Talk Amongst (and About) Ourselves


Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish
By Abigail Pogrebin
400 pages. Broadway Books. $24.95.

How does being Jewish fit in with a public life in the United States? That question, says freelance journalist Abigail Pogrebin—"not a staple of the typical celebrity interview"—underlies Stars of David's 62 collected conversations between Pogrebin and an impressive group of Jewish Americans.

In the book's Prologue, Pogrebin cautions that she’s not a sociologist. Nor is she “completely disinterested when it comes to this particular maze.” Stars of David doesn't seem intended to yield major conclusions about its subjects as a group. Rather, it provides “highly personal stories from people we feel we kind of know—stories that hopefully peel back a new layer." Pogrebin explains: "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.”

The answers, of course, vary. And these powerful Jews clearly perceive what it means to be "Jewish" differently, too. In fact, many of Pogrebin's interviewees may not quite measure up to the philosophy of Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic:

[Wieseltier] derides a kind of Jewish identity that might be described as Judaism Lite—an identity tied to ethnicity, not education. In other words, Jews who "feel" Jewish because of a tune they remember, a cheese blintz, or a visit to shul twice a year. "Owing to the ethnic definition of Jewish life, there has occurred a kind of internal relativism among all things Jewish," he says. "If we're just a tribe, if we're just an ethnic group, then all of our expressions are equally valuable, they all delightfully express what we are. 'I like Maimonides, you like knishes, but we're Jews together!' Right? The philosophy, the food, it's all different ways of being Jewish. But if you invoke the old Jewish standard, the traditional standard, all this falls apart."

And what is that standard?, Pogrebin asks.

"The standard is competence," he answers. "The standards by which Jews should be judged are not American standards; they are Jewish standards. That is to say, if one is making judgments about the quality of Jewish identity of individuals or groups, that the criterion has to be taken not from the society in which we live but from the tradition that we have inherited. And that's where I think Jews are going to be found to have been criminally negligent."

Serious charges, indeed. And, for this book, a decidedly "minority" perspective.

Among Pogrebin's other interviewees you'll find, on the younger end of the spectrum, actress Natalie Portman. Older voices belong to Mike Wallace (arguably most famous for his work 60 Minutes, where Pogrebin formerly worked as a producer), and Kitty Carlisle Hart. For the most part, however, the "Stars of David" seem to be in their 40's-60's. They reveal concerns that may not be that surprising for their age: intermarriage (their own and their children's); identification (or perhaps even over-identification) with a Holocaust legacy; Israel.

Many do hail from the entertainment/media fields (as the references to Portman, Wallace, and Hart might suggest). But Pogrebin also met with Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; diplomat Richard Holbrooke and congressman Barney Frank; Olympic swimming medalist Mark Spitz; architect Richard Meier; and fashion designer Kenneth Cole (among others). Pogrebin seems to have found virtually all these "powerful American Jews" within the Boston-Washington corridor or in Los Angeles/Beverly Hills, which is a little disappointing.

It's perhaps best to read this book in small doses, a few interviews at a time. Otherwise the 62 collected voices may blur. Some accounts (especially toward the end of the book) run only three to four pages; the telephone conversation with Stephen Sondheim fills barely two pages, photograph included). At 14 pages, the Wieseltier chapter is perhaps the book's longest. You may be tempted to race through these accounts, or, as Pogrebin anticipates, "to turn first to chapters about the people one already admires." Don't. Read the book slowly and get to know some "prominent Jews" you may not have realized are prominent, or Jewish.

And get to know Pogrebin. For her, the book also served as a personal investigation (or, as Holbrooke hypothesized when he first met her, "So this is therapy for you.") She’s Jewish, she says, but hasn't always known "how Jewish" she was. “My religious identity used to be informed entirely by mother,” she writes, invoking feminist journalist Letty Cottin Pogrebin. “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.”

Judging from the Epilogue, it was a significant step. Pogrebin credits her own increasing interest in Judaism largely to Wieseltier: "I walked out of his Washington office at the New Republic feeling dazed and provoked. I took his rebuke of 'slacker' Jews as a personal challenge: How could I make choices regarding my faith, let alone pass on a legacy to my children, when I knew so little about it?"

Pogrebin began studying Torah. She volunteered to run her congregation's High Holy Day children's services. She accepted an invitation to a Sukkot gathering for the first time. "The final rung on this strange ladder was my decision to become bat mitzvahed when I turned forty last May."

Whether you subscribe to Wieseltier's approach or not (and Pogrebin isn't indicting those who don't) reading this book may very well lead you to Pogrebin's own conclusion: "What I do know is that being Jewish is powerful and, in a sense, unavoidable—whether one embraces it or leaves it on the shelf, whether one lives a visible life or an anonymous one. And that, in the process of writing this book, it's become more vital to me than I ever expected." Reading it may revitalize you, too.