My religious identity used to be informed entirely by my mother: She made the holidays sparkle, she made me feel there was a privilege and weight to being Jewish, she made me feel lazy for not doing more to understand it. But now I'm wading in in my own way, on my own time. And this book felt like one step in that direction. The specificity of each person's Jewish chronicle was unexpected. The fact that Mike Nichols still feels, at his core, like a refugee; that Edgar Bronfman Jr. rejected Judaism because he rejected his father; that Beverly Sills felt uncomfortable enrolling her deaf Jewish child in a Catholic school, chosen because it specialized in educating deaf children; that Alan Dershowitz gave up his Orthodox observance because he couldn't defend it to his children. That Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spurned Jewish ritual because of its sexism; that Barry Levinson believes Jewish Hollywood executives abandoned his film Liberty Heights because it was "too Jewish"; that Mike Wallace–long labeled a "self-hating" Jew because of his coverage of the Middle East -- recites the Shema, Judaism's most hallowed prayer, every night; that Natalie Portman feels ashamed of her Long Island hometown's materialistic Jewish values; that Kati Marton never quite forgave her parents for hiding the fact that she was Jewish, that Kenneth Cole has misgivings about agreeing to raise his children in his wife's Catholic faith. My conversation with Leon Wieseltier upended my approach to Judaism because he challenged my justifications for remaining uninformed about it.
These portraits are micro snapshots: They are private, often boldly candid, idiosyncratic, scattershot, impressionistic. They are not exhaustive, they do not purport to answer the macro questions about assimilation, anti-Semitism, or Jewish continuity. They are highly personal stories from people we feel we kind of know -- stories that hopefully peel back a new layer. I was not investigating how many powerful Americans are Jewish, or how much power powerful American Jews have; what interests me is how Jewish those powerful Jews feel they are.
I intentionally chose not to underscore the commonalities among these voices because I believe they will reverberate differently for each reader. Recurring themes, including the tendency to abandon childhood rituals, the thorny questions of intermarriage, the staunch pride in history, and the ambivalence about Israel, will undoubtedly feel familiar depending on one's experience.
I understand the temptation to turn first to chapters about the people one already admires, but some of the best nuggets lie among the least known. Even if you've never read a Jerome Groopman piece in The New Yorker, it's intriguing to hear this doctor's views on the clash between science and faith. Even if you're not a Star Trek fan, it may surprise you to learn how Leonard Nimoy based Spock's Vulcan greeting on a rabbinic blessing. Even if you disagree with every word "Dr. Laura" has ever said on the air, you may feel a pang of sympathy for her once you read about the vitriol she endured from other Jews after her conversion to Judaism.