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Interfaith Celebrities: A Righteous Grandfather and a Promiscuous Model

March 4, 2008

Helena Bonham-Carter
Helena Bonham-Carter's grandfather, the Spanish Catholic diplomat, Educardo Propper de Callejón, will soon be recognized as a "Righteous Gentile" by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum. REUTERS/Anthony Harvey

Helena Bonham-Carter's Proud Lineage

British actress Helena Bonham-Carter, 41, is the daughter of a British Protestant aristocratic father and a Catholic mother with a complex family history. Her maternal grandmother, born into a very rich Austrian Jewish family, converted to Catholicism to marry Helena's grandfather, Eduardo Propper de Callejón, a Spanish Catholic diplomat. Meanwhile, Helena's maternal grandmother's sister, Lilane, "stayed Jewish" and married Baron Elie De Rothschild of the French Rothschilds. When Lilane died, at 86, in 2003, she was the "grande dame" of the Jewish Rothschild clan.

Eduardo Propper, whose own father was Jewish, has just been named "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the Israel-based Holocaust remembrance authority. Propper, who was based in Nazi-occupied France in 1940-41, defied orders and issued thousands of Spanish visas to Jewish and non-Jewish refugees (including Liliane Rothschild) so they could transit across Spain and find refuge in a third country.

Propper was punished for his good deed by being posted to North Africa and the records of his visa-issuance mysteriously disappeared. Propper's son diligently gathered testimonies from those his father helped and he finally met Yad Vashem's strict standards for "Righteous" designation. Bonham-Carter, who is now making a Harry Potter film, hopes to be able to be in Jerusalem this month for the induction ceremony.

My sense is that Helena Bonham-Carter was not raised anything--or in any event is not religious.

In 2006, she co-starred in the British film, Sixty Six. It tells the tale of an English Jewish boy who is set to have his bar mitzvah in 1966. Bonham-Carter plays his Jewish mother. Unfortunately, the scheduled day of his bar mitzvah coincides with the day that England is set to play its final match for the World Cup--the world's championship of soccer. (England really did win the World Cup in 1966, the only time it has done so.)

Well, almost everybody watched the game and almost nobody showed up for the poor boy's bar mitzvah or reception. But he does learn other valuable life lessons.

The film got only moderately good reviews in England and never received a general American release. However, in an interview with a Jewish publication around the time Sixty Six was released, Bonham-Carter startled me by mentioning that she might like to see her son be bar mitzvah. (Bonham-Carter has a young son and daughter with American director Tim Burton, her domestic partner since 2001. Burton isn't Jewish).

However, upon reflection, I think that Bonham-Carter was just caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment--"talking bar mitzvah with the Jewish press"--and I really don't think her children will have a Jewish religious upbringing. But anything is possible.

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy
French model-turned-songstress Carla Bruni recently married French president Nicolas Sarkozy, but not before dating a slew of famous men, French, Jewish and otherwise. REUTERS/Eric Feferberg/Pool

The Many Jewish Loves of Carla Bruni

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, 53, a practicing Catholic whose maternal grandfather was Jewish, has been very popular with the worldwide Jewish community because of his opposition to domestic anti-Semitism, his clear support of Israel and his tough stand on Iran's nuclear program. Recently, he became the first French president to address the central organization of French Jews.

However, Sarkozy's general popularity with the French public has declined since his election last year. Among many reasons cited for this decline is Sarkozy's practice of living out his private life in public. This is very unusual for a French politician and it has turned off many voters.

Last year, Sarkozy divorced his wife (a Catholic whose father was Jewish) and shortly thereafter married Carla Bruni, 39, a beautiful former fashion model who re-invented herself, when she was around 30, as a popular singer/songwriter. (In fairness to Sarkozy, his marriage was long on the ropes).

Bruni's sister recently spoke to the website European Jewish Press. She said that the original family name was Tedeschi and that her paternal grandfather, an Italian Jew from Turin, converted to Catholicism during World War II. Her sister did not explain whether or not her grandfather's conversion was made in the hope that it would offer some protection from Nazi deportation. (Other reports say that Carla found out from Alberto Bruni-Tedeschi, as he lay on his deathbed, that he was not her biological father).

Carla Bruni has had a glamorous, dramatic, and celebrity-filled romantic past. Prior to her marriage to Sarkozy, Bruni told the press that she had a general disdain for monogamy. She has been linked to many famous guys, including Donald Trump, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton.

Carla's Jewish former lovers include Arno Klarsfeld, a French Jewish lawyer who served in the Israeli army. Arno, who is famous in France in his own right, is the son of famous Nazi hunters Serge Klarsfeld, a French Jew, and his wife, Beate Klarsfeld. (Beate was born in Germany and raised a Protestant. I vaguely recall reading that she converted to Judaism years ago. But I haven't been able to confirm that as I write this.)

Carla was also involved with Jean-Paul Enthoven, a French Jewish writer, critic and editor, who is well known in France. Shockingly, she dropped Jean-Paul and began a romance with his son, Raphael, a philosophy teacher.

Her affair with Raphael led to the break-up of Raphael's marriage to novelist Justine Levy, the daughter of famous French Jewish philosopher and writer Bernard Henri-Levy. Raphael was Bernard Henri-Levy's best friend.

Justine, whose mother is not Jewish, wrote a best-selling novel about her ex-husband's affair in which Carla comes off as a heartless seducer whom men cannot resist.

Carla had an out-of-wedlock son with Raphael Enthoven and the boy now lives in the French President's palace.

Juno: An Interfaith Romance?

Is Juno, the hit comedy about a teenage girl's pregnancy, about an interfaith couple?

I never thought much about the faith of the main characters--neither Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) nor the teenage boy who got her pregnant, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), seemed Jewish and their respective religions didn't seem to be mentioned in the movie.

However, I got a publicity release from Jewish songwriter and author Barry Polisar. He wrote the song "All I Want is You," which is featured in the opening credits of the film. Polisar mentioned that a dreidel is seen in Paulie's room and on Paulie's bedroom wall there is a Hebrew document--a certificate saying that he had a bar mitzvah. Well, I admit it--I missed these details. Maybe I was getting popcorn.

Polisar, who specializes in children's music, recently wrote and adapted a Passover Haggaddah, with illustrations by his daughter. Called "Telling the Story: A Passover Haggadah," it is being sold in stores and can also be obtained as a free download.

The Hindustan Times of India reports that Jewish actress Natalie Portman will co-star opposite Asian Indian actor Irrfan Khan in a film entitled Kosher Vegetarian. It is a love story between a Hindu man and a Jewish girl and it seems like it will be set in India.

The director is Mira Nair, an Indian director who has been working in the United States recently. Her breakthrough film was the excellent Monsoon Wedding (2001). In 2006, she directed another good picture, The Namesake. It told the tale of an Indian Hindu family as they tried to cope with the pressures of life in America. It explored the problems of cultural assimilation and interfaith/interethnic romance.

One caveat--the casting of Kosher Vegetarian has only been announced in the Indian press. So, it is possible that they have jumped the gun and Portman has not yet officially committed to the film.

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 "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. 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.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.

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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