(RNS) Everyone is talking about Billy Joel donning a yellow star while performing at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
My first snarky impulse was to say: Billy, we never knew that you cared.
True enough — both of Billy Joel’s parents were Jewish. His father and grandparents were German-Jewish refugees. He grew up in the middle of Long Island, not far from where I grew up — albeit in a rather un-Jewish neighborhood.
But, previous to this, did you ever hear about Billy Joel doing anything affirmatively Jewish?
This is a man who had previously reflected on his ritual circumcision: “I had the snip and I had nothing to say about it. I’m still a little pissed off about that.”
As for other opportunities for Jewish activism, the Piano Man was never quite on key. As my friend, Steve North — who knew him during the early years of his success — has written, Billy Joel toured the former U.S.S.R. in 1987, during the height of that regime’s oppression of the Jews, and remained silent about their plight, even though Steve had urged him to speak out.
I could say more at this point, but I suspect that Billy would start singing:
I don’t need you to worry for me ’cause I’m alright
I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home
I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life
Go ahead with your own life leave me alone
I confess: I have been uncomfortable with Jews who are only Jewish when they face persecution.
I have been uncomfortable with Jewish educational and youth programs that focus intensely on the Holocaust — only because I believe that we should be using our valuable, limited amount of time in teaching how Jews live, not how Jews died.
And yet, I also know the historical reality: Sometimes, it takes anti-Semitism and persecution to pull the wayward or apathetic Jew back into active Jewish engagement.
If I can engage in an elegant and venerable Hebrew pun: Sinah (hatred) can sometimes bring a Jew to Sinai (the mountain where God and Torah are revealed).
And it is not only the negatives. Consider the half-century-old legacy of the Six-Day War.
It was precisely in the wake of that war that American Judaism went through its period of greening — the growth of Jewish studies on campus, a flourishing of Jewish culture, even the creation of a Jewish counterculture.
So, if Billy Joel suddenly feels moved to publicly identify as a Jew — great.
Because, in donning the yellow star, Billy Joel was invoking the memory of his family members in Germany, who had been forced to wear the star.
Billy Joel not only stood up in defiance of virulent neo-Nazism and white supremacist movements.
Whether he knew it or not, he was standing up in rebuke of his fellow Jews in the entertainment industry.
In the wake of Charlottesville, Jewish entertainers have been silent.
Oh, true — there have been celebrities who have donated money to fight hatred. George and Amal Clooney donated $1 million to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Arnold Schwarzenegger donated $100,000 to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
But, where are the Jews?
By contrast, let me take you back to 1943.
A sizable percentage of Europe’s Jews have already perished.
In response to the world’s (and America’s) silence in the face of unremitting evil, as well as their growing frustration with American policy and their contempt for Hollywood’s “fear of offending its European markets,” celebrity Jews spoke, wrote, sang and raised funds.
Billy Rose and Ernst Lubitsch produced a dramatic pageant at Madison Square Garden.
Its purpose: to raise public awareness about the plight of European Jewry.
Its stars included Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, John Garfield, Ralph Bellamy, Frank Sinatra and Burgess Meredith.
The pageant was called “We Will Never Die,” and when it was performed on March 9, 1943, 40,000 people filled the seats — thanks to newspaper advertisements provided gratis by the Hearst Corp.
“We Will Never Die” went on the road, with performances in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles performance at the Hollywood Bowl was broadcast nationally on NBC radio.
The Washington audience contained senators, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Notice: The venues were huge. The pageant’s creators and participants were A-list personalities. And it wasn’t only Jews, but gentiles as well — Bellamy, Sinatra and Meredith.
It is time for a new “We Will Never Die.”
And, it will not just be about the Jews. It will be about blacks, immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBT — all those who are now threatened by the new wave of hatred that is sweeping through this country.
“We Will Never Die” happened in 1943. The American Jewish community was much smaller than it is today. It had much less clout and affluence.
And they did it.
Think of what we could do today — and with the internet, our ability to simulcast it all over the world.
True, we would miss Jerry Lewis.
But, I’m talking to you: Steven Spielberg. Sarah Silverman. Bette Midler. Barbra Streisand. Paul Simon. Bob Dylan. Woody Allen. Larry David. Jerry Seinfeld. Jason Alexander. Howard Stern. Howie Mandel. Richard Dreyfuss. Amy Schumer. Judd Apatow.
Dare I mention: Gal Gadot?
I am tired of counting Jewish celebrities.
It is time for Jewish celebrities to count.