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"Big Bad" Debra Winger

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and is reprinted with permission of the author. Visit www.jewishjournal.com.

In a sunny hotel room overlooking the Pacific, Debra Winger is telling Jewish tales as big and bad as Big Bad Love, her first film since abruptly quitting show business seven years ago. Her turquoise eyes well up and her raspy voice breaks as she breathlessly describes attending Manhattan's Congregation B'nai Jeshurun a couple of days before her son, Noah, became Bar Mitzvah in 2000. "It was the first time I was ever called to the Torah," says Winger, who wasn't allowed to have a Bat Mitzvah growing up in the Valley. "My Orthodox grandmother wouldn't hear of a girl on the bimah."

The 46-year-old actress--whom Newsweek once dubbed "as life-size as the girl next door if the girl next door happens to be a Marlboro-smoking Jewish wildcat"--felt she was becoming Bat Mitzvah that morning at B'nai Jeshurun. She's also felt a lingering sadness: "My grandmother never acknowledged Noah," she says, laughing and crying in a manner reminiscent of her Oscar-nominated turn in 1983's Terms of Endearment.

"She disowned me when I married his non-Jewish father [actor Timothy Hutton]. And I had been the most devoted grandchild, and I had named Noah after her late husband, and I'd had a bris and raised him Jewish. But she sat shiva for me, and she never took me back; she took it to her grave."

Unspoken resentments also seethe throughout Big Bad Love, the haunting saga of an alcoholic Mississippi writer (played by Winger's current husband, Arliss Howard) obsessed with his ex-wife (Winger). "I wanted to investigate what it means to be a man and a woman, together and apart," Howard, 47, says of his directorial debut.

Perhaps no one was better suited to play his onscreen wife than Winger, but she was reluctant. After starring in the forgettable Forget Paris in 1995, she'd signed her Screen Actors Guild retirement card. Some observers wondered if her reputation as a "difficult" actress had tanked her career: She'd fought with directors, spurned reporters and publicly trashed her own films if she thought they were bad.

Keenly peering through wire spectacles during a recent interview, Winger offers a different explanation: "My mother was passing, and I wanted to be there for that," she says. "And that segued into a big reflective period. I'd never liked show business, and I just wasn't finding the kinds of stories I wanted to tell, especially weighed against the drama happening in my life."

Instead, she married Howard, a Missouri-bred non-Jew, in a ceremony conducted by a rabbi on Thanksgiving Day, 1996. She had another son, Babe, now 4, did theater with her husband and taught a course at Harvard. When Howard began nudging her about Love, she gave him lists of other actresses to consider. He lured her by rewriting her character as an ex-wife-against type: a former spouse who "is not bitter, whose heart remains open," says Winger, herself an ex-wife.

If Winger has a rebellious streak, it's extended to her Judaism. She says her parents were "horrified" when she decided to intensify her religious studies by attending Los Angeles Hebrew High School: "My mother had moved away from Cleveland to escape my grandmother's Orthodoxy, then I became her mother," she says, with a boisterous laugh. After graduating high school at 15, Winger ran off to a kibbutz and contemplated living in Israel, but left after a stint of army training. Back in Los Angeles, she resolved to become an actress while recovering from a car accident that left her partially paralyzed and blind for several months.

Eventually she earned three Oscar nominations for her performances in Terms, An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Shadowlands (1993), in which she played a secular Jewish divorcee who weds author C.S. Lewis.

Winger admits that she's been outspoken with directors. On the set of Big Bad Love, based on Larry Brown's short stories, Howard says his wife created a "productive adversity." "You don't direct Debra," he says. "You tell her stories."

The strategy apparently worked. While Love has received some mixed reviews, Winger has been unanimously lauded for her understated yet raw performance. She says the experience has whetted her appetite for more film work, if the right project emerges. Meanwhile, she's content being a mom in Westchester County, N.Y., lighting candles on Shabbat, arranging for Noah's weekly Jewish studies tutor and teaching Babe the Alef Bet.

Suddenly--in another big, bad flourish--she reveals she hasn't set foot in synagogue since the tragedy of Sept. 11. "I've become convinced that organized religion is the root of all evil," she says. "Because I'm still pulled toward Jewish ritual, that's a dilemma. But I'm willing to sit with it and see how I feel."

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Hebrew alphabet, of which alef and bet are the first two letters. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."

Naomi Pfefferman is Arts and Entertainment editor for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

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