"Stars of David" author Abigail Pogrebin interviewed over 50 Jewish A-listers. Photo courtesy of Abigail Pogrebin
When Abigail Pogrebin first had the idea to collect the stories of prominent Jewish celebrities and interview them about their spiritual lives for a book, her husband said what most people might have said: “Why would they talk to you about that?”
Nevertheless, Pogrebin began reaching out through her personal network and any other channel she could find and by the time she had finished she had interviewed 62 Jewish A-listers, ranging from Natalie Portman to Steven Spielberg to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
For the book, “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish,” published in 2005, Pogrebin asked them what their Jewish heritage means to them, has meant to them, and what role is has played in their careers and lives. Now, her impressive collection of interviews is being transformed into a one-night-only musical, set for April 8th at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on West 83rd Street. A select group of interviews from the book are featured in the show. Each is represented by a song to be sung by Jewish cantors, to add an extra touch of meaning.
With her book taking on a new life, Pogrebin reflected on its creation, the public perception of the Jewish identity, and how that perception has changed over the years.
What inspired the book?
It was probably my backdoor way of wrestling with my own Jewish identity, which wasn't as formed then as it is now. I had just had my first child and was reckoning with what it means to start a Jewish family, raise a Jewish family, and what it means to be a Jew in America as an adult. I had the idea for the book because I would look at public figures who were Jewish and I knew that somewhere, even if it's not the first thing they talk about in their New Yorker profile or on a talk show, that being Jewish had to matter; it had to somehow have affected them in how they were raised, in their values, what they had chosen to be or become and I wanted to understand how such a private thing fits into a public life.
How did you get in touch with your celebrity subjects?
I started basically asking the celebrities I could get to. There were five at the start who I had some kind of personal connection with and it was a good enough five that it convinced others to trust me and to sit down for an interview. I got to 62 before my deadline was up. Some people said no and of course I took every rejection personally, but it ended up being a remarkably candid snapshot of Jewish identity from some of our highest achievers, which are admittedly a very particular subset of Jews in America. But I think telling, in terms of how the majority in the book have been raised with Jewish identity and ritual, and the majority have let it go for the most part.
What do you mean by let it go?
To each person, it absolutely was essential to who they were, but it wasn't essential to what they did, how they spent their time, or whether they prioritized observance. And that's reflective of many Jews in this country who have not opted for an observant life. I would say there was a theme among many of these interviews, that part of the recipe for success was American identity more than a religious one, and that in some sense a Jewish identity would be constraining or narrowing in some way, particularly for maybe an actor or a politician. What a number of people in my book said was almost 'I don't want to be identified through this lens because I thought it would box me in in some way.' It was also obviously prejudice. Most of the people in my book were raised in a time where there wasn't this general open embrace. There was an ideal, the American ideal, which was not necessarily religious. Difference wasn't a value, what was valued was something more accessible to more people.
What is the box these prominent Jewish people are afraid of being put into?
I think everyone's assumptions are different. What you assume people assume depends on whether or not you've experienced anti-semitism. And a number of people in my book did, so there was a sense of knowing that there were tripwires to avoid in terms of perception, in terms of stereotypes. I think there's much more permission now to own what makes you different and have your career not be affected by that difference, whether it's religion or sexuality. But the bigger takeaway from the interviews for me was a sense that peoples' Jewishness had informed their moxy, their sense of 'nothing is going to get in my way.' We've had roadblocks before, we've had doubters before in our of cultural heritage, and we've defied the naysayers over and over again. And I'm in that line of defiers, I'm in that line of people who prove the unlikely.
Is the Jewish community tight-knit? Did that help you access these high-profile people?
I'm not sure I could report this book today. There are so many more tiers of handlers and gatekeepers that I think it would have been harder to get to these people even if you message them or IM them. There was a sense that when people were asked if they would talk about their Jewish past, especially when they saw that Mike Wallace had already said yes, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had said yes, there was a sense that 'Oh that's a club I want to be in, or I'm proud to be in.' There was also a sense when I sat down with them that even though they were famous, they were family. Honestly, Steven Spielberg did feel like one of my cousins, and Beverly Sills felt like one of my aunts. I would also try to bring some rugelach when I showed up. And it's not just about your knish and my knish, my matzah ball soup and your matzah ball soup. There's an ineffable vocabulary and emotional kind of current that was just instantaneous and hard to describe, and it led to an intimacy in these conversations that I hadn't expected. If everyone had just talked about their satyrs we would have had a pretty boring book.
Do celebrities feel more of a need to hide this aspect of their identity from the general population?
I think the celebrities are framing their proverbial photographs more than the rest of us. They want to control their public personas in a way I don't fault them for doing, because it's their currency and their livelihood. Their popularity is widely based on their persona, so it's absolutely true that you don't go first to your Jewish angst or your moments of doubt or even your moments of faith. And it's not necessarily because of Jewish hatred, it's more of a sense of 'Do I want this to be part of my story right now?'
What does it mean for readers to be able to connect with these prominent Jewish celebrities through their values, religion, and everything else that comes along with the Jewish identity?
What we all know is that people all have kinds of pathways to their Jewish identities, and some of it is much more based on memory and food and family, and some of it is spiritual and obviously about faith or lack of faith. Some of it is a sense of both burden and responsibility when it comes to the Holocaust and persecution generally; that we survived and can't abandon what we're carrying for those who died for the word Jew. Whether or not they were observant or religious or not, it didn't matter. Who are we to walk away from that inheritance? It's the least we owe. So there's all that functioning, and I think people read themselves into celebrities lives anyway. But then when you do say this is essentially my family, that is how in the Jewish community I think we react is that you're somehow familiar to me or connected to me, even if you're in a stratosphere of public awareness, you're still in some way not alien because we share this.
There seems to be a theme of the American identity and Jewish identity wrestling with each other at times. How would you describe that conflict?
I would answer that question differently now because of what's happening with Israel.I think we're in a place where Jewish identity feel trickier and more fraught, in terms of what people are saying. Not that people are divided about whether to call themselves Jewish and American, but I've never seen Israel's existence be so openly questioned. And being in the position to defend a place that's been so dear to me, and have that be inextricably linked in some way in a sense of anti-semitism, feels like a new moment that was not happening when I was writing this book, but definitely was for the generation I was interviewing.
How does this political moment color the viewing of the play adaption?
I think every time one of these stories is told it's colored by the moment we're in, so it'll be interesting to see. Certainly the spike in anti-semitism is unequivocally real, and it's got to in some way color these stories from the past, because in some ways it's back. When you look on Twitter and see the vile, the ugliness, that is just out for the world to see against Jewish journalists or congresspeople, it's chilling to me. I think it shows a naivete on my part that it left and would never return, and this is a very different moment, and that has to effect the stories you hear, which are the songs you'll hear.
How did you feel when the musical was being created?
The idea that we were approaching composers now to translate these stories was sensitive and ambivalent for me, because I felt a great responsibility in holding these stories. I had asked them to be in this book, I didn't ask them to be in a musical. So the fact that these composers were chosen was a huge part of what got me over that hesitation. To have people like Sheldon Harnick and Duncan Sheik, the idea that these stories were going to be cared for by such musical giants, was a powerful kind of coda for this book. I never anticipated that it would have a theatrical life.
Do you think the songs will be able to convey everything that you covered?
I realize that they can't. In a sense, a successful song picks out a moment or one struggle ... you have to kind of narrow the lens, not widen it. What makes a song successful is that you enter one snapshot, and not the whole painting, to make metaphors. And that's what I think all these songs are, they're snapshots. But as we know, it's a smaller picture that often tells you much more about the larger one.
Do you think picking out these snapshots will bring out themes from the book?
I think that anything that's too broad stroke will be not just generalized, but over-simplified. And if there's anything we've learned as Jews, it's that our tradition and our heritage is not simple, and neither is the moment that we're in.