Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron: A Look at the Reflections

Cross-posted at a new blog - Contributions from Rabbis from across the denominations - check it out!

There is no question that, from the perspective of a consumer of popular culture, the most important thing to say about the passing of Nora Ephron is that a great writer, with a great eye and sharp wit for observing daily life, has left us. I'm sure for her family the most important thing to say is that a sister/mother/wife has left their world. After reading the obituary in the NY Times, and then Abigail Pogrebin's intimate and charming reflection in The Forward, I was struck by the complete absence of mention of her Jewish identity in the former followed by a fascinating claim to her being 'utterly Jewish' in the latter. Pogrebin interviewed Ephron for her 2003 book, 'Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish': She said she thought of herself “as a Jew, but not Jewish.” She wasn’t in denial about her Jewish identity, just indifferent to it...

Later in her article, Pogrebin shares: "She was relieved her two boys didn’t request bar mitzvahs. “First of all, because of my feelings about religion, and second of all, because they’re so expensive, and third of all, because nothing is more awful than a divorced bar mitzvah.”

And yet, Pogrebin concludes: "For all her Jewish disconnection, she felt utterly Jewish to me."

I think I know what she means - how can you watch 'When Harry met Sally', especially with the ever-so-Jewish Billy Crystal, and not feel a Jewish sensibility and wit oozing from the script? I listened to her book, 'I remember nothing: and other reflections' as an audio book about a year ago. While I don't recall any explicitly Jewish content, there was no mistaking (just as there is no mistaking listening to Woody Allen) that these were the words of Jewish woman.

For Ephron, 'Jewish' was a cultural label she owned but did not put in the top five list of labels she would use to describe herself, and it certainly was not a religious framework that she consciously lived by and engaged in.

I find myself reflecting on the way we Jews like to list and identify with our people; especially our people who have left a mark on our world or our cultural consciousness. It is not unique to us, by any means - a quick glance on reveals many collections of books about remarkable Christians, men and women. Yet, when I read Pogrebin's touching reflection, I am left with a sadness about the Jewish experiences of Nora Ephron. That the worst excesses of bar mitzvah are what come to mind as the quintessential Jewish ritual, gratefully avoided, points to an absence that is deeper than the choice to observe or not observe Jewish rituals. I'm not interested in ritual for its own sake, only as a vessel for significant spiritual reflection and expression and, in the context of Judaism, especially as a communal activity. Those are things that are hard to express in language, and so some of the rituals and traditions of Judaism provide a shared vocabulary through which we can not only make space in our lives for such experiences, but share them with others too.

Perhaps if Pogrebin hadn't written a piece about Nora Ephron being 'utterly Jewish', I would have just read the NY Times obit and would be focused solely on that which Nora herself would probably prefer we pay attention to - her incredible legacy of writing and her ability to make us laugh at ourselves, time and time again. But when I reflect on the Jewishness that is expressed in Pogrebin's piece, I begin to think about expressions of the spiritual life. And I don't think its even a sadness that I might have as a Rabbi that it wasn't Jewish in the traditional sense of observance. I think its more that I am left wondering how the spiritual life was lived and expressed altogether. Because, ultimately, that is what feels like an essential part of human existence to me, and that is why I'm doing what I do, and my hope is that Nora had some way of accessing and expressing that too, especially in the last difficult months of her life.

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