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Interfaith Celebrities: Olympic News and Other Updates

August 7, 2012

Olympics Update

My last column was posted on July 24, a few days before the London Olympic Games began. I noted that this year, unlike many past Olympic years, I had not extensively researched national team rosters for Jewish or interfaith athletes. I did say that I was aware of a number of such athletes who had appeared in prior Olympics and a few new ones.

In this column item, I'll add a couple of names, and update and otherwise enhance the information on some other athletes.

Receiving their gold medals (from left to right): Mckayla Maroney, Kyla Ross, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber.

As I write this (August 1), the Games are about half over. The information in this column item reflects the athletic events that have occurred as of this date. Look for the comments section below this column — I will update the information in this column over the course of this week as things change.

Aly Raisman and Her Teammates

As I predicted in my July 24 column, gymnast Aly Raisman, 18, is the most heralded Jewish athlete at the 2012 Games. I noted that Raisman often performed her floor exercise routine accompanied by the music of "Hava Nagila," the famous, upbeat Jewish folk song.

Well, sure enough, Raisman (to date) has performed her Olympic floor exercises twice to this tune. Once during the preliminary round (July 29), which determined which national teams made the team gymnastics championship, and then again during the finals in which the American team won the gold medal (July 31).

Raisman's parents, Lynn and Rick Raisman, as most of you probably know, have become something of a TV and internet video sensation. The NBC camera has loved capturing their emotional and vocal responses to their daughter's routines.

In something of an upset, Raisman qualified for the individual all-around competition, which was set to take place on August 2, not long after I wrote this. A new rule says that only two members of a national team can compete in the individual all-around competition. It was expected that Raisman's teammate, Jordyn Wieber, 17, the individual all-around world champion, would snare one of these two spots. However, Wieber made enough mistakes in the preliminary round that Raisman, and her teammate Gabby Douglas, 16, edged out Wieber for the two slots.

Just as InterfaithFamily is dedicated to fostering a diverse Jewish community and sees diversity as a plus, not a negative, their mission is also reflected in the make-up and success of the US women's gymnastics team. Let me introduce the team:

Aly Raisman is a Jewish young woman from a middle-class Massachusetts family. (Not far from InterfaithFamily's headquarters!)

Jordyn Wieber, a Michigan native, is of partially Lebanese Arab Catholic background. Her mother watches her from the stands while turning rosary beads in her hand. Wieber and Raisman look like they could be sisters.

McKayla Maroney, 16, the superstar on the vault, is a Southern Californian whose parents hail from New England. A cousin told his hometown Connecticut paper that the Maroneys are "a large Irish Catholic family."

Gabby Douglas is a member of a quite religious, Protestant, African American family that lives in Virginia. Her father often cannot see her compete because he is a reservist in the military and is frequently on active duty. He has served a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Kyla Ross, 15, who was born in Hawaii, hands-down wins the diversity sweepstakes. Her father, a former minor league baseball player, is half black and half Japanese. Her mother is of mixed Filipino and Puerto Rican background. Her father, talking to a Southern California public radio station, called his daughter's background "the quadruple effect."

This group of highly diverse young women pulled together and absolutely over-awed the rest of the world's best gymnastic teams.

More Updates and More Athletes

Winning her bronze medal in 2008, Sarah Poewe.

Jewish swimmer Jason Lezak, 36, who has been in every Olympics since and including 2000, won a silver medal in his only event, the 4x100m relay team. This silver goes along with the seven medals Lezak won in previous Games.

I failed to mention swimmer Sarah Poewe, 29, in my previous column. I knew that she won a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, but I didn't realize that after not participating in the 2008 Games, she was returning this year. Poewe, who was born in South Africa, is the daughter of a German, non-Jewish father and a South African Jewish mother. A breaststroke specialist, she swam for Germany in 2008 and, with her team, won a bronze in the 4x100m medley relay race. She was the first, and to date the only, Jewish athlete to represent Germany in the Olympics since WWII. Sadly, her team failed to medal at the London Games.

Similar negligence led me to fail to realize that wrestler Vasyl Fedoryshyn, 32, a Jew on the Ukrainian Olympic team, and a 2008 silver medal winner, was returning this year. He won his medal in the Men's Freestyle 60kg weight class and competes in the class again this year. In 2009, he competed in the Maccabiah Games in Israel. On August 10, 2012, the third and fourth place finishers in the 60kg preliminary matches will vie for the bronze medal. The next day, the first and second place finishers will meet to decide who wins gold and who wins silver. Here's hoping Fedoryshyn will be in one of those matches.

As I write this, swimmer Anthony Ervin, a U.C. Berkeley grad student, is hours away from his first heat, seeking a medal in the 50m freestyle swim. Ervin is the son of an African American father and a Jewish mother. In 2000, he won a gold medal and a silver medal at the Olympics. What I hadn't realized, when I wrote my last column, was that Ervin is already a winner based on the fact that he made the team this year. I heard that his life went into a tailspin after the 2000 Games. But I didn't know how bad his life had become (depression, drug use, etc), and how hard he worked to come back until I read this profile in Rolling Stone's August 2 issue.

David Banks, at a practice.

I was simply unaware of the background of rower David Banks, 28, when I wrote my last column. Banks, like Ervin, is the son of an African American father and a Jewish mother. Banks, again like Ervin, has strong ties to the San Francisco Bay Area. A Stanford University graduate, he rowed for his alma mater when he was an undergrad. In the 2012 Games, he was a member of the U.S. eight man boat team. The team finished 4th at the Games.

Last year, Donny Simkin, the son of a rabbi, profiled Banks for a Stanford University online magazine. Simkin, also a former Stanford team rower, is a great friend of Banks. He entitled his profile, David Banks: The American Dream. Simkin tells us all about Banks' very accomplished family: His parents both work for Washington, DC advocacy groups (his father for the Nature Conservancy and his mother for People for the American Way). Banks' brother is an attorney and his sister is currently a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania.

A friend contacted Simkin after I referred him to this profile, and he tells me that Simkin told him that while Banks is not religious, he is sure that Banks wouldn't object to being described as a "Jewish athlete."

I didn't forget to mention, in my last column, U.S. water polo goalie Merrill Moses, 34. Moses, who won a silver team medal in 2008, has been the hero of the team's victories in their first two games. A team medal seems very likely in 2012. The bronze medal in water polo will be determined by a match scheduled for August 10. The winner of the silver and gold medals will be determined by the match scheduled for August 12.

As noted above, I will briefly update later this week in the comments section below this column.

Behar Gets New Talk Show

Last December, I wrote a long column item about the wedding of comedian and former CNN talk show host Joy Behar, 69, to her Jewish boyfriend of 29 years, retired schoolteacher Steve Janowitz. Behar is of Italian Catholic background and was born Josephine Occhuito. Her first husband, Joseph Behar, is a Sephardi Jew.

Current TV has just announced that Behar will host her own talk show on the station starting on September 4, 2012. It will air nightly from Monday to Thursday at 6 p.m. The show's publicity release says that "it will include a rotating table of contributors including journalists, politicos, comedians and more...it will be unscripted and uncensored."

Behar said in the same release that she plans to keep it simple. "There'll be no agenda other than to entertain, inform and make sure my hair always looks great." She also called Current TV "the g-spot of television — it may be hard to find but once you find it, there's nothing better."

Postscript

On July 27, Jewish singer Tony Martin died, at age 98. Back in 2008, I wrote a short column item about his marriage to famous dancer Cyd Charisse, who wasn't Jewish. Martin was buried by her side last week.

Having Jewish family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The term literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew. 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.

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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