Asking questions, finding your ‘Jewish trajectory’

Asking questions, finding your ‘Jewish trajectory’

Abigail Pogrebin recalls that when she was growing up, her family frequently had dinner guests. Their minhag, apparently, was to grill those guests, asking them a lot of questions about themselves.

“That was the Pogrebin way,” she said.

Learning to interview people, causing them to “recognize that they were their truer self, even for a moment, in that interview,” has served her well, allowing her to dig deeper not only into the lives of others, but into her own life as well.

A noted journalist, author, and producer, her knack for asking questions, for engaging in conversation, will form the basis of a program at Temple Avodat Shalom on April 7, when Ms. Pogrebin will engage in conversation with Rabbi Paul Jacobson and answer questions from audience members.

Abigail Pogrebin

Dubbed “Moments that Matter,” the program – co-sponsored by Congregation Beth Sholom of Teaneck, the Glen Rock Jewish Center, the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah, Temple Beth Or, Temple Emanu-El of Closter, Temple Emeth, and Temple Sinai of Bergen County – will be followed by a kosher-for-Passover dessert reception, sponsored by the synagogue’s sisterhood.

This year, Ms. Pogrebin is writing a series for the Forward, “18 Festivals, 1 Wondering Jew,” in which she considers each holidays as it presents itself on the Jewish calendar. The goal of her talk, she said, is not only to entertain attendees but “to make them think about their own Jewish trajectory. What path am I taking, and am I finished with it?”

If she can, she said, she might even offer “some tips on how to go a little deeper,” she said. She knows how if feels to start without much knowledge, she added. “I started from a non-observant place.”

Ms. Pogrebin, who graduated from Yale, was a producer for “60 Minutes” – “It was an incredible education,” she said – and for Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers at PBS. She said that although motherhood has proved the most satisfying of her many pursuits – she has two children, a son graduating from high school and a 15-year-old daughter – “doing the Forward series, going deeper into the Jewish holidays, is a personal journey. It’s the most alive I’ve ever felt professionally.”

Ms. Pogrebin said that one of the “wonderful gifts” of this pursuit is that she hears often from rabbis she had never met. She added that her emails from River Edge’s Rabbi Paul Jacobson have contained some of the most interesting comments she has received. “There are sages everywhere,” she said. “Every one of his emails teaches me something.”

On writing her column, Ms. Pogrebin said, “I couldn’t just go through every Jewish holiday and write ‘Judaism 101.’ That’s already accessible, [from] people more erudite and educated.” So, she said, “I grilled myself to make it more interesting.”

Many people, she said, do not live strictly by the Jewish calendar. But, she asked herself, “If you live by the scaffolding of the Jewish year, what is that like?” And not only has she done a good deal of research, but she tries to take note of her own feelings, “taking inventory” of her experiences.

“One of the things the series has done is to show me so many levels of Jewish engagement,” she said. “Some people are in it up to their noses, fully immersed and unquestioning. Others, like me, feel powerfully Jewish and feel strongly that it’s not just important but is in our DNA, but we haven’t really explored what a Jewish life means.

“So much of Jewish identity is holiday based, not just family based,” she continued. People come together around holidays – to break the Yom Kippur fast, for example, or to light Chanukah candles.

“My journey has been an exploration of Jewish identity by the calendar,” she said. “What has it been like for me? What would I do again? What left me cold? When was I alienated and when inspired?”

Ms. Pogrebin said her Jewish identity became important to her after she became an adult. “We were raised in a kind of Judaism-lite,” she said, though her family did light candles and celebrate major holidays. “There was no bat mitzvah or Hebrew school. I missed the primal years, where it gets under your skin.”

It was only when she wrote her first book, “Stars of David,” interviewing famous Jews and grilling them about what matters to them, that she realized she was questioning them without having answered the questions for herself. “I wanted to know more,” she said.

The book, subtitled “Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” was adapted for a musical in 2005; it ran off-Broadway last year and is now on tour. Another of her books, “One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular,” is a “deep exploration of what it means to be a twin. I approached it personally and then like a reporter,” she said, talking to twins experts and looking at everything from “psychological implications to scientific manifestations.”

What she hoped to learn was “how they set themselves apart, mapped out their own identity.”

Abigail and her sister, Robin, a New York Times reporter, are identical twins. Her sister has not embarked on a Jewish journey, she said.

The Pogrebin twins’ mother is Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an influential writer and feminist whose books include “Deborah, Golda, and Me.”

Rabbi Paul Jacobson, who initiated the upcoming program, said his congregation was looking to do “something different and special for Pesach.” Passover programs are often family and home based. He thought it would be interesting to bring in a speaker over Pesach and combine with other congregations to draw a big name to the community.

A reader of Ms. Pogrebin’s columns, he thought she would be a good choice.

“Knowing her history – outspoken and passionate about Jewish issues, not just ‘wondering’ but wrestling” – he thought she would be a good fit for a Bergen County audience.

“She struck me as the kind of person who could shed some light on issues [of Jewish identity] – what really matters in Judaism today,” he said. “That’s how we came up with the title. Different people will make their moments matter in different ways.”

So he sent Ms. Pogrebin an email and started a dialogue, sharing with her a High Holiday sermon he had written on the topic. She accepted his invitation to participate in the program.

The event, he said, will begin with a short presentation. There will be a round-table format, in which “I will sit with her and pose the initial questions. Then it will be Phil Donahue-style, with a roving mic, where people can ask questions that are on their mind.”

Among the questions he may ask are “Does ritual matter?” “How can you craft a meaningful Jewish identity given your hectic life?” “Are synagogues the way of the past, and how can they be a way of the future?” and “How can we respond to issues in Israel today?”

“The congregation is excited,” he said. “Her presence is huge.” He added that other area congregations were happy to sign on and help defray the cost of the event as well as help with publicity.

“Abigail brings a multitude of perspectives on Jewish life and has an openness to seeing a vibrant Jewish world, not limited to a particular movement,” he said. “She has a far-reaching, wide perspective, reaching out to rabbis and Jewish leaders across the denominational divide.”

He hopes that people will leave the program “with some sense of a different perspective and thoughts about being Jewish in the 21st century,” Rabbi Jacobson said.

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