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Interfaith Celebrities: Coming of Age Again, the Girls of NYC and a Couple of Rookies

April 17, 2012

Drake's Second Bar Mitzvah

Drake, the rap singer, has soared to the top of his field since the release of his first studio album in June, 2010. Stereotypically, most rappers come out of America's mean urban streets. Drake was born (1986) and raised in an affluent Toronto neighborhood, the son of a white, Canadian, Jewish mother and an African-American father. His parents split when he was he was 5 years old and he was raised mostly by his mother (spending summers with his dad in Tennessee). When he was 13, like most Jewish boys, he had a bar mitzvah. From 2001-2009, he was a co-star of the international TV hit, DeGrassi: The Next Generation.

Please note: Drake's video, "HYFR," contains language that may not be suitable for younger ears (and likely is not safe for work).

A couple weeks ago, Drake released a music video entitled "HYFR." It begins with a few seconds of video from Drake's 1999 bar mitzvah and a written statement: "On October 24, 2011, Aubrey 'Drake' Graham chose to get re-bar mitzvah'd as a re-commitment to the Jewish religion." The rest of the video takes place in a synagogue (Temple Israel in Miami) where the adult Drake has a bar mitzvah ceremony. This is followed by a surrealistically wild reception.

Drake's re-commitment to Judaism is commendable, but the lyrics of the rap song accompanying the video are pretty graphic and address romantic (sexual) relationship issues and not religious themes. Of one thing I'm sure: Drake's fans, Jewish or not, have to be confused about this juxtaposition and may be saying to themselves: "What was that, exactly?"

Girls on HBO: Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet and a Jewish American Princess

Last Sunday, April 15, the comedy/drama, Girls, premiered on HBO. It follows the lives of five women in their early 20s who are sorting things out after moving to New York City. The series is produced by Judd Apatow, 44, who is Jewish, and was created by Lena Dunham, 25. Dunham also co-stars as "Hannah," one of the five girls. Dunham said in a recent interview that she is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. She didn't mention whether she was raised in any faith.

Trailer for Girls on HBO.

Zosia Mamet, 23, plays "Shoshanna," whom Dunham describes as a "Jewish American Princess with an unexpected inner life." Mamet is the daughter of famous Jewish playwright David Mamet, 64, and his ex-wife, actress Lindsay Crouse, 63, a devout Buddhist.

Zosia's credits include playing "Joyce," a lesbian character, in the 4th season of Mad Men. My educated guess is that Zosia wasn't raised in any faith. Her father became a "serious" practicing Jew around the time his marriage to Crouse was ending. His second wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon, 46, with whom he has two children, is a convert to Judaism.

Another one of the girls is "Jessa," played by Jemina Kirke. Jessa is described as "a space cadet with hippie tendencies who wants to be an artist/educator." Jessa is supposed to be Shoshanna's cousin, so, presumably, she is Jewish, too.

Allison Williams, the real-life daughter of NBC news anchor Brian Williams, plays "Marnie," another one of the five girls.

Rookie Cops: Adam Goldberg and Leelee Sobieski

Starting last Sunday, April 15, at 10 p.m., was the new CBS series, NYC 22. It follows six diverse, NYPD rookies as they patrol the gritty streets of upper Manhattan (mostly Harlem). This show may be quality stuff, despite the familiar premise. It is produced by Robert DeNiro and top Jewish screenwriter/novelist Richard Price, 62 (Clockers, The Wire).

One of the NYC 22 rookies is played by Leelee Sobieski, 28. Sobieski's maternal grandfather, a career U.S. Navy officer, was Jewish. The rest of her grandparents were of non-Jewish, Swiss, Polish and French background. She was not raised in any organized religion.

Sobieski was a very hot ingénue from about 1999-2002, and had big supporting or starring roles in hit films like Never Been Kissed, Eyes Wide Shut and Glass House. In 2001, she had a co-starring role as a Jewish young woman during the Holocaust in the acclaimed TV movie, Uprising. Her character pretends to be a Polish Christian. She is able to funnel aid from the outside to Warsaw Ghetto Jews who take up arms during Passover, 1943 and fight the Nazis. In interviews for that film, she expressed pride in her Jewish roots.

Personally, my favorite Sobieski film is My First Mister, a lovely little film that she did with Jewish actor Albert Brooks (2001). Try to catch it on DVD and I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

In 2010 she wed Adam Kimmel, 33, a very successful (Jewish) menswear designer. The couple has a young daughter.

Details of the wedding, such as whether a clergyperson presided, have never been released. I think it is just possible, albeit unlikely, that Sobieski has quietly converted to Judaism. Call it a gut feeling based on her old interviews about her Uprising role.

Convert or not, when Sobieski is done "fighting crime" in upper Manhattan (NYC 22 is filmed in New York) she only has to travel about 30 blocks south to her "to die for" Upper East Side double apartment with 13 foot ceilings. Sobieski and her hubbie bought it last year from actress Renee Zellweger for $9 million.

Kimmel's late father, Martin S. Kimmel, was a billionaire real estate developer and a huge giver to domestic medical charities. He also gave millions to Israel's Weizmann Institute (for science/medical research). Adam's mother's father, the late Donald Aronow, became a millionaire before he was 30, developing New Jersey properties. He moved to Florida in 1964, where he designed/invented the famous, speedy "cigarette" boats that were later prominently featured on Miami Vice. He used this boat to twice win the world powerboat championship.

Interfaith actor Adam Goldberg, 41, plays another rookie.. In the show's pilot episode, it's established that his character lost his previous job and managed, despite his relatively old age, to get into the Police Academy by threatening to sue.

The trailer for NYC 22.

I've been watching/reading interviews with this guy for about fifteen years and I've tracked his career. Sometimes I think he follows the old Groucho Marx line, "I wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would have me." Or some just might say he marches to his own drummer.

Allow me to elaborate: Goldberg is the son of a Jewish father and a non-practicing, Roman Catholic mother. When he started getting substantial acting roles around 1996, his "Jewish" last name led to a lot of questions from the press about his religious background. He told these interviewers that his mother actually encouraged him to go to Hebrew school when he was a child. But he refused and he had no childhood religious training.

However, in these same interviews, he said he refused to change his last name when he decided to pursue a professional acting career. Even in this day and age, it is probably better to have an "ethnically neutral" last name that does not influence casting directors to consciously or subconsciously think that an actor is not right for a part because they are Jewish, Italian, etc.

It's not just Goldberg's last name that might influence casting directors. To be frank, Goldberg looks stereotypically Jewish. About ten years ago, Goldberg was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Goldberg said, "I'm half-Jewish." Jon Stewart, who is Jewish and intermarried, replied, "If I may say, and I mean no disrespect, you're as Jewy as they come." Goldberg, with a bit of resignation on his face, shook his head in agreement.

This push-pull with Goldberg's Jewish or half-Jewish identity is found in a lot his work and his comments on that work. In 2007, he co-starred in a film, 2 Days in Paris, with his then long-term girlfriend, French actress Julie Delpy, now 42. Goldberg played "Jack," a neurotic, hypochondriac, chain-smoking, New York interior designer who is pretty freaked-out when he travels to France and meets his French girlfriend's (Delpy) many ex-lovers. Jack is, in most ways, a grubbier version of the Jewish neurotic that Woody Allen has often played. Several times, French characters ask Jack if he is Jewish. Jack is clearly annoyed with the question and he responds, in a curt way, that he is "half-Jewish."

The film was written by Delpy and one senses that those scenes replicate her real life with Goldberg.

Goldberg's big, breakthrough role was as American, Jewish soldier Sgt. Stanley Mellish in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998). Mellish's Jewish background is established in a number of scenes, and his death, in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier, is among the movie's most heartbreaking moments.

Obviously, Goldberg would have been insane to turn down this big part in a Spielberg film even if he was concerned about being typecast in Jewish roles. But, in a 2009 interview, he said he put his stereotyping concerns aside, once again, to play another "iconic" Jewish character: the title role in the satirical 2003 film, The Hebrew Hammer. He said:

I was both ambivalent about doing the Hebrew Hammer — for fear of forever being known as such — and just as stubborn about refusing to allow another to be known as such. It was too funny not to do.

In the same interview, he was asked point blank if he considered himself Jewish. He replied:

I feel more in touch with what is commonly known as a 'Jewish sensibility,' but I'm not religious and feel very much my non-Jewish mother's son (though she probably is more Jew-ish than my still-surfing former lifeguard father). I'm a mutt. I'm an American, damn it.

In terms of career success, Goldberg seems torn between wanting to be a financially successful actor and making little indie films that are hardly seen.

Next time: My annual pro baseball round-up.

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." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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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