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?
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.
The fact is, I'm curious about all of this because I'm Jewish, but also because I'm not sure how Jewish I am. Judaism wasn't a huge part of my growing up, though I was surrounded by Jews on New York's Upper West Side. I was raised with occasional shabbos, synagogue twice a year, two seders, and eight nights of Hanukkah. My mother, who was raised in a Conservative home in Queens, given an extensive Hebrew school education, and a bat mitzvah, which was unusual for her era, turned her back on formal Judaism at the age of fifteen. This was because when her mother died, she was excluded from the mourners' minyan (at that time, a quorum of ten men) solely because she was female. After she married my father, she maintained a home-based Judaism that involved intermittent Shabbat dinners and the celebrations of every major Jewish holiday -- including the warmest overpopulated Hanukkah party every year, with latkes dipped in sour cream and a gift for every guest. She also helped found a makeshift congregation in Saltaire, Fire Island -- a church was borrowed for the High Holy Days -- where she was the cantor and people worshipped in bare feet.
My father was a Jew without portfolio: no Hebrew school, no synagogue (until he met my mother), and no belief in God. But he was utterly Jewish in his sensibility, sense of humor, tastes in culture and penchant for Talmudic argument.
My siblings and I were not sent to Hebrew School, or given bat or bar mitzvahs, which my mother regrets to this day, especially now that she's a fairly observant, involved Jew again. Eventually, she found her way to a more egalitarian practice that includes women without over-modernizing or abandoning the basics. She writes about Jewish issues and tries to regularly attend Friday night services. But by the time she had her "rebirth," when she was in her late forties, my Jewishness was already formed in its fragmentation and ignorance.
I took Introduction to Hebrew in college because I wanted to try to catch up. My professor taught us vocabulary by having us memorize the Israeli Top 40, which she recorded off a short wave radio. After graduation, I visited Israel and was very popular there because I knew all the latest hits. Now, eighteen years later, I can't put a Hebrew sentence together.
That trip was actually kind of a bust. It was my parents' graduation gift to me and my twin sister, Robin: They booked us on what they thought would be a spirited bus tour. When we arrived at the departure lounge at Kennedy Airport, everyone in our group was geriatric. Somehow the American Jewish Congress had assigned us to the wrong itinerary. Despite our disappointment, we still got on the plane and managed to enjoy the trip. Robin and I became the communal grandchildren, and there was something more poignant about touring the "homeland" with people who remembered its founding and who had lost family in the Holocaust.
I met my husband, David, on a blind date in 1993 and married him the same year on a mountaintop in St. Lucia; we imported our college friend and newly minted rabbi, Mychal Springer, to officiate, and brought our own kosher wine for the vows. It was the first Jewish wedding the Caribbean hotel had ever hosted, and their staff referred to the chuppah -- the traditional wedding canopy -- as the "hooper."
David grew up in Skokie and Evanston, Illinois, and was bar mitzvahed in his neighborhood shul. I keep his bar mitzvah invitation in a frame on my bureau because the pencil drawing of his thirteen-year-old self in 'seventies big hair and yarmulke make me smile. He wants to give our children a religious education, but his emotional connection to Judaism is vague and tenuous. Our ease together as a couple is not based in faith at all, though I'm aware that so much of our common vocabulary -- our humor, eccentric relatives, close siblings, focus on food -- feels somehow quintessentially Jewish.
Since the arrival of our two children, I've tried to figure out how to incorporate rituals that acknowledge the sacredness in our daily lives. But my efforts still feel stilted, forced. I light candles on Friday nights when we're home, and savor watching our son, Benjamin, rip into the challah and pass pieces around the table. I love watching our daughter, Molly, imitate me sweeping my hands three times over the candles. Before the meal, I say out loud what I was grateful for that week and Ben and Molly pipe up with some thanks of their own. We all kiss each other and say "Good shabbos." But I feel David's discomfort -- he lacks my sentimentality, and ritual doesn't come naturally to him -- and that makes me self-conscious.
I pray briefly before bedtime most nights, thanking God for the health and safety of my children. But I worry that my appeals are too self-centered.
I'm still in synagogue twice a year on the High Holy Days. I've always loved the chaotic family suppers before we rush out to evening services: Mom sets a beautiful table with lace and silver, there are the round, shiny challahs, apples dipped in honey, familiar blessings. But I get annoyed by my mother's explanations; they feel like a reproach, a cue that I should know more about the symbolism of things. In synagogue on Kol Nidre -- the eve of Yom Kippur -- I always feel hypocritical confessing my sins. But that doesn't stop me from asking God for clemency: My list of lapses is always easy to summon up. During one service recently, I found myself weeping during the Shehechianu (the blessing that thanks God for giving us life, sustaining us, and allowing us to reach this moment). I was overcome by the singing, everyone standing and swaying, arms around neighbors they didn't even know. Of course, minutes after that transcendent moment, I found myself flipping ahead in the prayer book to see how much of the service was left.
Every year, my husband says he doesn't know why he's fasting or going to temple since he doesn't feel anything there. When I suggest that maybe we ought to tell each other our sins for the year, he says he can't have that conversation when he's so hungry.
I go to two seders every year, but I grew up attending three. The first two were the typical Passover gatherings, one at cousin Danny's on Long Island, the other at Aunt Betty's in Larchmont -- same Haggadah, same undersalted matzo ball soup, same chocolate macaroons, same thirty people around the table. The third seder was the feminist adaptation, co-conceived by my mother, who seemed to be the only one of the five so-called Seder-Mothers not dressed in a bohemian caftan. I remember feeling moved by a room full of articulate, animated women sitting on cushions on the floor, making the themes of the Haggadah relevant, seeming interested in my nascent opinions. But that same comforting circle would turn on each other in later years -- fighting over who should be invited -- and the event would sour in my mind.
I know I've inherited my mother's superstitions. I close the shades when there's a full moon, toss salt over my shoulder after it spills, and say "tuh, tuh, tuh" when a bad thought creeps into my head. My fear of tempting the evil eye goes even further than my mother's: I feel convinced that cancer is just around the corner and I've written notes to my children in case I go down in a plane.
I've tried to resist my mother's prejudices: her cringing at Christmas carols playing in every store, the involuntary recoil at the sound of a German accent, the sense that Jews are the supreme sufferers. I'll never forget, when I was dating Michael, that I was stupid enough to venture to my mother that Jews are not the only people whose ancestors had endured massive, premeditated persecution. I mentioned the Irish potato famine as an example. Not wise. You're comparing the Shoah to the Potato Famine? She looked as if she wanted to disown me -- rip her shirt as is the Jewish custom when a child is considered symbolically dead.
Michael was a great boyfriend, but there was undeniably a cultural chasm between us. He didn't "get" my family's mishigas, let alone find a way to deal with it. And when I was with his family on Easter, sitting quietly around the table, I missed my family's tumult. It was unsettling to go with him to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, no matter how merry. I couldn't imagine my children taking the sacrament and crossing themselves. Baptism was out of the question. It bothered me, when we watched the film Music Box, about a woman who discovers her beloved father's Nazi past, that Michael had no personal link to that story. We didn't share an indigenous sorrow. He would never feel entrusted with or obligated by the responsibility to carry Judaism on. I realized that no dash of Christianity, however modified, would ever be palatable for me. I also realized I'd have to work harder to keep my own family Jewish than I would if I'd just married another Jew. I wanted the Jewishness to just be there: in my children's faces, in their food, in their celebrations. I wasn't sure enough of my own faith and history to be confident I could effectively pass it on.
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.
We are living in a period of heightened religious awareness. Our political leaders cite biblical verses and claim to act in the name of God. Popular magazines run cover stories on spirituality. From Chechnya to Iraq, from Rwanda to Bosnia, we've seen how ethnic loyalties can bring out the worst in people. What I've attempted to probe in this book is how those Jews who are major players on the stages of American politics, sports, business, and culture feel about their Jewish identity and how it plays out in their daily lives. Just as these public Jews have entered our collective consciousness through their outsized accomplishments and celebrity, we can find parts of ourselves in their honest, intimate personal stories.
Sarah Jessica Parker, whose father was Jewish, is eight months pregnant when I meet her, dressed in denim overalls and a black leotard, sitting in a Greenwich Village café near her new brownstone. She says that she and her husband, actor Matthew Broderick -- whose mother was Jewish -- are still not quite sure how they're going to raise their impending baby. "We happen to live next to a temple and I think it's really nice, and I wonder, 'What should we do?' " says Parker. " 'Should this child of ours have more religious education than we had?' Sometimes I think there's something attractive about Unitarianism. It's a little bit more progressive and philosophical. If I could apply that kind of approach -- what I understand it to be -- to being a Jew, that might feel right. I would like our child to have choices and know more than I've ever known about his or her religion. But Matthew doesn't know what he wants for this child and it's important to me that he feels comfortable."
It also gives Parker pause to realize how little she knows about Judaism. "I said to Matthew, 'If we went to this temple next door, where would we begin? We're so behind.' In temple, it seems like you have to know what you're doing. And it intimidates people; it certainly intimidates me. And I keep saying, `I'm not a religious person,' but I know that's not true; I know that I believe that there's somebody who watches over us and he or she takes care or not, or teaches us. I really do -- strangely enough–kind of cling to that. And I think that Matthew is as deeply as religious as I am, but he's cynical about it because he's seen that it can be so harmful and hurtful and destructive."
She says Broderick's ambivalence was evident when they were preparing the baby's room. "A dear friend of mine named Bettianne, who is Jewish, gave me a beautiful mezuzah; she got it at West Side Judaica. It has three little children on it and they're playing, sledding. I said, 'When we move into the new house, we'll put it up.' And I thought I'd told Matthew–I'm almost sure that I told him at one point–but when he heard me saying on the phone to Bettianne, 'When Matthew's home next week, we'll put the mezuzah up,' he said, 'What? We're not practicing Jews–we can't have a mezuzah in our home.' It seemed wrong to him. I said, 'It's not wrong. It's a really nice thought. It's just a gift to say, 'Safekeeping to you.'
"So Bettianne and I put it up ourselves on the door to the baby's bedroom. And I love it. I walk up the steps every day and I see it in our new house on the door to the baby's bedroom and I feel like it's yet one more person keeping an eye on the baby. It doesn't bother me; doesn't seem to bother Matthew." She said it feels like the mezuzah is in the right place. "It's not on the door to our home because that's too big -- too much," she says. "Frankly, if someone had given me a tiny cross that meant something--" She cuts herself off. "There's this man that I see in the neighborhood all the time. He gave me this card for the saint of fertility and the saint of babies and this tiny little medal. And I was very touched by it and I've kept it next to me for my whole pregnancy because I thought, 'For him that means something and it's a nice thought.' It doesn't mean I'm converting to the Catholic Church. This is a nice man; he wishes me well, he wishes my child well. I wouldn't hang it, but it's nice to have."
The baby will have a Christmas tree. "Matthew and I get one every year, but it has no religious content. Growing up, it wasn't religious at all. My Mom and Dad loved the smell in the house -- I mean my stepfather, who raised me. We love the tradition of it -- we've had the same ornaments from the time before my oldest brother was born. It's about family and ritual -- the same things that I respond to in being a Jew."
Parker, born in Cincinnati, says her biological father's parents were "from that part of Eastern Europe that would go back and forth between being Russian and Polish." According to family lore, the name "Parker" was created by a series of miscommunications. "My great-grandfather on my father's side came over to Ellis Island. His name was Bar-Kahn, which means 'son of Kohen,' and the immigration officer thought he said 'Parken.' He wrote his N's like R's, so 'Parken' became 'Parker' and he was so happy to be in America and to have a business that was fairly thriving, that he never corrected his customers and he became Parker. So there's also great pride attached to this idea that we're Kohens," she says with a smile, referring to the fact that Kohens -- or Kohanim -- were the ancient line of high priests. "You know, the great tribe of Israel."
Parker believes her mother has Jewish blood as well, but that lineage is hard to trace. "According to Matthew, Hitler would have been perfectly happy to call me a Jew because there was enough Jewish blood in me that I was not a desirable. And I have, frankly, always just considered myself a Jew. Maybe I feel Jewish because my mother is very skeptical of organized religion in general and being a Jew felt more cultural to me. I was always responding to things that were Jewish.
"I think also because New York was this great jewel to us and it was such a Jewish city that I was so thrilled to identify with anybody from there, to be part of it." Parker's Jewishness, she says, is rooted in large part in nostalgia. "My father was raised on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn -- he was on the Brighton Beach line. It's a very Jewish community. And every year on our summer visits, the people we spent time with were Jews. Whenever we came to New York on Sundays we always went to Chinatown. To us that was a very Jewish thing.
"A lot of the literature that my mother read, including The New Yorker, had a lot of Jewish writers. I was always very aware of that. I think my mother always said that when she met my father, he reminded her of Philip Roth. They were both Jewish writers from blue-collar families. So from an early age, I had some idea about Jews being cultured intellectuals, Jews being on the correct side politically. I learned later on that Jews can be very right wing and very different from what I understood a Jew to be, and that being Jewish wasn't just about food and culture and art."
Adding to the religious amalgam is Matthew's sister, who is an Episcopal priest, and Parker's older sister, who is an observant Jew. "My sister is Modern Orthodox. She didn't shave her head–you don't have to. She's one of my best friends. And I've learned more from her about the actual practice and ritual of being a Jew than I've ever known before." Parker says her other teacher has been her husband. "Matthew not only identifies as a Jew. I mean, he really is. He knows more about the Bible and the Jewish story. He really sees things through the eyes of a Jew and it's fascinating to me. His perspective in life has very much to do with Hitler and the persecution of Jews. He identifies as a Jew, but it's much more political for him. He's not curious about any other religions. It's not like he's thinking, 'Let's explore Unitarianism, let's explore Buddhism, and let's also explore Judaism as a choice for our child.' He would only think about being a practicing Jew. We're always looking for a seder. This year we drove four and a half hours to go to a Rosh Hashanah dinner. Matthew likes a lot of the rituals -- when he sees them, it's very moving to him. But I don't know that he wants to be an active, religious Jew because I think he finds fault, as we all do, with a lot of religion. For instance, the separation of men and women in services, and some archaic ways of living your life.
"And frankly, for us -- traveling gypsies that we are -- nothing that requires that kind of commitment is appealing. Or sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. But you can't dabble in it. It's not like being into sushi or something. It's a real thing; you can't belittle it. It's too meaningful to people."
She says the crisis in Israel makes them both feel more Jewish. "It makes you identify. I feel much more strongly about the situation there and I feel foolish about it too because I don't know the history. But I do know that I feel defensive when people say, 'How can Israel go in with tanks?' What are they supposed to do? Children are being killed by people willing to strap bombs to their bodies and walk into the public market. So Israel's response to this is to protect its people. I am not an Ariel Sharon fan, but what are the Israelis supposed to do? Just be decent? When you think of Rabin and all these remarkable people who have died, it makes you really much more of a Jew. " She says she has trouble hearing people question Israel's conduct. "To me it's like trying to have a logical argument with a pro-lifer. I can't have the conversation because there's no logic that applies. If you don't understand why Israel has to defend itself.… The extremists want the Jews gone. So why should the Jews feel safe?"
I ask for her reaction to Nat Hentoff's comment, made a few months after 9/11, that he can imagine one day hearing over a loudspeaker, "All Jews gather in Times Square." "I live with someone who can imagine that, I think," Parker says. "So I'm inclined to be able to imagine it myself. You often become the person you're married to or you live with; you just do. And I'm pretty influenced by his thinking often anyway. It wasn't so long ago that the Holocaust happened. It really did happen very recently. And so many denied it and couldn't bear the thought of it or weren't interested in the plight. So, yes; it's not beyond imagining. "
I ask her if she notices which of her friends are Jewish. "If Matthew and I are with friends who are Jewish, you just feel something you can't describe–like trying to describe a color; you can't. It's just commonality -- like, 'Oh yeah, we're with our people.' But I have a lot of non-Jewish friends. Many of them seem to think of being Jewish as slightly exotic."
I ask Parker if she cared about marrying a Jew. "No, but when I met Matthew, I was like, 'Well this is that guy!' " She exhibits a kind of aha! " 'This is the type of guy my mother always liked: the cultured, well-read Jew from Greenwich Village in New York City!' "
Parker says she and Matthew share similar reference points, despite the fact that they grew up so differently. "There's a lot about the aesthetics of our childhood that were extremely similar. And I honestly feel it's because when my mother was raising us in Cincinnati, she was thinking: 'How do cultured Jews in New York City raise their children?' " Parker says her mother emulated an ideal she had implanted in her mind. "The goal was a combination of how cultured Jews in New York City raise their children and how Rose Kennedy raised her children. She was sort of hoping to get the best of both."
I ask her if she's been asked to talk publicly about her Jewish half. "A couple of times newspapers have called -- the Forward for example -- and I've said, 'I can't do this because I would do a disservice to your faith; I don't know enough about it. I'm a Jew because my father is, and that's what we feel we are. But I think sometimes people would like anybody who has a public face at all to be part of it. I wouldn't call myself a famous Jew, but my experience over the years has been that if someone wants me to talk at length about being Jewish in a Jewish paper or publication, I feel I couldn't be further from an authority and I don't want to say things that are uneducated. There are people who are more of note who know more about being a Jew than I do. So I've never done it."
Though ethnic publications may look to her as a role model, I wonder if, in the early days of her career, she was viewed as an ethnic type? Parker nods. "I was offered a movie and it was rescinded because they decided I was too Jewish." She won't say who rejected her. "I shouldn't because they probably wouldn't want -- " She chuckles. "Because they're Jews! That's what I thought was so ironic. It's like, 'Oh, you're a Jew calling me too Jewish!' I think they said I was just 'too Jewish looking.' I think for a long time, people who had curly hair and features that weren't traditionally accepted as pretty were just considered ethnic and still are. I think there's a place for those types more now, but it's not as if we've come so far that it's the new standard. It's not gone the way of the hula hoop."
One could say that, thanks to Carrie Bradshaw -- her character on Sex and the City -- she's created a new archetype. "I don't know that anything's changed," she disagrees. "I think I've had luck because I've found parts and obviously more recently, specifically a part. But Carrie Bradshaw is clearly not a Jew. So that character didn't disprove the bias that beauty is incompatible with ethnicity. I don't know if there's a ripple effect for me professionally or not. And I don't pay too much attention to it because, frankly, there was a period in my career years ago when it stopped mattering to me that a studio executive didn't think I was pretty. Because I couldn't let it. I hadn't started off with a career in which that mattered and I knew that that wasn't what my career was going to be."
Didn't she have a moment of wishing she was the classic American beauty? "Yes, I did have a moment. I remember pretty vividly -- because I actually articulated it at the time–I said, 'This is really frustrating because I'm always playing the cerebral best friend of the pretty girl.' Now, what I didn't mind about that was those were generally the more interesting parts. But it's frustrating to not be considered attractive by men who make decisions. That's what's hurtful. It's not the quality, necessarily, of the role; it's the personal ego stab that is hurtful. And you just figure out whether you have the constitution to continue. That's why I think my parents were very against me working in television and film. I think they thought that in the theater, beauty has broader parameters. My parents saw that it was when I got involved in movies that my feelings were hurt."
But did she view those slights as related to her being Jewish? "I saw it as an ethnicity issue," Parker replies. "I thought if I had straight hair and a perfect nose, my whole career would be different. And I still feel like, when I walk on the set of a movie or a television show, and my hair is straight and all the guys say to me, 'Wow, you look so pretty,' I always joke -- if I know them really well -- 'You're an anti-Semite!' Because I just feel it's a little stab at the Jews. I always feel that people think that straight hair is pretty and curly hair is unruly and Jewish. I think it's anti-ethnic."
I'm talking to Parker before she starts taping the last season of Sex and the City, and I'm curious about the show's explicitly Jewish character, Harry Goldenblatt -- Charlotte's paramour. (At the time we spoke, Harry had told Charlotte he couldn't marry someone who wasn't Jewish and she was considering conversion.) "We live in a city that's full of Jews," says Parker, who is also the show's executive producer. "The fact that we haven't dealt with it more and also didn't do better fleshed-out Jewish characters bothered me," Parker says. "And I still worry that Harry Goldenblatt is too clichéd. That's the problem with being a man on our show. It takes time for dimension to come. We have this great actor, Evan Handler, and he's really sexy and he's smart and I'm excited about the potential of that. But I think we have to be careful that he doesn't become the false cliché of the loud, boorish Jewish lawyer who's aggressive; that he is dignified and interesting and smart and sexy and witty and flawed and all the things that make any guy interesting. I'm excited about it, but I hope we do it well." In other words, if they do it poorly, it could be bad for the Jews. "If I watch a television show about somebody and there's a Jew on there -- I don't mean fiction, I mean reality -- and there's a guy on there named Goldfarb and he's a jackass, I'm like, 'You're bad for the Jews.' It's one more excuse for bigots to say, 'Look at the Jews.' And I'm very protective that way. I'm very ashamed of stereotyping and one person doing a great disservice to millions."
A couple pass our table wheeling their newborn in a carriage, and Parker comments on how cute the baby is. She chats easily with these strangers -- they clearly recognize her despite her pulled back hair and lack of makeup -- and it's an unremarkable conversation, like any other between new parents and a mother-to-be from around the neighborhood. It occurs to me that Parker is not just on the cusp of childbirth but of all the childrearing issues that follow; she realizes it will be up to her to shape this new Broderick's identity, when she's still not quite sure of her own. "If there was a temple I could go to," Parker says, "to get guidance -- counsel of some kind, or just a place to sit and contemplate, whatever that means for me.… If there was a place where you could come in and they say, 'This is what we're going to talk about today and let me put it in context for you and see whether it applies to you or not,' and hear great music and be with people who are like-minded, I think you'd have a much more growing population of people who practice the Jewish faith."