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Interfaith Celebrities: Brittany Murphy's "Rabbi" Husband and "American Idol's" Jewish Judges

By Nate Bloom

June 19, 2007

Brittany Murphy Marries a Rabbi?

According to the London Jewish Chronicle , the maternal grandmother of actress Brittany Murphy ( 8 Mile ) is Jewish, which would make her "technically" Jewish, although she considers herself Christian. Her new husband, screenwriter Simon Monjack, however, is Jewish. REUTERS/Will Burgess  (AUSTRALIA)

Most filmgoers know pretty actress Brittany Murphy , 29. Her roles include the teenager whom (Jewish actress) Alicia Silverstone tried to turn into a "Valley Girl" in Clueless , a sad teen who commits suicide in Girl, Interrupted , Eminem's love interest in 8 Mile and a barmaid in Sin City .

Murphy's estranged father is an Italian-American gangster who spent a lot of time in federal prison. Brittany was raised by her mother, who is described as being of Irish and Eastern European ancestry. In 2006, Murphy told a reporter that she was raised in the Baptist faith, but that she considered herself a "non-denominational" Christian.

With two broken engagements in the last three years, the actress' love life has been stormy. Last month, after a very short courtship, Murphy wed Simon Monjack , a British Jewish screenwriter who co-wrote the story for Factory Girl . The actress's publicist said that a rabbi presided over the small ceremony.

Monjack may be almost as "colorful" as Murphy's dad. The website , which claims to have interviewed the couple, says he is an "ordained rabbi." Meanwhile, Monjack is fighting off deportation as an illegal immigrant; he has many lawsuits pending against him; and he even has warrants out for his arrest. (The nature of these warrants is not clear).

Monjack's attorney says the lawsuits and warrants are being "resolved" and Monjack told Us magazine: "Like all businessmen, I have faced many lawsuits. It is a real tragedy that success, greed, envy and celebrity are the motivation for attacking my character."

Last week, the London Jewish Chronicle said that Murphy's maternal grandmother was Jewish. Traditional Jewish religious law views those persons born of a Jewish mother as "Jewish" regardless of the faith they were born into or raised-in. Therefore, Murphy's mother is "Jewish," and Murphy's mother, being a woman, passes on "Jewish status" to her offspring, including Brittany.

The Chronicle cited no specific source for its claim that Murphy's maternal grandmother was Jewish, but the paper says that it is "90%" sure that "Murphy is Jewish."

If the Murphy/Monjack marriage endures, in the course of time we will almost certainly learn whether the Chronicle is right and whether Brittany Murphy has decided to identify with the Jewish faith of her husband.

"American Idol" judges Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul share a smooch during the finale of the 2006 season of the frighteningly popular show. Paula Abdul is Jewish, while Simon Cowell has some Jewish ancestry. REUTERS/Chris Pizzello

The Jewish Judges on "American Idol"

Singer Paula Abdul , the sweet but kookie member of the judging trio on "American Idol," is the star of a new reality series, "Hey Paula," premiering on the Bravo cable channel on Saturday, June 28. The show gives us a candid, back-stage look at Abdul. She may be blowing her "sweet image." In the first episode, she is seen berating her assistants and fighting with network executives.

Because of her features and her Arab last name, many people assume that Abdul is of mixed race and/or interfaith background. This assumption is wrong.

Abdul is the daughter of a Jewish father of Syrian Jewish descent and a Canadian-born Jewish mother. She has been married twice, once to Catholic actor Emilio Estevez (Martin Sheen's son) and once to a Jewish fashion designer. Neither marriage lasted long.

As everybody knows, the overtly nasty judge on "American Idol" is British music executive Simon Cowell.

The Daily Telegraph , a British paper, regularly publishes articles by family history expert Nick Barratt on the family trees of celebrities. A 2006 Barratt article about Cowell's ancestry just came to my attention. Barratt writes that Simon's paternal grandparents were wed in an English synagogue in 1915. Simon's paternal grandmother was born in Poland while his paternal grandfather was an English-born Jew.

My educated guess, reading between the lines in Barratt's article, is that Simon's paternal grandfather, Joseph Cowell, was Jewish on his mother's side and that Simon's Polish Jewish grandmother was "just plain Jewish."

While not crystal-clear, it appears that Simon's mother is of mixed English and Scottish non-Jewish ancestry. Simon's father was an executive at EMI, the big English music company, and Simon began (1979) his own music career in the EMI mailroom and then rose through the EMI ranks. Some early attempts to strike out on his own failed, but eventually Simon hit it big as a judge on "Pop Idol," and its American equivalent, "American Idol."

St. Elmo's Aish

Mare Winningham , 48, has had a long and varied career both as a singer-songwriter and an actress. She first came to public notice in the seminal '80s movie, St. Elmo's Fire . However, unlike some other Brat Pack actors, she has not faded away but has continued to work steadily in high quality films and TV shows. She has also put out three albums of original country music. Her most recent CD is "Refuge Rock Sublime", a recording of original Jewish-themed country/folk songs.

Winningham converted to Judaism in 2003. Her somewhat unusual path to becoming Jewish is covered in profile in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles .

As noted in this piece , the actress just appeared at famous New York nightclub, singing songs from "Refuge Rock Sublime." Also Winningham is now co-starring in a major new off-Broadway musical  " 10 Million Miles." It opened on June 14 to good reviews, with Winningham being singled out by most critics for special praise. The New York Times reviewer said: "Mare Winningham, a film and television actress ... emerges here as a musical performer to reckon with ... Miss Winningham is the show's revelation ... [She] shifts with sublime seamlessness from feisty flash ... to humble resignation ..."

One Remaining Crumb

Last issue, featured an interview with Aileen Kominsky , the Jewish wife of non-Jewish comix legend Robert Crumb .

Just out this month is a new graphic biography of the great Czech Jewish author Franz Kafka. Titled Kafka , it features illustrations by Crumb (or R. Crumb, as he is usually styled) and text by Jewish author David Zane Mairowitz.

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." 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 And feel free to comment below.

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