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Interfaith Celebrites: a New Online Interfaith Series, a Pair of Literary Greats and More Family Trees

May 29, 2012

Brooklyn Doings and More

For those visiting Brooklyn after a long time away, as I recently did, the changes are astonishing. Neighborhoods throughout this borough of New York City are thriving. The downtown area, near the Brooklyn Bridge, has been transformed by many big, new buildings, including Barclays Center, a $5 billion project that includes a sports arena. On October 11 and 12, the Brooklyn-born and raised Jewish singer Barbra Streisand, 70, will perform for the first time in Brooklyn — at the Center.

Barbra Streisand returns to Brooklyn this fall.

As I said in a prior column, Streisand's second and current husband, actor James Brolin, 71, is not Jewish. (They had a Jewish wedding ceremony.) Streisand is also the step mother-in-law of James' son, actor Josh Brolin, 44, (now co-starring in the new release, Men in Black, 3), and Josh's wife, actress Diane Lane, 47.

Meanwhile, Streisand's ex-husband, Jewish actor Elliot Gould, 73, (the father of her only child, Jason Gould, 45), is the co-star of a new, three-part, on-line drama/comedy series, Listen to Grandpa, Andy Ling. (More parts may follow.)

Andy Ling (Randall Parks), the young adult son of a Jewish mother and Chinese father, fails in his business ventures and alienates his parents. Out of options and broke, Andy seeks help from his maternal grandfather, whom he has never met. The grandfather (Gould) is an Orthodox Jew. The series is full of humor and Yiddish references as it (also) addresses many religious and ethical questions.

The series (which runs about a half hour, total) is presented under the auspices of Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox Jewish group with a religious Zionist mandate, and is on the Aish.com website. Gould, himself, has studied at an Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Los Angeles.*

The New Jersey Nets NBA basketball team has just relocated from New Jersey to Brooklyn and will start playing in the Barclays Center next September. Playing for the Brooklyn Nets, as they are now called, is point guard Jordan Farmar, 25, one of two Jews in the NBA. As I have written before, Farmar is the son of an African American father and a Jewish mother. He was raised by his mother and Israeli stepfather and, during the NBA strike last season, played for the Israeli Maccabi Tel Aviv team for about two months.

Jordan Farmar.

Brooklyn has never had a professional major league hockey or football team. It did, of course, have the Dodgers baseball team. Farmar is the first Brooklyn-based, Jewish, major league player since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1958, taking Brooklyn-born and raised pitcher Sandy Koufax, now 76, with them. (Koufax, who became a great pitcher after the move to Los Angeles, is in the Hall of Fame.)

Ironically, Farmar was born, raised and had his bar mitzvah in Los Angeles. He was a star player for UCLA and began his professional career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Hemingway & Gellhorn

The HBO original movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn, premiered on Sunday, May 27. There will be many encore showings this month and later, and the film will be released on DVD by year's end.

The film's publicity release gives the essential plot:

[This biographical drama] recounts one of the greatest romances of the last century — the passionate love affair [1936-1939] and tumultuous marriage [1940-1945] of literary master Ernest Hemingway [(Clive Owen, 47)] and trailblazing war correspondent Martha Gellhorn [(Nicole Kidman, 44)] — as it follows the adventurous writers through the Spanish Civil War [1936-1939] and beyond. [As she grew in reputation and stature, Gellhorn stood toe-to-toe with Hemingway, mirroring his heroic spirit and putting his famous bravado and iconic style to the test.]

Here's the Jewish/interfaith angle: Gellhorn (1908-1998) had three Jewish grandparents and was raised secular in St. Louis. She was among the first journalists to reach the liberated Dachau concentration camp at the end of WWII, and the experience changed her. She embraced her Jewish background and became a passionate and life-long supporter of Israel. A supporting (real-life) character in the film is the famous photographer Robert Capa (1913-1954). A Hungarian Jew, he took iconic photos of the Spanish Civil War and, later, the Israeli War of Independence.

Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen in Hemingway & Gellhorn.

The film is directed by Phillip Kaufman, 75, who is Jewish (The Right Stuff, Unbearable Lightness of Being). The film was shot almost entirely in San Francisco. Kaufman, who lives in San Francisco, found locales that worked, including a Chinatown street that looks like Shanghai in the 1940s.

Here are a couple of interesting tidbits that are not in articles on the film:

Hemingway's relationship to Jews was, as was common in his era, marked with many contradictions. He had many Jewish friends and associates. At times, he was appalled by anti-Semitism, and, sometimes, he made anti-Semitic remarks. It may be hard to understand this now, but most people (in Hemingway's heyday) didn't think it was wrong to publicly make biased remarks. The Holocaust and the African American Civil Rights Movement were instrumental in changing this mindset.

It wasn't anti-Semitism that motivated Hemingway to make an American WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant), Robert Jordan, who fought for the Republic, the hero character of his famous novel about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). Hemingway dedicated the book to Gellhorn and he said that she inspired its writing.

It should, however, be noted that many readers have been led to a wrong assumption by Hemingway's "casting" of Robert Jordan as his hero. White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were a distinct minority of the 3,000 Americans who went to Spain to fight for the Republic against the Nazi-backed fascist rebel forces, led by General Franco. The American volunteers, organized as the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade" were about one third Jewish. About ten percent were Italian Americans of Catholic background. A constellation of other groups, including many Finnish Americans and about 100 African Americans, made up the remainder.

Despite what I just said, two prominent American writers of mostly white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant background are prominent characters in the HBO film and did support the Republic: John Dos Passos (1896-1970) and Max Eastman (1993-1969). They are played by, respectively, David Strathairn, 63, and Mark Pellegrino, 47.

Just Great: Rashida Jones Ancestry Story

The NBC celebrity roots show, Who Do You Think You Are? did not announce which celebrity they were profiling until a week or so before air date. That's why I didn't give you advance notice of the May 4th airing of the show featuring interfaith actress Rashida Jones, 36, (Community, I Love You Man). The good news is that you can view episodes online until next September, and the website version includes a couple of deleted scenes, family photos and a written re-cap of the show's scenes. Jones, as I've noted before, is the daughter of Jewish actress Peggy Lipton, 65, best known as the star of the 1960s series, Mod Squad, and her ex-husband, famous African American composer and music producer Quincy Jones, 79. Rashida was raised Jewish and firmly identifies as Jewish in a religious sense.

Rashida Jones.

Rashida Jones said she already knew a lot about her father's ancestry, so she opted to explore her maternal grandmother's life and ancestry. (Although this was not mentioned in the episode, Quincy Jones' biography and ancestry were thoroughly explored in the 2006 PBS program, African American Lives. The composer's DNA was even tested.)

Rashida's grandmother was born into a small, but vibrant, Irish Jewish community and Jones traveled first to Ireland. She learned that her Irish Jewish ancestors were originally from Latvia, so she traveled there to learn more. The whole episode was fascinating, but the ending, which I won't reveal, was extraordinarily moving.

Rashida Jones isn't the only famous Irish Jew. I've written before about quite a few celebrities who share a similar ancestry.

One sad final note: NBC announced that Who Do You Think You Are? will not return next year.

Columbus: New Jewish Celebrity?

On May 23, CNN.com posted an article on the possible Jewish origins of Christopher Columbus.

Citing new scholarly research by respected Spanish academics, this article makes the strongest case for Columbus being of Spanish Jewish origin of any article I've seen. I've been extremely dubious about other articles, in years past, that have tried to make the same case based on much less evidence.

The article makes two main points about Columbus: It is likely that he was a Spanish Jew who continued to remain loyal to Judaism despite openly accepting Catholicism, and his voyages of discovery were motivated, at least in part, on a desire to find a refuge for persecuted Spanish Jews. In 1492, Spanish Jews were faced with a dire choice: convert to Catholicism or be expelled from the country.

There is no doubt that thousands of Hispanic Americans, especially those descended from the Spanish settlers who colonized New Mexico in the 1500s and 1600s, have some Sephardi Jewish ancestry. They descend, in part, from Jews who fled to the New World to escape the persecution of Jews in Spain and Portugal.

One such person is Linda Chavez, 64, who held a variety of posts in the past three Republican presidential administrations. She's now a Fox News commentator. Chavez's mother is of Irish Catholic background. Her father's Hispanic family has lived in New Mexico since the 1500s and Chavez, herself, was born and raised in New Mexico.

On May 20, Chavez was profiled on the PBS series, Finding Your Roots. Chavez learned the name of one of her Sephardi ancestors — a Jew who converted to Catholicism to avoid being expelled from Spain in 1492. She also learned that her DNA indicated she is of about 20 percent Sephardi Jewish ancestry, even though her family has been devout Catholics for many generations.

Her DNA indicates that the population of Sephardi Jews in New Mexico was once quite high, and that families of Sephardi origin most likely married each other in large numbers — perhaps consciously. (All the Sephardi Jews who settled in New Mexico in the 1500s and 1600s had to be at least nominal Catholics. Nonetheless, many moved there hoping to be subject to less scrutiny as to the sincerity of their conversion.)

As the program points out, today the knowledge of their Jewish ancestry varies from family to family in New Mexico. In recent years, a small trickle of people, who know about their Jewish ancestry, have been joining the mainstream American Jewish community.

The history of the "secret Jews" who moved to the New World and their descendants is very complex and this complexity continues. Chavez, whose husband is Jewish, made a nominal conversion to Judaism when she married her husband. She says she did this to please his parents and never practiced. Decades later she returned to Catholicism and is now a practicing Catholic.

And now there is a credible argument that Columbus is part of this multi-layered history.

 

*Although Andy Ling's interfaith background is only implied, it is still "cool" that an Orthodox-sponsored program features a character of such background. Making him of half-Asian background is "out of the box" casting for any dramatic production sponsored by a Jewish religious group. The quality of the production owes much to the fact that the writer is Jason Venkour, who now studies in Jerusalem at an Aish HaTorah yeshiva. He wrote about 20 episodes of the hit comedy, 3rd Rock from the Sun. The catchy theme song is by Peter Himmelman, a Modern Orthodox Jew who has written theme songs for network shows. By the way, he is Bob Dylan's son-in-law.

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." Having Jewish family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The term literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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