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Starry, Starry Future? What's become of the American Jew

November 17, 2005 By:
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In the prologue to Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, Abigail Pogrebin tells of how, at age 25, she began dating an Irish Catholic - and how this simple act instantly transformed her intensely liberal Jewish mother (who just happens to be Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founders of Ms. magazine) into a raving reactionary. When Pogrebin's mother realized that her daughter might just marry this man - and thereby produce children who celebrated Christmas - she simply lost it. All of this woman's patient teachings about tolerance and inclusiveness flew right out the window; and the tension between mother and daughter lasted for two years.

As it turned out, Pogrebin didn't end up with Michael, the Irish fellow, but she says she learned two valuable lessons: that her mother had one "benchmark issue" that was "nonnegotiable"; and that no matter how angry this particular daughter was with her mother, when she herself worked out in her head what life might be like with Michael, she couldn't go through with it. Pogrebin realized there was "some unmistakable barrier" that couldn't be bridged, and that a future with a non-Jewish husband would just be too difficult to navigate.

It was then, Pogrebin states, that Jewish identity crept up on her. She's 40 now and 10 years married - to a Jew from, of all places, Skokie, Ill. - with two young children, and she's fully aware how connected she now feels to other Jews, but how confused she is about Judaism.

Which is why this work, recently published by Broadway Books, exists. Pogrebin found herself looking at famous public figures - among them Stephen Sondheim, Richard Dreyfuss, Harold Prince and Al Franken - and wondering just how Jewish these people felt. She writes: "It occurred to me that we might share a kind of figurative secret handshake - not just pride in the heritage and endurance of the Jewish people, but uncertainty about what it means to be a Jew today. Was their ethnic and religious identity crucial to them, incidental to their lives, or meaningless? If they were raised with rituals, had they maintained them? Did they care if their Jewish daughter decided to marry a Michael?"

Pogrebin says she was fully aware that talking only to prominent Jews slices off a very narrow (and fairly homogeneous) portion of the population, but she insists that that's the point. She considers herself a journalist, not a sociologist, and she wanted the focus to be placed on a "snapshot" of American Jewry - that is, "a random sample within the group" - who have a similar level of achievement that speaks to the American dream. "If an obvious goal of Jewish immigrants was to reach the highest rungs of American success, then what happened to the religious underpinnings of their children and grandchildren? Did being in the American spotlight require them to neutralize their ethnicity? Had they felt pressured to downplay their Jewishness at any point in their careers? Or had they benefited from it. Been ashamed of it?"

She remembers her parents looking at headlines in the paper and cringing if a Jew were indicted, and feeling pride if a Jew won a Pulitzer. Pogrebin considers this perhaps a generational response. "Do we still feel that any Jew fortunate enough to have become famous has a duty to be a credit to the Jewish people because their behavior reflects on us all? And if that's true, are Jewish celebrities aware of it, and do they embrace or reject this burden?"

One thing is certain, however, most prominent Jews are not prominent for being Jewish. The Jews behind the boldface names in Stars of David don't necessarily hide their Judaism, but they don't often practice it in any way that might contribute to Jewish continuity, at least if we go by the testimony in her book.

Pick and Choose?

Like Pogrebin herself, many of her celebrities have been reared via Cafeteria-Style Judaism, which Pogrebin describes as follows: "We can pick and choose. Nothing is required. There's no sense of urgency or menace [as was true with earlier generations of Jews], of having to boost up or protect our people. Some of my friends fast on Yom Kippur, others come to our annual break-fast party having already eaten. Some go to synagogue only on the High Holy Days, others only when they're invited to a wedding. I have no close friends who attend Shabbat services regularly or build a sukkah every fall. Many are sending their kids to Hebrew school, but few could say exactly why. Because they think they should, or because they went, or because they want their children to have more Jewish education than they did. My sense is the decision is often more reflexive than considered."

Pogrebin's goal in tackling Stars of David was to find out from people who are Jewish and happen to be famous just what they think about being Jewish today, when Cafeteria Judaism is the predominate strain "and when strict observance and fervent Zionism have largely fallen away."

She understands that in a book that features 60 interviews with high achievers, talking about herself first - and at such length - might be the height of cheek; still, she says it "feels compulsory." I agree that it's cheeky but it's also very much to the point, and it tells readers a great deal about what's wrong with the book she's put together. And, by extension, Stars of David inadvertently illuminates the severe crisis now facing American Jewry.

Yet still, after all this confessing, Pogrebin never points out that it's her privileged, upper-middle-class, New York existence, lived with a celebrated mother, that gave her immediate entree to these celebrities in the first place. Worse, since she never criticizes any of these people or ranks them in any way, it seems that all she wanted was some self-verification for her own Jewishly thin life.

Pogrebin has talked to 60 very similar people, and most say they feel Jewish but don't want to be limited by it; they've generally given up the rituals and don't care about any sort of formalized religion. In fact, the question of ritual observance and synagogue attendance seems to make the majority of them very queasy.

That's true whether she talks to Fran Drescher or Wendy Wasserstein, Mike Nichols or Joan Rivers, Mike Wallace or Kenneth Cole. They've all shopped at the Judaism cafeteria and chosen exactly as much as they wanted.

A lot of what her celebrities say is of interest, but it's the interest of the gossip column, not insight into how to help the Jewish people survive. Plus, I cannot believe that Pogrebin, who lives in New York City, where she was born and raised, could not find a single artist, writer or musician who actually takes being Jewish seriously in the sense of studying Jewish books, actually praying and contemplating the big issues. With so much religious ferment roiling Manhattan, especially among young people these days, it seems almost intentional to have avoided such people.

Only Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, spoke out in the book for the supremacy of the central Jewish religious texts, and about how detrimental it is for so many Jews in America to be so totally ignorant of them. Perhaps "too Jewish" an emphasis - meaning talking to lesser-known accomplished Jews who perhaps don a tallis or wrap tefillin or light the Shabbas candles - would have undermined the "star value" that seems to have driven this entire project and would have given New York publishers, who inhabit the same world as the author, the heebie-jeebies. Reading Stars of David is a truly sad, sad experience.

But still, I think the book should play a central role in every committed Jew's library. I think they should read every word of it - and have their children read it, too - and then make certain they live a life in total opposition to its debilitating message.

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