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Interfaith Celebrities Are Gleeful

October 13, 2009

Since my last column about the fall 2009 television season, I've discovered two new TV series with Jewish and interfaith actor connections, one starring an interfaith actress with a truly unusual background. If your friends have been buzzing about how much they love Glee, you'll enjoy sharing with them that you have something in common with the actors and characters who share an interfaith family background.

Lea Michelle in Glee.
Lea Michelle plays Rachel Berry in the new TV series Glee. Photo: Fox.

But first, we should say a regretful goodbye to The Beautiful Life, which co-starred Sara Paxton, 21. This FOX series about the lives of young New York fashion models premiered in early September, but anemic ratings led to its cancellation after just two episodes were aired.

As I have written in this column, Paxton is the daughter of an American father who is a Jew by choice and a Mexican Jewish mother. She's a pretty and talented actress, and I hope the quick demise of her TV series is only a short-lived career setback.

And now to Glee, a FOX TV series that premiered on Sept. 9 and has turned into a runaway ratings and critical hit (new episodes air Wednesdays at 9 p.m.). Glee centers on the lives of teachers and students associated with an Ohio public high school show choir.

Glee is a very expensive series to produce and features almost Broadway-quality musical numbers in every episode. But the professionalism of the production has paid off, and Glee is approaching Disney's High School Musical in popularity among young people.

Also like High School Musical, the stars of the show are being feted on major talk shows like Oprah and The View. Numbers from the show are among the most-downloaded tunes on iTunes. Major Broadway musical stars are now lining up to guest star on Glee.

The Glee high school chorus director is Spanish teacher Will Schuester (played by actor Matthew Morrison). Schuester's wife, Terri, is played by actress Jessalyn Gilsig, 37. As I noted in a previous column, Gilsig, a native of Canada, is the daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. She wed her Jewish husband, an old high school flame and a film producer, in a traditional Jewish ceremony. Playing Will's father (a recurring role) is Canadian Jewish actor Victor Garber, 60. Most people know Garber as the co-star of the TV series Alias. However, he is well-equipped for a part in a musical series--Garber's a first-rate Broadway musical actor with a strong singing voice.

Also appearing in a recurring role as Sandy Ryerson, the former head of the Glee Club, is Jewish actor Stephen Tobolowsky, 58. He's played many character roles over the years, including a hateful Klan leader in Mississippi Burning. However, anyone who has ever seen the comedy classic Groundhog Day will instantly remember the character of Ned Ryerson, the overbearing insurance agent who annoyed Bill Murray. Tobolowsky played Ned Ryerson too. (I suspect that his Glee character's last name is a sort of joke reference to his Groundhog Day character).

But the main stars of this column are two newcomers who play student members of the Glee Club. The most talented member of the Glee Club is student Rachel Berry, a kind of outsider whose parents are two gay men of differing racial backgrounds. On top of all this diversity, Rachel Berry is Jewish!

Dianna Agron
Dianna Agron plays cheerleader Quinn Fabray in the new TV show Glee. Photo: Fox.

Rachel's religious background was revealed in the episode that aired Sept. 23, right after I wrote my last column. Rachel was competing for the role of Maria in "West Side Story," and she said: "Natalie Wood was a Jew, you know. I have had a deep, personal connection to this role since the age of 1." (Actually, Natalie Wood, the late actress, was of Russian Orthodox Christian background, but a lot of people think she was Jewish.) In any event, the Rachel Berry character is now "officially" a Jewish Glee character.

Rachel is played by actress Lea Michele, 22. While she is a TV newcomer, she is no stranger to the musical stage--she got a part in the Broadway production of "Les Miserables" at age 8 and has since co-starred in many Broadway musicals, including a revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "'Spring Awakening."

Michele grew up in Teaneck, N.J., a New York City suburb. Her father is of Sephardic Jewish background and her mother is of Italian Catholic background. She told reporter Gerri Miller that she was raised in both religious traditions. She told Miller and the New York Daily News that she never expected to get a lead role in a TV show--agents had told her that her look was "too ethnic."

Michele is a huge fan of Jewish singer Barbra Streisand and she will sing a Streisand classic in an upcoming episode. Like Streisand, Michele can sing to the back rows. Here's a clip from Glee of her singing "Take a Bow."

Jewish actress Dianna Agron, 23, plays cheerleader and Glee Club member Quinn Fabray, a "mean girl." Fabray is supposed to be a devout Christian, and she heads the school's "celibacy club." However, in a just-aired episode, it is revealed that Fabray is pregnant. (So much for celibacy.)

Agron, a pretty blonde, has an athlete's body and that's no accident--she has been dancing ballet since she was 10. Born in Georgia, she grew up in a San Francisco suburb (her father managed the San Francisco Airport's Hyatt Hotel). She moved to Los Angeles after graduating high school and has had a lot of smallish stage, TV and film parts.

Agron, who had a bat mitzvah, told Miller that playing a crucifix-wearing character was a "new thing for her." Her Jewish friends, she said, teased her a bit about her part and her Christian friends gave her tips on how to play the part.

One sweet note: In real life, Agron and Michele are friends and share an apartment. I suspect that with the show's success, they both will soon be buying houses.

Here's a joint interview with the two actresses that took place just before the show hit the air:

The CW network series The Vampire Diaries has also turned into a hit. The network has just ordered nine more episodes (airs Thursdays at 8 p.m.). The show takes place in a small Virginia town where two vampire brothers, one good and one evil, fight for the souls of the townsfolk. Co-starring as Bonnie Bennett, a teen with psychic powers, is pretty actress and singer Katerina Graham, 20.

In a recent interview, Graham detailed her unusual background. She was born in Switzerland to a black Liberian journalist father who worked for the United Nations, and a white, American Jewish mother. She speaks fluent French and Spanish and some Hebrew that she says she learned in Hebrew school. Her parents split up when she was young and she was raised in Los Angeles. She's been acting for 10 years now.

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." Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. 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.

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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