(RNS) — You want to talk about life imitating art?
Or, as the case may be, life imitating Torah?
In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of the infancy and young adulthood of Moses. Moses was an Israelite infant, sent away by his parents to save him from the fate of Egyptian slavery. Pharaoh’s daughter goes to the Nile River to bathe and she spots the infant floating in a tiny, makeshift vessel. She adopts him as her son and raises him to maturity in her father’s palace.
At a certain point, Moses comes to sense that he has a connection with the Israelites — that they are, in fact, his people. He slays an Egyptian taskmaster who had been beating a slave; he intervenes in a quarrel between two Israelite slaves; he escapes from Egypt into the wilderness — and the rest is history.
Not only Jewish history, but the entire history of Western religion.
So Moses was a hidden “Jewish” child, unaware of his own identity until something (we are not quite sure what) happens. The spark is there and it becomes a flame.
Fast-forward to today — to the popular singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette, who has sold more than 85 million albums worldwide.
On a new episode of the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” that is precisely what Alanis did. She found her roots, and she discovered she is Jewish.
Alanis is the daughter of a Canadian gentile father and a Jewish mother whose parents were Hungarian Holocaust survivors who had concealed their Jewish identity — similar to the parents of the late Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“I think there was a terror that was in their bones … just not wanting antisemitism. So they were doing it to protect us, to keep us in the dark,” Alanis told PBS host Henry Louis Gates Jr.
So, to quote the Talmudic line: What do we learn from this?
First, this is an updated version of the phenomenon that author David E. Kaufman called “Jew-hooing:”
Citing Jewish celebrities — “Didja know, Natalie Portman is Jewish!” — is characteristic of many Jews, and the persistent behavioral quirk has even been given a name: “Jewhooing.” The puckish term befits an activity that some see as ethnocentric and crass — one might even object that it is not a fit topic for a serious study of American Jewish identity. But … while embarrassing to some, (it) is really just the tip of the iceberg and points to a deeper relationship between Jews and celebrity overall. It demonstrates that Jews are a part of America … and that Jews, despite their broad integration and participation in American life, nonetheless remain distinctive, even exceptional, and thus stand apart from America.
In the 1960s, the most famous case of “Jew-hooing” was the identification of the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, nee Zimmerman, as Jewish. American Jews, simultaneously eager to fit in and to demonstrate ethnic pride and distinctiveness, even sometimes seemed to collect Jewish celebrities, the way kids collect baseball cards.
That was the point of Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah (or is it Chanukah?) Song,” which lists celebrities who are Jewish, “half Jewish,” i.e., Paul Newman and Goldie Hawn, and even one-quarter Jewish, i.e., Harrison Ford.
The point is: Ethnic pride is an essential part of American culture. (Who can forget the Greek father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and his obsession with finding things with Greek origins? That movie could have been about any ethnic group.)
When it comes to the Jews, that game of “catch the Jewish celebrity” has always been big, because it points to our acceptance in American society. We need it and we crave it.
But, second: Timing, as they say, is everything — and so is the timing for this announcement about Alanis.
The Jewish psyche is raw and bruised. Perhaps we needed this announcement — even more than Alanis herself needed it— with a depth and resonance Alanis could not have anticipated.
At a time of proliferating Jew-hatred; at a time when many Jewish college students are putting their Stars of David inside their shirts, or considering taking off their kippot; at a time when many Jews are reportedly changing their surnames on Uber in order not to attract attention to themselves as Jews; at a time when many Jews are tempted to go back into the closet as Jews, and to pretend it is the America of the 1950s: We “needed” an A-list popular musician to publicly proclaim not only her connection to the Jewish people, but how that connection had become hidden in the first place.
Realizing, of course, that the announcement of her Jewish identity might make her the target of Jew-haters.
One final word.
I am pleased Alanis is “now” Jewish, even more pleased that she is pleased about that discovery.
I have a message for her.
Alanis, there is a seat waiting for you on El Al.
Buy an extra ticket for your guitar.
Let Alanis join the small, but growing, cadre of American Jewish celebrities who are choosing to show up and be present for Israel during this difficult time.
Like, for example, Jerry Seinfeld, who was in Israel recently with his family, visiting those who had been gravely injured on Oct. 7, as well as surviving hostages and their families; and who generously took photographs with passersby, including students on Taglit-Birthright trips.
That is precisely the kind of presence Israel needs right now. It is not mere celebrity-sighting. Such celebrities are opinion-makers.
Thanks, Jerry, for being such a mensch.
And that, my friends, is no yada-yada-yada.