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Interfaith Celebrities: Lisa Kudrow; Tavi Gevinson, Oracle of Girl World; Olympic Results and Raisman's Rabbi

August 21, 2012

On Lisa Kudrow

Actress Lisa Kudrow is still best known for her co-starring role as Phoebe on the mega hit sitcom, Friends (1994-2004). Despite being in the public eye for over 15 years, she was long a bit of an enigma to me. This was especially true in terms of her Jewish identity and practice. In the last few months, I've come across two newish articles that fill in those blanks. I also learned that her husband, French advertising executive Michael Stern, who she married in 1995, is not Jewish, as many assume. Stern and Kudrow have one child, a boy named Julian Murray, who is now 14.

Kudrow, 49, was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of Jewish parents. She grew up in Los Angeles and in the nearby suburb of Tarzana. Her father, Dr. Lee Kudrow, is often described as the world's leading expert on migraine headaches. Her mother, Nedra, is or was a travel agent. Her older brother, David, 55, is also a physician. He was a great high school friend of Jewish comic actor Jon Lovitz, now 55. (Kudrow also has an older sister, Helene.)

Lisa Kudrow as Fiona Wallace on Web Therapy.

For a long time, it looked like Kudrow would follow her father into science. In 1985, she earned a biology degree from prestigious Vassar University. (She's been a member of the Vassar Board of Trustees since 2005.) After graduation, she worked for her father as a research assistant. She told USA Today in 2000, "I worked with my dad eight years, and he taught me everything. He'd say, 'You know more about headache than most doctors.' "

However, Jon Lovitz saw something in her and encouraged her, not long after she started working for her dad, to try out for The Groundlings, a famous Los Angeles-based improvisational group that he had once belonged to. She was accepted into The Groundlings training classes in 1987 and, upon graduation in 1989, became a full member of the group. In 1988, she co-starred in the original stage production of a play (Ladies Room) which became the 1997 film, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. I think it still stands out as one of her best film comedies

Kudrow continued to work for her father, part-time, until she landed her big break-through role on Friends in 1994. Her other film and TV roles have been quite varied. Personally, I think she is often a stronger dramatic actress than a comedian. (Check out Kudrow in the dramas The Opposite of Sex (1998), Happy Endings (2005) and The Other Woman (2011). All are worth a rental.)

In 2005, Kudrow, for the first time, produced, wrote and starred in a TV show. Her HBO series,The Comeback, was a mockumentary about a (fictional) former sitcom star (played by Kudrow) who agrees to be in a reality show for her former network. While most critics praised the show, perhaps it was too hard-edge; it lasted only one season. It was difficult to like the main character and sympathize with her as she suffered the indignities of a star in eclipse.

In 2010, Kudrow co-created the internet series Web Therapy. This sharp satire was picked up for broadcast by Showtime in 2011. Kudrow stars as Fiona Wallace, an incredibly incompetent therapist and amazingly egotistical person. Jewish actor Victor Garber, 63, plays her husband. Many leading actors have guest starred on the show, including Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep.

Like The Comeback, Web Therapy is not for every taste. I find it funny, but not hysterical. Just about every character is a dolt or pretty unlikable. As in Comeback, the satire is not tempered by the presence of a warm, likable character that one can identify with and root for as he or she deals with "monsters" like Fiona Wallace.

Over the years, I saw a pattern in Kudrow's work that long made me think I'd never know much about the "private Kudrow." Clearly, her stable home life and intellectual accomplishments were completely at odds with Phoebe Buffay, the airhead massage therapist from a broken home that she played on Friends. I knew this as I watched Kudrow play Phoebe and I knew I was watching Kudrow play someone very different from herself.

Her dramatic roles seemed, somehow, to better reflect her real self — or that is how I long perceived them. In the three dramatic films I mentioned above, she played well-educated, but very emotionally reserved women. Her satirical TV series are so hard-edged that somehow they seemed to leach over, and create a feeling that Kudrow, herself, was a pretty tough and somewhat chilly person. I knew this was unfair, but I had so little else to go on.

Lisa Kudrow, on Who Do You Think You Are?

But, then, in 2010, Kudrow picked up the rights to a British celebrity heritage show, Who Do You Think You Are?, and became the head producer of the American version. It aired on NBC from March, 2010 through May, 2012. In this column, I covered several episodes in the series that featured Jewish/interfaith celebs, including Helen Hunt and Rashida Jones.

Let's be frank: this was a four-hanky TV series. Just about every episode tugged at your heartstrings as very personal things were revealed about the featured celebrity and their family. Kudrow's involvement in the series conflicted with my view of her as a "cold fish."

The third episode of the first season featured Kudrow's own Jewish roots. She was clearly moved as she learned that most of her father's family, who lived in the former Soviet Union, died in the Holocaust. Still, she seemed to bottle up her feelings compared to some other celebrities profiled on the program. She said nothing about her own Jewish religious practice.

Then, last June, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles did a long interview with Kudrow. For the first time I was then aware of, she opened up about her Jewish religious background and how difficult doing the episode about the Holocaust was for her:

Although her father is an atheist and the family did not belong to a synagogue, Kudrow chose to have a bat mitzvah "because I just felt like I needed to be counted 'in.' I'm Jewish, and that's important to me," she said. She still remembers the biography of Uta Hagen that her brother's best friend, the actor Jon Lovitz, gave her for her bat mitzvah, inscribed with the words "to my fellow thespian."

... In person, Kudrow appears practical, empathetic and down-to-earth. Unlike many of her former co-stars, she has not been fodder for the tabloids, escaping that glare, she said matter-of-factly, "because I'm dull." She thinks it helps that she's been married for more than 15 years to a non-celebrity, the French businessman Michel Stern; they have a son, Julian, who is now studying for his bar mitzvah, she said, proudly.

... Initially she was reluctant to trace her own ancestry, afraid that she would uncover details about family members who had died in the Holocaust "I had been in complete denial about that," she said. She also didn't see herself as a big enough name for a segment of her own — the show was featuring artists like Sarah Jessica Parker and Spike Lee. Then a slot opened, and Kudrow found herself at the site of a vegetable warehouse in Belarus where her great-grandmother and family were forced to strip naked before being shot and falling into a pit, where their bodies were then doused with gasoline and burned. Kudrow went on to ask hard questions of the villagers — "Did you know any Jewish families? Where were your parents when this was all happening?" — as they squirmed with discomfort.

At one point while telling her family story, Kudrow said she became so emotional that she turned away from the camera.

I told a friend about this interview and he told me that Kudrow "opened up" in a similar interview she did in April, 2010, with the London Jewish Chronicle. It coincided with the airing on British TV of the American version of Who Do You Think You Are?

The Chronicle interview offered more grittier details than the Journal piece about Kudrow's emotions about the Holocaust. Also, for the first time, Kudrow talked about her husband's background (something not in the Journal piece). She said:

"He got the Jewish name, but isn't Jewish," she quips, having revealed earlier that Kudrow in Belarussian means "curly hair". "We did however have a Jewish person officiate at our wedding (not a rabbi), and Michael was good enough to stand under a chupah and smash the glass."

The couple have a son, Julian, who is 13. Though aware of his family's history, he was not first in the queue to watch Who Do You Think You Are? "What can I say? He likes action movies," sighs his mum. "You know how it is, the story about the cobbler's son having no shoes. I got so many emails from kids who did see it though and that is very satisfying. I think as Julian grows up he will be more interested."

I think that one can reasonably conclude that Julian has become more interested in "things Jewish" since Kudrow spoke to the Chronicle in 2010. As noted in the Jewish Journal piece, Julian, now 14, is studying for his bar mitzvah. Most Jewish boys and girls are bar or bat mitzvah when they are 13 years of age. In my experience, when a teenage boy or girl has their bar/bat mitzvah later, it usually means that their parents did not put them on the "regular track" (years of Hebrew school) to be confirmed at 13 and that they, themselves, spoke up and said that they wanted to study and have a confirmation ceremony.

I was wrong about Kudrow. Clearly, she is not a cold, bottled up person. She is that rare Hollywood thing: somebody who does not expose her deepest feelings or go into detail about her family life except when revealing those feelings or details is actually relevant to the subject of the interview.

Oracle of Girl World

Tavi Gevinson. Photo by Nanette Gonzales.

The front page of July 29, 2012's "Sunday Styles" section of the NY Times featured a long profile of the remarkable career of Tavi Gevinson, 16, entitled "Oracle of Girl World." She had just completed a 16-city tour to promote Rookie, her online magazine for teen girls.

Rookie grew out of Gevinson's blog, Style Rookie, which she began at age 11! It was so popular that it resulted in major media profiles of Gevinson in 2009-10 and has morphed into a full-scale web magazine with a professional staff. I think it's a terrific site with smart material that doesn't talk down to its readers. Jewish celebs like Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd and Ira Glass are fans and contributors.

Gevinson, who lives in a Chicago suburb, is the daughter of Steve Gevinson, a retired (Jewish) English teacher, and Bergit Engen, a native of Norway who makes Judaica-themed tapestries. Tavi, like her two siblings, was raised Jewish. In 2001, after three years of study, and 18 years of marriage, Begrit (who was raised Lutheran) converted to Judaism — a journey she calls from "Scandinavia to Sh'Ma."

One note of caution: teens' sophistication varies a lot by age and by person. I recommend parents review the site's contents and see if it is appropriate for their teenager.

2012 Olympic Round-Up and Results

This column item is a follow-up to my last two columns on the Olympics.

I do know of four "confirmed" Jewish/interfaith athletes who were 2012 medal winners:

  • New Zealand sailor Jo Aleh, 26, won a gold medal captaining a two-woman 470 class dinghy. The daughter of a New Zealand Jewish mother and an Israeli Jewish father, Aleh has half-siblings in Israel.
  • American swimmer Jason Lezak, 36, won silver in the 4x100 relay. In previous Games, Lezak won 7 medals, including four gold ones. Lezak, by the way, is a member of a Los Angeles synagogue.
  • Gymnast Aly Raisman (see below); and
  • Australian Jessica Fox, 18. She won a silver medal in the one-woman kayak competition.
     
David Banks at a pre-Olympics practice.

I wasn't sure of Fox's background when I wrote my previous columns. Some family history research and a very helpful article in the Israeli press helped fill in some gaps.

Fox's British father, Richard Fox, 52, who is not Jewish, and her French Jewish mother, Myriam Jerusalmi-Fox, 51, were both top kayakers. Myriam won the Olympic bronze in 1996 in the same event as Jessica. Richard, Myriam and Jessica (then just 5 years old) moved to Australia in 1999, after Richard was made head of the Aussie national kayak team. A few weeks ago, Myriam spoke to Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper, and recalled competing in the 1997 Maccabiah Games in Israel. She added that she has several cousins in Israel and she hopes to bring her whole family to Israel and visit these relatives.

Athletes who didn't medal include:

  • U.S. "star class" sailor Mark Mendelblatt, 39. He and his partner finished seventh.
  • American fencer Soren Thompson, 31.
  • Breaststroke specialist Sarah Poewe, 29, who swims for Germany and won a bronze in 2004. As previously noted, she is the daughter of a non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother.
  • David Banks, 29, a member of the U.S. eight-man oar boat team that finished in fourth place.
  • American swimmer Anthony Ervin, 31. He finished fifth in the 50m freestyle race. Again, as previously noted, both Ervin and Banks are the sons of African-American fathers and Jewish mothers.
  • Vasyl Fedorshyn, 32, a Ukrainian Jew, and a 2008 silver medal winner in the 60kg freestyle wrestling competition. In 2012, he was eliminated in the quarter-finals of the 60kg competition.
  • Merrill Moses, 34, the U.S. water polo team goalie. In 2008 he won a team silver. In 2012, the U.S. team finished seventh.
  • Australian Steve Solomon, 19, ran a personal best to make the finals of the 400m sprint. He plans to attend Stanford University this fall on an athletic scholarship and study to be a medical doctor.
     

I'm still trying to learn more about New Zealander Nathan Cohen (gold in the two-man sculls). At least one reader of this column has pointed me to a Jewish Telegraph Agency article in which it said that Cohen was "Jewish." However, the JTA has back-tracked on this article, candidly admitting that their writer didn't fact check this statement.

An interesting footnote: American breaststroke swimmer Rebecca Soni, 25, who won multiple medals in 2008 and 2012, was the subject of a recent Hebrew language piece in the Israeli paper, Ma'ariv, which implied that her father, Peter Soni, who has cousins in Israel, is Jewish. I referred this article to the editor of Jewish Sports Review He was able to reach Peter Soni on the telephone. Peter, I am informed, was very gracious and was actually grateful that the Review was fact checking before reporting that his daughter was Jewish. Peter Soni explained that his father, a Holocaust survivor, was Jewish. But Peter's mother wasn't Jewish. Peter's wife, Rebecca's mother, also isn't Jewish.

Raisman's Rabbi (a Great Soul) Speaks

Aly Raisman displaying one of her gold medals.

The Jewish heroine of the games is, of course, gymnast Aly Raisman, 18, who won a team gold, an individual gold in the floor exercise competition and an individual bronze on the balance beam. Raisman performed her floor exercise routines to the tune of Hava Nagila and, after winning her gold medal, said she had been in favor of a moment of silence for the Israeli athletes murdered 40 years ago.

One of the more interesting interviews about Raisman was one that has got, curiously, scant attention in Jewish media outlets. It was an interview that Raisman's family rabbi, Keith Stern, did with the NY Post on August 8.

Stern, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Avodah, a Reform temple in Newton, Mass., said, in part,

She's very proud and upfront about being Jewish. Neither she nor her family explicitly sought to send a message. But it shows how very integrated her Jewish heritage is in everything that she does..... I can't wait to have her at the temple to talk about her experience. I know her sister's bat mitzvah is coming up, so maybe I'll catch up with her then.

Rabbi Stern has been mentioned several times on InterfaithFamily (before the Olympic Games). Most notably, in an article that Keren R. McGinity wrote about her daughter's covenant/welcoming (brit bat) ceremony here on InterfaithFamily. She wrote,

In practice actually taking the first public step toward raising a Jewish child is often more complicated than in theory. We met with our rabbi, Keith Stern of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, Mass., who has a great neshama (soul), and devised a ceremony that explained the significance of the event, included both parents on the bimah (podium), and gave us the opportunity to express our gratitude and prayers for our child.

By the way, various Jewish wire services are reporting that Aly Raisman has accepted an Israeli government invitation to visit Israel with her whole family. The trip is likely to take place at the end of December when Raisman's three younger siblings are on school vacation. This would be the first trip to Israel for Raisman and her family.

A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. 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." Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar 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." Hebrew for "soul" or "spirit," the word literally means "breath." In modern Judaism, it is believed that a person receives their soul from God with their first breath (based on Genesis 2:7). Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. 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.
The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. 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. Also known as ma'ariv, the evening prayer service.

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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