Journalist Abigail Pogrebin first began to grapple with her Jewish identity at 25, when her Jewish mother disapproved of her Irish Catholic boyfriend. Fifteen years later, married (to a Jewish man) and raising two children, she was still trying to understand her own relationship with Judiasm. She decided that speaking with other Jewish people would help her find her own answer.
In her new book, "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish," Pogrebin interviewed 60 people about their cultural and religious experience. She spoke with Hollywood stars, such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Dustin Hoffman, and luminaries such as Gloria Steinhem. Barney Frank and Tony Kushner talked about what's like to be gay and Jewish.
Below is the prologue of the book and the "Sarah Jessica Parker" chapter.
When I was twenty-five years old and dating an Irish Catholic, my very liberal Jewish mother became an instant reactionary. All her teachings about tolerance and open-mindedness seemed to evaporate overnight. When she suddenly grasped that I might actually end up married to this man, and produce grandchildren who would celebrate Christmas, she panicked. The tension between us was startling. It lasted almost two years.
I didn't end up with Michael, but two lessons stayed with me: first, that my mother had one benchmark issue that was nonnegotiable. And two, that no matter how angry I was at the way she handled it, when I really played out what my life would be like with a non-Jewish husband, I couldn't do it. No matter how close I was with Michael, there was some unmistakable barrier. I knew that navigating our different backgrounds would be too hard.
Jewish identity has crept up on me. And now that I'm forty and ten years married (to a Jew from Skokie), with two young children who are ours to shape, I'm aware of both of how connected I feel to other Jews and how confused I feel about Judaism.
Which is what led me, in part, to this book. I found myself looking at public figures that happen to be Jewish and wondering how Jewish these people felt. 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?
I realize that choosing to talk to prominent Jews instead of regular folks is slicing off a narrow population, but that was the point. I consider myself a journalist, not a sociologist, and I wanted to focus on one snapshot of American Jewry -- albeit a random sample within that group -- who have in common a level of achievement that represents 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?