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Interfaith Celebrities: John Mayer Loves His Fans

January 6, 2010

John Mayer Tweets His Interfaith Background

Singer/songwriter John Mayer, now 32, broke big in late 2002 as his first album, "Room for Squares," climbed the charts. On the CD were several big hits that are still signature songs for Mayer, like "Your Body is a Wonderland."

John Mayer in concert
John Mayer playing a concert in December, 2009. Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson.

In 2002, I was editing a website about famous Jews and, as you may expect, I was flooded with e-mails about the new, hot singer. Mayer is often a Jewish surname, so fans wanted to know if he was Jewish.

I checked reliable biographical sources on Mayer. Gradually, it became obvious to me that Mayer had no interest in discussing his religious background. Now and again, a reporter would ask Mayer a religion-related question and Mayer would invariably parry away the inquiry.

Since 2002, Mayer has managed the difficult trick of remaining a best-selling musician. His style has evolved, but most fans have stayed with him. He has also made headlines via romantic relationships with famous celebrities like Jennifer Aniston.

But then came Twitter. Mayer has compared participating in Twitter to dating. He's certainly more comfortable talking a bit about his background on Twitter than he has been with reporters. In two Tweets in early December, Mayer described himself as "half Jewish." On December 4 he wrote, in a tweet cached on a celebrity site, "The Amsterdam show sold out in 5 minutes! The Jewish half of me says it must not be that big of a venue. (I can't have anything nice.)"

When one of his readers responded "You're Jewish?" Mayer wrote back, "Holy shit! Yes! Put down the fridge, Canseco. Well, half Jewish."

It's nice to feel like Mayer is ready to let fans get to know him on Twitter, but don't get too excited. Twitter may feel like dating to Mayer, but it's nothing exclusive--Mayer has 2.8 million people following his Twitter account. He's in the top five or six Twitter users. He's also declared a one-week "digital cleanse"--he's going offline for the first week of January, so you won't find him on Twitter today. If you want to learn more about him, check his website, www.johnmayer.com, or his page on Wikipedia.

Sharif on Funny Girl and a Bar Mitzvah

Omar Sharif, 78, the famous Egyptian Arab actor, recently appeared at a film festival held in Dubai, a politically moderate, small Arab state on the Persian Gulf.

Sharif told a festival news conference that he was filming the musical film Funny Girl in June, 1967 when the Arab-Israeli Six Day War broke out.

Set in the 1920s, Funny Girl centered on the (real-life) relationship between Jewish gambler Nicky Arnstein and his Jewish wife, Broadway musical comedy star Fanny Brice (1891-1951). Sharif played Arnstein. Jewish actress Barbra Streisand, in her first film role, played Brice. (Streisand won the 1968 best actress Oscar for her performance) Sharif recalled that back in 1967, Arabs criticized him for playing a Jew, and some Jews said he was probably sending his Funny Girl salary to Gamal Nasser, then president of Egypt. (No, of course he didn't do that!)

Sharif concluded his Funny Girl anecdote with this wry observation: "I couldn't win…the funny thing is that I've never asked a girl her nationality before kissing her."

In other interviews, Sharif, who was born in Egypt to Lebanese Christian Arab parents, said he converted to Islam for one reason: to marry a famous Egyptian Muslim actress. The marriage (Sharif's only) ended decades ago, but it produced Sharif's one child, a son, Tariq.

About Tariq, the actor said a few years ago: "Now my son is atheist like me. I have educated him so that he is tolerant of the whole world. I do not believe that to be Egyptian, white or black is a reason for confrontation. It is absurd that people kill by the flags or national anthems…[my son] has married three times--to an Orthodox Jewish girl, to a Catholic girl and now to a Muslim girl. ... I have a Jewish grandson, for whom I gave the biggest bar mitzvah in Canada."

The Golden Globes Kick Off Awards Season

The Golden Globe awards for excellence in film and American TV will be presented on NBC on Sunday, Jan. 17 at 8PM. The Globes have a reputation as being more relaxed and fun than the Oscars and they are also a reasonable predictor of Oscar nominations.

Here are the film actor/actress Globe nominees from Jewish or interfaith families. Most, if not all of the nominated actors/actresses with a Jewish/interfaith connection have been mentioned in my past columns.

Carey Mulligan, who isn’t Jewish, is nominated for best actress in a drama for An Education. In this film, Mulligan plays a non-Jewish English teenage schoolgirl who almost marries an older, white collar Jewish crook.

Tobey Maguire is nominated for best actor in a dramatic film for Brothers. Maguire’s wife, Jennifer Meyer, is Jewish. Daniel Day-Lewis is up for the best actor, musical or comedy film, for Nine. Day-Lewis is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father.

Day-Lewis competes in this Globe category with Robert Downey, Jr., who is nominated for Sherlock Holmes. Downey’s paternal grandfather was Jewish and Downey seems to identify as Jewish since he married a Jewish woman, film producer Susan Levin, in 2005.

Competing against Downey, Jr. and Day-Lewis are Joseph Gordon-Levitt for 500 Days of Summer and Michael Stuhlbarg for A Serious Man. Both these actors are the sons of two Jewish parents. Gordon-Levitt began as a child actor on the television show 3rd Rock from the Sun and is now coming into his own as an adult performer. Stuhlbarg is a distinguished New York stage actor. “Serious Man” is his first important film role. In his nominated role, he plays a Jewish college professor who suffers from a severe personal crisis. He turns to several rabbis for advice. “Serious Man” is probably the “most Jewish” movie by Jewish filmmaker brothers, Ethan and Joel Coen. (InterfaithFamily.com reviewed A Serious Man last month.)

Austrian actor Christoph Waltz is nominated for best supporting actor in a drama for his work in Inglourious Basterds.

Turning to the GoldenGlobe acting nominations for TV work, Julianne Margulies (The Good Wife) and Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) vie for the Globe for best actress in a TV drama. Margulies quite unusual religious background was covered in a prior column and Sedgwick is the daughter of a Protestant father and a Jewish mother. She identifies as Jewish.

Sedgwick’s husband, Kevin Bacon, a lapsed Catholic, is up for a Golden Globe for best actor in a TV movie (Taking Chance). Bacon competes in the same category with Jeremy Irons, who played famous Jewish photographer Alfred Steiglitz in the TV film, Georgia O’Keefe. The film centered on the professional and romantic relationship between Steiglitz and his wife, famous painter Georgia O’Keefe (who wasn’t Jewish).

Lea Michelle (Glee) is nominated for best actress in a comedy or musical TV series. Michelle is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.

David Duchovny (Californication) is nominated for best actor in a TV comedy or musical series. Duchovny is the son of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother.

Finally, there's Jeremy Piven, who is the son of two Jewish parents. He's up for a Golden Globe for best supporting actor in a comedy or musical TV series (Entourage).

In the interest of brevity, I have not covered the Globe non-acting categories, like best film director, best film screenplay, and best film musical score. Nor have I covered the best film nominees. I suspect that most, if not all of the Globe nominees in these categories will be nominated for Oscars, and I will cover all relevant Oscar nominees shortly before the Academy Awards ceremony.

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."

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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