Stars of David: Prominent Jews
Talk About Being Jewish
By Abigail Pogrebin
Broadway, 400 pages, $24.95.
* * *
In 1994, comedian Adam Sandler evoked the joys of counting Jewish celebrities with his hilarious ditty, “The Hanukkah Song.” Now, journalist Abigail Pogrebin is taking it one step further. Unwilling to settle for a mere headcount, she has brought us a collection of one-on-one interviews about Jewish identity with 62 entertainment, media, business and political luminaries, titled “Stars of David” (not to be confused with a 2003 book of the same name on famous musical Yids).
Sandler was content to declare that “you can spin the dreidl with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock — both Jewish.” Pogrebin wants you to know that decades before William Shatner became famous for battling Klingons, he used to fend off antisemitic bullies two at a time. And years after Leonard Nimoy hung up his Vulcan ears, he took up photographing half-naked women in an effort to depict the kabbalistic notion of God’s feminine side.
Dustin Hoffman was sure that he was too Jewish to get the part of Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate.” Jason Alexander believes that being Jewish played a big role in his success. Sarah Jessica Parker has a hawkish streak when it comes to Israel.
Pogrebin — the daughter of Ms. magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin and sister of New York Times reporter Robin Pogrebin — not only succeeded in securing access to dozens of celebrities, but also managed the difficult task of getting them to open up about a facet of their very public lives that generally has remained private. A former “60 Minutes” producer, Pogrebin covers all the bases, not just the obvious question of who married in and who married out.
We find out who served time in Hebrew school (Neil Simon), and who was allowed to pass on having a bar mitzvah (Aaron Sorkin); who lights the menorah and puts up a Christmas tree (Joan Rivers), and who recites “God Bless America” at the end of his Passover Seder (Tony Kushner); who overcame his early rejection of Judaism (Edgar Bronfman Sr.), and who still feels estranged (Ruth Bader Ginsburg); who thinks Jews are the chosen people (Richard Dreyfuss), and who thinks they’re just like everyone else (Don Hewitt); who turned to God in times of crisis (Fran Drescher and Jeffrey Zucker), and who tried a Buddhist master (Gene Wilder); who can’t stand services (too many to list), and who flies a minyan to his vacation home for the Sabbath (Ronald O. Perelman).
What we don’t know — and what Pogrebin can’t seem to tackle — is what to make of all these biographical details. This isn’t a case of lazy reporting (she read all of the book “Kaddish” to prepare for an interview with Leon Wieseltier) or lazy writing (Pogrebin does an excellent job of capturing the individual voices of her interviewees). She knows her Jewish subjects; the problem is that she doesn’t know much about the history, religion and culture that unites them.
To Pogrebin’s credit, she readily concedes this lack of knowledge. For her, the book was not about sociology or anthropology but about self-exploration. “Jewish identity crept up on me…. I’m aware both how connected I feel to other Jews and how confused I feel about Judaism,” she writes.
Pogrebin decided that the way to straighten out her religious and ethnic identity was to interview dozens of celebrities. The problem, it turns out, is that when it comes to being Jewish, superstars are as unremarkable and lost as the rest of us. In the end, Pogrebin seems to conclude, most of her interviewees had little to teach her — and, by extension, the readers.
Perhaps it took someone coming from Pogrebin’s starting point to conceptualize this project and lend an empathetic (and disarming) ear to her subjects. But if the goal is to help readers sort through their own identity issues, one of the two parties — either the interviewer or the interviewees — needs to know the way around Judaism and Jewish life. A different interviewer, for example, might have challenged Ronald Perelman when he declared that the Reform movement is dying (it’s growing), or done more to hold up Steven Spielberg as a role model for using one’s day job to explore one’s Jewishness. And when Gene Wilder dismissed the Jewish religion, saying his only creed is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” it begged for the author to recount Rabbi Hillel’s famous adage that the Golden Rule is the essence of Judaism. Instead, what we have is a case of the blind (celebrities) leading the blind (interviewer) leading the blind (reader).
Luckily for Pogrebin, she bumped into Leon Wieseltier along the way. In the book’s epilogue, she credits the longtime literary editor of The New Republic more than any of her other subjects for her blossoming interest in Judaism. Specifically, she was inspired by his impatience with and intolerance of “slacker” Jews, who wittingly or unwittingly attempt to pass off Jewish ignorance as informed rejection.
“We’re talking about people who can make a million dollars in a morning, learn a backhand in a month, learn a foreign language in a summer, and build a summer house in a winter…. We’re talking about intelligent, energetic individuals who master many things when they wish to,” he said. “It’s all about what’s important to you. It’s all about motivation and will.”
Pogrebin has taken Wieseltier’s message to heart in her own life, deepening her commitment to studying Jewish texts and to developing meaningful Jewish rituals. As for her book, perhaps the lesson is that being Jewish and famous might be enough to get you into “The Hanukkah Song,” but it won’t help anyone else figure out if he or she wants to light the candles.
Ami Eden is the national editor of the Forward.