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Study: Jewish Population Shrinking Outside Israel

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

The global Jewish population grew by more than 88,000 people over the past year, and now stands at 13.75 million, according to a new study published y Professor Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Though the huge number of simchas is a boon to the Jewish people, it pales in comparison to the growth rate of the rest of the world.  While the Jewish population grew by 0.65% in 2012, the global population grew by almost double that – 1.26%.

According to the study, one out of every 514 people in the world is Jewish – less than 0.2% of the world population.

The report noted that the largest Jewish population in the world resides in Israel – 5.97 million, accounting for 43% of the world’s Jews.  5.46 million – 39% – live in the United States.  The number of Jews living outside of Israel shrunk by over 10,000 people, due to intermarriage and aliyah.

Intermarriage is a significant factor in US Jewish population rates, due to the fact that over 50% of Jews who married in the last year married outside the faith.

Facebook Stock Drop: Divine Blessing for Marc Zuckerberg

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

If a man is given a financial windfall at the end of his life, what reason does he have to change? How much enjoyment will he get out of it anyway? For an 85 year old, how great is the finest of steaks to you when your body can’t even digest it? If you just received a billion dollars, it could mean that for every good you did in this world, G-d just paid you back in full. When your time comes and the Heavenly Court measures your good deeds against the wrong you did, you will have no merit to your name. All of it was accounted for before your passing.

The Book of Deuteronomy warns of G-d rewarding a man to his end. This is what that refers to.

But what if a man is young? What if he makes a terrible mistake? What if this is a mistake he doesn’t even consider a bad choice? Does this person deserve to be taught a lesson in how to fix himself?

Hashem has just told His children, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Take a look at the most famous member of the People of the Book for 2012: Mark Zuckerberg.

On May 18 his company, Facebook, became a stock on the Nasdaq Exchange. Minutes after trading began the price of FB sailed to $45 a share, valuing Zuckerberg’s 603 million shares at a little more than $27 billion. He became wealthier than George Soros and Michael Bloomberg. Not bad for a twenty something from White Plains, New York.

On May 19 he did something the very same Book of Deuteronomy says a Jew can never do. He married a non-Jewish woman. Why is a Jew not allowed to marry out? Simple. G-d says so. It has nothing do with racism, superiority, exclusiveness, or anything else. One of the 613 Commandments the Creator of Heaven and Earth directs every Jew on Earth to marry another Jew.

Every instance of a Jewish man having relations with a non-Jewish woman is a sin so bad, nobody in Heaven can defend us. When our spouse dies, they go to a different part of the Next World. We don’t even have the consolation that in the afterlife we will see them — ever.

G-d could have allowed Mr. Zuckerberg to roll in his billions. He could have rewarded Mark to his end by not doing anything to help.

Instead, He sent him a tribulation of unprecedented magnitude.

From the moment Mark married a non-Jew, his finances tumbled. Facebook went from an IPO high of $45 a share to $18.03. Mark’s worth went from $27 billion, all his because he was single, to $10.9 billion – half claimable by his wife. His guaranteed assets of $5.45 bil are a whopping $21.5 billion less than what he started with.

It could get worse.

Analysts project Facebook to earn $.63 a share for 2013. The average price to earnings ratio for the Nasdaq 100 is 11.9. Multiply $.63 by 11.9 and you have a 2013 price target of $7.50, bringing Zuckerberg’s fortune down to $4.5 bil – half of which belongs to his wife.

I’ve heard of costly weddings before . . . .

This wasn’t a private lesson given to someone outside the public eye. This is the most well-known Jew on earth. His life is an open book for all of us to study. This act of love to wake up Mr. Zuckerberg also serves as an act of love for all of us. Even with “merely” $2 billion in the bank, he will not go hungry. He will not be wanting.

G-d acted to wake him up without putting him to sleep.

We spend all of our lives pursuing wealth, only to see it all go up in smoke. George Soros will die and his money will be parted from him. Mark Zuckerberg, a young man with a bright future, can easily fix his mistakes and rise to even greater heights. Wasn’t there a time in the 1990s when the once mighty Apple traded for $3 a share? Look at where it came from, how far it fell. See what it has become today.

Jewish Press Radio with Yishai Fleisher: In the Eyes of the Rebbe

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

(((CLICK BELOW TO HEAR AUDIO)))

Yishai is joined by popular guest Baruch Widen (commentator on Arab society and Arab Jewish relations) to discuss a book by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe) on settling the Land of Israel. Yishai and Widen dig into the phenomenon of young American Jews moving to the Land of Israel and how programs such as Birthright (Taglit) are actually decreasing the intermarriage rate among young Jews.

To download, right-click, and “Save Target As” HERE.

Reaction To Ads Expose Troubled U.S. Jewish Psyche

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

The recent kerfluffle over Israeli government video ads and billboard posters, designed to entice wayward yordim to return home, instead exposed the troubled psyche of American Jews.

 

One might say – if verbal treif is permitted – that a ham-handed attempt by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption to guilt-trip wandering Israelis into leaving their American promised land backfired. The ministry had good reason for concern lest American society continue to corrode the loyalty of Israelis to their homeland and culture. The benefits of assimilation, as American Jewish history (and the current intermarriage rate) reveals, exact high costs.

 

In the ministry videos a young Israeli woman solemnly contemplates Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen Israeli soldiers, while her American boyfriend is clueless. A sleeping Israeli father does not awaken while his youngster calls “daddy,” but not “abba.” The child of Israelis, Skyping with grandparents back home, is oblivious to the meaning of their Chanukah candles and imagines that it is Christmas.

 

For months these ads elicited no discernible response, either from wayward Israelis or American Jews. But once the video clips appeared on the Jewish Channel, prompting a tirade from Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, gevalts resounded throughout the land.

 

Goldberg was appalled: “I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads.” Their message was clear: “it is impossible for Jews to remain Jewish in America.” He added, gratuitously, that Israel has its own problems: many rabbis “act like Iranian mullahs.” And intermarriage can be “understood as an opportunity” – although for what he did not specify.

 

The Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America was furious. Rejecting any notion that “American Jews do not understand Israel” (which hardly was the primary thrust of the ads), they warned that “this outrageous and insulting message could harm the Israel-Diaspora relationship.” Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman found the videos “demeaning.”

 

There may also have been a political subtext to the belated outrage. The New York Times noted gratuitously that the Israeli ministry responsible for the ad campaign is headed by a Russian immigrant named Sofa Landver. She belongs to “the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party [that]…takes a hard line on the peace process with the Palestinians and advocates exchanging parts of Israel heavily populated by Arab citizens for Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.” Therefore, presumably, the ad campaign must be a bad idea.

 

With some 500,000 Israelis estimated to be living in the United States, it is no small problem that the Immigrant Absorption Ministry tried to address – if too bluntly for American Jewish insecurities. The Ministry, expressing its respect and appreciation to the American Jewish community, reiterated the obvious: the ad campaign targeted Israelis who had succumbed to the allure of American enticements, not American Jews.

 

But Prime Minister Netanyahu, responding to the squall of outrage from American Jewish precincts, quickly aborted the ad campaign. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, engaging in damage control, appeared on CNN for an interview with John King – on Shabbat, no less – to apologize for the failure of the Immigration Ministry to “take into account American Jewish sensibilities.”

 

As Jerusalem-based journalist David Hazony perceptively observed about the video ad fracas, “in the hysteria of the response, the insecurity of American Jewish life is laid bare.” That is the real story of the video ad contretemps, which the fury of American Jews inadvertently confirmed.

 

Israel has long been an integral part of that story. Two years after Israel’s founding, American Jewish Committee President Jacob Blaustein wrested his famous agreement from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that Israel would neither presume to speak for American Jews nor attempt to entice them to make aliyah.

 

More recently, whenever Israel has incurred the wrath of an American president for permitting another settlement in its biblical homeland American Jews have writhed with embarrassment and hastened to distance themselves from Israeli “zealots.”

 

Assimilated American Jews remain ever anxious lest they be held guilty by association with Israel’s perceived misdeeds. Their loyalty to the United States must never be impugned. Any implication that American Jews are without a sustainable Jewish identity is infuriating. They seemed shocked that exposure to Jewish life in their promised American homeland can corrode the Jewish identity of Israelis.

 

Israeli yordim are the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, warning of imminent danger ahead. Yet the ads were intended as a warning to Israelis, not to the American Jews who quickly jumped to the conclusion that it is “about us” – a clear indication, as Hazony wrote, that Israelis “stepped on a live wire in the American Jewish psyche.”

 

For American Jews of a certain persuasion, Israel once again was the big bad Jewish bully whose reckless actions jeopardized their deep yearning for recognition as good Jews and acceptance as loyal Americans. But when an Israeli and an American Jew are paired, the ads suggested, the Jewish deficiencies of American Jewish life become glaringly apparent. That stung – precisely because there is truth to it.

Intermarriage Circa 1918

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Intermarriage is without doubt destroying the American Jewish community.

There are approximately 5.6 million American Jews, some 2 million of whom live in households identified as non-Jewish. Better than half the Jewish children under the age of 18 are being raised as non-Jews or with no religion. Whereas before 1965 only 10 percent of American Jews who married did so outside the faith, that percentage has jumped over the past two-and-a-half decades to at least 52 percent.

These statistics are depressing, alarming, and frightening. But this is not an entirely new phenomenon in American Jewish life. Page 6 of the January 20, 1918 edition of the New York Tribune carried an article headlined “American Melting Pot Already Diluting Jewish Religion and Race.” The article, written by D. M. Hermalin, described the marriage, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, of “Esther Lifshitz, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Samuel Lifshitz, an Orthodox Jew, to John D. Sylvester, a full-fledged American Gentile.”

Hermalin reported that “the marriage ceremony was performed in the bride’s home. Father, mother, uncles and aunts and numerous other relatives were present. An Orthodox rabbi performed the ceremony and made the bridegroom repeat in pure Hebrew ‘Hare ath m’kudesheth li b’tabaath zu k’dath Mosheh v’Israel.’

“It was no secret. Everybody present knew that the young bridegroom was a Christian, and he refused to embrace Judaism at the solicitation of Esther and her relatives. He agreed, however, to a Jewish marriage ceremony.”

According to the article, “The entire affair went off without a ripple in the life of Jewish orthodoxy on the East Side. The reason is that such things occur on the East Side, in Brownsville, Williamsburg, Harlem, and The Bronx, or wherever Jews in New York have settled in large communities.”

Hermalin wrote that intermarriages are “almost a daily occurrence now,” but that just a few years before, intermarriage “would have called forth surprise, astonishment and resentment on the part of the religious.” He attributed this to the precipitous drop in immigration from Eastern Europe that began in 1915.

Hermalin pointed out that without a steady influx of Jews from the Old World who were raised in an environment of commitment to religious practice, there are few people “to criticize the actions of the younger generation in America and to remind the old of its religious duties.”

Hermalin claimed that if Esther Lifshitz had wanted to marry her suitor in 1915, “and he had refused to become a member of the synagogue, she would have had to leave the house of her parents and probably been disowned by them.”

Jewish immigrants who came to America began to lose their commitment to Jewry, wrote Hermalin, and Jewry in America survived only because new immigrants from the Old World arrived to reinforce Judaism here.

It was the influx of Jews from Germany in the early part of the 19th century that was responsible for keeping Judaism viable in the United States. “But,” Hermalin noted, “with all due respect to their religious ardor, it was comparatively short-lived. During the time of forty years, German Jews in America lost even that enthusiasm which they had originally brought with them. They produced rabbis who knew very little of the Hebrew language and literature, and their sermons were smattered with politics, philosophy and everything but Judaism.”

Thus, during the middle of the 19th century the German Jews who were here were well on their way to assimilation. But a new influx of Jews from Europe that began after the Civil War and gained momentum after 1881 bolstered Judaism in America.

“The influence of the new arrivals,” Hermalin continued, “was immense. They actually made prominent American Jews feel ashamed of intermarriage and practice a purer Judaism than they had ever done before. All was well so long as the influx of immigration did not come to a stop. Then the World War broke out and the transformation came. It came suddenly and with gigantic strides. It does not manifest itself exactly in conversions to Christianity, but the laxity of religious adherence on the one hand and frequent intermarriage on the other hand all tend to undermine the integrity of Judaism in America.”

Once immigration to America slowed to a trickle after 1923, Judaism again entered a period of decline. There were, however, other factors that came into play during the first part of the 20th century, namely the founding of yeshivas, which tended to stem this decline or at least slow it.

Why Can’t I Get Married? (Part Two)

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Last week’s column evoked tremendous response. Many men contacted me expressing interest in meeting the young lady. I will be more than happy to follow-up. However, it’s my policy to make shidduch recommendations only after I meet the candidates. So to all those who wrote, may I suggest you call our office for an appointment?

The e-mails from women far exceeded those of the men. This letter touched a sensitive nerve in many hearts. They all echoed the same refrain, “Me too! I find myself in the same boat…I too would like to get married, but the years seem to have passed me by.”

Most of the women were in their late 30s, early 40s. They had all invested many good years in relationships that they hoped would lead them to the marriage canopy, but it proved to be futile. Having sacrificed their best childbearing years, they felt cheated.

Why has that short walk down the aisle become such a long arduous trek for so many? The woman who wrote had everything going for her – attractive, successful, and fun-loving. Why was she having such a difficult time? Why did marriage elude her?

Firstly, I feel compelled to comment on the general tone of her letter. In describing her family’s Jewish ties, the woman wrote that they attended High Holy Day services; she and her siblings were confirmed and had visited Israel. She went on to write that her older brother was intermarried and had no intention of asking his wife to convert. Her younger brother was dating mostly gentile girls. Her parents would have preferred they marry Jewish, but would never think of interfering with the “happiness” of their children. My response:

My Dear Friend:

I could almost dub the portrayal of your family’s Jewish life, “The American Jewish Tragedy,” compounded by the sad fact that the protagonists aren’t aware that they are choreographing a tragedy. Please do not take this as condemnation, but as I said, I feel compelled to comment on the sad reality you described.

You, as well as many others, are what our tradition refers to as “tinokot she’naflu b’shevi” – innocent Jewish souls who were never given a true Jewish education compared to infants who were kidnapped and weren’t privileged to know their real parents. Such individuals have no way of gauging what they are missing or have lost.

Similarly, Jews who grew up devoid of Torah, never tapped the vast treasures buried in its every word and letter, who were never nurtured by the Torah’s life- sustaining milk, have no way of comprehending their deprivation.

So it is that you, your family, and so many others are under the impression that making token gestures to Judaism is all there is to our faith. Judaism is not comprised of a superficial confirmation class, a token visit to a temple on the High Holy Days, or touring Israel.

We are the nation that stood at Sinai and sealed an eternal covenant with Almighty G-d. Not only is Torah our legacy, but our very life. Without Torah we cease to exist and are quickly swallowed up in the melting pot of the nations. Intermarriage is the death-knell of our people, leaving no memory in its wake, not even a Kaddish.

I realize that your parents would have preferred that your brother marry Jewish; nevertheless, they accepted a gentile wife for him and are prepared to do the same for your younger sibling, because “they don’t want to stand in the way of their children’s happiness.”

Never mind that your brothers will be the last Jewish males to carry your family name, thousands of years of Jewish life will come to an end in them, and that which Hitler, yemach shemo, could not do through gas chambers, they are willingly, if unknowingly, doing to themselves – and it’s all justified under the guise of “happiness.”

If someone claims that he feels “happy” taking drugs, would anyone sane accept that rationale? Wouldn’t we warn the person that he is on the path to self-destruction? Similarly, if someone obliterates his Jewish past, shouldn’t we warn him that he is committing spiritual suicide?

During the High Holy Days, we wish one another a Happy New Year but, such a greeting doesn’t exist in Hebrew. The expression is “Shanah Tovah” – “Have a good year,” or “Kesivah V’Chasimah Tovah” – “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year” – the emphasis on goodness rather than happiness – and there is a world of difference between these two words. Good is based upon responsibility, giving and sacrifice – taking the harder, more difficult path over the easy, attractive one.

Happiness, on the other hand, is a shallow pursuit that blurs all absolutes. It is rooted in self-gratification and satisfying passion, irrespective of the harm it inflicts on others. This pursuit of happiness is at the root of many of the ills that plague us. Shattered families, broken homes and drugs, can all be traced to it and people wake up too late and discover that chasing happiness is like chasing a butterfly, which flies away as soon as it rests on your shoulder. Genuine happiness can only be realized through goodness, through doing that which is right, moral, and decent.

Jewish opposition to intermarriage is not a matter of racism or prejudice. In order for the Jewish people to continue, and for children to be born Jewish, they must have Jewish mothers – it’s that simple. We are a minuscule minority in the world. In America the intermarriage rate ranges from 50-70 percent. In some European countries, it is as high as 90 percent. During the past 60 years, there has been no Jewish population growth in the U.S. If anything, our number has diminished, and not because there was a Hitler here who, G-d forbid, took us to the gas chambers.

Tragically, we built our own spiritual gas chambers that snuffed Jewish life out of our people. That is why I dubbed your story, “The American Jewish Tragedy.” There can be no bigger tragedy than to live in a free society in which you can live as a Jew, and yet choose not to, thereby underwriting your own demise.

Again, I apologize if you find these words hurtful. G-d forbid – that is not my intention. I would never want to cause anyone pain, but in all good conscience, I couldn’t allow your statements to pass without comment. Perhaps someone who reads these words will re-think his vacuous Jewish life, search out his heritage and discover G-d’s holy words that were engraved upon his soul at Sinai.

As for the personal dilemma that prompted you to write and ask why you can’t get married; after years of serious relationships, the guys just don’t propose? I will discuss that, Please G-d, in next week’s column.

Not Such ‘Stars Of David’ An Interview With Author Abigail Pogrebin

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

It may sound like the starkest of contradictions, but Abigail Pogrebin’s Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish (Broadway Books) is as depressing as it is addictive. Reading it can only confirm the most pessimistic analyses and prognostications on the state (and future) of the American Jewish community, but in a way that dry, impersonal studies and charts never could.

In fact, it’s hard to think of a recent book that comes close to this one in conveying the assimilation and alienation that define 21st century American Jewry – particularly the Jewish movers and shakers in the worlds of entertainment, business and media.

Pogrebin, who says the book was inspired in large part by her desire to better understand her own Jewish identity, interviewed 62 prominent American Jews and somehow got most of them – this is where the addictive part comes in – to say the most revealing things about themselves and their relationship with Judaism and Jewishness. It’s not a pretty picture, but it sure makes for a bracing and informative read.

Before we get to our question-and-answer session with Pogrebin, we’ll whet readers’ appetites with just a few of the hundreds of fascinating tidbits to be found in her book.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg insists that her Jewishness is of great importance to her, but nevertheless says she was turned off to religious Judaism because, in her view, women were excluded from meaningful participation. Ginsburg never made a big deal about her children’s Jewish education (her son chose not to have a bar mitzvah), nor did she care whether they married Jews (her daughter is married to a non-Jew). Asked by Pogrebin whether she misses Judaism she responds, “I wish that I could have the feeling for it that I once did. I don’t think I ever will.”

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg tells Pogrebin that before he married Kate Capshaw, a Protestant who converted to Judaism, he “only felt [his] Judaism” when he was at his mother’s kosher eatery in Los Angeles. Here’s how he describes his family’s current regimen of religious observance: “We light the candles on most Friday nights….We observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; nobody’s compelled to fast, but I fast and Kate fasts; the kids had to fast on their bar mitzvah year – their rabbi insisted. We do Hanukkah and we do Christmas….We do Christmas because it was a tradition in Kate’s family and because it’s the one holiday I wished I could have partaken in every year I was growing up.”

Don Hewitt, the creator and former executive producer of “60 Minutes,” comes off as aggressively hostile to Judaism. Asked if his children consider themselves Jewish he says, “I don’t think they call themselves anything.I don’t call myself anything.” Intermarriage in Hewitt’s view is not a bad thing: “I think it’s a better world if everybody’s integrated.” And talk of Jewish suffering apparently makes him extremely uncomfortable: “We cannot go on believing that nobody else hadtsuris but us. There are a lot of people. There are a lot of blacks who say, ‘Holocaust, shmolocaust; we got lynched!’ And they’re right!”

Edgar Bronfman, the billionaire president of the World Jewish Congress, admits that “Synagogue bores me to tears. I don’t get any spirituality out of going.” Was the Torah given to the Jews by God? “Please. Don’t try to give me any of that stuff.” The traditional view of God as an all-powerful deity? Not for Bronfman: “The problem is that in synagogue, we talk about this Avinu Malkeinu business ["Our Father, Our King"] all the time. I don’t do that. I mean, I can sing it, but while I’m singing it, I’m saying, ‘It’s not my father, it’s not my king.’”

Jewish Press: Which interviewee(s) proved the most interesting?

Pogrebin: I was struck by Kenneth Cole’s candor in describing how he’s wrestled with his decision to raise his three daughters in his wife’s Catholic faith. I was surprised to hear Ruth Bader Ginsburg describe how being excluded from the mourner’s minyan after her mother’s death alienated her from the tradition. I liked Ronald Perelman’s image of the Sabbath being like “an island” for his family once a week, and hearing him discuss his own difficult bout with a very public intermarriage. I was surprised by Professor Alan Dershowitz’s decision to forgo morning prayer and strict observance because he’s assumed to be a religious Jew by so many; it was interesting to hear him talk about where he sits now in terms of ritual and how he felt when his son married a non-Jew. Natalie Portman was also provocative when she described what she sees as the difference between Jews in Israel and Jews in America.

The most disappointing?

I don’t want to name names because everyone in the book did me an enormous favor by being a part of it. But there are some who played it closer to the vest than I would have liked, or gave what I would consider facile answers about complicated issues. Fortunately, I think they’re in the minority: most of the people I interviewed were unusually candid and willing to explore this territory fairly openly.

You write in the book’s prologue of a relatively recent rekindling of interest in Judaism on your part. Were you disheartened by the flip or blas? attitude toward things Jewish (ritual observance, intermarriage, etc.)  displayed by many if not most of your interviewees?

I don’t want to suggest that I was judging anyone’s lack of observance or intermarriage, but I will admit that I felt like something had been lost when I listened to many of the public figures talk about their Jewish identity. I also came away wishing that there was a more accessible forum in which to discuss people’s reasons for disconnection, when it occurs, so that it might be addressed more effectively in the Jewish community.

On a related note, did you find yourself less optimistic about the survival of American Jewry given the vast majority of the interviewees’ total lack of concern over intermarriage and assimilation? Many of them almost seem to wear that lack of concern as a badge of honor.

I did find myself worrying about the endurance of the Jewish people. But I took some consolation in Leon Wieseltier’s point that the Jews are as resilient as they come: “I have a mystical confidence in the eternity of our people. When I regard all the things that have happened to Jews and to Judaism in all of Jewish history, I come away bitter, of course, and angry, of course, but also astounded by or perdurability…..” He also raises the point that Jews have to do more than just marry each other if the Jewish people are going to survive: “Is it enough that Epstein married Rosenblatt? I guess that’s something. But then what do Epstein and Rosenblatt do next as Jews?”

Speaking of Wieseltier, it so happens that your chat with him comprised, at least for this reader, one of the book’s more disturbing chapters. He seemed to exude a nonchalant arrogance as he expounded on his pick-and-choose approach to Judaism based on his Orthodox upbringing and knowledge of Jewish sources.

I understand that some people will chafe at Leon Wieseltier’s tone and judgment, but I was personally challenged by the things he said about the carelessness with which so many Jews approach their Judaism – and our conversation led me, in large part, to start studying Torah.

Of the dozens of people you interviewed, only a literal handful are observant or Orthodox, and most of those are rather idiosyncratic in their Orthodoxy. Why didn’t you include individuals whose Orthodoxy is more normative – people like Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Washington attorney Nathan Lewin, Hollywood screenwriter Robert Avrech, novelist Herman Wouk, film critic/radio host Michael Medved, etc?

I honestly didn’t approach people because of their observance or lack of it. I interviewed people who interested me, and for the most part I had no idea where they were going to land in terms of observance. (Many of these people had in fact been raised religiously, and I didn’t know if they’d maintained that level of observance or not before I spoke to them.) Obviously a different approach would be to deliberately seek out an equal number of pious and so-called “cultural” Jews, but I didn’t use observance as a yardstick to figure out whom to talk to. I suppose you can fault me for not seeking out observant Jews but the fact is that I did not seek out non-observant Jews either – or any particular kind of Jew for that matter. I approached public figures who happened to be Jewish and asked how Jewish they felt, which childhood traditions they upheld and which they’d let go and why.

As for Sen. Lieberman, I did write to him and he never responded.

A few of your interviewees are of mixed parentage and their identity as Jews, as well as their ties to Judaism and/or the Jewish community, can fairly be characterized as tenuous at best. Why include them in a book about “prominent Jews”?

I was interested in Jewish identity in whatever form it took. Gloria Steinem and Sarah Jessica Parker, it’s true, have Jewish fathers, as does Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who converted. I was interested in their stories, too….I didn’t have a checklist for each person before I approached him or her in terms of their level of observance or their ties to the Jewish community. It was the opposite: I wanted to get a snapshot of Jewish identity from some of the most prominent American Jews wherever they were Jewishly. I thought there was value in that, and I never pretended to be selecting a perfectly balanced representation of Jewish thought or identity. That said, I do think that it’s worth noting and discussing that this random sample of Jewish public figures proved to be so lacking in observance, with such a high rate of intermarriage. That’s worth talking about.

Your mother [author and editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin] has written extensively on Jewish subjects, so one wonders why you chose not to include her in the book.

I did want to interview my mother, but in the tradition of boosting Jewish mothers, she thought it would be better for my first book not to include my mom.

You interviewees cover so many fields of endeavor, with one noticeable exception: popular music. It’s a surprising absence, given the influence of popular music in our culture and the number of interesting potential interviewees – Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Carol King, Neil Sedaka, Billy Joel, David Lee Roth, etc.

You are absolutely right that I failed miserably in the music industry. I did ask Simon and Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Itzhak Perlman, Bette Midler, and Barbra Streisand. All turned me down. Gene Simmons and Randy Newman both said yes, but we couldn’t schedule their interviews in time.

Is there anyone else you wanted to include in the book but who turned you down?

I wanted to interview others, including Rob Reiner, Frank Gehry, Jerry Seinfeld, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Paul Wolfowitz, and Jon Stewart. Seinfeld said no, and I never got an answer from the others.

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