Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song" (in which he lists -- and in some cases, outs -- famous Jews), is hilarious precisely because it gets at something true. Jews feel a particular ownership of public figures who are members of the so-called tribe. We see Steven Spielberg and Joe Lieberman, for instance, as representing us. I know my parents still look at the newspaper headlines and cringe when a Jew is the one indicted, feel proud when it's a Jew who's won the Pulitzer. I wondered, is that a generational phenomenon? 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?
The majority of prominent Jews are not prominent for being Jewish. Most Jews with boldface names don't hide their Judaism, but they don't flaunt it either. And it's certainly not a staple of the typical celebrity interview. So I set out to ask how being Jewish fits into a public life.
For my parents' generation -- children of immigrants or first-generation Americans -- the framework for being Jewish was heavily influenced by their parents' experience of poverty, bigotry, and the Holocaust. They absorbed a sense of peril, the need to prove themselves, to stay connected to the Jewish community and hold fast to rituals that were ingrained since childhood. My generation, on the other hand, has been given Cafeteria-Style Judaism: We can pick and choose. Nothing is required. There's no sense of urgency or menace, 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.
I was interested in what people who happen to be Jewish and happen to be famous think about being Jewish today, when à la carte Judaism is the norm and when strict observance and fervent Zionism have largely fallen away.
For a book that features conversations with sixty-two well-known high-achievers, it seems like the ultimate in hubris to start by talking about myself. But it also feels compulsory, because clearly I came at these interviews from my own vantage point. Though I consider myself a fair reporter, it would be disingenuous to call myself completely disinterested when it comes to this particular maze.