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New Book Explores the Meaning of Being Jewish

The parents of slain journalist Daniel Pearl have put together a series of reflections by prominent Jews on their religious heritage.

March 06, 2004|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Two years after Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan, his family continues to mourn in private. In public, however, his parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, try to fulfill the ancient Jewish obligation of tikkun olam, "healing the world."

The Pearls, who live in Encino, started the nonprofit Daniel Pearl Foundation and have undertaken a series of efforts to promote interfaith understanding, including an international music day named for their son and journalistic exchanges with the Islamic world. And now, they are involved in a new book project focusing on Daniel's Jewish heritage.

Judea and Ruth Pearl are editors of the recently published book "I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl" (Jewish Lights).

In the moments before Daniel Pearl was killed at the age of 38, he was videotaped saying: "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish." That moment inspired Alana Frey, a schoolgirl in Rockville Centre, N.Y. For her bat mitzvah, she asked friends and family to write down what being Jewish meant to them. She planned to collect their responses, then send them to Adam, the son born to Daniel Pearl and wife Mariane after Daniel's death.

Her purpose, Alana told the Pearls, was to help Adam understand his heritage and to make sure that "his father's words would always comfort him."

Judea Pearl told Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of Encino's Valley Beth Shalom, about Alana's plan, and the rabbi suggested that the Pearls expand it into a book. The rabbi helped them find their Vermont publisher.

Together, the Pearls and the publisher drew up a list of prominent Jewish figures in government, science, the arts and other fields whom they asked to contribute. Among the participants were a few the Pearls hadn't realized were Jewish, including TV journalist Mike Wallace and Kitty Dukakis, wife of former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

The resulting book contains brief meditations on what it means to be Jewish by 150 people, including actor Kirk Douglas, historian Martin Gilbert and the Pearl family. Many, including Daniel's parents and his sisters, Tamara and Michelle, describe themselves as secular Jews.

Judea Pearl writes in the book: "I see Jews as the scouts of civilization -- the ones who question conventional wisdom and constantly seek the exploration of new pathways." Pearl sees a long line of these Jewish "scouts," from Abraham challenging idolatry to "Marx, Herzl and Freud, down to Einstein, Gershwin and the civil rights activists of the 1960s." For centuries, Jews have also been "border-challengers, idol-smashers, and boat-rockers."

The Pearls asked that the mini-essays be personal reflections, not simply tributes to their son. Actor Richard Dreyfuss and former Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres rewrote their contributions to that end.

Daniel Pearl was in Karachi, Pakistan, working on a story about Richard Reid, the convicted Al Qaeda operative who tried to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight with explosive-filled shoes. After the kidnapping, the Pearl family requested that Daniel's Jewishness be downplayed in the media in hopes of saving his life. Israeli-born Judea Pearl said that the family also feared it would "give ammunition" to the team defending his killers during their trial in Pakistan.

But, more and more, the Pearls speak publicly about the pride Daniel took in his heritage, and they see him as a shining example of the best in the Jewish tradition.

"Danny has earned respect on both sides of the East/West divide as a bridge-builder and a dialogue-maker," Judea Pearl said in a phone interview. That association is a powerful corrective to the demonized image of Jews, and especially of Israelis, as warmongers in much of the world, Pearl said.

"It's time that our true image shines through," he said.

In the book's dedication, the Pearls express their hope that their grandson Adam will "discover the garden where your father grew and where he bloomed in boundless love for you, to find freedom in his roots, and comfort in his words."

In the book, Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman recalls his terror as a child, wearing his sweater inside out to hide his Star of David, when a sentimental SS man hugged him on the street. The Nazi apparently missed his own son and didn't realize Kahneman was Jewish. "The complexity of evil and the fallibility of good ... are perhaps the first things I think about when I think of being a Jew," Kahneman writes.

Hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, who fought as a 20-year-old with the Haganah militia in Israel's War of Independence, writes: "I am a Jew who believes that, though small in numbers, we have a powerful moral influence on the world, and in the words of Hillel, 'If not now, when?' "

Larry King tells the joke about the Jewish grandmother who thanks God for saving her grandson from drowning, then looks at heaven and adds: "He had a hat."

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