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Interfaith Celebrities: 85th Annual Academy Awards

February 19, 2013

Oscars® Time: Interfaith and Jewish Connections

The Academy Awards® will be presented on Sunday, February 24, 2013. The ceremony will be telecast, live, on ABC, starting at 7 p.m. EST and 4 p.m. PST. (The first hour is red carpet coverage.) Below is a list of confirmed Jewish and interfaith nominees in the non-technical categories. Unless otherwise noted, the nominee is the child of two Jewish parents.

Barbra Streisand, 70, who is Jewish, will sing at this year's Oscars® ceremony. This is the second time Streisand has sung at the Academy Awards®. In 1977, she sang "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star is Born)." "Evergreen" won the Oscar® for Best Original Song of 1976. It was co-written by Streisand and Paul Williams. Streisand also won a Best Actress Oscar® for Funny Girl (1968).

>It's believed Streisand will sing a medley of songs from her films and, almost certainly, she'll pay tribute to Jewish composer Marvin Hamlisch, who died last August. He worked closely with Streisand from the late 1960s on, both as her sometime musical director and as the composer of Streisand hits like "The Way We Were."

Barbra Streisand

Jeffrey Katzenberg, 62, the Jewish CEO of DreamWorks Animation studio, will receive the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The award, which is not given every year, is given to an individual whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the movie industry. Katzenberg and his wife of 37 years, Marilyn, have given many millions of dollars to educational, medical, and Jewish charities.

Acting Categories

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, 55, Lincoln; and Joaquin Phoenix, 38, The Master

As I've noted in past columns, both of these actors are the sons of Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers. Both are secular, and have stated that they do not affiliate with any organized religion. (Day-Lewis called himself agnostic in a 2002 interview. Phoenix called himself an atheist in a 2008 interview.)

Day-Lewis is the bookmakers' favorite to win this year's Oscar® and if he does win, he will be the first actor, ever, to win three Best Actor Oscars®. (Eight actors, besides Day-Lewis, have won two Best Actor Oscars®. The living ones are Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Sean Penn, and Jack Nicholson.)

No actress, except Katherine Hepburn, has won more than two Best Actress Oscars®. Hepburn won four.

Last October, Phoenix hurt his Oscar® chances by referring negatively to the Academy Awards®. He later backtracked from his remark. Nonetheless, it looks like Phoenix, who got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination for Gladiator (2000), is a very long shot to win this year.

Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin, 78, Argo

This is Arkin's 4th Oscar® nomination (two for Best Actor in the 1960s, and a win for Best Supporting Actor in 2006 for Little Miss Sunshine). His Oscar® win was, as with many older actors, in the nature of a lifetime achievement award, and that sentimental momentum isn't with him this time.

Alan Arkin won for his role in Little Miss Sunshine.

Raised in a secular Jewish family, Arkin began his performing career in 1960 with the now-famous Second City acting troupe, which is based in Chicago. He stayed busy as a stage actor and fairly popular folk musician until the mid-1960s, when he was cast as the commander of a Soviet sub that ran aground off New England in The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. This hit comedy satirized Cold War tensions. He got a Best Actor Oscar® nomination for his performance. In 1968, Arkin got another Best Actor nomination for playing a deaf-mute in the film adaptation of the famous novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

Until about 1992, Arkin had a mid-level career, with a number of well-received roles in fairly successful films besides those noted above (Wait Until Dark, Catch-22, Freebie and the Bean, The In-Laws, The Seven Percent Solution, Edward Scissorhands, and Glengarry Glen Ross). Good parts trailed off after around 1992. But then, Arkin had the good fortune to be cast in Little Miss Sunshine, a surprise hit with critics and the public. Now he is the "go-to guy" when directors want a senior actor who can really play a colorful older man.

Even though he has never been religious, Arkin has played a lot of Jewish characters. One that stands out, as I write this, is his portrayal of the fictional Reuben Shapiro in the 1985 comedy/drama film, Joshua Then and Now. Shapiro, a Canadian, is a former pro boxer who makes his living through small time, non-violent crime. He also loves to read the Bible and expound, in his own homespun way, on the meaning of certain passages. His son, Joshua, a famous journalist, is married to a woman who is a member of a quite famous and distinguished Protestant Canadian family.

Towards the end of the film, Shapiro is asked how he can religiously justify his efforts to keep the foundering marriage of his son to a non-Jew afloat. He turns to the biblical book of Esther, which is read on Purim. (Purim begins this year on the evening of Saturday, February 23.) The (Jewish) Esther, Shapiro points out, was encouraged by her (Jewish) uncle to marry the (non-Jewish) king of the ancient Persian Empire. The lesson, Shapiro says, is that the Bible prohibits intermarriage, "unless you are marrying into a really good family."

Arkin's first wife, to whom he was married from 1955-1961, is Jewish. She's the mother of his sons, Matthew Arkin and Adam Arkin. Adam, now 56, is well known from his co-starring roles on the TV series Northern Exposure and Chicago Hope. Last year, he had a supporting role as Michael Cohen, the husband of real-life sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene in The Sessions. (See the entry on Helen Hunt, below.)

Alan Arkin had another son, Anthony Arkin, with his second wife, Barbara Dana, now 73, a still-active writer and actress. They were married from 1964 to around 1990. Dana isn't Jewish. Her parents, who maintained a Manhattan apartment, were both employed in the arts. An ancestor was Richard Dana, Jr., a famous 19th century author (Two Years Before the Mast), lawyer, and politician. The Danas, a Protestant family, have been in Massachusetts since 1640, where they hobnobbed and intermarried with other families, like the Longfellows.

Best Supporting Actress: Helen Hunt, 49, The Sessions

Hunt, as noted in past columns, is of interfaith background. Her paternal grandmother was Jewish. She's nominated for playing real life sex therapist Cheryl Cohen-Greene, 68. The Sessions is about real life journalist and poet Mark O'Brien, a polio victim. The film focuses on the latter part of his life, as he sought to lose his virginity before his body completely gave out. To this end, he contacts and works with Cohen-Greene.

Last October, and again two weeks ago, I spoke to Cohen-Greene, a convert to Judaism. Last October, I wrote, for InterfaithFamily, about part of my first interview with her. Due to time constraints, I couldn't complete the interview before my column item was posted. I had just enough time to complete the interview and write a full profile (October 31, 2012) of Cohen-Greene, a Berkeley, California resident, for JWeekly.

Cheryl Greene-Cohen, a sex therapist, is portrayed by Helen Hunt in The Sessions.

Cohen-Greene and Michael Cohen divorced in 1995, long after the events depicted in The Sessions. She is now re-married. Cheryl and Michael had two children, a now-adult son and daughter. Her daughter doesn't have any children. Her son has two children with his wife, who isn't Jewish. Her son, Cohen-Greene told me, wed in a Jewish ceremony, and her grandchildren are being raised Jewish.

A couple weeks ago, Cohen-Greene told me that her life has been a whirlwind of radio interviews since the film was released ? mostly about the film and her memoir, An Intimate Life: Sex, Love and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner. One recent highlight was traveling to New York City for a showing of the film and meeting one of her "heroes," Dr. Ruth Westheimer, 84, the famous Jewish sex therapist. Cohen-Greene describes Dr. Ruth as "a real sweetie."

As for the film, itself, she still cannot believe how well it turned out. Last October, she told me:

I had no vocabulary to draw on to express my emotions the first time I saw the film. It was overwhelming, from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes. I still get emotional and I cry.

Directing, Music, Screenplay, Documentaries, Animated, and Best Picture

Best Director: Behn Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Zeitlin, who is only 30, made his Louisiana-based fantasy film for less than $2 million, and he is the dark horse wunderkind of this year's Oscars®. (Beasts is also a Best Film nominee.)

The son of a Jewish father and a Protestant-raised mother, Zeitlin was raised in his father's faith and had a bar mitzvah.

I could expound on Zeitlin, but he is such an extraordinary new talent that I think I would serve you better by pointing out three recent articles which give his complete background and extol his "Spielberg-like" talents.

The first profile, "Benh Zeitlin: Conquering his 'Beasts'", may be found in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. The second is a profile in The New York Times, by their erudite film critic, A.O. Scott (who is of interfaith background, by the way ? his mother is Jewish). It is entitled "Spielbergian, on a Budget."

The final profile from the Smithsonian Magazine, "How Benh Zeitlin Made Beasts of the Southern Wild," named Zeitlin one of nine winners of their 2012 American Ingenuity Awards, and goes into his creative process in-depth.

In an edited excerpt from "Benh Zeitlin: Conquering his 'Beasts'", we learn about Zeitlin's family and religious background:

Zeitlin's parents, both folklorists, celebrated all kinds of wisdom and fables... "The myth in my own family is that we had basically one relative who escaped the pogroms in Russia in a hay cart," said Zeitlin, whose father is Jewish and mother was raised Protestant in North Carolina "My father very much studied Jewish culture and mythology, and he wrote several compilations of Jewish stories, folktales and jokes. He was always reinventing Jewish customs and making sure that the tradition was very much part of our lives. Every Shabbat we all had to bring a reading or some piece of wisdom we'd discovered during the week, along with a ritual where we would remember all the people we had lost." Not long after his backyard bar mitzvah, Zeitlin traveled with his family to New Orleans, which he found to be "an almost supernatural place where both death and joy are in the air."?"All Jews are obsessed with death, right," he added, only half joking. "It's recalling all the people before you who have died, and using their knowledge in your own life"...The funeral scene [in Beasts] was influenced by Jewish thought, Zeitlin said ? specifically the midrash of two ships, one leaving the harbor as another heads for shore, which suggests that one should rejoice over the returning ship, just as one should celebrate the death of a righteous man. "It's one of my favorite pieces of wisdom," Zeitlin said.

Best Director: Steven Spielberg, 66, Lincoln

After this film, previous screen depictions of the life of Abraham Lincoln now seem like unrealistic exercises in hero worship. Spielberg's Lincoln is a very human-sized man who deftly worked our often sordid political system to end slavery forever, and he emerges more heroic than ever before because we know what real-life skill and determination it took to accomplish what he did.

Likewise, before Spielberg's Schindler's List, there was no feature film that captured the scope and detail of the Holocaust that was also viewed so broadly; and before Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, no feature film really captured the terror and heroism of the D-Day landings.

Lincoln, was written by Tony Kushner, 56, still most famous as the playwright of the Angels in America trilogy of plays about the AIDS crisis. He previously worked with Spielberg when he wrote Munich (2005), about the aftermath of the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games.

Kushner's Lincoln script was based on the historical study, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Goodwin, 70, who is of Irish Catholic background, has been married since 1975 to Richard Goodwin, 81, and they have three adult sons. Richard Goodwin, who is Jewish, worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as a speechwriter and adviser. This is not the couple's first brush with movie fame. Back in the 1950s, Richard Goodwin, fresh out of law school, worked as a congressional investigator and ferreted out the information that some TV game shows were fixed. This huge scandal was the subject of the 1994 Robert Redford-directed film, Quiz Show, and Goodwin is one of two lead characters.

By the way, on Saturday, February 23, at 8 p.m., USA network will present a special, commercial-free presentation of Schindler's List. Spielberg will provide a special introduction to his great film, which was released twenty years ago. USA will offer additional information and resources at charactersunite.com and through the interactive second screen experience app, Zeebox, in partnership with the USC Shoah Foundation.

Best Director: David O. Russell 54, Silver Linings Playbook

Russell is the son of a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother. So far as I know, Russell has never talked about his religious or interfaith background, other than in one interview in which he said he was raised in "an atheistic household."

Raised on Long Island, Russell studied religion, literature, and political science at Amherst College. He was a full time political activist until age 30 ? especially active in opposing the Reagan administration policies in Latin America. He says he "burned-out" at age 30. He then drew on some experience with film equipment to start writing and making short films. He worked odd, menial jobs until he found financing for his first feature film, Spanking the Monkey (1994). The film was a critical hit, despite the subject matter (incest). Russell has only made six feature films. However, three have been big hits: Three Kings (1999), a satirical war film; The Fighter (2010), about a small-time pro fighter (it received Best Film and Best Director Oscar® nominations); and Silver Linings Playbook, about the struggles of a bipolar young man.

Russell wrote or co-wrote all the films above, save The Fighter. He also wrote and directed the comedy Flirting with Disaster (1996). This film wasn't a big hit, but it got great reviews and earned twice its modest cost. In it, Ben Stiller plays a nice fellow who was adopted at birth by a loving, if quite neurotic, New York Jewish couple. He decides to seek out his biological parents.

I found it to be a hilarious film. Yes, the adoptive parents are often stereotypically Jewish, but nobody else in the film ? a whole range of ethnic and regional types ? come off as close to perfect either. I suspect that Russell was able to draw his Jewish characters so deftly because his boyhood home, despite being atheistic, was Jewish/Italian Catholic: two groups whose usual parenting styles are not that different.

Best Original Song: "Suddenly" from Les Misérables ? Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, 68; Lyrics by Hebert Kretzmer, 87, and Alain Boublil, 72

Schonberg and Boublil are French Jews who wrote the original stage version of Les Misérables. (Boublil, a Sephardi Jew, was born in Tunisia.) Kretzmer, a South African-born, English Jew, wrote the lyrics for the English-language version of the stage show. All three wrote the new (nominated) song for the film version.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild); Kushner, Lincoln; and Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Original Screenplay: Mark Boal, 39, Zero Dark Thirty

Born and raised in New York, Boal is the son of a Jewish mother and a father who converted to Judaism. He says he grew up in a lefty, Greenwich Village household. His late father made educational films. After graduating from college in 1995, Boal became a freelance journalist. A 2004 article he wrote about the murder of an Iraq war veteran inspired the 2007 film, In the Valley of Elah. In 2004, he was embedded with troops and bomb squads fighting in Iraq. In 2008, he wrote and co-produced The Hurt Locker, about a three-man Iraq war bomb disposal team. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film won six Oscars®, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.

In December2012, Zero Dark Thirty, which was again written by Boal and directed by Bigelow, opened. It purports to tell the true story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his killing by Navy Seals. Almost all critics agreed that the film was exciting and well-made. However, many critics and politicians complained that the film endorsed the very much disputed view that torture provided critical clues to Bin Laden's whereabouts. This controversy may hamper the film's chances at winning many Oscars®.

Documentary (Feature): Five Broken Cameras, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, co-directed by Israeli Guy Davidi, 34; The Gatekeepers, interviews with six former heads of Mossad, directed by Israeli Dror Moreh, 52; and The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the American military, produced by Amy Ziering, 50

Documentary (Short): Kings Point, about (mostly) Jewish seniors in Florida, directed by Sari Gilman, 47

Best Animated Short Film: The Longest Daycare, David Silverman, 55

Silverman has been the top animator for The Simpsons TV show since it began. He also directed The Simpsons Movie and co-directed Monsters, Inc. The Longest Daycare features child character Maggie Simpson. It shows how she overcomes bullying. There is no dialogue in this four-minute film, which was universally praised by critics as harkening back to the tender human emotions found in the early seasons of The Simpsons.

Best Film: This award goes to a film's principal producers. Here are the nominees with a confirmed Jewish producer: Grant Heslov , 47, Argo; Eric Fellner, 53, Les Misérables; Spielberg, Lincoln; Boal, Zero Dark Thirty; and Stacey Sher, 50, Django Unchained

Honorable Mention: Best Supporting Actor nominee Christoph Walz, 56, Django Unchained.

Back in early 2010, I noted that Christoph Walz, an Austrian who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing a Nazi "Jew-Hunter" in Quentin Tarantino's film, Inglourious Basterds, was not Jewish. However, his ex-wife was an American Jew and their son was then studying to be a rabbi in Israel. Walz went on to win the 2009 Oscar® for his performance.

Well, here's a new story about the Walz family that has not appeared in any media outlet. A friend told me that Walz's maternal grandfather was Rudolf von Urban (1879-1964), a prominent, Catholic-raised psychiatrist. My friend also told me that, in his memoir, von Urban mentions that his first wife was Jewish. Von Urban was married three times and left two ex-wives behind in Austria when he moved to the United States in 1936, two years before the Nazis annexed Austria.

His second wife, actress Maya Mayen, who wasn't Jewish, is Christoph Walz's maternal grandmother. His first wife, Fritzi Rosali Persicaner, came from an Orthodox Jewish family. Von Urban had two children with Fritzi, a son who died young and a daughter, Gretl, who was 36 when the Nazis took over Austria. She was Christoph Walz's "half aunt."

Von Urban's memoir, Myself Not Least (1958), can be viewed in "snippet view" on Google Books. In one such "snippet," von Urban writes that his daughter, Gretl, hid her mother in a cramped cellar so she could escape Nazi deportation to the death camps. Maddeningly, the snippet does not include the page that tells you if she survived the Nazis or not. This memoir is almost impossible to find and very expensive to buy.

But to my rescue came Dave Diakow, a Brooklyn (main branch) public librarian, who answered my phone call, got the book out of storage, and read to me the few paragraphs on Gretl and Fritzi. Fritzi, von Urban writes, did survive the war. She spent about four years hiding in a cramped cellar while Gretl keep her location a secret and brought her enough food, etc. to survive.

Von Urban's account is quite short. Besides noting his daughter's loyalty to her Jewish mother and heroism, he adds that Frizi got arthritis from being in the cellar for years. However, he says that, paradoxically, Fritzi's long fragile mental state actually improved while in hiding.

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. Hebrew for "story," a way of interpreting biblical stories that often fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative and expands on events of characters that are only hinted at. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.

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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