Three words, among the last uttered by journalist Daniel Pearl before his murder two years ago this month (on Feb. 21, the public learned of the murder), have become a nucleus for thoughtfulness and creativity. "I Am Jewish," edited by his parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl (Jewish Lights), is a collection of brief essays by almost 150 noted contributors who tease out meaning from these words and compose personal statements of Jewish identity.
As Judea Pearl explains in a telephone interview from his office at UCLA where he teaches computer science, the book, with its diverse insights into Judaism, is intended to empower young Jewish people and foster pride in their heritage. It is also meant to send a strong message to the murderers that while they tried to sow humiliation, the words of Danny -- as he refers to his late son -- would "eventually lead to a stronger, more united Jewish people." And, the book is for Adam Pearl, Daniel's son, to show him how his father inspired many Jews to come together and reflect on their Jewishness.
The publication of the book marks a turn in the Pearl family's outlook about the Jewish nature of the tragedy. The work of the foundation they established in his memory is universal in its program. When asked why the family urged the press to downplay Daniel's Judaism in the aftermath of his capture and murder, Judea Pearl rewords, "There was not an attempt to emphasize that element. The family didn't want to give ammunition to the defense team, who wished to gain public sympathy in Pakistan."
Now, the family is no longer concerned about anti-Semitic outbursts in the courtroom so they feel like there's no reason to shield the information.
In fact, Judea Pearl sees that in emphasizing the Jewish element of the tragedy, there are "tremendous opportunities for the Jewish community. For the first in modern times, we have an association between Jewishness and the concept of bridge-building and peace seeking."
"Jews are being portrayed as warmongers and baby killers. It's about time that our real face will be portrayed with pride," he added
Contributors to the book include people of various political, religious and cultural stripes: Many would rarely be in a room together, let alone a book. They span generations, countries, professions and perspectives, among them Edgar Bronfman, Avraham Burg, Debbie Friedman, Thomas Friedman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Grossman, Larry King, Francine Klagsbrun, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Jackie Mason, Thane Rosenbaum, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Kerri Strug, Mike Wallace and Elie Wiesel.
The Pearls, along with the publisher, approached a wish list of journalists, entertainers, authors, government figures, business leaders, scientists, rabbis, scholars, Jewish communal figures and others. Most said yes.
"Danny's legacy has the magnetic capacity to energize," Judea Pearl explained.
There were a few 'no's,' some of which Judea Pearl managed to turn around. Some people felt that they could write thick books but nothing concise, others expressed reservations about being associated with a project they saw as divisive in its ethnicity. To one reluctant celebrity, he said, "In the same way that you are proud of being part of a community that gave the world Einstein and Chagall, there are Jewish youngsters who would like to be proud of you and what you have achieved. You have a responsibility to them."
The contributors were asked to reflect on what they mean when they say the words, "I am Jewish." "The question is not trivial," Judea Pearl writes in the preface. Contributors were also asked to minimize references to the tragedy.
Some contributors sent tributes to Daniel Pearl, which the editors sent back. Shimon Peres, who sent in a long tribute, was very gracious about rewriting and sent back a poetic narration of his life, emphasizing faith. Others declined to rewrite.
The book makes for compelling reading. Wide ranging in perspective, the entries are mixed in their literary quality, but a rich, bold, meaningful, intense and joyful vision emerges. The effect of reading essay after essay is to begin composing one's own.
Some essays reveal personal stories; some read like original liturgy; many are full of questions, others use jokes and humor. Their themes may be rooted in family, memory, Jewish texts, conversion experiences and the Holocaust. Certain writers mention God, covenant and Israel; for others, these concepts don't seem part of their vocabulary. Sometimes it's the kids who are the most impressive, speaking powerfully in few words.
The only voices that seem to be missing in the mix are more young American Jewish poets and novelists.
For actor Joshua Malina, "the statement, 'I am Jewish,' is no different from the statement, 'I am.' Judaism is the foundation of my identity."
Leon Wieseltier begins his essay by slightly amending the statement to, "I am a Jew." "There's nothing adjectival about this dimension of my being. It is not a qualifier of anything else, not a modifier of another essence; it is itself."
He goes on to speak of the significance of words and ideas and offers a traditional Chasidic text "in sorrowful and respectful recollection of Daniel Pearl."
Like Wieseltier, many point out that being Jewish is one part of their identity.
Several contributors, like Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, speak of secular identity. Many, including Natan Sharansky mention anti-Semitism. Journalist Daniel Schorr and others tie their professional life with their Judaism; for him being Jewish relates to searching for truth. Novelist Anne Roiphe and others write about how their humanity is colored by their Judaism. Many speak of being Jewish as a matter of choice.
In several essays, the writers present colorful imagery. Editor David Suissa writes of "80 generations of grandmothers and grandfathers, all holding hands," encouraging him to continue their "eternal mission of lighting up the world."
Actor Shia LeBeouf describes Judaism as "the name of the telephone in my heart that allows me to speak to God."
Judea Pearl sees a connection between his son's story and that of Anne Frank. "Both symbolized the horror of their era, both were writers who inspire people, Jews and non-Jews, to study anti-Semitism and the consequences of fanaticism. The difference is that Anne Frank's diary was discovered after the Holocaust and Danny's tragedy is a warning of another Holocaust."
A Friday night service dedicated to the memory of Daniel Pearl will be held Friday, Feb. 27, at 8:15 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd, Encino. Speakers will be Rabbi Harold Schulweis and professor Judea Pearl. For more information, call (818) 788-6000.