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Interfaith Celebrities: High Holiday Celebrity Goings-on, a New Congressional Memoir and a Possible Beatle Conversion?

November 8, 2011

Yom Kippur Celebrity Spotting

Last month, interfaith actor Jake Gyllenhaal, 30, and his sister, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, 33, were spotted and photographed coming out of Yom Kippur services at a Manhattan synagogue. The Gyllenhaal siblings were reportedly accompanied by their Jewish mother, screenwriter Naomi Foner, 65, and actor Peter Saarsgard, 40, a practicing Catholic who is Maggie's husband and the father of their daughter, Ramona, 5.

This is the first time I've heard about the Gyllenhaal siblings attending synagogue services. I was a bit surprised at this report. I'd call it a pleasant, but not totally unexpected, development.

For example, last December, for the first time, Maggie Gyllenhaal flat out identified herself as "Jewish" when responding to a question about her Hanukkah/Christmas plans.

As I have written before, the Gyllenhaals are the children of a non-Jewish father, director Stephen Gyllenhaal, and a Jewish mother (Foner). Foner and Stephen Gyllenhaal divorced in 2009, after being married for 32 years.

In 2005, Foner said that her own childhood Jewish background was more grounded in liberal, social justice politics than formal religious observance and that her children were raised the same way. Jake added to that saying his 13th birthday was observed with a few prayers at home and by volunteering for the day at a soup kitchen.

Also spotted attending Yom Kippur services at a Sydney, Australia synagogue were Jewish comedic actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who turned 40 on October 13, and his wife, actress Isla Fisher, 35. (Fisher grew-up in Australia. The couple divides their time between Australia, Los Angeles and Cohen's native Britain.)

Some hours before the Yom Kippur holiday began, Cohen and Fisher were photographed boating with their daughters, Olive, 3, and Elula, 1. Fisher is in Australia to finish up filming a new version of The Great Gatsby.

Fisher, as noted in several prior columns, is a Jew-by-choice.

Koppel Comeback

Veteran TV news journalist Ted Koppel, 71, has signed-on as a correspondent for the new NBC news magazine, Rock Center with Brian Williams, airing Mondays at 10 p.m. Anchored by Brian Williams, the program replaces The Playboy Club, a drama that premiered last month and never found an audience.

Koppel, of course, was the first host of ABC's Nightline and stayed with that news magazine for 25 years. Other Rock Center correspondents include Meredith Vieira, 57, (whose husband is Jewish) and Harry Smith, 60.

Today Show host Matt Lauer, 53, is also listed as a Rock Center contributor. Lauer, who is secular, is the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.

Koppel was born in England, the son of German Jewish refugees. He came to the United States when he was 13. There's a persistent false internet story that Koppel converted to Catholicism. In his autobiography, Koppel explains that his wife is Catholic and for a time they attended a Unitarian church as a compromise. Neither found it satisfactory, he says, and he went back to being a synagogue member and she went to Catholic services. Their children, he wrote, were exposed to both faiths.

His daughter, Andrea Koppell-Pollack, 47, a former CNN reporter and now Director of International Communications for the Red Cross, wed Jewish foreign policy expert Kenneth Pollack, 45, in a Jewish ceremony.

Nice to Note

Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, 41, will appear with ABC journalist Diane Sawyer for her first "sit-down" interview since she was critically injured in a Tucson shooting spree last January. The hour-long special will air on Monday, November 14 at 10 p.m. and will focus on Giffords' remarkable recovery and on-going rehab treatment. Her husband, astronaut Mark Kelley, 47, will also be interviewed.

Giffords, the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, became a practicing Reform Jew about a decade ago and wed Kelley, who isn't Jewish, in a Jewish ceremony.

On November 15, her memoir, Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, will go on sale. It was co-written by Giffords, Kelly and best-selling author (The Last Lecture) and Wall St. Journal (Jewish) columnist Jeffrey Zaslow. Giffords was well enough to record, in her own voice, the last chapter of the book's audio version.

Giffords has been the subject of InterfaithFamily.com blog posts, both about her and the tragedy, and on the topic of the "who is a Jew" debate.

Mentioned previously in this column is Diane Sawyer, who isn't Jewish, but has long been married to famous Jewish film and stage director Mike Nichols.

Rabbi Road

Last month, Sir Paul McCartney, 69, wed his long time Jewish girlfriend, American businesswoman Nancy Shevell, 51, in a civil ceremony in London.

The day before the wedding, Shevell and McCartney were spotted attending Yom Kippur services. After this event, I knew it was only a matter of time before a British or American tabloid paper would invent a story that McCartney was going to convert to Judaism. Sure enough, not long after the wedding, such a story appeared and was quickly re-posted in other media outlets and noted in the Jewish press.

In the last three years, there have been false stories about the "conversion" of Britney Spears and Leonardo DiCaprio, to name just two.

I think the McCartney conversion story originated with a UK tabloid, but the version in the American tabloid, The National Enquirer," (October 21) got the most attention and was re-posted on this site by InterfaithFamily.com staff member Karen Kushner. It's short enough to re-post here too:

Paul McCartney, baptized Roman Catholic but admittedly never very devout, quietly told pals after his marriage to socialite Nancy Shevell — who's Jewish and takes her religion seriously — that he's studying Judaism and promised his new bride he'll convert, reports a friend of the star. The former Beatle's first wife, Linda Eastman, came from a prominent Jewish family and McCartney had talked about converting after they married, but just never got around to it. Paul told pals he'll complete his conversion studies next year.

Two points about this Enquirer article: First, notice that the source for this article is not named. As is par for the course with these conversion stories, an anonymous "friend" is described as the source of the article. Second, Linda Eastman was a non-practicing Jew her whole adult life. Her family hardly practiced Judaism as she was growing-up.

It almost goes without saying that it would be remarkably illogical to believe that Eastman, who didn't practice Judaism, would ask McCartney to convert to Judaism as the Enquirer says she did. Moreover, Eastman could have raised her four children with McCartney in the Jewish faith even if the ex-Beatle didn't convert to Judaism. The McCartney children were raised in no faith.

However, on the light side, McCartney's supposed conversion was the subject of a quite funny parody commercialshown at the end of Jay Leno's Tonight Show monologue on October 29.

First, Leno mentioned the possible conversion. Then, tongue-in-cheek, he introduced a mock commercial for McCartney's (fictional) new CD, a tribute to Shevell in which McCartney re-recorded famous Beatle songs with a "Jewish flavor." Entitled "Rabbi Road", the album's song titles include: "Good Day Sabbath," "Eleanor Ruthstein," Maxwell's Silver Kiddush Cup," "Here Comes My Son, the Doctor," "Hard Day's Fast," You're Gonna Lose Those Curls," "Don't Want to Hold Your Ham" and "Strawberry Blintzes Forever."

I've discussed McCartney, his first, late (Jewish) wife, Eastman and Barbara Shevell, in a previous celeb column.

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. 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 middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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