Stars of David: Rock 'n' Roll Jewish Stories By Scott R. Benarde Brandeis 416pp., $24.95
When did being Jewish go from something to hide to something stylish in the American entertainment arena? Somewhere between the time Issur Danielovich Demsky decided to adopt the stage name Kirk Douglas, and the few decades later when Adam Sandler had a huge hit with "The Hanukkah Song" in which he playfully "outed" famous Jewish performers ("Paul Newman's half Jewish; Goldie Hawn's half too, Put them together what a fine lookin' Jew!"), Jewish pride began taking its place in a country that increasingly championed its ethnic diversity.
While Jews were consistently reaching the top ranks in the fields of film, music, television, politics and government throughout the 20th century, it's only relatively recently that they've begun feeling comfortable enough in their own skin to be identified as members of the tribe. There was always that nagging suspicion more often than not with reason that being labeled Jewish would stifle their career ambitions.
No more Jews are now ubiquitous on every public front. So much so that two different books with the same title and theme have hit the market Stars of David one subtitled "Rock 'n' Roll Jewish Stories" by Scott R. Benarde, and the other "Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish" by Abigail Pogrebin.
As Pogrebin, a former 60 Minutes TV producer and freelance writer from New York, explains in the foreword to her superior tome, "I found myself looking at public figures that happen to be Jewish and wondering how Jewish these people felt. It occurred to me that we might share a kind of figurative secret handshake not just pride in the heritage and endurance of the Jewish people, but uncertainty about what it means to be a Jew today Did they care if their Jewish daughter decided to marry a Michael?"
Her quest resulted in sit-down, in-depth interviews with 62 accomplished American Jews who for the most part spoke candidly about the relevance of being Jewish in their lives and their careers. Ranging from Dustin Hoffman and Sarah Jessica Parker to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Pogrebin's former boss Mike Wallace, the subjects offer stories and thoughts that cover the spectrum of the American Jewish experience.
The results, while highly entertaining and thought provoking, don't bode well for the future of Judaism in America, or at least a Judaism that consists of any level of religious observance besides a latke on Hanukka (along with a Christmas tree). Celebrities like Parker appear to be without a clue as they discuss how they'll raise their children and how they'll be able to instill Jewish values without any formal Jewish education.
An earlier generation of entertainers like Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Gene Wilder, Joan Rivers, and Leonard Nimoy find their Judaism tied into the encounters with anti-Semitism they experienced as youngsters. Others grapple with issues like intermarriage, or in Tony Kushner's case, finding a connection between being gay and Jewish.
Even more bad news Israel takes a seat way in the back of the bus for most of these A-listers. Unless they have a specific connection like Natalie Portman, who says she always feels more Jewish when she's in Israel, or are involved on some political level like Wallace, who claims to recite the "Shema" every night, Israel is not on the radar in any form in regards to Jewish identity.
In her book, Pogrebin employs a writing style that places her smack in the middle of each interview adding elements like how she arranged the interview, the feeling she got from the talk, and details like the clothes, habits and demeanor of the subjects.
It's an approach that can be distracting, but ultimately provides a vital extra dimension to the book. Pogrebin explains that she's asking these questions as much for herself as for the book, in an effort to explore her own feelings with Judaism.
It takes New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier to provide her with some of the answers, when he criticized all the people in the book who claimed no time for the nuts and bolts of Judaism when they manage to find time for tennis and lunch dates. The interview prompted Pogrebin to start on a path of Jewish exploration that was continuing as of the book's publication.
IF POGREBIN'S Stars of David is the periodical equivalent of Vanity Fair's comprehensive profiles, Benarde's Stars of David is the People magazine version. Focusing exclusively on over 60 musical performers of the rock era, the book aims to answer the same questions does being Jewish mean anything to those who have written and performed some of the most enduring rock music?
However, it's clear that Bernarde didn't receive the same level of access to the subjects as Pogrebin, and the results read more like a straight historical biography of the artists, with slight additions regarding their Jewish background.
Spawned by a chance backstage encounter with David Lee Roth in 1986, in which the former Van Halen singer proclaimed that his bar mitzva chanting was what prompted him to become a singer, the book contains a smattering of the really famous (Bob Dylan, Billy Joel). Its charm, however, lies in the focus on the unsung Jews of the music biz, like David Bowie's pianist Mike Garson, or Max Weinberg and Stan Lynch, the drummers for two of the most explosive rock band in history The E Street Band and The Heartbreakers.
Don't be disappointed by the conspicuous absence of some the most accomplished Jewish rockers like Paul Simon, Joey Ramone, Phil Spector, and Neil Diamond. Gems like Steve Goodman, 10cc's Graham Gouldman and rock's version of Forrest Gump, Al Kooper, make up for it.
Great factoids abound, like how Bon Jovi's keyboardist Dave Bryan blows shofar in his New Jersey synagogue and claims to hold the world's "t'kiya g'dola" record, or how '60s vocal group Jay & the Americans all "Americanized" their names from Rosenberg, Kirschenbaum, Kupersmith and Blatt.
And there are equally riveting anecdotes like Tom Petty throwing a rock star's tantrum at the King David Hotel in 1987 because he couldn't get his customary bacon and eggs for breakfast his drummer Lynch used it as an example of how isolating he felt to be a Jew in an non-Jewish touring environment. "I was a Jew in Israel with a bunch of guys it didn't mean squat to, while it was some sort of pilgrimage to me."
However, such passages are the exception, not the rule, in the rock & roll Stars of David. Still, it's fun reading for any rock fan with a taste for the obscure (three cheers for The Electric Flag, The Blues Project, and Mountain). You just won't find many instances of how Judaism inspired a particular artist, unless it's an obvious case like Peter Himmelman or Kinky Friedman and his Texas Jewboys.
What can be garnered from both Stars of David is that there is something that binds together the different Jewish celebrities profiled. It could be just a bagels and lox mentality, a common sense of outsider humor, a similar outlook on life, or a sensitivity to things close to the heart that enables them to create. But it's that elusive spark that makes them Jewish.
The question is, does it end with them, or will their children share that same spark?