Book Review: Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin

A few years ago, I read and deeply enjoyed My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin. She wrote about her year of observing every single Jewish holiday (having not previously observed most of them), and what she learned from this, about Judaism, herself, and her place in Judaism. It’s a really neat book, a great primer on the Jewish holidays, and I appreciated her takes on the holidays I was fuzzy on. So when I learned she had written a book interviewing Jewish celebrities about being Jewish, I knew I wanted to read more of her writing. I put Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish (Broadway Books, 2005) on my TBR and was fully prepared to request it from interlibrary loan, but wouldn’t you know, I ran into a copy of it at the used bookstore earlier this month (first time I stopped there in over a year!), and it just so happened to follow me home.

Each chapter in Stars of David focuses on a different well-known Jewish personality, and Ms. Pogrebin questions them on what being Jewish means to them. Are they observant? (Most aren’t.) Why or why not? What have their experiences been with antisemitism? What does being Jewish mean if you’re not observant? How has it shaped you and your life, your personality, your family? What are you hopes for your children, your grandchildren, in terms of Judaism? What do you think the Jewish future looks like?

While this book is by now a bit dated in terms of the people she interviewed (a depressing number of the people she interviewed have since passed on; many are no longer as active in public life as they were when these interviews took place), it’s still an interesting take on the many, many ways one can be Jewish. There are a handful of people who are in some way observant and who are a bit grumpy with those who aren’t, or who at least don’t even know what it is they’ve rejected; others roll their eyes at the idea of engaging with the more religious aspects of Judaism (which is a lot different from Christianity; the phrase Judeo-Christian gets thrown around a lot, but I haven’t met a single Jewish person who appreciates its use, because the two are just so far apart in terms of belief, action, thoughts about what God is, and so much more). There are political figures, actors and directors and television personalities, people from the financial industry, athletes, musicians, Broadway stars, and more.

If you’re my age (40!) or older, these are the celebrities you grew up with and heard about constantly on television, and it’s a nice look back at…well, most of those voices. (I can’t say I loved the interview with Dr. Laura Schlessinger- remember her? I’m sorry if you do- who makes sure to weaponize her Judaism just as she does everything else, and then of course whines when people point out how repulsive that is. *yawn*) It’s a lovely look into a part of their lives that you may not have spent much time considering, about a part of themselves they find meaningful in a variety of different ways, and how they express that part.

Visit Abigail Pogrebin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

anthology · fiction · nonfiction

Book Review: How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert

So, I was a weird kid. (I’m sure you’re shocked.) I became fascinated with foreign languages on a Brownies field trip to the library at age seven (somewhere I was already intimately familiar with!). The librarian took us on a tour of the children’s section, pointing out where the fiction section was, and then letting us know what the nonfiction section held. She pointed out the foreign language section and I was immediately intrigued. ‘There are other languages???’ I remember thinking. A copy of a learn-to-speak-French book came home with me that day (the very first French sentence I ever learned to say: Où sont les toilettes? Super useful!), and I’ve been fascinated ever since, digging briefly into Japanese as a tween before studying Spanish, French, and German in high school, studying French in college (and marrying a native speaker!), dabbling in sign language here and there throughout my life, and picking up Norwegian as an adult. All this to say that a copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish came home with me from the library when I was around eleven or twelve, which may have seemed weird if I had opened with that, but now that you know my history, eh, maybe not so much. I’ve always thought Yiddish was a cool language, and so I was glad my library had a copy of How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert (Restless Books, 2020).

This 500+ page anthology is a quilt, a little bit of everything for the Yiddish-curious reader. Essays, interviews, poetry, short stories, excerpts from novels. There are discussions of modern-day Yiddish, trips back to the shtetls that haven’t existed for decades, glimpses of a way of life long gone, and both optimism and pain. There are stories of shame and devastation, but also of triumph, of Aaron Lansky’s rescuing of millions of Yiddish books, of poetry so beautiful that I only wish it were better known (Emily Dickinson, eat your heart out!). If one format doesn’t interest you, the next piece will likely be entirely different, which makes for a really interesting read.

I was expecting something different, however; I had thought this was more a book about Yiddish and not just occasionally about Yiddish and then a lot of Yiddish-writing-translated-to-English. That’s not a bad thing, just different than what I was expecting. I was also expecting it to be entirely nonfiction, instead of including a lot of fiction and poetry. Again, not bad, just different.

It was also fun to see familiar faces in the book. I’ve known about Aaron Lansky for ages; his book is on my TBR and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read Ilan Stavans before; Resurrecting Hebrew is a fascinating look on how the Hebrew language was brought back from being almost solely a textual language to the fully functional national language of Israel. And while reading the introduction, which spoke of how translated pieces were included in this anthology, I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder…” and I flipped through the index in the back. And sure enough, the wife of one of the rabbis who taught my Intro to Judaism class has a translated piece in the book! She’s a Yiddish professor. Small world, eh? 😊

Even if you’re not super interested in languages or Yiddish as a language, this book almost has the feel of reading a magazine, with all of its different pieces and formats. Reading it kept me engaged throughout its 512 pages, which is no easy feat!

Follow Ilan Stavans on Twitter here.