Talk Amongst (and About) Ourselves
By ERIKA DREIFUS
STARS OF DAVID
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"
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
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.