Book shines light on the private life of Jewish stars

Correspondent Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” celebrates Christmas and works on Yom Kippur but says the Sh’ma before bedtime every night.

Actress Natalie Portman is quite critical of the affluent Jewish community in which she grew up in Long Island.

Playwright Tony Kushner says that being Jewish prepared him for being gay.

These tidbits are among those that can be found in “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” a new book by Abigail Pogrebin.

Pogrebin will speak about her book at the San Francisco Jewish Bookfest 2005.

A former producer for “60 Minutes,” Pogrebin writes in her introduction that she embarked on this project, in a way, to learn more about herself and her generation of American Jews. As a young mother, she was struggling with just how Jewish to raise her children, since she knew so little about it herself.

She interviews over 60 actors, journalists, playwrights, sports figures, writers, politicians and the like to ask them what being Jewish means to them.

While most of the interviewees are fully Jewish, some are intermarried, and several are Jewish on one side; Sarah Jessica Parker is only Jewish on her father’s side, yet she wants her children to have a stronger Jewish identity than she did growing up; Kyra Sedgwick is Jewish on her mother’s side and fully identifies as a Jew, yet married a non-Jew.

Some of the answers she got are surprising.

“I was surprised overall with how honest people were,” she said in a telephone interview. “I expected people to have a textbook ‘this is what it is to be a good Jew’ answer, and that was not the case at all.”

For example, fashion designer Kenneth Cole, who is married to Maria Cuomo, daughter of former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, admits how hard it is for him that he agreed to allow his wife to raise their daughters Catholic.

“It’s hard for me every day,” he says.

“At the end of our conversation, he said ‘It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,'” said Pogrebin. “And this is not someone who has been wearing his Jewishness on his sleeve. He was proud of his Jewishness, but didn’t think of it in terms of his business, to be so out in his identity. I was very struck by that.”

Pogrebin found the topic of intermarriage to be one of the touchiest subjects she broached. In one of the few times a subject refused to answer a question, James Rubin, the former spokesman for the State Department in the Clinton administration, would not say how he and his non-Jewish wife, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, would raise their 3-year-old son.

Pogrebin said that she chose to interview people in the public eye for several reasons, one is simply because “We feel we know them, and yet this is a layer that is rarely peeled back. It’s not a typical People magazine question and I was interested in how central, peripheral, and emotional it was.”

Futhermore, Pogrebin said, these people are visible because they are at the top of their fields, which was a Jewish immigrant ideal.

“These people have made it in this country, and it’s interesting for other Jews, especially, but for Americans to see what happens to the next generation in terms of their religion, tradition, childhood rituals and holidays.”

In the book’s epilogue, Pogrebin writes how diplomat Richard Holbrooke turns the tables on her and asks why she chose this book topic. When she answers that she struggles with the same issues that everyone else does, he says, “So this is therapy for you.”

While it was a flip comment, Pogrebin realized he was onto something.

“I realized that there had to be something at work in terms of my working some of these questions through, and realizing what I was asking of all these famous people, I hadn’t asked of myself,” she said.

In the process of doing this book, Pogrebin became more engaged with Judaism, having a bat mitzvah last year at age 40.

“I ended up in a very different place than I began,” she said. “I’m not a very religious Jew, but in terms of my engagement in the tradition, it’s much more conscious and effortful than it was before. Choosing to become a bat mitzvah at age of 40 last spring was not something I had planned. It was an outgrowth of this book or process.”

Pogrebin will participate in a panel discussion about Jewish identity with two other authors at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Information:

“Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish” by Abigail Pogrebin (385 pages, Broadway Books, $24.95).

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."