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Authors: Abigail Pogrebin

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BOOK: Stars of David
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Her final show-and-tell items are framed, calligraphic renderings of the Hebrew command from Deuteronomy: “
Zedek, Zedek, tirdorf
”—“Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue.” Ginsburg says it was her mother who put Jewish tradition in the context more of doing justice than of observance. “My mother had mixed memories of her Judaism because her father was ultra-Orthodox; she remembers her eldest brother worked very hard to ride a bicycle and then his father caught him riding on the Sabbath and broke it to pieces. So that type of fanatic observance my mother did not appreciate. On the other hand, she has very pleasant memories of the Sabbath and the smell of the bread; and it was the one day that her mother wasn't working—wasn't cooking all the time.”

Ginsburg's mother, Celia Bader, pushed her daughter hard to succeed. “My mother told me to be independent. She thought that meant I'd be a high school history teacher.” Does Ginsburg consider that emphasis on achievement to be Jewish? “Yes,” she answers definitively. “I loved my mother dearly and she was constantly supporting my reading, sometimes pushing me to do things that I didn't really care about, like math. And she cared in a way that other mothers didn't. Our neighborhood was divided three ways—it was Italian, Irish, and Jewish in equal parts. And the Jewish parents were much more concerned about how their children were doing in school.”

When Ginsburg stood at President Clinton's side during her nomination ceremony in 1993, she discussed the hurdles she faced at the start of her law career. “I had three strikes against me,” she recalled. “I was Jewish, I was a woman, and I was a mother. So if a door would have been open a crack in either of the first two cases, the third one was too much.” One of her first jobs—between college and law school—was in a Social Security office working for a man who'd never met a Jew before. “He wasn't entirely sure I wasn't hiding horns somewhere in my head,” she says with a half smile.

In her first year at Cornell, she says, the anti-Semitism was visible but unspoken. “In the dormitory, all of the girls on both sides were Jewish,” she recalls. “That didn't happen by chance. The houses were arranged so that we would not contaminate all the others. We were contained.” She adds that this made for lasting bonds. “We are friends to this day—it was a wonderful group of people.”

I ask if the “outsiderness” she felt over the years proved to be a motivating force. “Oh, it certainly is,” she replies without her usual hesitation. “You've got to be sure you were better than anyone else.”

So I ask the obvious question, “Does being Jewish affect the way you approach cases on the Court?”—expecting her to wave it off with some boilerplate version of
Justices can't let personal experience color their judgment
. Instead, her answer is more nuanced. “I don't think that I approach cases in a particular way because I am Jewish any more than I do because I'm a woman. I have certain sensitivities for both. You know the old expression, ‘Is it good for the Jews?' For example, a lot of people want to have crosses in front of their town hall or whatever. They say, ‘It doesn't hurt anybody.' We had one case where I was in dissent—it was about a cross in front of the Statehouse in Ohio. And to me, the photograph of that statehouse told the whole story of the case: Here is the Capitol in Columbus, and here is this
giant cross
. And what is the perception of a Jewish child who is passing by the Capitol? It's certainly that this is a Christian country. A person's reaction could be: ‘There's something wrong with me.'
It's not a symbol that
includes you

The theme of exclusion runs through so many of her stories: the sting of being sidelined, legal cases about people who are made to feel unwelcome. A sad irony occurs to me, as she talks: As other institutions marginalized her for being a Jew, her religion made her feel left out because she was a woman and thus lost her early on. When I ask if she misses Judaism, there's a long pause. “I wish that I could have the feeling for it that I once did. I don't think I ever will.”

Steven Spielberg


“I THINK THE BREAKTHROUGH in my rediscovering the honor of being a Jew came
before Schindler's List,
when I married my wife, Kate.” Filmmaker Steven Spielberg is sipping tea in the honey-toned conference room of Amblin Pictures, the production company built for him by Universal Studios after his 1982 blockbuster,
He looks relaxed in jeans, sneakers, and a blue baseball cap. “Before I married Kate Capshaw, I only felt my Judaism when I was at the Milky Way Restaurant with my mom and stepfather.” He's referring to the kosher café his mother owns in West Los Angeles. “Kate is Protestant and she insisted on converting to Judaism. She spent a year studying, did the
, the whole thing. She chose to do a full conversion
we were married in 1991, and she married me as a Jew. I think
more than anything else, brought me back to Judaism. I've actually said
Schindler's List
went a long way in getting me back into the fold, but it really was the fact that my wife took a profound interest in Judaism.”

Did his wife convert solely for him? “I think she did that for
” Spielberg replies. “But if you ask her that question, she'll probably say she found the history of the Jewish people to be the most compelling history she had ever read. Also, I think Kate saw the size of our family before we had our family, and she wanted us all to be on the same page with the same faith.”

They have seven children between them: Capshaw has a daughter (not Jewish) from her first marriage, Spielberg has a son from his first marriage to actress Amy Irving, he and Capshaw have three biological and two adopted children. Four days before our meeting, Spielberg and Capshaw's son Sawyer became bar mitzvahed. Daughter Sasha and son Theo have also crossed that threshold. “Three down, two to go,” Spielberg announces, obviously pleased. “The most amazing sight was Theo, who is almost seventeen now,” Spielberg continues. “He's African American. I'd always said I wanted at least one of my sons to have the Orthodox bar mitzvah that I had. But Theo didn't want to have the Orthodox bar mitzvah—he fought me on it. He said, ‘Dad, please let me be able to design my own coming of age.' And I said, ‘You're my last chance and my
chance to see a strong, young black man standing in an Orthodox shul surrounded by the congregation of Saturday worshippers with the tallis over their heads.' I said, ‘I know I'm not allowed to take photographs in an Orthodox temple, but I will take a photograph of that in my mind and I will know that you shared the same experience that I shared, going the whole formal route to confirmation.' Theo didn't want to do it, but in retrospect, he's many times thanked me for it.”

As a black adopted Jew, Theo Spielberg must have felt the collision of his two histories. Spielberg shakes his head. “No. It's a beautiful thing to see Theo with his own history as an African American—his own cultural legacy of slavery and indentured servitude and an unholy host of sins perpetrated on
race. There is this symmetry in the sense that he was bar mitzvahed. It's something that he really sees and can talk about.”

Spielberg's son Max, by Amy Irving (who isn't Jewish), chose not to become bar mitzvahed. “It was hard for me that Max wasn't,” he admits. “Had Max been living with us on the West Coast, as opposed to with his mom, Amy, on the East Coast, I simply would have compelled Max to be bar mitzvahed. But I didn't want to impose that on Amy because she was his custodial mom and he was living under her roof.”

He says Capshaw fuels his family's current level of observance. “My wife keeps the Jewish momentum flowing in our lives.” He smiles at the irony. “This shiksa goddess has made me a better Jew than my own parents. We light the candles on most Friday nights. Kate hand-makes the challah. We observe Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah; nobody's compelled to fast, but I fast and Kate fasts; the kids had to fast on their bar mitzvah year—their rabbi insisted. We do Hanukkah
we do Christmas.” Christmas in such a consciously Jewish home? “We do Christmas because it was a tradition in Kate's family and because it's the one holiday I wished I could have partaken in every year I was growing up.”

His longing was especially acute as an eight-year-old in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. (His family would later move to Cincinnati, Phoenix, and then Northern California.) “I would go to my dad and say, ‘Dad, why can't we put lights up? We're the only house on the block that doesn't have lights.' And my dad would say, ‘We have a porch light.' I said, ‘Dad, you know what I mean.' Our neighbors used to win these awards for decoration; every house was regaled with Nativity scenes and Santa's sleigh. There were lights on all the eaves, doorjambs, and windows, sometimes even outlining the shape of each house. Our neighborhood was like a light show, and we were the black hole of Calcutta. But my dad would never allow us to do anything. One time he said, ‘If you want to, we can put the menorah in the window.' And I said, ‘No, no, no! Then people will think we're Jews!'”

Come spring, Passover always brought the entire extended family together, and that continues to this day. “We all go to Arizona where we were raised,” he says. “It's a wonderful reunion.” Like so many others I spoke to, Spielberg recalls being young and impatient at the seder table. “It's a shame you can't eat first, and then have Passover,” he says. “When you're a kid, all you want to do is get to the food; so the grown-ups could not pray any faster.”

His family kept kosher for several years when they lived in Cincinnati with his kosher grandparents. But after leaving for Camden, New Jersey, and later for Phoenix, the Spielbergs were kosher only when grandparents came to town. “My parents would never say, ‘Dada or Mama are coming to visit,' Spielberg explains. “I just heard the clanking of glass against glass and knew that
was being thrown away. I'd go into the kitchen and sure enough, my mom would be cleaning out the refrigerator, cleaning out the cupboards of all of her favorite delicacies—caviar, shellfish, cherrystone clams—which you could get in Arizona in those days because Flying Tiger Airlines was shipping them into restaurants from Maine. All the
was on its way out. And then my grandparents would come and we would be kosher for a week. We went kosher for either side of the family.”

When either grandmother visited, Spielberg's mother, Leah, reverted easily to their kosher dictates, but chafed at their cooking. “I remember great clashes in the kitchen about how much schmaltz to put in the chopped liver,” Spielberg says. “My father's mother had a special way of making chopped liver which was contrary to the way my mother always prepared it, and they used to fight over how much minced onions and schmaltz go in the mix. I would just sit there and watch these two ladies fight. My mom only knew English, so she'd hurl invectives at my grandmother in English. My grandmother would become so flustered, she'd start screaming at my mother in Russian and Yiddish. Most of the Yiddish I learned was during these conflicts in the kitchen.”

His family's impious taste for seafood was nearly discovered one evening in their New Jersey home, when their family rabbi decided to pay a surprise visit. “Maybe this was God very carefully watching our sweet hypocrisy about being kosher and nonkosher, but my mom had just come back from the fish market and she had just brought in four live lobsters for dinner. Lobsters, as you know, are just behind pork as
sin food
. As she's taking the live lobsters out of the bag and putting them on the counter, Rabbi Greenberg pulls into the driveway, unannounced. I remember my mom screamed, ‘Quick! Hide these things!' She throws them in my arms. Luckily their claws are wrapped with rubber bands, and I run into my bedroom and put them on the bed.

“Well, the rabbi sometimes liked to come to our rooms and see how we were all doing; he would knock on our doors, and just say, ‘How's school and how are you feeling? Any problems?' We had a wonderful rabbi. This particular night, I could hear his footsteps coming because my mom never uncovered the shag carpet from the clear plastic covering—only when special company came did we get to actually feel shag on our bare feet—we walked on plastic most of our lives. So I heard his squeaky Florsheims against the plastic coming down the hallway, and I took all the lobsters and stuffed them under my bed, and the second I put them under the bed, the knock came on my door.” Spielberg raps on the conference table. “‘Shmuel?' the rabbi says. (He called me Shmuel.) And I said, ‘Yes, come in.' He comes in and sits next to me on the bed with his feet on the floor and he's asking, ‘So how's school? How are things?' and suddenly I notice—but he doesn't—that two of the lobsters are crawling out from under the bed next to his left shoe. Two more lobsters are coming out next to my right foot. And the lobsters are starting to investigate my bedroom. My eyes are going all over the room because these lobsters are out, but he's just talking to me, making good eye contact. When he was finished, the rabbi just got up and left and never looked down at his feet. Those lobsters were in plain sight.”

This rabbi was part of the Spielberg family—“My mom and dad went on camping trips with him,” he says. When they moved to Phoenix, they were visited by their cantor, who came weekly to prepare Spielberg for his bar mitzvah. “I want to remember his name,” he says, clearly laboring to recall it. “I really want to remember. Was it Cantor Rothstein?
” He's calling his assistant, who sits outside his office. “
” An aside: “This a Jewish house: we yell all the time.” He tries another assistant: “
” Ben opens the door expectantly. “Call my dad and ask him, ‘Did Cantor Rothstein prepare me for my bar mitzvah?'” Spielberg instructs. “Ask him who came to the house every Sunday for a year. I think it was Cantor Rothstein.” Another sip of tea. “Of course the cantor couldn't accept any kind of gratuity; we had orange trees in our yard, so every Sunday I would have to prepare a box of oranges for him.”

Spielberg felt puffed up on his bar mitzvah day. “I really felt that I was a man,” he recalls. “Until I still had to go to bed at nine the next day. I couldn't reconcile my early bedtime with the lip service my parents and my friends were giving me that ‘Today you are a man and forever shall you be.'”

As he grew out of adolescence, Spielberg grew away from observance. “I was privately proud to be a Jew but I was publicly humiliated to be one because I was living in a neighborhood of upward mobility where everybody was gentile. And we were always, if not the only Jews, some of the few Jews in the area. I think the Sussmans were Jewish—they lived across from us. He recalls kids ribbing him—“Mainly in Arizona; people sometimes walked past me and coughed ‘Jew' into their hands like they were trying to clear their throats. It was always deeply humiliating for me to encounter anyone that didn't like me because of who I was.”

He never let his parents know. “I didn't want them to call the parents of the kid harassing me,” he explains. “I knew I would be doubly harassed if I told.”

Though he felt shame in being different, there was no shame in the heritage itself. “We were involved in the synagogue, we had a lot of Jewish friends—my mom was a concert pianist and she played four-hand with other Jewish pianists that came to the house to perform. And my grandparents brought great old Russian stories about the Cossacks—most of them apocryphal, but nonetheless enjoyable, and stimulating to my whole being and imagination. So I wanted to be able to shout out I was a Jew, but I was a minority and was too afraid of the consequences. I also knew a lot about the Holocaust—my parents talked about it all the time—and so it was always on my mind: ‘Look at what the Nazis did to the Jews—only a couple of decades ago, relatively speaking.'”

BOOK: Stars of David
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