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Interfaith Celebrities: Olympic Athletes and American Faces

February 2, 2010

American Olympic Medal Hopefuls

The 2010 Winter Olympics begin in Vancouver on February 12.

Sadly, figure skaters Sasha Cohen and Emily Hughes, both of whom were on the 2006 Olympic team, failed, earlier this month, to snare one of the three U.S. team spots. Cohen finished fourth at the trials and is the 2010 team alternate.

Cohen, the daughter of an American Jewish father and a Russian Jewish mother, finished 4th at the 2002 Olympics and won the silver medal at the 2006 Olympics games in Italy. Hughes is the younger sister of Sarah Hughes, the 2002 gold medal winner in figure skating. The Hughes' sisters are the daughter of an Irish Catholic father and a Jewish mother. They were raised in their mother's faith.

Mike Nichols
Mike Nichols, film director, is one of the Faces of America on PBS. Photo: Reuters/Anthony Harvey.

Two American athletes of interfaith background are Vancouver-bound and both have a good chance to win a medal. The first is Ben Agosto, 27, who won the silver medal in ice dancing at the 2006 Games with his partner, Tanith Belbin. Ben's father, Angel, is Puerto Rican and Catholic. His mother, Miriam, is Jewish.

In 2006, Agosto's agent said: "Ben was not raised in any faith, but is proud of being Puerto Rican and Jewish."

Steve Mesler, 31, competes in the four-man bobsled event as one of three pushers--there is also one driver. Mesler's father is not Jewish and his mother is Jewish. Steve's mother told the editor of Jewish Sports Review that her son was not raised in any faith, but would be proud to be identified as a Jewish athlete in the Review's pages.

Mesler's team finished 7th at the 2006 Turin Games. However, in 2009, the team won the world championship in their event and now they are an Olympic medal favorite.

Israel is sending three athletes to the Vancouver Winter Games, and I am keeping my ears open for more Jewish athletes. Right before this column went to press I learned about Laura Spector, 22, who competes for the United States in the biathlon, an event which combines target rifle shooting and cross-country skiing.

Spector, the daughter of two Jewish parents, grew up on a farm in Western Massachusetts. She is currently a Dartmouth University student, majoring in genetics, with a minor in Jewish studies. There is an interesting and quite informative profile of Spector in this December 25, 2009 Boston Globe article, which includes a video and came out before Spector made the American Olympic team. I am reliably informed that her family is active in their area synagogue.

Faces of America

Henry Louis Gates, the African American Harvard scholar, hosts PBS' Faces of America, a series that explores the family history and the genetic building blocks or DNA of 12 famous Americans of varying ethnic and racial backgrounds. (Premieres on Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 8PM. The three other episodes air at the same time on Feb. 17, 24, and March 3.)

Faces of America is a follow-up to two similar PBS specials Gates hosted featuring African American celebrities, called African American Lives.

As in Gates' prior programs, crack family history researchers dig out what they can about the celebrity's family history. The celebs also take a DNA test, and then they are told what percentage of their ancestry is European, Asian, African, and/or Native American. Gates presents the findings to each celebrity and elicits their reactions. The findings are spread out over four weeks and we get a piece of the family history of each celebrity in each episode.

The celebrities include professor and poet Elizabeth Alexander, who composed and read the poem at President Obama's inauguration, TV chef Mario Batali, comedian Stephen Colbert, novelist Louise Erdrich, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, actress Eva Longoria, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, film and stage director Mike Nichols, Queen Noor of Jordan; TV doctor Mehmet Oz, actress Meryl Streep and Olympic figure skating champ Kristi Yamaguchi.

Mario Batali, as I noted in a prior column, is almost certainly not Jewish. However, he is married to a Jewish woman, Susi Cahn--and her extended family is quite interesting.

Mike Nichols is the only Jewish celebrity of the 12 profiled in Faces of America.

Nichols began as a hip young comedian in the '50s, teaming with Jewish comedian Elaine May, now 77. In the early '60s, he began directing theater productions and, in the mid-'60s, he started directing films. He has won eight Tonys for best director and an Oscar for best director (The Graduate).

Without really spoiling it for you, here are two revelations about Nichols in the series. He is related to a very famous German Jew and DNA tests disclosed that he and one other of the series' celebrities share a common ancestor within the last 250 years.

Nichols, like many of the other celebrities I've mentioned in this column, was interviewed by author Abigail Pogrebin for her 2005 book, Stars of David. The book is compilation of interviews with prominent Jews talking about being Jewish. The Nichols interview is one of the most revealing in the book.He is a candid and an acute observer of his own life and emotions.

In his Pogrebin interview, Nichols details his quite dramatic childhood. He was born Michael Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931. His father was a Russian Jewish physician who changed the family name to Nichols in America. His mother was a German Jew who came from a highly cultured family background.

Nichols says that his parents were not religious, but there were Jewish cultural associations in the family, such as his maternal grandfather's support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

In 1933, the Nazis took power and imposed their notorious anti-Semitic laws. Mike Nichols, like other German Jewish children, had to attend a segregated Jewish school when he became old enough to go to school in 1937.

Fortunately, his father retained a Russian passport and, between 1939 and 1941, this type of passport allowed the family to leave Germany with much less hindrance than other German Jews.

Mike's father came to America ahead of the rest of his family so he could take medical exams and get his license to practice in the United States. Mike followed in late 1939, crossing the Atlantic with his 7-year-old sister, looked after by a ship's steward. His mother, who was ill, followed the rest of her immediate family to America just before the doors out of Germany shut for good in late 1941.

Well, I hope I have whetted your appetite for more and you'll read the full interview.

As many people know, Nichols has been married since 1988 to ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer, now 64. They have had no children. He had one child, Daisy Nichols, now around 40, with his second wife, Margo Callas.

Nichols and his third wife, Annabel Davis-Goff, who were married between 1975 and 1986, had two children: a daughter, Jenny, now around 32, and a son, Max, now 35.

Davis-Goff is of Irish Protestant background and she has become a well known novelist in the last two decades. She was even interviewed by Diane Sawyer!

Nichols told Pogrebin that he connects to his Jewish heritage, but not to Judaism or any other religion. His three children, he said, were not raised in any faith.

Still, Nichols says that all three of his children ultimately came to identify as Jewish.

Nichols told Pogrebin that his daughter, Jenny, once said to him, "In the end you pick Jewish because it is harder."

When asked what he thought about his daughter's statement, Nichols replied: [I was] "Proud [of my daughter]. Impressed. I think it was also accurate. If you get a choice, you do pick it because it's harder. You don't like yourself if you pick the other one and always feel like you're full of shit."

Nichols' son, Max Nichols, is a leading music business executive. In 2001, Max married Jewish journalist Rachel Alexander in a Jewish ceremony in Venice, Italy. Alexander was then a sportswriter for the Washington Post. She took her husband's name and now is a prominent ESPN TV sportscaster under the name Rachel Nichols.

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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