Being and Jewishness

What does it mean to be a Jew?

Rabbis, scholars, anti-Semites and ordinary people have struggled with this question for centuries. It's still an important issue with political consequences in the state of Israel. The answer is complicated. Judaism can be defined as a religion, a culture, a nation, a race, etc. It depends on who provides the response.

Journalist Abigail Pogrebin decided to find out the new, American way. For her book, Stars Of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish (Broadway Books) , she interviewed 60 Jewish celebrities and asked them about their Jewishness. Their replies varied in depth and quality, but there seemed to be general agreement about one thing: A Jew is anyone who calls him or herself a Jew.

Pogrebin's respondents include prominent Jews from many walks of life, such as Hollywood (Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Kyra Sedgwick), the Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer), television (Norman Lear, Aaron Sorkin, Sarah Jessica Parker, William Shatner), journalism (Ellen Goodman, Mike Wallace), fashion (Diane Von Furstenberg, Kenneth Cole), Broadway (Tony Kushner, Neil Simon, Harold Prince), the left and right of politics (Al Franken, Dr. Laura Schlessinger), big business (Edgar Bronfman, Jr., Ronald O. Perelman), public law (Eliot Spitzer, Alan Dershowitz), athletics (Mark Spitz, Shawn Green), and elsewhere.

The most glaring omissions are Jews who rock. There's Beverly Sills, but no Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Randy Newman or many of the dozens of famous Jews who have publicly sang and spoke at times about their views on Jewish self-identity. Who knows, maybe that will be her next book.

While Pogrebin's choice of interviewees may seem odd, what seems more amazing is the fact that she had access to so many important people. She continually notes how busy many of her subjects are during her discussions. Their phones ring, palm pilots beep, secretaries buzz, and such while they chat away about their childhood memories or the taste of food from the past.

Very few actively practice Judaism today, take spouses who share their religious beliefs, and/or raise there children as Jews. Yet they insist they are Jews. If pressed many take what can be called the Jean Paul Sartre defense: I am a Jew because anti-Semites won't let me forget it. (In the French existentialist's tome Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre famously proclaimed Jewish identity was defined by those who hated Jews.) In a post-Holocaust America, no one wants to deny his or heritage because of pride in one's heritage and it would be futile anyway.

Former New York Times critic and current Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl states this idea most bluntly: "You know what makes Jews Jews anymore? The fact that the world won't let us forget. You can say till the cows get home that you're not a Jew, but the world keeps telling you that you are. And that's what makes you a Jew. What makes a black person black? No matter how white your skin is, if you are a black person, the world keeps reminding me that you're black. Ultimately it's others' definition of us that makes us Jews."

Reichl did not grow up in a traditional Jewish home, attended a French Catholic boarding school, and her son was not bar mitzvahed. Reichl also hates traditional Jewish cuisine, but she strongly proclaims a Jewish self-identity.

Not surprisingly, the most interesting responses come from those who still question their Jewish self-identity rather than see it as a given or as a part of how they were raised. For example, the young Israeli-born, Long Island-bred actress Natalie Portman tries to find a distinctive Jewishness that transcends nationalism. Meanwhile, Portman's role as a public Jew has been controversial. Writing in the New Yorker, Cynthia Ozick lambasted Portman's Broadway portrayal of Anne Frank as too sunny. Portman also was engaged in an Israeli-Palestinian controversy at Harvard University that drew the attention of The New York Times. Portman discusses these incidents with Pogrebin in an intelligent and informative manner. One may not necessarily agree with Portman's viewpoints -- i.e. the optimism of the Anne Frank play in light of the Dutch girl's fate raises issues Portman avoids -- but the actress has obviously given her role serious thought.

Pogrebin's most enlightening interview was with Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. Wieseltier grew up in an Orthodox household, attended Yeshiva in Flatbush, and then walked away from his Jewish religiosity to a more conventional American life of wine, women and pork. Much later in life Wieseltier returned to the practice and study of Judaism. He's openly critical of the Jews like the ones Pogrebin interviewed in this book for their laziness.

"I can respect heresy, I can respect alienation, I can respect Karamazovian rebellion, even Oedipal rebellion. I don't mind renegades or apostates... My point is that American Jews aren't renegades; they are slackers." Wieseltier condemns the a la carte Judaism of those who choose what aspect of the religion they like and leave the rest behind and considers those people incompetent because they don't bother to learn what they don't know.

One of these Jews was Pogrebin herself. She writes in an epilogue that her interview with Wieseltier had a deep impact on her. As a result, she began to study Torah, became more involved in her children's religious education and engaged more actively in Jewish rituals that she had previously not practiced. Then, at the age of 40, Pogrebin became bat mitzvahed.

Reading this book probably won't have the same impression on consumers as writing it did for the journalist. But it might have the impact of one who sees a photograph of oneself and says, "So that's how I look," and encourages that person to lose weight, get a haircut or dress differently. A person should want his or her religion to be befitting and relevant.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.