(RNS) A young man said to me: “The moment that Han Solo died (in “The Force Awakens”) was the moment my childhood died, as well.”
That is how many of us feel about the real-life death of Carrie Fisher.
(And could this year have been any worse for celebrity deaths? Isn’t it time for the Angel of Death to go on sabbatical or something? Sheesh.)
We were almost the same age.
I first fell in love with her acting, when she made her movie debut in several scenes of “Shampoo,” playing opposite Warren Beatty.
And, of course, she has already gone down in cinematic history as the iconic Princess Leia of “Star Wars.”
The large number of deaths of famous people this past year claimed a number of famous Jews as well: Elie Wiesel. Shimon Peres. The actors, Fyvush Finkel and Gene Wilder. The poet-songwriter, Leonard Cohen.
And Carrie Fisher?
The question is relevant because we have made it relevant.
In Jewhooing the Sixties, David E. Kaufman writes about the American Jewish predilection for finding celebrities who are Jewish, or imagining that certain celebrities are Jewish – and what that game says about American Jewish identity. He calls that practice “Jew-hooing,” as in, “Guess who’s Jewish?”
The best example of Jew-hooing is Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song,” in which he enumerates – and even “outs” – certain celebrities as Jewish.
And why do Jews do this?
The sheer popularity of the Jewish celebrity demonstrates that Jews are a part of America. Yet at the same time, the special talent and heightened status of the Jewish celebrity suggests Jewish difference — the notion that Jews, despite their broad integration and participation in American life, nonetheless remain distinctive.
Let’s start with “Star Wars” itself.
Fisher did, of course, play Princess Leia (= Leah?).
And then, of course, there was the Force – which, for many people, is as close as we get to a God concept in popular culture. The Force is defined as “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us.”
It sounds like how the modern Jewish thinker, Mordecai Kaplan, imagined God — as “the Power that makes for salvation.”
“God is the sum of all the animating organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos,” he wrote.
But back to Fisher. In “Shampoo,” she offers Beatty a snack of lox and chopped liver. That’s kind of Jewish.
Remember that she was briefly married to singer-songwriter, Paul Simon. He sings about their relationship in “Hearts and Bones” — “one and one half wandering Jews, free to wander wherever they choose….”
Fisher was that “one-half wandering Jew.”
Fisher’s father was Jewish. Her mother was not. Theoretically, Fisher could have been considered Jewish by Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish streams in the United States – had she been raised and educated as a Jew.
In fact, Fisher was raised “Protestant light” by her mother, but now identifies as Jewish. She and her daughter had attended Shabbat dinners in the homes of Orthodox Jewish friends, and sometimes they attended synagogue services.
In other words, Fisher “invented” herself as a Jew. She had a claim on that identity all along, and as an adult, exercised that claim.
She is hardly alone in that “invention” (or, rather, appropriation) of a Jewish identity. We might even say that the invention, appropriation, and ongoing improvisation of Jewish identity is the very hallmark of modern American Jewish identity.
And no doubt, it had its own influence on her – perhaps even more than the Force.
There is one last thing about Fisher – that makes her life heroic, and, at least in a metaphorical sense, Jewish.
Fisher was a passionate advocate for awareness about mental health issues. She candidly shared her own struggles with bi-polar disorder, depression, and substance abuse.
In that sense, her life lesson is not yet fully on the American Jewish agenda, where so many who struggle with mental illness feel shunned– like the lepers of Leviticus.
I would like to think that this, perhaps above and beyond her stellar acting career, might be her greatest legacy.
Her ability to show her own vulnerabilities. Her desire to make others more whole in the process.
Tikkun olam — the healing of the world. Through tikkun atzmi — the healing of oneself.
Whatever or whoever the Force might be, I would think that He/She/It would certainly approve.
May Carrie Fisher’s memory be a blessing.
(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. He writes the “Martini Judaism” column for RNS)