Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish

Abigail Pogrebin image
Abigail Pogrebin
In this age of stalkerazzi, the 24-hour news cycle on television and the Web, and enough celebrity magazines to wallpaper one's home, it feels like we know celebrities personally. But as exposed as celebrities are, we know very little about their religious identity—even our own members of the tribe. Jewish journalist Abigail Pogrebin—daughter of feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin—has always embodied a strong sense of Jewish pride and connection to other Jews, yet at the same time has felt confused about what it means to be Jewish, and wondered if other Jews echoed her uncertainty. Her personal search led her to share intimate conversations with 62 well-known Jews about the role that Judaism and Jewish identity play in their lives.

In "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish," Pogrebin interviews accomplished American Jews in the world of entertainment, politics, fashion, media, sports, and business, including household names like Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Natalie Portman, Mike Nichols, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Leonard Nimoy, Neil Simon, Gloria Steinem, and Mike Wallace. As she prepared to fly from her home in New York to Chicago, to speak to JUF's Young Women's City Council of the Women's Division's "City Spotlight 2007" on Wednesday, March 21, Pogrebin sat down for another conversation about Jewish identity with JUF News Associate Managing Editor Cindy Sher. This time, though, instead of posing the questions, Pogrebin was the one answering them. The two talked about how writing the book has strengthened Pogrebin's own Jewish identity, about assimilation in Hollywood, and comedian Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song.

JUF NEWS: Why did you write the book?

Abigail Pogrebin: I was genuinely curious about how public figures fit being Jewish into their lives, if at all—whether it was a crucial part of their identity, whether they had sidelined their Jewish upbringing, or they had held onto rituals with which they were raised. I looked, as we all do, at people who live in the public eye and thought, "How does this part of their heritage fit into a public life?" I wondered if they had the same ambivalences and confusions that some of us do.

How did this book change your own Jewish identity?

I [originally] approached this project as a journalist and I didn't expect it to affect me as a Jew. Even though the territory was Jewish identity, I didn't expect to re-evaluate my own Jewish identity to the extent that I did. The majority of people in the book feel proudly and intensely Jewish, but so few are religious. It was to some extent sobering to me to hear that so many had been raised with Jewish education and Jewish ritual and then had let it go…[During the interviewing process] I started to study Torah with a wonderful young rabbi. It was eye-opening for me. I had never read the Bible, I had never read the story, the basic chronicle on which the faith was built. It sent me on a path, and then I made the decision to become a bat mitzvah three days before I turned 40, which was a really transcendent experience. Never would I have thought when I started out doing this book that that was where I would end up. I don't want to make it sound like I am now living an observant life, but I am definitely living a more observant life and certainly a more Jewishly attentive life.

Did the lack of Jewish observance and the high percentage of intermarriage and assimilation of the majority of those featured in the book disturb you?
I was trying mightily to be objective and impartial as I listened to these luminaries. I wanted the [interview subjects] to be honest and I felt like it was only going to be possible if I really did not come to it with any judgments or preconceptions. But that said, I've traveled far and wide now around the country for this book, and thank goodness people do love it, but many feel disappointed that there is a secular leaning throughout the book. When I approached these public figures, I did so without knowing whether they were observant or not, but I had to reflect what I was hearing.

Do you think this secular leaning is unique to Hollywood, or is this book telling of the more general American Jewish population?

This slice of the population, which is admittedly a rarefied slice, does tell us something. I do think this is not a completely foreign snapshot of where a lot of Jews are. They are predominantly from a certain generation, in which the ideal of American success was not equated with religious identity for many of these folks. But it's also important to talk about why Jews do get disaffected when they do and hopefully a lot of those conversations have been sparked by the book.

Despite the lack of observance, did you find that most of the figures interviewed conveyed a strong sense of Jewish pride?

I think that's true. People in the book feel very proud of their Jewish heritage, especially in the kind of track record of survival and endurance and consistency. But I'm sure that many who read the book will say that it's not enough and that's a debate that we all have on a regular basis, whether [we're] Jewish enough.

I found that Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, and a "rumpled encyclopedia of Torah commentary, Jewish philosophy and Talmudic law," as you put it, was one of the most fascinating figures in the book. During your interview with him, he explains the following: "I think the great historical failing of American Jewry is not its rate of intermarriage but its rate of illiteracy…Basically there are two questions—the survival of the Jews and the survival of Judaism. I don't worry too much about the former." Do you think it's dangerous that sometimes people call themselves Jewish just because—as Wieseltier puts it—they eat a "cheese blintz" and yet know very little about the religion of Judaism?

That definition of what it really means to be a real Jew is a constant conversation and needs to be had. Wieseltier was saying that you prioritize all kinds of things in your life—[People say,] "I don't miss the yoga class or I get to my children's basketball class, but why don't I prioritize Judaism?" He is saying, You make time if you want to make time." My rabbi told me [Judaism] doesn't just land in your lap. It takes effort and Judaism is demanding. Even though Wieseltier is not the most famous person in the book, I think he's the most challenging.

Which figure in the book made the most powerful impression on you?

Kenneth Cole's (famed clothing and shoe designer) chapter is the most resonant, articulate, and painful. His commitment to raise his three children as Catholics was a decision that he didn't know that he would regret later. To hear him admit that was very wrenching to me because I came pretty close to marrying a non-Jewish person and worried about feeling just those things that Kenneth Cole describes. He is a very involved Jew now, but his children are Catholic and always will be.
Then, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks about how she was turned off by Judaism because of a few seminal, sexist moments. Her honesty surprised me. Also, actress Natalie Portman talking about her disdain for a lot of Jewish culture around which she was raised in Long Island compared with a pure Jewish identity that she feels in Israel, which was where she was born. And, Dustin Hoffman and Steven Spielberg because I'm such a huge fan.

Did you feel star-struck during the course of interviewing?

It was ridiculous. I had prepared so thoroughly. But when I got in the room with many of these folks, I had to keep reminding myself to look at my notes and stay on point and not just sit there gazing at them.

You write in the book that comedian "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." You explain that Jews feel proud of former vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman or a Jewish Nobel Prize winner and shame when a Jew commits a crime. Why do we feel such ownership?

There are so few of us. There is undeniably the history of persecution. Jews had been cut off from the intelligence and accomplishments of Jewish people in the past. There was so much brilliance and talent that was snuffed out prematurely. To see Jews thriving is just a reminder that we couldn't be put down.

I noticed in the book that you asked many people, "When do you feel most Jewish?" I'm going to turn the tables on you—when have you felt most Jewish?

I felt most Jewish at my son's bris (nine years ago) and my daughter's baby naming (seven years ago). That was the time that I felt most struck by the idea of a chain and being another link in it.

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