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Interfaith Celebrities: Paul Wolfowitz's Arab Girlfriend and The Naked Brothers Band

May 22, 2007

Paul Wolfowitz recently resigned as president of the World Bank following his help to get his Arab girlfriend, Shaha Riza, a well-paid job at the State Department. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Powerful Jews and the Arab Women who Love Them

Quite a few international films have featured Jews and Arabs whose Romeo-and-Juliet type romances are heavily influenced by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

However, in the real world, people just fall in love. Unless they are living in the middle of a political cauldron, like Israel, politics is usually not that big an issue in their relationship.

In the United States, Christian Arabs and Jews have been marrying in reasonable numbers for decades. Famous men's clothing designer Joseph Abboud, who is a Christian Arab-American of Lebanese descent, wrote in his autobiography that his American Jewish wife's family and his family had many cultural affinities and politics was never an issue between them. He added that he never had any problem being an Arab in the American fashion industry, which is heavily Jewish.

Still, when a famous American Jew has a romantic relationship with a person of Arab background, people notice--and they are surprised.

As this item goes to press, Paul Wolfowitz has resigned from his position as the president of the World Bank. Wolfowitz, who is Jewish, has been accused of improperly using his influence to get a cushy State Department job for his girlfriend, Shaha Riza, a former World Bank staff member.

Riza, 53, was born into a Muslim family in Libya. Some reports say she is no longer a practicing Muslim. Her father was a Libyan and her mother was Syrian-Saudi. Her father was a consultant to King Saud of Saudi Arabia.

Riza was well-educated in the West and speaks five languages. Before joining the World Bank in 1997, she worked for the National Endowment for Democracy, a United States government funded group that seeks to spread democracy around the world.

Wolfowitz, 63, comes from a religious Jewish family that was also very culturally involved. His father, a Cornell professor, taught in Israel, and Paul's sister, a biologist, married an Israeli and lives in Israel.

Wolfowitz became famous or infamous, depending on your perspective, as Deputy Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2005. He was one of the "neo-cons" who strongly favored the invasion of Iraq, seeing it as a critical step in the democratization of the Arab world (Wolfowitz taught himself Arabic in the '80s).

Wolfowitz and Riza were both married when they met in the early 1990s. Although it is not crystal clear, it is likely that they did not start dating until at least 1999, by which time Wolfowitz had separated from his Jewish wife of 30 years and Riza had also got a divorce from her husband.

Although their differing backgrounds have not been a main focus of media coverage of their relationship, some sources have discussed it. The London Sunday Times said in 2005, shortly after Wolfowitz was appointed head of the World Bank:

Riza, an Arab feminist who confounds portrayals of Wolfowitz as a leader of a 'Zionist conspiracy' of Jewish neoconservatives in Washington...[and who] works as the bank's senior gender co-ordinator for the Middle East and north Africa... not only shares Wolfowitz's passion for spreading democracy in the Arab world, but is said to have reinforced his determination to remove Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime.

It is kind of sad that what many people would view as a bridge relationship across the Arab Muslim and Jewish divide is mired in scandal.

I was surprised about the Riza/Wolfowitz relationship, but I was really knocked-back when I read in the May 11 issue of the New York Daily News that Queen Noor of Jordan and famous Jewish billionaire investor and political activist George Soros were "keeping company":

They set out to help the world's poor, but…George Soros and Queen Noor may have arrived at a romance… buzz is building that the billionaire philanthropist and the widow of Jordan's King Hussein share more than a passion for open societies.
More and more, you're apt to find Her Majesty at the side of the Democratic Party kingmaker. Last November, she turned up for a lecture he gave at Oxford on "The Consequences of the War on Terrorism." (They drove off together afterward.) Last February, she accompanied him on a four-day trip to Liberia…
Soros, 76, and Noor, 55, have been friends and political allies for years… But lately, a good friend confirms, "They have been dating. They seem very happy." The queen, born Lisa Halaby in Washington, D.C., became the fourth wife of King Hussein in 1978, and with him had four children. Since his death in 1999, the erudite beauty, who converted to Islam, has only been linked with one other man, AOL co-founder Jim Kimsey.
The Hungarian-born Soros moved in 1956 to New York, where he established his market-moving Quantum Fund. Three years ago, he and second wife divorced.
A spokesman for Soros denied he's dating the queen and said, "I do not believe he's attending (Tuesday's) event."

Soros, by the way, is not a practicing Jew and only recently has expressed any interest in Jewish issues.

Queen Noor's whole background is nicely covered in the first chapter of her autobiography. Note that her paternal grandfather was a Lebanese Arab Christian immigrant to America (her other grandparents are not Arab). Interestingly, Noor says that her paternal grandfather ended up settling in Dallas, Texas, and, in the 1920s, went into business with the Jewish founder/owners of the famous Neiman-Marcus department store.

Wolffs Leading the Tween Pack

 

Nat (L) and Alex (C) Wolff, stars of Nickelodeon's "The Naked Brother Band," are sons of Polly Draper, of "thirtysomething," and Jewish jazz pianist Michael Wolff. The brothers are shown here with '80s pop goddess Cyndi Lauper.

A "mockumentary" comedy series on Nickelodeon, "The Naked Brothers Band," is now the top-rated cable program in America for children aged 6-11 (the so-called "tween market.") Launched in February, the show features real brothers Nat Wolff, 12, and Alex Wolff, 9. "Naked" follows the boys' rock band, their friends, and their kiddie crushes.

The boys really do play instruments and are entertaining "naturals." But how they got on the air is a bit more complicated. Their dad is highly respected Jewish jazz pianist Michael Wolff. He met the boys' mother, actress Polly Draper, when he was music director for Arsenio Hall's talk show in the early '90s.

Draper is best known for co-starring as Ellen Warren on TV's "thirtysomething." I am sure Draper is not Jewish by birth. However, my sources are unclear whether she converted to Judaism upon marrying Michael Wolff. I don't think so, but I cannot say one way or the other with certainty.

Inspired by their sons' real-life band, Wolff and Draper made a comic film about the boys in 2005 called "The Naked Brothers Band." They got Uma Thurman, Julianne Moore, and the entire cast of "thirtysomething" to make cameo appearances. Nickelodeon execs loved the film, which is now out on DVD, and turned it into a TV series. Polly Draper produces the TV show and Michael plays the boys' father on TV.

Michael Wolff told the Cleveland Jewish News that his family is "culturally Jewish" and that he, Draper, and his sons celebrate Passover and Hanukkah.

Suzanne Pleshette, the Jewish actress who played Bob Newhart's wife on the original "Bob Newhart Show," was married in 2001 to Tom Poston, who was a regular on Newhart's next show, "Newhart." Poston died last month. REUTERS

 

Suzanne Pleshette (AKA Newhart's First Wife)

Actress Suzanne Pleshette, 70, is an odd Jewish duck. She's had a very long acting career, first in dramas like The Birds, and then as co-star of the classic comedy "Bob Newhart Show." However, if she ever talked to the press about being Jewish, it had to be a very long time ago. I have never found an interview in which ever stated or even hinted that she was Jewish.

About five years ago, I pieced together that Pleshette was Jewish from information I found about her parents. I noted this information on a Jewish biographical website I then edited. Not long after, the user-created web encyclopedia Wikipedia essentially lifted this info without credit and put Pleshette on its list of Jewish-American actors.

Recently, Wikipedia has altered its practice and now does credit its sources, but you will notice they still have no source explaining why they describe Pleshette as Jewish. The reason is that this fact is not found in any standard biography of Pleshette.

Well, now Wikipedia will have a good source--this column item.

I recently spoke with Army Archerd, 85, a legendary Variety columnist. Archerd, who knows Pleshette, told me she is Jewish.

Pleshette's husband of six years, comedian Tom Poston, died on April 30. Archerd attended Poston's funeral and burial at Hillside Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles. Hillside has long been the favorite Jewish cemetery for West Coast showbiz Jews.

Pleshette, Archerd wrote in his blog, gave a witty and warm eulogy that celebrated Tom's life. Pleshette told the funeral crowd that Poston, even though he wasn't Jewish, was "the best Tevye." Poston played Teyve in a stage production of "Fiddler on the Roof." Younger TV viewers probably know Poston best for his supporting role as the dim-witted handyman George Utley on the sitcom "Newhart," which aired from 1982 to 1990.

Before Poston, Pleshette was married for 22 years to non-Jewish businessman Tommy Gallagher. During her eulogy for Poston, Suzanne made a little joke that she had to change Gallagher's name to "Goldberg" so she could bury him at Hillside when he died in 2000. (Actually, Hillside has always permitted the burial of non-Jewish spouses).

Suzanne Pleshette, sadly, is now suffering from lung cancer. I only wish this beautiful, funny, and often "cool" woman had been more public about being Jewish.

 

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state.

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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