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By way of contrast, Streisand is often mentioned in the same breath as Frank Sinatra, one of the few other cultural icons to sell so many records, act in so many big movies and also do it his way. Sinatra, too, didn’t change his name, didn’t hide his Italian-boy-from-Jersey roots. But Sinatra was a man’s man. He boozed a lot, fought a lot, bedded a lot of women, and his politics were (eventually) red-blooded Republican. I love his early crooner records, made when he was a kind of teenage idol, all dressed up to be safe for the bobby-soxers. But the mature Sinatra, the swaggering one — I respect him, but I can’t get close to him.
My lack of Streisand connection, I think, points to a gap in Jewish culture. Religious Judaism replicates its memes (to use the language of noted atheist Richard Dawkins) extremely well. In mid-September I witnessed my nephew ascending the bimah to watch the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. You can’t fake that kind of cultural-religious-emotional immersion. It’s in his kishkes now, and his Yiddishkeit is there to stay.
But when it comes to cultural Judaism — let alone queer cultural Judaism — we’re back to Crisp: wholesale ignorance, and retail education only if you’re motivated enough to find your own way. I wish we could have cultural Jewish bar mitzvahs along with the religious ones, plus additional celebrations for lesbian and gay kids, for Sephardim, for any Jews who otherwise might not know their own history. Imagine the gifts! Instead of the Kiddush cup from the Men’s Club, there might be a Mel Brooks DVD collection, or maybe Sid Caesar — plus Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Woody Allen. And instead of the candlesticks? Well, of course: a whole shelf of Barbra.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor of the Forward. He is the author of “God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality” (Beacon Press, 2012).