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Interfaith Celebrities: Joaquin Jesting?

March 3, 2009

You're probably aware of the recent antics of actor Joaquin Phoenix. Early last month, he appeared on David Letterman's show to promote his new movie, Two Lovers. (See our review.) The actor sported a full, ragged beard, dark shades and a plain black suit--like the suits John Belushi and Dan Akroyd wore in The Blues Brothers.

Phoenix barely responded to Letterman's questions about Two Lovers or anything else. He did confirm that he was retiring from acting in favor of a hip hop musical career.

Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix in a publicity still from Two Lovers. Photo: Magnolia Pictures.

Jewish actor Ben Stiller made fun of Phoenix at the Oscars ceremony. He wore a ragged beard, dark shades and a black suit, and acted in the same inscrutable way Phoenix did on the Letterman show. Jewish actress Natalie Portman, who was on stage with Stiller, told him: "You look like a Hasidic methedrine dealer."

Everyone is asking whether Phoenix, 34, is mentally ill or whether he's pulling an elaborate joke. There's talk that he is actually making a comic documentary with actor Casey Affleck (Ben Affleck's brother), who is married to Joaquin's sister, actress Summer Phoenix.

Joaquin has a history of acting in public with the fragility of someone who can barely keep it together emotionally so it seems possible to me that he's mentally ill. But his crazy persona is also a great starting point for a colossal put-on.

There's a streak of weirdness in Joaquin's immediate family, starting with his mother. She now calls herself Heart Phoenix, but was born Arlyn Dunetz in 1944 to a Bronx Jewish family. Her parents celebrated some Jewish holidays but were not synagogue members.

A teenage hippie, Arlyn left the Bronx in 1968 and met Joaquin's father, a lapsed Catholic from California, while hitchhiking. Around 1970, they married and joined a truly bizarre Christian cult group, The Children of God. They stayed with this group, living with them in South America and Puerto Rico, until 1978.

The Children of God is now infamous for using female members to lure possible converts with sexual favors and for the sexual abuse of children by the cult's leadership. The latter apparently happened after Joaquin's parents left the cult, and Heart claims she was not aware of the cult's sexual recruitment practices.

Joaquin was born in Puerto Rico in 1974. He is the third of five children. His siblings include the late actor River Phoenix (1970-1993) and Summer (born 1978).

Heart and her husband grew disillusioned with the cult and returned to the States in 1978. They were broke and moved in with Heart's parents for a short time. Then the whole clan traveled across the United States in a motor home. To make money, the kids, including River and Phoenix, often played musical instruments in the street and asked for change. The family finally ended up in California, where Joaquin's father, John, worked as a landscaper, and Heart got a job as a secretary at NBC.

In 2002, Summer Phoenix played a young Jewish woman in the British film Esther Kahn. She told The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles that her maternal grandparents were a solid presence throughout the Phoenix family's nomadic life:

Though my mother became Christian for a time, that never mattered to them. While Judaism was important to my grandparents, they were very open-minded. My grandmother died two months before I went off to make Esther Kahn, and I felt like I was really doing the movie for her. I was just so proud to bring the Jewish part of me out in that film.

Summer added that the filming of Esther Kahn was the first time in her life she was in a synagogue. After the Phoenix family left the Children of God, they didn't join another religion. They were still New Agey, though; they were strict vegetarians, for example.

Heart's job led her to meet a talent agent and she got her kids acting jobs in commercials and, later, films and TV shows.

River's tragic tale of quick stardom and death due to a drug overdose is well-known. A clear natural talent, the good looking young man first garnered serious critical praise as one of the lead teen actors in the hit Stand By Me (1986). In 1988, he co-starred in Running on Empty, an excellent film directed by Sidney Lumet. River got an Oscar nomination for playing the teenage son of two fugitive '60s radicals. It's implied that the radical parents are an interfaith couple, a Jewish father and a Protestant mother.

River had other hits in the next few years, including an Indiana Jones movie.

River Phoenix's press agents depicted him as the All-American New Age Boy: a strict vegetarian and environmentalist who didn't abuse his body with anything but cigarettes. The truth was he was drug user and died of a cocaine/heroin overdose on the sidewalk of a Hollywood club where he had just played a music set. Joaquin found him on the sidewalk and called 911, but it was too late. Paramedics were unable to revive him. One can only imagine the psychic damage to Joaquin of having his brother die in his arms.

Like his brother River, Joaquin Phoenix also got good roles as a teen actor. When he started acting, he took the stage name Leaf, and under this name he appeared as a taciturn, troubled teenage boy in the 1989 film, Parenthood.

Natural acting talent runs in the Phoenix family. Watching Parenthood, however, Phoenix is almost too good. He had to be drawing on something internal to nail so perfectly the role of a teenage boy who is a cauldron of resentments, almost totally living within his own head.

After Parenthood, Phoenix retired from acting until 1994. He said he wanted to concentrate on his music. When he returned to acting, he started using the name Joaquin again.

He didn't gain considerable press notice until 2000, when he received a best supporting actor nomination for playing the Roman Emperor Commodus in Gladiator. In 2005, he had a huge hit with Walk the Line, a bio-pic about Johnny Cash. He was riveting as Cash; he actually sang Johnny's songs and played his own guitar parts. Phoenix got a best actor Oscar nomination for the film.

Two Lovers is Phoenix's first Jewish role and it is ironic, in light of current speculation about his mental health, that he is playing a mentally disturbed Jewish man.

I guess time will tell whether Joaquin is serious about retiring from acting or whether he is playing a joke on the public, like the late Jewish comedian Andy Kaufman often did. (Kaufman disguised himself as an offensive stand-up comedian that virtually nobody knew was Kaufman. Kaufman also staged a violent feud with a professional wrestler. The phoniness of that feud was revealed only after Kaufman's death.)

Like his brother, Phoenix is a mix of contradictions. A cigarette smoker who almost died in a drunk driving accident, he is also a strict vegetarian, an animal rights activist and a strong supporter of peace groups.

So, maybe, Phoenix is both crazy and playing a joke about retiring from acting in favor of hip hop.

Two Lovers still
Joaquin Phoenix with Vinessa Shaw in a scene from Two Lovers. Photo: Magnolia Pictures.

By the way, Phoenix's co-star in Two Lovers, the very pretty actress Vinessa Shaw, 32, is also of interfaith background. She plays the young Jewish woman who is fixed-up with Phoenix's character by his Jewish parents.

Two Lovers director/writer James Gray, who is Jewish, says that Shaw told him just before shooting began that her original family name is Schwartz. In a video interview on Movieweb.com, Shaw says she has "some Jewish in my background, but I was raised Buddhist. All my friends growing up were Jewish so I know all about bar and bat mitzvahs."

Supermodels and Super-Hype

Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli, 23, made the cover of the annual swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Also appearing in the issue is Israeli model Esti Ginzburg, 18. Both Refaeli and Ginzburg have huge spreads on the Sports Illustrated website, including photos and video interviews.

Refaeli created a big controversy in 2007 when she admitted that she entered into a brief, sham marriage with a friend to avoid her obligatory military service in the Israeli armed forces. An Israeli paper quoted her as saying that military service would have hampered her career and "it is better live in New York City than die for your country." Refaeli claimed she was misquoted and worked to stem the furor by agreeing to visit injured Israeli army soldiers.

Ginzburg, meanwhile, made a deal to fulfill her two-year service obligation mostly by giving talks to Israeli soldiers. The Israeli army agreed to give her frequent release time to work overseas.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Daily News said that Refaeli's father told Jewish boxing promoter Aaron Braunstein that he wouldn't agree to a marriage between his daughter and her steady, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, unless DiCaprio converts to Judaism. Braunstein's long-estranged daughter, actress Natasha Lyonne, has called Braustein "a shady character," and Braustein is currently promoting a big upcoming fight in Israel. So, I leave to you to decide whether Braunstein made up a conversion tale which incidentally got him and his fight mentioned in the Daily News and elsewhere.

Still, it would be nice to welcome DiCaprio to the tribe.

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." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word.

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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