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Interfaith Celebrities: Beijing Bound

The Summer Olympics Games begin this Friday, Aug. 8 and I thought I'd clue you in to the American Jewish athletes going to the Olympics with some extra information on four of the participants. I make no claim that this list is absolutely complete.

In alphabetical order, the American Jewish 2008 Olympic team athletes are:

Benny Feilhaber, 23, soccer (or football, as it is called outside the United States and Canada). Feilhaber, a midfielder, will be participating in his first Olympics. The Olympics feature a competition of soccer teams from around the world consisting of players under 23 and Feilhaber' s 23rd birthday was this year--so he just qualified. Feilhaber has a truly international background: born in Brazil of Austrian Jewish parents, his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 6. He played college ball for UCLA, was named to the United States National Soccer team in 2007 and has played pro soccer for a team in Hamburg, Germany. He currently plays for Derby, an English pro soccer team.

Mike Friedman, 25, a cyclist. He will compete in the Madison, a two-man tag-team bicycle race in which one rider is on the track at a time. They decide when to relieve each other. It is a 50-lap, 200-kilometer race. This is Friedman's first Olympics. Last October, Friedman won a national title in the men' s 4 kilometer team pursuit at the USA Cycling Elite Track National Championships.

Dara Torres
Dara Torres practicing in Beijing. Reuters/Jason Reed.

Friedman has an interfaith background. Tiffany Cohen, the founder of a new website for and about Jewish cyclists, OYVelo.com, recently interviewed Friedman. Her interview with Mike is all about cycling, but she told me some Jewish details that Mike shared with her.

Mike's father is Jewish and his paternal grandparents were German Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. His mother is of American Christian background. Friedman, Cohen says, told her that he was not raised in any faith but had some exposure to both Jewish and Christian cultural/religious traditions. She added that Mike said he loves Jewish weddings, and finds the food to be much better than that found at non-Jewish weddings.

Deena Kastor, 35, a marathon runner. Kastor is participating in her second Olympics. At the 2004 Games in Athens, she did much better than predicted and won a bronze medal in the marathon. She was the first place finisher at the 2008 Olympic trials in the marathon.

Jason Lezak, 32, swimmer. This is also Lezak' s second trip to the Games. In 2004, he won a bronze medal as a member of the 4x100 meter medley team and a gold medal as a member of the 4x100 meter freestyle relay team. He finished eighth in the individual 50 meter freestyle race. This year, Lezak will swim the 100 meter individual freestyle race. He will also race, again, as a member of the 4x100 meter freestyle relay team.

Sada Jacobson, 25, fencer. This is Jacobson' s second Olympic Games. In 2004, she won a bronze medal in the individual sabre event. She will compete in 2008, again, in the individual and team sabre competitions.

Dara Torres, 41, swimmer. Torres is one of the biggest stories of the Games, and if you watch the TV coverage, you'll soon become an expert on her career. (See more below).

Garrett Weber-Gale, 22, swimmer. This is his first Olympic games. Weber-Gale was the winner of the 50 meter and 100 meter individual freestyle races at the United States Olympic trials. He will be competing in these two races at Beijing and he is also a member of the 4x100 meter freestyle relay team.

Ben Wildman-Tobriner, 23, swimmer. This is Wildman-Tobriner' s first games. He will swim in the 50 meter freestyle and he is member, with Lezak and Weber-Gale, above, of the 4x100 meter freestyle relay team. In 2007, the 6-foot-4 athlete surprised the swimming world by winning the world's championship in the 50 meter freestyle. He finished a hair behind Weber-Gale in the same event at the Olympic trials.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Wildman-Tobriner. It was a pleasure, because he is a soft-spoken gentleman who first wanted to make sure that I knew about his sister, Becky, 24, a former college swimmer who founded and heads up a swimming program serving inner-city youth at the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco.

Ben's paternal grandfather was a distinguished justice of the California Supreme Court and both his parents are attorneys. He graduated from Stanford in 2006 with a bio-mechanical engineering degree and plans to attend medical school this fall. He told me that his friends joke that he approaches his swimming like an engineer--breaking down the race into its component parts. The 50 meter freestyle, he added, is his favorite race--"it establishes who the world's fastest swimmer is and everything has to go right to win."

Ben had his bar mitzvah at San Francisco's Temple Sherith Israel. This synagogue's cemetery, by the way, has the side-by-side gravesites of the Old West' s most famous interfaith couple: lawman Wyatt Earp and his Jewish wife, Josephine Marcus of San Francisco.

Rami Zur, 31, a kayaker. This is Zur's third Olympics. He competed for Israel in the 2000 Games. But Israeli government funding for his sport was cut back and Zur, who holds dual American citizenship, competed for the United States in the 2004 Games (the one-man 500 meter race and in the two-man, 1000 meter race. He came very close to making the finals in the 500 meter race).

This year, Zur competes, again, in the individual kayak 500 meter race. Rami Zur was born in California, the son of a non-Jewish father from Hawaii and a California-born Jewish mother. His mother was very ill when Rami was born and she decided, when he was four weeks old, to give him to her brother with instructions that he take Rami to a kibbutz in Israel and put Rami up for adoption. She wanted to make sure he was raised Jewish. Zur was adopted by an Israeli Jewish couple who lived in a kibbutz near Lake Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) and his adoptive father turned out to be a competitive sailor. Zur learned sailing and kayaking on the lake. He is a veteran of the Israeli army, having served three years. He was given a place in a non-combat unit, so he could have time to train on the side.

Dara Torres, The Comeback Kid

Dara Torres is such a phenomenon that it is hard to know where to begin. This is her fifth Olympics! She won a gold medal in 1984 in a team relay. In 1988, she won a silver medal and a bronze medal in team relays. In 1992, she won a gold medal in a team relay. She made her first remarkable comeback after a long retirement in 2000 and, at the Sydney Games, she won two gold medals in team relay events and two bronze medals in individual freestyle races.

Torres won the 2008 Olympics trials in the 50 and 100 meter individual freestyle races. She beat swimmers half her age. However, she has decided not to swim in the 100M at Beijing, instead concentrating on the 50 meter race.

Torres was born in Florida, but raised mostly in California. Her father, Edward Torres, a wealthy real estate developer who died in 2006, was Jewish. Her mother, Marylu Kauder, a former model who is still alive, is not Jewish. Together they had five kids, including Dara. (They divorced sometime after Dara was grown.) Marylu is a huge cheerleader, still attending all her daughter' s swim meets.

Although one slightly shaky biography says that Dara "always identified with the Jewish religion," my sense from talking to Jewish sports mavens was that Dara really didn' t identify as anything in a religious sense until she met and married her second husband, Dr. Itzhak Shasha, an Israeli surgeon. She formally converted to Judaism before marrying Dr. Shasha. (They married around 2001 and divorced around 2003).

During this marriage, Torres visited Israel at least once and conducted a swim clinic for Israeli swimmers in Jerusalem. In 2006, Torres and her current partner, Dr. David Hoffman, a Florida endocrinologist, had a daughter, Dara's first child. I haven't confirmed that Hoffman is Jewish, but I believe he is. (Torres and Hoffman aren't married.)

There was an excellent recent profile of Torres, "A Swimmer of a Certain Age" with great photos of her remarkable physique, in the New York Times Magazine.

A Medley of Interfaith Stories

Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs
Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs at the Tony Awards last year. Reuters/Lucas Jackson.

Because I devoted so much of this column to the Olympics, I thought I'd do what I don' t usually do--simply point you to a few interesting interfaith celeb stories on other websites.

As I have said before in this column, take any story that a non-Jewish celebrity is about to convert to Judaism with a big grain of salt. Such stories appear, based on little evidence, and then, mysteriously, we never hear again about such conversions.

One such tale, with perhaps just a bit more substance than most, is that Ivanka Trump, 26, the beautiful and smart daughter of Donald Trump and his ex-wife Ivana Trump, is contemplating conversion to marry Jared Kushner, 27, the publisher of the New York Observer newspaper. Kushner, like Ivanka, comes from a family that made billions in real estate. His parents are Orthodox Jews and reportedly objected to the couple's relationship because Ivanka isn't Jewish. Jared and Ivanka broke up in April, but seem to be back together--and some news sources (like the New York Post and the New York Daily News) are claiming that Ivanka has expressed her willingness to convert to Judaism if that is necessary for them to wed. The website The Gawker lays out the story.

Shawn Amos, an African-American journalist writing for the Huffington Post, seeks to redeem the somewhat tattered reputation of the most famous African-American convert to Judaism, the late Sammy Davis, Jr. In his article, "Sammy, Barack Obama, and Me," he lays out his case for Davis being the forerunner of our current better world--a world where Barack Obama, a man of mixed race, can be running for President on a major party label--and a world where Shawn Amos (who describes himself as an honorary Jew)--can be comfortably married to a white woman.

He concludes: "Sammy was beyond black or white. He was colorblind. Sammy had more balls than any label manufactured gangsta rap thug and more soul than Justin Timberlake's white Memphis butt." I guess it isn't surprising that a famous inter-racial and interfaith couple decided to name their dog Sammy Davis, Jr. in honor of the guy who shared, in a sense, both their backgrounds. I am speaking of singer/actress Idina Menzel, who is Jewish and is best known as the star of the musicals, "Rent" and "Wicked"--and her black, non-Jewish husband, actor/singer Taye Diggs, who also starred in "Rent." Diggs currently has a co-starring role on the TV series, Private Practice. Menzel was interviewed last week by the Detroit Jewish News. She speaks candidly about her Jewish background and her marriage.

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." 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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