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Interfaith Celebrities: Katie Couric's Jewish Mom and The Jewish Side to

November 5, 2007

America’s Half-Jewish Sweetheart

Katie Couric is one of the most famous names in American TV journalism. In 1991, she became the co-host of NBC’s “Today Show” and the program’s powerhouse ratings were largely attributed to Couric’s personal appeal. In 2006, she became the first woman to solo-anchor a broadcast network evening newscast when she became the anchor of the CBS Evening News, a position once held by Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather.

Katie Couric, anchor of the CBS Evening News, was born to a Jewish mother and a Southern Presbyterian father. She was raised Presbyterian. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES)

In 2004, I was the first Jewish press journalist to write that Katie Couric’s mother was Jewish, basing my Jewish newspaper column item on a report by reporter Roger Friedman. After talking to Couric at a party, Friedman wrote on the Fox News website:

“Someone tell Adam Sandler to add another name to his funny Chanukah Song about stars who are even a drop kosher. Even though Katie was raised an Episcopalian, I’m sure Sandler will rhyme Couric with ‘tsouris’ (that’s ‘trouble’ in Yiddish).”

My Jewish newspaper audience, I later found out, was stunned by my Couric item. The arts editor of the Detroit Jewish News said that the item “blew readers minds” and that it got the most reader feedback of anything I have ever written for the News.

A new biography of Couric, by former New York Times magazine editor-in-chief Edward Klein, Katie: The Real Story, sheds some light on Couric’s Jewish background and her decision to “out herself.”

Friedman’s article, Klein writes, was wrong in one respect---Katie was raised a Presbyterian, not an Episcopalian. However, it was groundbreaking: Couric’s disclosure of her mother’s background to Friedman was the very first time she told anyone in the news media that her mother was Jewish. Very few people, Klein writes, knew of her half Jewish background and Katie’s college friends, when interviewed by Klein, were very surprised to learn about it.

Katie Couric was born in 1957 and grew-up in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Arlington, Va. Her parents still reside there. Katie was the youngest of four children, with two older sisters and an older brother.

Her father, John Couric, a Presbyterian, was born in Georgia to a family of French origin that had lived in the American South since the early 19th century. Klein writes that generations of the Courics had owned slaves and the family once was quite prominent and rich. However, that wealth and social status was long gone by the time John was born. John Couric, Klein writes, “looked back on his family’s faded glory with sadness and longing.”

John Couric was not the one to restore the “Couric glory”. His career in journalism never really went anywhere. He first worked for an Atlanta paper and then got a job at a news service located in Washington. Needing more money, he went to work as a publicist for a trade association. However, his somewhat dour personality proved a bad fit for a PR job and he was fired. He was forced to take a minor government job while his wife, Katie’s mother, helped make ends meet as a department store salesperson.

Katie first used her now legendary “perkiness” to cheer up her father and listened when he told her that the two biggest jobs in journalism were the anchor chair at CBS (then held by Walter Cronkite) and a “60 Minutes” correspondent.

While Klein paints a fairly complete picture of her father, her mother’s life story remains somewhat more obscure. Elinor Hene Couric was born and raised in Omaha, Neb., to American-born parents who were both of German Jewish origin. Klein describes her parents as practicing Jews. Her father was a successful architect and her mother came from a prominent Atlanta Jewish family.

Klein writes, “Though Elinor came from a long line of practicing Jews, she agreed to become a Protestant when she married John Couric in 1944.”

Klein then goes on to say that it was very rare during the climatic days of World War II, amidst the early news stories about the ongoing Holocaust, for a Jew to convert to Christianity.

Actually, I think Klein is wrong, but there is no way to prove this statistically. Anecdotally, my reading of late ‘30s/early ‘40s literature--when anti-Semitism was at a fever pitch--shows a tendency for Jews (most often assimilated but sometimes with some religious background) to “throw in the towel” and seek whatever physical and/or psychological protection there was in conversion to Christianity.

It was only later, with Holocaust education, the decline of anti-Semitism, and the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, that a new kind of stiff-necked resistance to conversion, even among secular Jews, arose.

However, Klein provides no details about Katie’s parents’ courtship and concedes that the reasons for her mother’s conversion remain speculative:

The Courics rarely talked about [Elinor’s] Jewish background. As a result Katie and her siblings never entirely understood why their mother made such a life-altering choice. Had she suffered as a girl from the anti-Semitism that was rampant in the Midwest in the 1930s? Was she eager to pass as a WASP? In the absence of a satisfactory explanation, Katie and her siblings chose to believe that their mother’s motivation for leaving her faith was to make life easier for them, not her. After all, even in the 1940s and ‘50s, it was more comfortable growing up in the South as Christians than Jews.

It is reasonable that the Couric children would believe the best of her mother because, as Klein describes her, she is a very good person in many ways. Elinor, Klein writes, was an early feminist who volunteered for Planned Parenthood. She constantly told Katie and her sisters that there was nothing a woman could not do.

Personally, my speculation on Elinor’s conversion takes a little different tack. Elinor might have been a feminist of sorts--but she was in woman in the 1940s, in the South, in love with a Protestant man. John Couric, in turn, was in love with his “magnolias and moonlight” romantic Southern family history (being the descendant of slave owners was not seen as a stain of the family “honor” back then).

It would have been almost unheard of for such a man to marry a Jewish woman and raise his children in her faith. While Elinor’s conversion is a bit unusual, it probably stems from the same mindset.

The general American mentality, stronger in the South, but everywhere present in the ‘40s, was that Jewishness was a handicap and a lesser status position (as was being a woman). Klein implies that Couric held such views and one can imagine the pressure he put on his bride-to-be to “trade up” and become a Protestant.

After touching on Katie’s Jewish background in an early chapter, Klein does not discuss it again until Couric starts seeing Tom Werner in 2000. They met on a blind date, Werner having recently separated from his wife. Katie was a widow by then, her late husband, Jay Monahan, the father of her two children, having died of cancer in 1997.

Werner, now 57, comes from a wealthy and cultured New York Jewish family. He is the co-founder of a very successful TV production company responsible for such mega-hits as “The Cosby Show” and “Roseanne” and is a minority owner of the newly crowned World Series champion Boston Red Sox. The couple dated until mid-2004, but their relationship was rocky, with Werner’s refusal to relocate from Hollywood to New York being a big part of their problems.

Werner’s divorce became final in 2003 and Klein writes that Couric expected them to marry sometime in 2004. Early in 2004, Couric disclosed her mother’s Jewish background to Roger Friedman. She did so, according to Klein, because she was “eager to please Tom, who is a Jew.”

Klein, however, does not tell us anything more. He says that he has sources for all his information, but there is nothing really in the text to explain his curious explanation of Couric’s reason for disclosing her mother’s background. Klein has nothing about Werner’s level of religious observance and even if Tom is religious, that’s certainly not a logical reason for Katie to suddenly disclose her mother’s background to the press.

The most one can logically infer is that Katie, believing she was about to marry a Jew, felt more comfortable about disclosing her mother’s Jewish background.

In any event, Werner broke up with Couric not long after her disclosure---sending her a “Dear Katie” break-up e-mail. He did come back briefly in her life in 2005 to help her negotiate her very lucrative contract with CBS.

The Jewish Side of The Story

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the Broadway opening of "West Side Story.” Here are the Jewish back stories and some interfaith connections:

"West Side Story" was the creation of four Jewish greats of the American theater---the musical's book (story) was written by Arthur Laurents, who adapted "Romeo and Juliet" and set the musical in modern Manhattan. The stage musical was directed and choreographed by the late Jerome Robbins, who also co-directed the 1961 movie musical version. The show's music was composed by the late Leonard Bernstein, and the lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim, then only 25.

Originally, the show was conceived to be about conflict between gangs of Jewish and Catholic Italian-American teens. The "star-crossed" lovers were to be a Jewish girl, who survived the Holocaust, and an Italian Catholic boy. However, that story seemed "stale" even in the late '40s. Robbins later recalled that the original script read too much like “Abie’s Irish Rose,” a 1920s play about the conflicts between the Irish and Jewish families of a Jewish boy in love with an Irish Catholic girl. While a big Broadway hit, “Abie’s Irish Rose” was middle-brow material with very stereotypical depictions of the lead characters.

The musical project was shelved until the '50s, when newspaper reports about fights between Puerto Rican, Irish and Italian gangs inspired the creators to use "gang rumbles" as the basis for "West Side Story."

Natalie Wood played the Puerto Rican girl, Maria, in the movie version of “West Side Story.” As many people know, Wood did not actually sing her songs. What you heard was the dubbed-in voice of Marni Nixon, a great soprano. Nixon also provided the singing voice for Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady” and Deborah Kerr in “The King and I.”

Nixon, now 77, was married from 1950 to 1969 to Hollywood music composer Ernest Gold and had three children with him, including famous rock musician Andrew Gold.

Ernest Gold (1921-99) received an Oscar for his most famous score, the music for Exodus, about the founding of the State of Israel. The Exodus theme song, “This Land is Mine,” remains a huge favorite of the Jewish community and most Jews assume that Gold was Jewish. As a matter of fact, Gold was born in Austria to a half-Jewish father (his paternal grandfather was Jewish) and a non-Jewish mother. However, when the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, his half-Jewish father thought it prudent to move his family to America.

Andrew Gold, now 56, was a major figure in the fertile Los Angles rock scene of the early ‘70s and he is best known for his collaborations with Linda Ronstadt and his 1977 top ten single, “Lonely Boy.”

I guess it completed some sort of circle when Andrew married a Jewish woman and had three children with her, who were raised in their mother’s faith. Sadly, Andrew and his wife recently divorced.

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. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.

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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