Sixty-two of the most accomplished Jews in America speak intimately—most for the first time—about how they feel about being Jewish. In unusually candid interviews conducted by former 60 Minutes producer Abigail Pogrebin, celebrities ranging from Sarah Jessica Parker to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, from Larry King to Mike Nichols, reveal how resonant, crucial or incidental being Jewish is in their lives. The connections they have to their Jewish heritage range from hours in synagogue to bagels and lox; but every person speaks to the weight and pride of their Jewish history, the burdens and pleasures of observance, the moments they’ve felt most Jewish (or not). This book of vivid, personal conversations uncovers how being Jewish fits into a public life, and also how the author’s evolving religious identity was changed by what she heard.
· Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Gene Wilder, Joan Rivers, and Leonard Nimoy talk about their startling encounters with anti-Semitism.
· Kenneth Cole, Eliot Spitzer, and Ronald Perelman explore the challenges of intermarriage.
· Mike Wallace, Richard Dreyfuss, and Ruth Reichl express attitudes toward Israel that vary from unquestioning loyalty to complicated ambivalence.
· William Kristol scoffs at the notion that Jewish values are incompatible with Conservative politics.
· Alan Dershowitz, raised Orthodox, talks about why he gave up morning prayer.
· Shawn Green describes the pressure that comes with being baseball’s Jewish star.
· Natalie Portman questions the ostentatious bat mitzvahs of her hometown.
· Tony Kushner explains how being Jewish prepared him for being gay.
· Leon Wieseltier throws down the gauntlet to Jews who haven’t taken the trouble to study Judaism.
These are just a few key moments from many poignant, often surprising, conversations with public figures whom most of us thought we already knew.
“When my mother got her nose job, she wanted me to get one, too. She said I would be happier.”—Dustin Hoffman
“It’s a heritage to be proud of. And then, too, it’s something that you can’t escape because the world won’t let you; so it’s a good thing you can be proud of it.”
—Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“My wife [Kate Capshaw] chose to do a full conversion before we were married in 1991, and she married me as a Jew. I think that, more than anything else, brought me back to Judaism.”—Steven Spielberg
“As someone who was born in Israel, you’re put in a position of defending Israel because you know how much is at stake.”—Natalie Portman
“Jewish introspection and Jewish humor is a way of surviving . . . if you’re not handsome and you’re not athletic and you’re not rich, there’s still one last hope with girls, which is being funny.”—Mike Nichols
“I felt not only this enormous pride at being a Jew; I felt this enormous void at not being a better Jew.”—Ronald O. Perelman
“American Jews, like Americans, have a very consumerist attitude toward their identity: they pick and choose the bits of this and that they like.”—Leon Wieseltier
“I thought if I had straight hair and a perfect nose, my whole career would be different.”—Sarah Jessica Parker
“I’ve always rebelled a little when people say, ‘My Jewish values lead me to really care about the poor.’ I know some Christians who care about the poor, too.”—William Kristol
“There were many times when I kept silent about being Jewish as I got older, when Jewish jokes were told.”—William Shatner
“‘Jew bastard’ was something I heard a lot.”—Leonard Nimoy.
“I always liked shiksas.”—Larry King
“It specifically says in the Torah that you can eat shrimp and bacon in a Chinese restaurant.”—Jason Alexander
“Yom Kippur is something I do alone, with nobody else, because I believe that my relationship with God is mine and mine only.”—Diane von Furstenberg
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About the Author
ABIGAIL POGREBIN has been a producer for Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, and 60 Minutes—for Mike Wallace and Ed Bradley. She was a senior correspondent for Brill’s Content, a contributing writer for Talk magazine, and is now a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in many magazines and newspapers. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Read an Excerpt
Dustin Hoffman vividly recalls one afternoon, sitting in his apartment on 11th Street in New York City, talking on the phone to Mike Nichols. The director was trying to convince Hoffman to audition for the part of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. "Mike was asking, 'What do you mean you don't think you're right for the part?' " Hoffman says. " 'Because you're Jewish?' I said, 'Yeah.' Mike said, 'But don't you think the character is Jewish inside?' " Hoffman reminds me that Braddock was originally written as a thoroughbred WASP. "The guy's name is Benjamin Braddocknot Bratowski," Hoffman says with a smile. "He's a track star, debating team. Nichols tested everybody for the partI think he tested Redford, who visually was the prototype of this character."
Hoffman finally agreed to fly to L.A. to audition. "That day was a torturous day for all of us," he says. "I think I was three hours in the makeup chair under the lights. And Mike was saying with his usual wry humor, 'What can we do about his nose?' Or, 'He looks like he has one eyebrow'; and they plucked in between my eyebrows. Dear Mike, who was, on the one hand, extremely courageous to cast me, in the end was at the same time aware that I looked nothing like what the part called for." Hoffman laughs.
We're having breakfast in a Columbus Avenue restaurant near his apartment in New York City. He arrives in buoyant spirits, dressed in jeans, white T-shirt, and blue blazer. Right away he befriends the waitress"Where did you grow up?" She turns out to be from his childhood neighborhood in Los Angeles: Orlando Street. "Oh my God," he says, "I grew up on Flores!"
He orders very specific "loose" scrambled egg whites with one yoke thrown in, plus onions, salsa, and garlic. "Not too dry, no milk, no butter; a little olive oil." Hoffman shakes his head when I order my omelet. "Omelets aren't the best way to go," he advises me. "Scrambled is tastier. But you go ahead with your omelet."
Back to 1967: Nichols, who had seen Hoffman in an off-Broadway play, invited him to California to audition: "I flew out to L.A. with very little notice, and of course hadn't slept," says Hoffman. "I was very nervous. And in my memory, it was an eight-page or ten-page scene in the bedroom, and of course I kept fucking it up. I distinctly remember Mike taking me aside and saying, 'Just relax; you're so nervous. Have you ever done a screen test before?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'It's nothing; these are just crew people here; you're not on a stage. This is just film; no one's going to see it. This isn't going into theaters.' And I nodded and I was so thankful that he was trying to soften me; but then he put his hand out to shake mine, and his hand was so sweaty that my hand slipped out of it. Now I was terrified. Because I knew, 'That man is as scared as I am.'
"I felt, from my subjective point of view, that the whole crew was wondering, 'Why is this ugly little Jew even trying out for this part called Benjamin Braddock?' I looked for a Jewish face in the film crew, but I don't think I sensed one Jew. It was the culmination of everything I had ever feared and dreaded about Aunt Pearl." He's referring to his Aunt Pearl, who, upon learning that "Dusty" wanted to become an actor, remarked: " 'You can't be an actor; you're too ugly.' " "It was like a banner," Hoffman continues: " 'Aunt Pearl was right!' She'd warned me."
Hoffman reaches into the bread basket to break off small chips of a baguette. "It was probably one of the more courageous pieces of casting any director has done in the history of American movies," he continues. "And an act of courage is sometimes accompanied by a great deal of fear."
Obviously the film went on to become a classic and made Hoffman a star. But even after becoming a Hollywood icon, with memorable roles in such films as Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, and Rainman, at the age of sixty-eight, Hoffman says he's still being "miscast": "Someone told me about a review of this movie I did, Runaway Jury, which indicated that I was miscast because the part was a Southern gentleman lawyer. Which must mean to that critic, 'He shouldn't be Jewish.' The unconscious racism is extraordinaryas if there are no Southern gentlemen Jews. So he implied I was miscast. And I mentioned that to my wife and she said, 'Well, you've always been miscast.' And she's right. The truth is that you've got two hundred million people in this country and I don't know the number of Jewsare there six or seven million? [An estimated 5.7 million.] I think there's thirteen million in the world [13.9]. So in a sense, we're miscast by definition, aren't we? That's what a minority is: It's a piece of miscasting by God."
Hoffman grew up unreligious"My father later told me he was an atheist," he says of Harvey Hoffman, a furniture designer. Though they celebrated Christmas, one year he decided to make a "Hanukkah bush" instead. "About the time I realized we were Jews, maybe when I was about ten, I went to the delicatessen and ordered bagels and draped them around the tree."
But when it came to Hoffman's neighborhood friends, something told him he should deny his Jewishness. "It was so traumatic to me, before puberty, realizing that Jews were something that people didn't like. I have a vivid recollectionliterally sensory feelingof the number of times people would say to me (whether they were adults or kids), 'What are you?' " Hoffman pauses. "It was like it went right through me." He twists his fists into his belly. "It was like a warning shockpainful. And I lied my way through each instance of that kind of questioning. So here would be the dialogue: You ask me, 'What are you?' "
POGREBIN: "What are you?"
He gives me direction: "Now you press."
POGREBIN: "What kind of American?"
HOFFMAN: "Just American."
POGREBIN: "What are your parents?"
HOFFMAN: "Americanfrom Chicago."
More direction: "Keep pressingbecause they would. They'd ask, 'What religion are you?' And I'd play dumb."
So he knew that being Jewish was something to hide? "Oh God, yes," he replies immediately. "I didn't want the pain of it. I didn't want the derision. I didn't come from some tough New York community where I'd say, 'I'm Jewishyou want to make something out of it?' There was an insidious anti-Semitism in Los Angeles."
It's one of the reasons he was impatient to move to New York, which he did, at age twenty-one. "I grew up always wanting to live in New York, even though I'd never been here. And what's interesting is that all people ever said to me and still say is, 'Oh, I always assumed you were from New York!' Even now, if you look Jewish, you're from New York. I didn't know that most of the Jews in America live in New York. But I did know it inside. I flew to New York to study acting in 1958; I took a bus from the airport terminal to New York City and they let me off on Second Avenue. It was summer, it was hot, and I walked out of the bus, and I saw a guy urinating on the tire of a car, and I said, 'I'm home.' " He smiles. "The guy pissing on the tire must have represented to me the antithesis of white-bread Los Angeles: New York City was the truth. It was a town that had not had a face-lift, in a sensethat had not had a nose job."
Despite the city's ethnic embrace, when it came to open casting calls, Hoffman learned quickly into which category he fell. "Character actor," he says with a grin. "The word 'character' had a hidden meaning: It meant 'ethnic.' 'Ethnic' means nose. It meant 'not as good looking as the ingenue or the leading man or leading woman.' We were the funny-looking ones."
I ask whether it frustrated himbeing pigeonholed. "Sure. But everything frustrates you when you're not working." He pauses. "I think I just gave you the glib answer. I think the non-glib answer would be how quickly you accept the stereotype that's been foisted on you: 'They're right; I'm ugly.' You learn that early, before you even think about acting. You learn that in junior high school."
I assume that changed for him when he became a bona fide movie star whom many considered adorable. "I still don't feel that, by the way." He shakes his head. One's self-image, he maintains, is indelibly shaped in adolescence. "You're really stuck with those first few years," he says. "That's what stays with you. It takes a lot of therapy to break through that."
What about all the women who must have thrown themselves at him at the height of his fame? "It doesn't matter," he insists. "If you're smart, you know you're interchangeable. It's like people coming up and asking for your autograph; they'll ask any celebrity." He also says he realized after a while that the shiksa conquest has little staying power. "The cliche from the male point of viewwhich is another interviewis the number of times we men in our youth would talk about girls that we had bedded down. And there was often the comment, 'What a waste; I mean here she isa model, gorgeousand she's just a lox.' " He laughs. "I mean, you learn. That outward stereotype only goes so far."
But the short Jewish guy with the nose did choose the trophy wife for his first marriage. "The first wife was Irish Catholic, five-foot-ten, ballet dancer." He smiles. "I don't want to discredit this ex-wife, but the grandmother of my current and lasting wife, Lisa, her grandmother Blanche once referred to my first wife as," Hoffman dons a husky voice, " 'He married a bone structure!' " He laughs. "I mean, that was the prize."
I wonder if he himself ever thought about changing his appearance? "No, but my mother asked me to. When I was a teenager, when she got her nose job, I remember she wanted me to get one, too. She said I would be happier."
I tell him it's probably a good thing he didn't. "Oh but I did," he jests. "You should have seen it before!"
He says his first set of in-lawsfrom Chappaqua, New Yorkweren't thrilled about their daughter's choice in husbands. "I think there was a certain amount of ambivalence on her parents' part that she was marrying a Jewish guy. I don't think they were tickled about me before I became famous and I think they were a little more tolerant afterwards."
Didn't he feel some vindication once he became prominenta kind of "I showed them" to his in-laws, to Aunt Pearl, and to all the casting directors who'd once dismissed him? "I can't say yes because I don't remember that feeling. On the contrary, I tried my hardest after The Graduate to de-fame myself. I was sent scripts for the first time, and I just kept saying, 'no, no, no.' I did not want to be a part of this party joke that I was now a leading man." Hoffman is almost never still; he keeps tearing at the baguette, adjusting the sugar packets, the flatware. "None of this is simple," he says.
His second and current wife, Lisa Gottsegen ("We just celebrated twenty-three years," he announces proudly), took him on a more Jewish path. "My wife changed everything," he says. "Two sons bar mitzvahed, two daughters bat mitzvahed." They have four children together (he also has two children from his first marriage, one of whom was a step-daughter). Their family rabbi, Mordechai Finley, who Hoffman describes as "a red-headed Irishman with a ponytail"is someone to whom Hoffman speaks candidly about his misgivings about faith. "I said, 'Mordechai, can I tell you the truth? I used to live on East Sixty-second Streetyears ago, when I was still married to my first wifeand there was the Rock Church (it's still there) across the street. And I'd hear the singing and the clapping and I loved it.' I said to Mordechai, 'I always wanted synagogue to be like that.' "
Hoffman acknowledges he hasn't given the time to his Judaism that he has to his acting. "I have no one to blame but myself, because I could have learned it," he says. "Every one of my kids that has had a bar or bat mitzvah, I've had to learn my part phonetically; it's uncomfortable for me." The family observes all Jewish holidays, though Hoffman noticed his son Max didn't go to synagogue on Yom Kippur in Providence, where, at the time we meet, he's just started Brown University. "We called up Max in Rhode Island, and the first thing he said was 'Good Yom Tov.' But he didn't go to services. He just said it to say, 'See, I know what today is.' "
Hoffman is, in fact, planning to drive up to Brown after our breakfast: It's parents' weekend. "My son met a girl who we'll probably meet and her name is Brittany from Mobile, Alabama; I don't think that she's Jewish." He smiles. "But I don't care." His cell phone rings: It's Lisa wondering when he's coming home. "Can you give me ten, fifteen minutes?" he asks her. "Okay, my dear. I'll hurry."
He and Lisa were spotted on camera a couple of nights earlier at the Yankee playoff game against the Boston Red Sox. "Because the New York fans are so devout, if the Yankee pitcher strikes somebody out, everybody stands," he says. "Then they sit down. And then they stand for the next guy. And the next. They sit down, they stand up, sit down." He demonstrates. "And at one point, Lisa said, 'This is worse than temple.' "
He says Lisa cares deeply about Jewish tradition, while his connection is more unconscious. "I have very strong feelings that I am a Jew." He punctuates the declaration with his fist. "And particularly, I am a Russian, Romanian Jew. I love herring and vodka; I feel it comes from something in my DNA. I do love these things. And I know I have a strong reaction to any anti-Semitism."
He recounts a story that was clearly disquieting. It happened when he took his family to the premiere of his film Outbreak in Hamburg, Germanythe hometown of the film's director, Wolfgang Peterson. "I said to my wife before we left, 'Are there any concentration camps around there? Because I think these kids are now finally at the age when they can handle it.' We found out that Bergen-Belsen was forty minutes south. That is where Anne Frank was taken."
They decided to go the morning after the premiere, and Hoffman took an early walk from the hotel to buy some provisions for the drive. "I heard there was a nearby fancy bakery, and I could get wonderful German pastries and sandwiches. And this place had all these little tables, like this," he gestures around our restaurant, "and against the wall were these beautiful pastries and the waitresses were very attractive German girls in their striped uniformsit was as upscale as you would come across. And I'm aware of the fact that no one is coming up to mebecause when you're a celebrity, you're aware of when you're being recognizedand they were quite respectful.
Reading Group Guide
1. What do you think Abigail Pogrebin’s intention was in writing this book? Did she succeed?
2. Do you think an understanding of Judaism is needed to appreciate the book? In what ways does Pogrebin make it accessible to everyone?
3. Which was your favorite interview, and why? Your least favorite?
4. Many of the people profiled changed their names–everyone from Beverly Sills to Natalie Portman. Were you surprised to find that name-changing is still happening today? Why do you think that is?
5. Several of the comedians were reluctant to acknowledge Jews’ contributions to humor as being greater than many ethnic groups, while others were obviously proud to pronounce it as fact. What’s your take on the Jews’ role in comedy?
6. It’s no surprise that anti-Semitism comes up throughout the book. Have you ever experienced or witnessed anything like what you read about? How did/would you respond?
7. On page 265, Richard Meier says “If you believe you are a Jew, then you are one,” but just six pages later Ruth Reichl states that “it’s others’ definition of us that makes us Jews.” Which assessment do you favor–or do you have your own theory on what makes a Jew?
8. Tikkun Olam–repairing the world through social action–is mentioned in several of the interviews. Of all the people in the book, who do you believe best exemplifies this concept? How?
9. The majority of the interviewees are either intermarried themselves, or their parents are. Did this proportion surprise you? Were there any interviewees who you would consider to be not Jewish?
10. What did you think of the various approaches to raising Jewish children? Whose style seemed closest to your own, or to the way you were raised?
11. There was also a broad range of feelings about Israel–everything from embarrassment (Ruth Reichl) to unwavering support (Joan Rivers). Who did you identify with most closely, and why?
12. For as much as this is a book about being Jewish, the majority of the interviewees followed few of the actual laws of observance–even though they identified themselves very strongly as Jews. Do you think this is a uniquely Jewish trait, or is it something you’d see with any religion?
13. Several of the interviewees–Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ronald O. Perelman, Jason Alexander, and others–mentioned a discomfort with the role of women in Judaism. How do you feel about it?
14. In many ways, Pogrebin’s interview with Leon Wieseltier is the heart of the book–some of his pronouncements are especially provocative, and suggest a different way of reading the others’ stories. In particular, “he derides a kind of Jewish identity that might be described as Judaism Lite–an identity tied to ethnicity, not education” (page 156). Do you agree or disagree with most of what he said? Did his assertions make you re-think your reading of anyone else’s interviews?
15. Contrast Wieseltier’s education-insistent approach to Judaism with Max Frankel’s assertion that “education: learning to question” is half of what’s making Jews turn away from religion (page 235).
16. In her epilogue, Pogrebin tells us that, as a result of conducting the interviews and writing the book, she has become more religious. Why do you think that is? Do you feel any different, now that you’ve read the book?