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Interfaith Celebrities: Albom's Latest, a Star-Studded Muppet Movie and Belafonte's Jewish Roots

November 22, 2011

Have a Little Faith: A Story of Two Good Men

Have a Little Faith, an original Hallmark Hall of Fame telefilm, airs on ABC on Sunday, November 27, at 9 p.m. It is based on the best-selling non-fiction book of the same name by Jewish, Detroit newspaper columnist Mitch Albom, 53 (Tuesdays with Morrie).

Have a Little Faith, starring Bradley Whitford and Laurence Fishburne (top), Martin Landau (bottom).

The movie and book cover events over an eight year period, from 2000-2008.

In 2000, Rabbi Albert L. Lewis (1917-2008), a highly respected and beloved Conservative New Jersey rabbi who was also Albom's childhood rabbi, asked Albom to deliver his eulogy. This surprising request lead Albom to try to get to know the rabbi and his faith better so he would be worthy of delivering the eulogy.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, Albom got to know Reverend Henry Covington, an African American pastor and a reformed convict, who preaches to and helps the poor in a broken-down church building.

In the words of the publicity release for the book:

"Moving between their worlds, Christian and Jewish, African-American and white, impoverished and well-to-do, Mitch observes how these very different men employ faith similarly in fighting for survival: the older, suburban rabbi, embracing it as death approaches; the younger, inner-city pastor relying on it to keep himself and his church afloat."

Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), 52, stars as Albom, with Laurence Fishburne, 50, as Rev. Covington, and Jewish actor Martin Landau, 83, as Rabbi Lewis.

Albom wrote the screenplay andthe director is Jon Avnet, 61. Avnet, who is Jewish, is best known for directing Fried Green Tomatoes and the excellent 2001 TV film, Uprising," about the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto revolt which saw Jews take up arms and fight the Nazis.

Albom's book, it should be noted, inspired him to create the interfaith "A Hole in the Roof Foundation." The name of the foundation originates from the fact that Reverend Covington's church (called the "I am My Brother's Keeper" church)had a large hole in its roof.

Albom's website states:

"A Hole in the Roof Foundation raises and distributes funds to help pay for the materials and labor that are needed to help faith groups make such repairs to their most essential infrastructure: replacing broken windows; shoring up load-bearing walls or loose foundations; repairing leaks and other plumbing problems; fixing or replacing heating sources. Their first project was the I Am My Brother's Keeper roof in the crumbling but vibrant Detroit church, completed in December 2009.

Footnote of Interest to Have a Little Faith:

You can listen to the first chapter of Have a Little Faith here.

Both Steven Spielberg and Michael Landon (who was of interfaith background) attended Rabbi Lewis's synagogue as children. I discussed Landon (Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie) in a previous column for InterfaithFamily.com.

Recently, I came across an excellent piece (published last summer, on the 20th anniversary of Landon's death) about his Jewish background and the interfaith (Jewish/Christian) romance episodes on Little House on the Prairie. Well worth reading.

Also worthy of note: Landon had his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Sholom, whose founding rabbi was Albert L. Lewis, and Lewis presided over Landon's bar mitzvah. Lewis had a reputation as a caring, inclusive rabbi and over time he grew his congregation from 90 families to 1000.

Consider this: Landon's mother was not Jewish and, back in the 1950s, it was virtually unheard of for a rabbi, in any wing of Judaism, to preside over the bar mitzvah of a boy whose mother was not Jewish. But Lewis broke with this practice and presided over Landon's bar mitzvah.

I suspect the rabbi's embrace of Landon was an important reason for why Landon identified as Jewish his whole life.

The situation could have been far different. Landon, whose original name was Eugene Orowitz, suffered from a lot of petty anti-Semitic harassment in his small New Jersey hometown. It would have been sadly ironic if the nearest synagogue to his hometown also hurt him by turning him away because his mother was not Jewish.

Such things have happened to other children of interfaith background. But Rabbi Lewis was a "mensch" who didn't allow the young Landon to be hurt twice. It's pretty cool that this rabbi is being celebrated in a new film.

Holiday Fare for the Family

When the box-office tallies for movies opening Thanksgiving week come out later this week, I suspect that the new Muppets movie, called The Muppets, will be the clear winner. The film, which opens Wednesday, November 23, seems like it has all the ingredients to entertain everybody.

The movie, of course, features the famous puppet characters created by the late Jim Henson.

Jason Segel (who plays Gary) with Walter.

Here's the basic plot: A new puppet, called Walter, is the "world's greatest muppet fan," and, while on vacation in Los Angeles, Walter discovers that an evil oilman (Chris Cooper, 60) plans to raze the Muppet Theater and drill for the oil just discovered below the theater. Walter's friends Gary (Jason Segal, 31) and Mary (Amy Adams, 35) help him round up all the Muppets and stage a telethon to raise the $10 million needed to save the theater.

Over 30 name actors have cameo roles in the film, including Jewish actors/actresses Billy Crystal, Judd Hirsch, Mila Kunis, Sarah Silverman and Ben Stiller.

The film was co-written by Segal and Nicholas Stoller, 35, who is Jewish. Segal and Stoller often team-up on film projects. Stoller directed Segal in the hit film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which Segal wrote. In 2009, Stoller wrote and directed Get Him to the Greek, which featured a character created by Segal.

If this film is a big hit, Segal, who is of interfaith background, will really be a force to be reckoned with as a screenwriter, as well as an actor. He'll have two big hits under his belt as a film writer.

Of all the interfaith actors I have profiled in this column, I think Segal has been the most eloquent and touching about describing how he was caught between two worlds as a child. Here's an excerpt from an NPR radio interview I transcribed for a past column:

Question: So, what were some of the other adventurous aspects of being the only Jewish kid at a Catholic [middle] school — Catholic or Christian?

Segel: I think it was Episcopalian. I am not 100 percent sure what the differences are. I'll tell you what was really weird. Like I said, I felt sort out of place at this school.

Question: Maybe because you were?

Segel: Yes, exactly. You see, my father is Jewish and my mother is Christian, but I was raised Jewish. So, I am at this school and they really don't like me very much there. And then after Christian school I would in the afternoons walk to Hebrew school and then at Hebrew school they would tell me I was not really Jewish because my mother is Christian. So, all of a sudden I'm like this young kid--I would have been happy to believe whatever--whoever would have been nice to me. You know? But it was this feeling of not really belonging or not really fitting in.

Question: The world's mainstream religions don't want you.

Segel: Yeah, you know what occurred to me, it is funny that you say that, but what occurred to me was that this certainly isn't God. God doesn't want an 11 and 12-year-old kid to feel this way. You know. My belief in God is that God wants you. God wants you to believe in him, or it, whatever you would call it.

Belafonte's Surprise

I've long known of the many "Jewish connections" in the family life of singer/actor Harry Belafonte, 84. His second wife, dancer Julie Robinson, to whom he was married from 1958-2004, is Jewish. Together, they had a daughter, Gina Belafonte, 50, and a son, David Belafonte, 54.. Gina, a former actress, produced the recent HBO documentary, Sing Your Song, about her father's role in the Civil Rights movement. Harry is currently married to photographer Pamela Frank, whom I think is Jewish (but I haven't confirmed this).

What Harry Belafonte might best be known for...

Shari Belafonte, 57, the actress, is Harry's daughter with his first (non-Jewish) wife. Shari's husband, since 1989, is (Jewish) soap opera actor Sam Behrens, 61 (born Stanley Birnbaum).

Harry Belafonte's autobiography, My Song: A Memoir, has just come out. In it, he discloses, for the first time, that both his parents are of mixed race and that he is "one quarter" Jewish, himself.

Harry Belafonte was born in Harlem. His mother was born in Jamaica, the child of a white, Scottish mother and a black father. His father was also born in Jamaica, the child of a black mother and Dutch Jewish father.

Harry describes his Jewish grandfather, whom he never met, as, "a white Dutch Jew who drifted over to the islands after chasing gold and diamonds, with no luck at all."

Harry Belafonte was raised a Catholic, like his mother. His first wife was a devout Catholic.. Belafonte says he fell away from Catholicism at an early age. His second wife, Robinson, was Jewish. He does not mention raising his children in any faith and it seems as though his children with Robinson were raised secular.

 

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." 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." 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.
Yiddish term for an honorable, decent person, usually means "a person of integrity and honor," someone of good character and a deep sense of what is right. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.

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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