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Interfaith Celebrities: Movies, Musicians and Theatre

July 19, 2011

Shalom, Harry Potter

Opening Friday was the 8th and final film in the Harry Potter film series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2.

Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe, currently starring in the final Harry Potter film. (Photo from the 2011 Tony Awards.)
The epic finale pits the forces of good wizardry, led by Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), versus the followers of evil wizardry (the "Death Eaters"), led by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

As I have noted before, Radcliffe, who turns 22 on July 23, is the son of a Protestant father and a Jewish mother. While he is completely secular, he also says that he is "very proud to be Jewish."

He's not proud of having a problem with alcohol; Radcliffe recently said that he quit drinking entirely about a year ago. His problem was never reported in any media outlet; it was a genuine case of a celebrity talking about his problem in the hope that others with substance abuse issues would follow his example.

I'm not sure that Radcliffe, who is quite short, will maintain his "super A-list" actor status now that the Potter series is ending. More likely, he'll have a Dustin Hoffman-like career of a mixture of leading and character roles. In any event, he has an estimated personal worth of $25M and a modest lifestyle, so he'll be fine.

The other important Jewish actor in the cast is Brit Jason Isaacs, 48. He has been in six of the Potter movies, playing Lucius Malfoy, an important member of the Death Eaters. Isaacs has emerged, in middle age, as an almost superstar actor in the U.K., with his starring role in a just-aired, popular BBC mini-series about a soulful private detective.

Last month, The Observer, a British Sunday newspaper, wrote, "Isaacs has won his promotion to officially approved national lust object." There is speculation that his NBC series, Awake, about a police detective, may make him an American star. The pilot, about a police detective who simultaneously lives out two possible lives, has been praised as engrossing and very smart. TV pundits wonder, however, whether Awake is too complex and intellectual for American TV audiences. Awake will premiere next January.

Ziggy Marley Visits Israel

Reggae musician David "Ziggy" Marley was recently interviewed by the Israel-based website Ynetnews.com. As

Ziggy Marley
Ziggy Marley
I write this, Marley, the son of the late legendary reggae star Bob Marley, was scheduled to play concerts in Israel on July 19 and 21.

Ziggy Marley feels very close to Israel. He's married to Orly, an Israeli woman, and they have three children: A girl named Judah Victoria, a boy called Gideon, and a baby - Abraham Selassie. Marley admits that, having no other choice, he celebrates all the Jewish holidays and is very jealous of our culture.

"The history of our connection to the roots of Israel, to David, Solomon, goes way before I met my wife," Marley says. "My father, my Rastafari culture, has a tight link to the Jewish culture. We have a strong connection from when I was a young boy and read the Bible, the Old Testament.

"The Rastafari culture has a very strong connection to Haile Selassie, a descendant of King Solomon. So it is in our soul, this connection, and we have had it for a very long time."

Ziggy's wife, Orly Agai Marley, was formerly a vice-president of the famous William Morris Endeavor, a talent agency. Not surprisingly, she has a large role in managing her husband's musical career.

Ziggy Marley
Ziggy Marley, with wife Orly Agai Marley and three of his six children. (With Orly, he has three kids.)

For those not familiar with Rastarfarian beliefs at all, let me give a brief explanation of Ziggy's reference to Haile Selassie (1892-1977), who reigned as emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974. The Rastafarian religion — sometimes defined as a "movement" — arose in Jamaica in the 1930s. "Ras Tarafi" was the name by which Haile Selassie was known before he took the throne.

For complex reasons, Haile Selassie is regarded by most "Rastas" as a resurrection of Jesus, an incarnation of God on Earth.

There was a tradition that Ethiopian emperors were direct descendants of a ninth century BCE) sexual relationship between the Biblical (and Jewish) King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The tradition held that the product of this relationship was Menelik I, the first Ethiopian emperor, and that all following emperors were the descendants of Menelik, Sheba and Solomon. This tradition has been embraced by the Rastafarians.

Ziggy, by the way, has three other children from a prior relationship. His father, Bob Marley, was of mixed heritage, the son of a white Jamaican of English ancestry and a black Jamaican mother.

Holocaust Movie and Play, Interfaith Connections

In 2009, I briefly profiledBritish actress Kristin Scott Thomas when she had a supporting role in the film comedy Confessions of a Shopaholic, starring actress Isla Fisher, a Jew-by-choice. I wrote:

Kristin Scott Thomas
Kristen Scott Thomas
The movie's excellent supporting cast includes…Kristen Scott Thomas. Thomas, who isn't Jewish, was married to a French Jewish physician for 17 years and they had three children together. They broke up a few years ago. Thomas said in a recent interview that she briefly considered converting to Judaism but ultimately decided not to. She didn't elaborate on the reasons for her decision or whether her children were raised in any faith.

Thomas, 51, recently spoke to the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles in connection with the (limited) release of the French film Sarah's Key. The opening paragraphs of the Journal article provide its plot and describe Thomas' role:

In the opening sequence of Sarah's Key, 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) tickles her younger brother as the family cat grooms itself in the sunshine. The sweet domestic scene is shattered when a thunderous knocking signals the arrival of the French police. It is the morning of July 16, 1942, and the authorities are rounding up some 13,000 Jews for internment in the Vélodrome d'Hiver before deportation to transit camps, then Auschwitz.

In the film — based on Tatiana de Rosnay's best-selling novel — Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother, Michel, by locking him inside a bedroom cupboard, their secret hiding place, promising to return before being herded off to the velodrome. Her desperate attempts to return cut back and forth in time with the modern-day story of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris who, while researching the little-known history of the deportation of French Jews, stumbles upon a searing discovery: The family apartment she is about to move into was once the Starzynskis' home. As Jarmond becomes obsessed with Sarah's heartbreaking story, she tackles complex issues of how to live
Kristin Scott Thomas in Sarah's Key
Kristen Scott Thomas, starring in the film Sarah's Key.
with the past while also moving forward into an uncertain future.

Later in the piece, Thomas, speaking from phone from her home in France, told the Journal author about her connection to the role:

Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral) also had personal connections to the story. After moving from London to Paris at 18, she married into a Jewish family whose older generation consisted primarily of Holocaust survivors. "They had been in hiding, in camps, some even caused a rebellion in Treblinka," she said from her home in France. And her mother-in-law had been active in the organization that had placed commemorative plaques around Paris. "When we would all have lunch on a Sunday, all their experiences would be taken out and aired, and there would be a jousting of terrible stories, but at the same time a keen sense of the preciousness of life," she said.

It was an outlook that profoundly affected Scott Thomas, who had suffered from depression as a result of losing her father, and then her stepfather, both in plane crashes, when she was 5 and 10, respectively. She chose to make Sarah's Key "as a way for me to participate in the recounting of these stories as a non-Jewish person," she said. "I'm not saying you can't fictionalize them, but personally I would have had issues pretending I was one of those mothers brutally separated from their children [in the transit camps], when I am just an actress."

Yet Scott Thomas' pain is real during the scene in which her character sees photographs of those vulnerable children at a Holocaust museum in Paris; in real life, it was the actress' first visit to the museum.

Playbill, the theater publication and website, just reported that actor Danny Aiello is making a rare return to the New York theater this summer, starring in a revival of the play, The Shoemaker. It runs from July 14 to August 14.

Playbill writes:

The drama takes place on 9/11. Aiello's character was born to a Jewish family in Rome. He survived the Nazi occupation during World War II when, at the age of nine, he was put on a boat headed to America by his father. The rest of his family was not as fortunate and perished at the hands of the Germans. Six decades later, the cobbler's thoughts are with a customer who has left a pair of high heels to be repaired before going off to her job in the World Trade Center.

A 2007 film, called The Broken Sole, included The Shoemaker as one of three distinct story segments about the events of 9/11. Aiello played the Italian Jewish shoemaker. It didn't get good reviews and isn't available on DVD. But Aiello has had success with the role on stage before the current revival.

Aiello, 78, is a

Danny Aiello
Danny Aiello returns to the theatre in The Shoemaker.
familiar face to TV and movie audiences. In short, he was raised Catholic, one of six children of Italian-American immigrants who settled in the Bronx. He got a late start in acting, making his first film in 1973. He is perhaps best known for his roles as a pizza parlor owner in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) and as Cher's fiancé in 1987's Moonstruck.

Aiello has been married to Sandy Cohen, a Jewish woman from his old neighborhood, since 1955 and they had four children. Tragically, their son, top stunt man Danny Aiello, III, died of cancer in 2010.

Interestingly, a distant cousin of Aiello's is Rabbi Barbara Aiello, a regular contributor to InterfaithFamily.com. Her extraordinary story was published by the New Jersey Jewish News in 2009. An American of Italian ancestry, she now lives in Italy. Her father's family, she said, had a "closet tradition" that they were Jewish and they secretly practiced some Jewish rites for centuries while living in Calabria, a Southern Italian region. They gradually openly embraced the formal practice of Judaism in America.

Rabbi Aiello was the first woman rabbi in Italy, where she led Milan's Progressive synagogue (equivalent to American Reform Judaism). In 2007, she founded, and continues to lead, a synagogue in Calabria. It was the first synagogue in the region in 500 years.

She has traced the history of the Aiello family and family name in Italy; it dates back to Italian Jews who were (mostly) forced to embrace Catholicism. She says that Danny Aiello's ancestors were Jewish, too.

So, I guess it fits when Danny Aiello plays an Italian Jewish shoemaker.

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."

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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