Synopses & Reviews
Sixty-two of the most accomplished Jews in America speak intimately—most for the first time—about how they feel about being Jewish. In unusually candid interviews conducted by former 60 Minutes
producer Abigail Pogrebin, celebrities ranging from Sarah Jessica Parker to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, from Larry King to Mike Nichols, reveal how resonant, crucial or incidental being Jewish is in their lives. The connections they have to their Jewish heritage range from hours in synagogue to bagels and lox; but every person speaks to the weight and pride of their Jewish history, the burdens and pleasures of observance, the moments theyve felt most Jewish (or not). This book of vivid, personal conversations uncovers how being Jewish fits into a public life, and also how the authors evolving religious identity was changed by what she heard.
Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Gene Wilder, Joan Rivers, and Leonard Nimoy talk about their startling encounters with anti-Semitism.
Kenneth Cole, Eliot Spitzer, and Ronald Perelman explore the challenges of intermarriage.
Mike Wallace, Richard Dreyfuss, and Ruth Reichl express attitudes toward Israel that vary from unquestioning loyalty to complicated ambivalence.
William Kristol scoffs at the notion that Jewish values are incompatible with Conservative politics.
Alan Dershowitz, raised Orthodox, talks about why he gave up morning prayer.
Shawn Green describes the pressure that comes with being baseballs Jewish star.
Natalie Portman questions the ostentatious bat mitzvahs of her hometown.
Tony Kushner explains how being Jewish prepared him for being gay.
Leon Wieseltier throws down the gauntlet to Jews who havent taken the trouble to study Judaism.
These are just a few key moments from many poignant, often surprising, conversations with public figures whom most of us thought we already knew.
“When my mother got her nose job, she wanted me to get one, too. She said I would be happier.”
“Its a heritage to be proud of. And then, too, its something that you cant escape because the world wont let you; so its a good thing you can be proud of it.”
—Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“My wife [Kate Capshaw] chose to do a full conversion before we were married in 1991, and she married me as a Jew. I think that, more than anything else, brought me back to Judaism.”—Steven Spielberg
“As someone who was born in Israel, youre put in a position of defending Israel because you know how much is at stake.”—Natalie Portman
“Jewish introspection and Jewish humor is a way of surviving . . . if youre not handsome and youre not athletic and youre not rich, theres still one last hope with girls, which is being funny.”—Mike Nichols
“I felt not only this enormous pride at being a Jew; I felt this enormous void at not being a better Jew.”—Ronald O. Perelman
“American Jews, like Americans, have a very consumerist attitude toward their identity: they pick and choose the bits of this and that they like.”—Leon Wieseltier
“I thought if I had straight hair and a perfect nose, my whole career would be different.”—Sarah Jessica Parker
“Ive always rebelled a little when people say, ‘My Jewish values lead me to really care about the poor. I know some Christians who care about the poor, too.”—William Kristol
“There were many times when I kept silent about being Jewish as I got older, when Jewish jokes were told.”—William Shatner
“‘Jew bastard was something I heard a lot.”—Leonard Nimoy.
“I always liked shiksas.”—Larry King
“It specifically says in the Torah that you can eat shrimp and bacon in a Chinese restaurant.”—Jason Alexander
“Yom Kippur is something I do alone, with nobody else, because I believe that my relationship with God is mine and mine only.”—Diane von Furstenberg
"Consistently engaging, these 60 interviews conducted by journalist Pogrebin explore the thoughts of well-known artists, politicians and others in the public eye on the complexities of Jewish identity and the emotions they engender. The issues touched on range from the legacy of the Holocaust to the Middle East, Jewish traditions, intermarriage and much more. The conflicts are typified by Sarah Jessica Parker, who says her supportive feelings about Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians make her feel more Jewish, but she is uncertain about the religious education she will give her child. Others, like Dustin Hoffman and William Kristol, have been firmly committed to passing on Jewish rituals and history to their children. Gloria Steinem, who joyfully attends feminist seders, still remains alienated by the sexist bias of most religions. In two arresting pieces, politician Barney Frank and playwright Tony Kushner address what it's like to be both gay and Jewish. Pogrebin says this book grew out of her efforts to clarify her own Jewish identity. But you don't need to be on such a quest to enjoy the wide range of experiences and feelings recorded here. Photos. Agent, David Kuhn. (On sale Oct. 25)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
About the Author
ABIGAIL POGREBIN has been a producer for Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, and 60 Minutes—for Mike Wallace and Ed Bradley. She was a senior correspondent for Brills Content, a contributing writer for Talk magazine, and is now a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in many magazines and newspapers. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Reading Group Guide
1. What do you think Abigail Pogrebins intention was in writing this book? Did she succeed?
2. Do you think an understanding of Judaism is needed to appreciate the book? In what ways does Pogrebin make it accessible to everyone?
3. Which was your favorite interview, and why? Your least favorite?
4. Many of the people profiled changed their names-everyone from Beverly Sills to Natalie Portman. Were you surprised to find that name-changing is still happening today? Why do you think that is?
5. Several of the comedians were reluctant to acknowledge Jews contributions to humor as being greater than many ethnic groups, while others were obviously proud to pronounce it as fact. Whats your take on the Jews role in comedy?
6. Its no surprise that anti-Semitism comes up throughout the book. Have you ever experienced or witnessed anything like what you read about? How did/would you respond?
7. On page 265, Richard Meier says “If you believe you are a Jew, then you are one,” but just six pages later Ruth Reichl states that “its others definition of us that makes us Jews.” Which assessment do you favor-or do you have your own theory on what makes a Jew?
8. Tikkun Olam-repairing the world through social action-is mentioned in several of the interviews. Of all the people in the book, who do you believe best exemplifies this concept? How?
9. The majority of the interviewees are either intermarried themselves, or their parents are. Did this proportion surprise you? Were there any interviewees who you would consider to be not Jewish?
10. What did you think of the various approaches to raising Jewish children? Whose style seemed closest to your own, or to the way you were raised?
11. There was also a broad range of feelings about Israel-everything from embarrassment (Ruth Reichl) to unwavering support (Joan Rivers). Who did you identify with most closely, and why?
12. For as much as this is a book about being Jewish, the majority of the interviewees followed few of the actual laws of observance-even though they identified themselves very strongly as Jews. Do you think this is a uniquely Jewish trait, or is it something youd see with any religion?
13. Several of the interviewees-Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ronald O. Perelman, Jason Alexander, and others-mentioned a discomfort with the role of women in Judaism. How do you feel about it?
14. In many ways, Pogrebins interview with Leon Wieseltier is the heart of the book-some of his pronouncements are especially provocative, and suggest a different way of reading the others stories. In particular, “he derides a kind of Jewish identity that might be described as Judaism Lite-an identity tied to ethnicity, not education” (page 156). Do you agree or disagree with most of what he said? Did his assertions make you re-think your reading of anyone elses interviews?
15. Contrast Wieseltiers education-insistent approach to Judaism with Max Frankels assertion that “education: learning to question” is half of whats making Jews turn away from religion (page 235).
16. In her epilogue, Pogrebin tells us that, as a result of conducting the interviews and writing the book, she has become more religious. Why do you think that is? Do you feel any different, now that youve read the book?
The 62 public figures in this fascinating book-actors and supreme court justices, sports stars and politicians, moguls and journalists-have only two things in common: First, in one form or another, they are celebrities; and second, theyre Jewish. When Abigail Pogrebin interviewed each of them about their Jewishness, she found an astonishing, and at the same time reassuringly universal, variety of experience. With topics ranging from their methods of observance to their favorite Jewish foods, Stars of David
reveals the private lives of some of the most public Americans. It is both thought-provoking and highly entertaining.
·Ruth Bader Ginsburg
·Diane Von Furstenberg
·Edgar Bronfman, Sr.
·Sarah Jessica Parker
·And 45 more