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Interfaith Celebrities: Olympic Update

August 19, 2008 --In my August 5th column, I provided a list of American Jewish athletes at the Beijing Olympic Games. One Jewish Olympic athlete I missed in my prior column was cyclist Adam Duvendeck, 23. I was advised that he was Jewish shortly after I wrote my Aug. 5th column, and had an opportunity to speak with his mother on the phone.

Adam was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California. He had a bar mitzvah ceremony, and his family belongs to a Santa Barbara synagogue. His mother is Jewish by birth and his father is a convert to Judaism. In 2004, Adam was at the Athens Olympic Games, where he cycled for the United States in the two man team sprint and finished 11th. This year, Duvendeck competed in the three-man team sprint. His team made the finals--a tremendous accomplishment--but finished 8th.

Adam Duvendeck
Adam Duvendeck, Olympic cyclist and former bar mitzvah boy. Reuters/Eric Gaillard.

As I write this, swimmer Dara Torres, 41, whom I wrote about in my previous column has won a silver medal at the Beijing Games as a member of the 4x100 meter women's relay team. She is now the oldest swimmer in Olympic history to win a medal. It remains to be seen whether she will win a medal in her only individual event, the 50 meter individual freestyle race.

Sada Jacobson whom I also wrote about in my previous column a fencer, won an individual silver medal in the women's sabre competition at the Beijing Games. The United States women's sabre team, including Jacobson, won a bronze medal in the team competition. In 2004, Jacobson won a bronze medal in the Olympic individual sabre competition.

Sada Jacobson
Sada Jacobson takes home a bronze team medal and a silver individual medal for fencing. Here she is with her gold medal in the world fencing championships in 2003. Reuters/Claudia Daut

One of the most exciting moments of the current Games is also a great moment in Jewish sports history. I am speaking of the men's 4x100 meter relay race, which took place on August 11. The American team members were Michael Phelps, the swimming phenom of these Games, Jason Lezak, who is Jewish, Garrett Weber-Gale, who is also Jewish, and Cullen Jones, who is African-American. This team had to win their race to give Phelps a chance to win eight gold medals and thereby surpass (Jewish) swimmer Mark Spitz, who won a record seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics.

Lezak, who swam the anchor leg, was a full body length behind the French swimmer, Alain Bernard, when he started his segment of the race. Lezak swam the race of his life. He caught Bernard at the wire and he won the race for the American team. It was a great moment for the Americans and a great moment for Lezak, who had turned in some disappointing performances in prior Olympics. On August 13, Lezak won a bronze medal in the individual 100 meter freestyle race. This was his first individual Olympic medal.

The New York Times analyzes the race in this video:

Cullen Jones is the second African-American to swim on the American Olympic team. The first was Anthony Ervin, now 27, who won a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games in the 50 meter freestyle and a silver medal in a team relay race. Ervin's father, who isn't Jewish, is black and Native American. Ervin's mother is white and Jewish. Anthony Ervin was raised Jewish and identifies as a Jew. In 2005, Ervin auctioned off his Olympic gold medal on E-Bay and he gave the proceeds to a United Nations fund for tsunami relief.

Shia's Dark Hour

Yes, I have referred to interfaith actor Shia LaBeouf as "almost a hero of mine," in this column. I was impressed with how he managed to build his own career despite a tough childhood that included a heroin-addicted father and an almost destitute mother. Well, it looks like Shia was not able to escape his family's demons completely.

As you probably heard, LaBeouf, 22, was in an auto accident in Los Angeles on July 27. He seriously injured his hand and his passenger, actress Isabel Lucas, had minor injuries, as did the driver of the other car. LaBeouf had been drinking and he was charged with misdemeanor drunk driving. However, the police announced that the other driver had run a red light and caused the accident and LaBeouf was not cited for the accident, itself.

LaBeouf was in the middle of filming, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a sequel to the box office smash, "The Transformers," in which he also starred. Film director Michael Bay said, "His two fingers are pretty smashed, but we're figuring out a way to shoot around it, kind of write it into the story." (Lucas co-stars in the Revenge of the Fallen.)

I hope this accident is a wake-up call for LaBeouf and he realizes that he must avoid alcohol completely in the future. He seems to know that already. The actor is the subject of a cover story in this month's Details magazine.

He talks about drinking with his (non-Jewish) father and says: "And I don't know how to do it like a gentleman. I don't know how to have one drink."

There is an amusing behind-the-scenes, if now weird video on Youtube, which features a then 16-year-old Shia learning to drive a stick shift for the 2002 film, The Battle of Shaker Heights. Shia runs a stop sign and declares himself not a good driver, "I'm Jewish, I'll make you latkes; but I won't drive around, though." It seems like the woman lecturing him at the end of the video is Shia's Jewish mother.

Fortunately, LaBeouf is a protégé of Steven Spielberg and Spielberg has the reputation of standing behind and gently helping those actors he has this sort of relationship with. Spielberg provided some help to another young protégé of his, actress Drew Barrymore. She turned her life around in her teens and stopped drinking. Let's hope that LaBeouf emulates Barrymore's success story.

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." 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." Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

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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