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Interfaith Celebrities: Oz, Advocates for the Hungry, and Red Widow

March 5, 2013

Another Oz Tale

Opening on Friday, March 8, is Oz The Great and Powerful. Inspired by the Oz stories written by the late L. Frank Baum[1], it imagines the origins of the Wizard character. By coincidence, or maybe "magic," it is a very "interfaith-y" film in terms of its cast.

The full trailer for Disney's fantastical adventure Oz The Great and Powerful, starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Zach Braff. Directed by Sam Raimi.

Interfaith actor James Franco, 34, plays Oscar Diggs, a shady circus magician who is magically transported from Kansas to the Land of Oz. The people of Oz think he is the great wizard they were expecting and shower him with honors and riches.

Franco, as I have noted before, is the son of a non-Jewish father of Portuguese ancestry and a Jewish mother. (He wasn't raised in any faith.)

Three witches, played by Mila Kunis, 29, Rachel Weisz, 42, and Michelle Williams, 32, aren't taken-in by Diggs' claim to be a real Wizard. (Kunis is Jewish; Weisz, as I've previously written, had three Jewish grandparents; and more on Williams, who isn't Jewish, below.)

Diggs manages to cope for a time with the witches' skepticism, but things come to a head when Diggs must save the people of Oz via any tricks he can conjure-up, and prove that he's really a Wiz.

Zach Braff, 37, provides the voice of Diggs' flying monkey assistant (the monkey you actually see on the screen is computer created). Braff, who was raised in a religious home, is the son of a Jewish (born) father. His mother converted to Judaism.

The film is directed by Sam Raimi, 53, who is Jewish. He previously directed Franco in the Spider-Man movies. Raimi's brother, actor Ted Raimi, 47, has a smallish supporting role in the film.

Really amusing interview of Mila Kunis.

Williams, I am sad to say, is no longer the romantic partner of interfaith actor Jason Segel, 33. They started dating in March, 2012, and by last summer, they were sharing a large Brooklyn apartment (along with Williams' 7-year-old daughter, Olive).

The reasons for the break-up have not been made public, but sources have told People and Us Weekly that geography was the main cause. Segel primarily works in Los Angeles, where he makes most of his films and where his TV show, How I Met Your Mother, is filmed.

How I Met Your Mother is now filming its last season. Therefore, it's reasonable to speculate that if Segel and Williams' relationship had been rock solid, they probably could have endured one more year of very lengthy separations.

However, they are both classy people, and I doubt they will do more than confirm the break-up in any interviews they do in the near future. In other words, no Kardashian-like details will be forthcoming from the couple and, in all likelihood, we will never learn if geography was the real reason for the split.

Meanwhile, there is more upbeat news from Kunis, who still seems to be going strong in her romantic relationship with Ashton Kutcher, 35 (who isn't Jewish).

Kunis has just signed to be a spokesperson for Gemfields, a UK-based luxury jewelry company with a good ethical reputation. Before she would agree to be their spokesperson, Kunis insisted on touring the company's African mines and meeting with company's on-site staff.

She speaks of her new business relationship in a February 22 interview with Entertainment Tonight:

"They take so much pride in their work and they take such good care of their employees," gushed Kunis of her partnership with Gemfields, a luxury company that produces amethysts, emeralds, and rubies all the while ensuring that their employees in Africa make a living wage and enjoy simple necessities such as electricity and running water.

Since recently taking her leave from [a] high-profile beauty contract, the actress says she wasn't too keen to put her name behind another company.

"I've done that once before and it's one of the hardest things to do ... to pitch a product you don't stand by," said Kunis. "The short of it is, I went and visited [Gemfields] in Africa and they are one of the most loveliest companies I had had the pleasure of actually touring, let alone being a part of. They take care of their community, they put up schools, and they teach the people how to farm vegetables. I mean it sounds so dated and so simple, but very rarely do people take the time. They say they do, and on paper they do, but in real life they don't."

Here's hoping that more celebrities follow Kunis' example and check out the ethics and working conditions of companies they endorse. I'm ready for a celebrity "fair trade" movement in which celebrities bring honor to themselves and the companies they endorse by really checking them out. Everybody will benefit: consumers, employees, celebrities, and endorsed "ethical" companies.

Food, Glorious Food: Not For Everybody

Opening last Friday, March 1, was A Place at the Table. This documentary explores the tragic fact that almost 50 million Americans aren't sure where their next meal is coming from. The problem is explored through three real people (a single mother, a 5th grader, and a 2nd grader with asthma) who are "food insecure."

Official trailer for A Place At The Table, addressing the problems of hunger in America and proposing solutions.

Academic experts and celebrities working to fight hunger are interviewed, including actor Jeff Bridges, 63, and chef Tom Colicchio, 50, the head judge on the Bravo series, Top Chef.

The film was co-directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, 44. Silverbush is Jewish; I am not sure about Jacobson.

You can find out if the film is opening in a theater near you on the official site. It is also available, now, for on-demand viewing, via your cable/satellite provider.

I recently saw the film and hope to speak to Silverbush more about it soon. I was impressed with how lucidly the complex issues surrounding hunger, or more precisely, the failure to make sure that every American has access to good quality, nutritious food at a reasonable cost, were presented.

In 2001, Silverbush wed Colicchio, who isn't Jewish, in a Jewish ceremony; they now have two sons.

Colicchio, by the way, performed a great service for Jewish food mavens when, in 2009, he saved the famous chef, Joan Nathan, 76, from choking by performing the Heimlich maneuver on her at a charity banquet. Nathan, who is Jewish, is most famous for her books on Jewish-style cooking.

Colicchio and Silverbush wed on September 15, 2001, just days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Their decision to go ahead with their long-planned wedding on Martha's Vineyard was the subject of a moving New York Times profile:

Mr. Colicchio, who is the chef and an owner of Gramercy Tavern and Craft in Manhattan, had worked with several young people, now listed among the missing, who had gone on to jobs at Windows on the World [a restaurant in the World Trade Center].

''We felt we didn't have the right to experience joy,'' Mr. Colicchio, 39, said. ''But people called and said, 'You've got to carry on.'''

Ms. Silverbush, 32, a loquacious, raven-haired filmmaker whose mother was raised in Israel, said: ''Terrorism is not a new concept to me. I couldn't let them win.''

The ceremony itself, however, was singular. Four of the couple's friends and relatives carried the wedding canopy aloft across a meadow. The bride beamed and sniffled when Dante [Colicchio's young son from a previous marriage] read aloud from ''The Velveteen Rabbit.'' The tragedy was acknowledged. ''Here in America, and there in Jerusalem, spread over us your canopy of peace,'' Rabbi Bonnie Cohen prayed. ''Amen,'' answered the assembled.

Rosenberg and the Red Widow

The new ABC series, Red Widow, started last Sunday, March 3, at 9 p.m. It was created by, and is mostly written by, Melissa Rosenberg, 50. I profiled Rosenberg in 2009, when the second Twilight movie opened. Rosenberg wrote the screenplays for all the Twilight movies. I wrote then:

Red Widow airs on ABC and is written and created by Melissa Rosenberg.
Rosenberg... is the daughter of a Jewish father and a mother of Irish Catholic background. Rosenberg, who was raised without religion, told the [Jewish] Journal [of Los Angeles] that she came to identify more as Jewish when she encountered a more vibrant Jewish "scene" at college. Subsequently, she met and married her husband, TV director Lev Spiro, who is Jewish. Before their marriage, they both took classes in Jewish practice and culture from a Los Angeles rabbi and were married in a synagogue.

Red Widow stars Radha Mitchell, 39, as a California woman whose late husband was in the Russian Mafia. After he is murdered, she has to agree to work for the Mob to save her life and the lives of her children.

Jewish actress Jamie Ray Newman, 34, who went to a Detroit-area Hillel Day School for her primary school education, and has been in several short-lived TV shows, has a supporting role.


[1] A lot of people assume that Baum was Jewish because "Baum" is often a Jewish surname. He was not Jewish. The continued popularity of the Oz characters is largely based on the incredible success of the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz. That movie did have many Jewish connections: a Jewish producer (Mervin LeRoy); a Jewish co-star (Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion); a Jewish costume designer (Adrian Greenberg, who created the famous ruby red slippers); and last, but not least, great songs by two famous Jewish composers (E.Y. Yarburg, who wrote the lyrics; and Harold Arlen, who wrote the music).

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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