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.