wedding. I have no close friends who attend Shabbat services regularly or build a sukkah every fall. Many are sending their kids to Hebrew school, but few could say exactly why. Because they think they should, or because they went, or because they want their children to have more Jewish education than they did. My sense is the decision is often more reflexive than considered.
I was interested in what people who happen to be Jewish and happen to be famous think about being Jewish today, when à la carte Judaism is the norm and when strict observance and fervent Zionism have largely fallen away.
For a book that features conversations with sixty-two well-known high-achievers, it seems like the ultimate in hubris to start by talking about myself. But it also feels compulsory, because clearly I came at these interviews from my own vantage point. Though I consider myself a fair reporter, it would be disingenuous to call myself completely disinterested when it comes to this particular maze.
The fact is, I’m curious about all of this because I’m Jewish, but also because I’m not sure how Jewish I am. Judaism wasn’t a huge part of my growing up, though I was surrounded by Jews on New York’s Upper West Side. I was raised with occasional shabbos, synagogue twice a year, two seders, and eight nights of Hanukkah. My mother, who was raised in a Conservative home in Queens, given an extensive Hebrew school education, and a bat mitzvah, which was unusual for her era, turned her back on formal Judaism at the age of fifteen. This was because when her mother died, she was excluded from the mourners’ minyan (at that time, a quorum of ten men) solely because she was female. After she married my father, she maintained a home-based Judaism that involved intermittent Shabbat dinners and the celebrations of every major Jewish holiday — including the warmest overpopulated Hanukkah party every year, with latkes dipped in sour cream and a gift for every guest. She also helped found a makeshift congregation in Saltaire, Fire Island — a church was borrowed for the High Holy Days — where she was the cantor and people worshipped in bare feet.
My father was a Jew without portfolio: no Hebrew school, no synagogue (until he met my mother), and no belief in God. But he was utterly Jewish in his sensibility, sense of humor, tastes in culture and penchant for Talmudic argument.
My siblings and I were not sent to Hebrew School, or given bat or bar mitzvahs, which my mother regrets to this day, especially now that she’s a fairly observant, involved Jew again. Eventually, she found her way to a more egalitarian practice that includes women without over-modernizing or abandoning the basics. She writes about Jewish issues and tries to regularly attend Friday night services. But by the time she had her “rebirth,” when she was in her late forties, my Jewishness was already formed in its fragmentation and ignorance.
I took Introduction to Hebrew in college because I wanted to try to catch up. My professor taught us vocabulary by having us memorize the Israeli Top 40, which she recorded off a short wave radio. After graduation, I visited Israel and was very popular there because I knew all the latest hits. Now, eighteen years later, I can’t put a Hebrew sentence together.
That trip was actually kind of a bust. It was my parents’ graduation gift to me and my twin sister, Robin: They booked us on what they thought would be a spirited bus tour. When we arrived at the departure lounge at Kennedy Airport, everyone in our group was geriatric. Somehow the American Jewish Congress had assigned us to the wrong itinerary. Despite our disappointment, we still got on the plane and managed to enjoy the trip. Robin and I became the communal grandchildren, and there was something more poignant about touring the “homeland” with people who remembered its founding and who had lost family in the Holocaust.
I met my husband, David, on a blind date in 1993 and married him the same year on a mountaintop in St. Lucia; we imported our college friend and newly minted rabbi, Mychal Springer, to officiate, and brought our own kosher wine for the vows. It was the first Jewish wedding the Caribbean hotel had ever hosted, and their staff referred to the chuppah — the traditional wedding canopy — as the “hooper.”
David grew up in Skokie and Evanston, Illinois, and was bar mitzvahed in his neighborhood shul. I keep his bar mitzvah invitation in a frame on my bureau because the pencil drawing of his thirteen-year-old self in ‘seventies big hair and yarmulke make me smile. He wants to give our children a religious education, but his emotional connection to Judaism is vague and tenuous. Our ease together as a couple is not based in faith at all, though I’m aware that so much of our common vocabulary — our humor, eccentric relatives, close siblings, focus on food — feels somehow quintessentially Jewish.
Since the arrival of our two children, I’ve tried to figure out how to incorporate rituals that acknowledge the sacredness in our daily lives. But my efforts still feel stilted, forced. I light candles on Friday nights when we’re home, and savor watching our son, Benjamin, rip into the challah and pass pieces around the table. I love watching our daughter, Molly, imitate me sweeping my hands three times over the candles. Before the meal, I say out loud what I was grateful for that week and Ben and Molly pipe up with some thanks of their own. We all kiss each other and say “Good shabbos.” But I feel David’s discomfort — he lacks my sentimentality, and ritual doesn’t come naturally to him — and that makes me self-conscious.
I pray briefly before bedtime most nights, thanking God for the health and safety of my children. But I worry that my appeals are too self-centered.
I’m still in synagogue twice a year on the High Holy Days. I’ve always loved the chaotic family suppers before we rush out to evening services: Mom sets a beautiful table with lace and silver, there are the round, shiny challahs, apples dipped in honey, familiar blessings. But I get annoyed by my mother’s explanations; they feel like a reproach, a cue that I should know more about the symbolism of things. In synagogue on Kol Nidre — the eve of Yom Kippur — I always feel hypocritical confessing my sins. But that doesn’t stop me from asking God for clemency: My list of lapses is always easy to summon up. During one service recently, I found myself weeping during the Shehechianu (the blessing that thanks God for giving us life, sustaining us, and allowing us to reach this moment). I was overcome by the singing, everyone standing and swaying, arms around neighbors they didn’t even know. Of course, minutes after that transcendent moment, I found myself flipping ahead in the prayer book to see how much of the service was left.
Every year, my husband says he doesn’t know why he’s fasting or going to temple since he doesn’t feel anything there. When I suggest that maybe we ought to tell each other our sins for the year, he says he can’t have that conversation when he’s so hungry.
I go to two seders every year, but I grew up attending three. The first two were the typical Passover gatherings, one at cousin Danny’s on Long Island, the other at Aunt Betty’s in Larchmont — same Haggadah, same undersalted matzo ball soup, same chocolate macaroons, same thirty people around the table. The third seder was the feminist adaptation, co-conceived by my mother, who seemed to be the only one of the five so-called Seder-Mothers not dressed in a bohemian caftan. I remember feeling moved by a room full of articulate, animated women sitting on cushions on the floor, making the themes of the Haggadah relevant, seeming interested in my nascent opinions. But that same comforting circle would turn on each other in later years — fighting over who should be invited — and the event would sour in my mind.
I know I’ve inherited my mother’s superstitions. I close the shades when there’s a full moon, toss salt over my shoulder after it spills, and say “tuh, tuh, tuh” when a bad thought creeps into my head. My fear of tempting the evil eye goes even further than my mother’s: I feel convinced that cancer is just around the corner and I’ve written notes to my children in case I go down in a plane.
I’ve tried to resist my mother’s prejudices: her cringing at Christmas carols playing in every store, the involuntary recoil at the sound of a German accent, the sense that Jews are the supreme sufferers. I’ll never forget, when I was dating Michael, that I was stupid enough to venture to my mother that Jews are not the only people whose ancestors had endured massive, premeditated persecution. I mentioned the Irish potato famine as an example. Not wise. You’re comparing the Shoah to the Potato Famine? She looked as if she wanted to disown me — rip her shirt as is the Jewish custom when a child is considered symbolically dead.
Michael was a great boyfriend, but there was undeniably a cultural chasm between us. He didn’t “get” my family’s mishigas, let alone find a way to deal with it. And when I was with his family on Easter, sitting quietly around the table, I missed my family’s tumult. It was unsettling to go with him to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, no matter how merry. I couldn’t imagine my children taking the sacrament and crossing themselves. Baptism was out of the question. It bothered me, when we watched the film Music Box, about a woman who discovers her beloved father’s Nazi past, that Michael had no personal link to that story. We didn’t share an indigenous sorrow. He would never feel entrusted with or obligated by the responsibility to carry Judaism on. I realized that no dash of Christianity, however modified, would ever be palatable for me. I also realized I’d have to work harder to keep my own family Jewish than I would if I’d just married another Jew. I wanted the Jewishness to just be there: in my children’s faces, in their food, in their celebrations. I wasn’t sure enough of my own faith and history to be confident I could effectively pass it on.
My religious identity used to be informed entirely by my mother: She made the holidays sparkle, she made me feel there was a privilege and weight to being Jewish, she made me feel lazy for not doing more to understand it. But now I’m wading in in my own way, on my own time. And this book felt like one step in that direction. The specificity of each person’s Jewish chronicle was unexpected. The fact that Mike Nichols still feels, at his core, like a refugee; that Edgar Bronfman Jr. rejected Judaism because he rejected his father; that Beverly Sills felt uncomfortable enrolling her deaf Jewish child in a Catholic school, chosen because it specialized in educating deaf children; that Alan Dershowitz gave up his Orthodox observance because he couldn’t defend it to his children. That Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spurned Jewish ritual because of its sexism; that Barry Levinson believes Jewish Hollywood executives abandoned his film Liberty Heights because it was “too Jewish”; that Mike Wallace–long labeled a “self-hating” Jew because of his coverage of the Middle East — recites the Shema, Judaism’s most hallowed prayer, every night; that Natalie Portman feels ashamed of her Long Island hometown’s materialistic Jewish values; that Kati Marton never quite forgave her parents for hiding the fact that she was Jewish, that Kenneth Cole has misgivings about agreeing to raise his children in his wife’s Catholic faith. My conversation with Leon Wieseltier upended my approach to Judaism because he challenged my justifications for remaining uninformed about it.
These portraits are micro snapshots: They are private, often boldly candid, idiosyncratic, scattershot, impressionistic. They are not exhaustive, they do not purport to answer the macro questions about assimilation, anti-Semitism, or Jewish continuity. They are highly personal stories from people we feel we kind of know — stories that hopefully peel back a new layer. I was not investigating how many powerful Americans are Jewish, or how much power powerful American Jews have; what interests me is how Jewish those powerful Jews feel they are.
I intentionally chose not to underscore the commonalities among these voices because I believe they will reverberate differently for each reader. Recurring themes, including the tendency to abandon childhood rituals, the thorny questions of intermarriage, the staunch pride in history, and the ambivalence about Israel, will undoubtedly feel familiar depending on one’s experience.
I understand the temptation to turn first to chapters about the people one already admires, but some of the best nuggets lie among the least known. Even if you’ve never read a Jerome Groopman piece in The New Yorker, it’s intriguing to hear this doctor’s views on the clash between science and faith. Even if you’re not a Star Trek fan, it may surprise you to learn how Leonard Nimoy based Spock’s Vulcan greeting on a rabbinic blessing. Even if you disagree with every word “Dr. Laura” has ever said on the air, you may feel a pang of sympathy for her once you read about the vitriol she endured from other Jews after her conversion to Judaism.
We are living in a period of heightened religious awareness. Our political leaders cite biblical verses and claim to act in the name of God. Popular magazines run cover stories on spirituality. From Chechnya to Iraq, from Rwanda to Bosnia, we’ve seen how ethnic loyalties can bring out the worst in people. What I’ve attempted to probe in this book is how those Jews who are major players on the stages of American politics, sports, business, and culture feel about their Jewish identity and how it plays out in their daily lives. Just as these public Jews have entered our collective consciousness through their outsized accomplishments and celebrity, we can find parts of ourselves in their honest, intimate personal stories.
Sarah Jessica Parker