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Interfaith Celebrities Play Ball and Dance the Merengue

April 10, 2009

All-Stars of David

A new baseball season has begun, so it's time to clue you into the active Jewish players in the majors and to comment on a couple of players who retired during the off-season.

I prepared this article with the help of the Jewish Sports Review newsletter, the premiere source on who is Jewish in high school, college, and pro sports. The Review is a non-profit labor-of-love by two guys I consider friends and virtually every good source on Jews in baseball is built on the Review's hard work. For more on how the Review decides which players to include, see my column on baseball from 2007.

Kevin Youkilis hits a home run

Kevin Youkilis hit 16 homeruns last season, and set up a charity foundation. Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk.

Two players I mentioned in my 2007 article, catcher Mike Lieberthal and outfielder Shawn Green, retired during the off-season. Lieberthal, whose father is Jewish, had a solid 14-year career in which he was twice named to the All-Star team. He spent 13 years with the Phillies before signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the 2007 season. Hampered by injuries, Lieberthal didn't play much in 2007 and the Dodgers decided not to pick up his option for 2008.

Shawn Green never became "the Jewish Babe Ruth" that many predicted he would be. Still, he had good career numbers in 12 seasons with Toronto, Los Angeles, and the New York Mets (.283 batting average; 323 home runs). He had a solid 2007 season, but his big salary led the Mets to release him. Green got offers from some teams, but he would only accept an offer from a West Coast team so he could be near his wife and kids. No offer came, and he decided to retire.

Green has been very active in Jewish charities and he accepted, with a great deal of class, the often time-consuming job of being the Jewish athlete who would be feted by the local Jewish community as he visited each city in the league. Even though his Jewish parents were barely religious, Green made a point of sitting out a couple of games that fell on the Yom Kippur holiday. He said that he did so to be a role model.

Ryan Braun, 24, broke into the majors last June with the Milwaukee Brewers and proceeded to slug his way to National League Rookie of the Year honors. He was the first Jewish player to win the award.

Unfortunately, Braun's terrible fielding skills were also on display last year and the Brewers have decided, this season, to move him from third base to the outfield.

Braun is the son of an Israeli-born father and a Catholic mother. He was raised without religion and with few Jewish cultural ties. However, his connection to the Jewish community seems to be growing a bit--last December he accepted an invitation to come to the White House for the annual non-partisan Hanukkah party the President throws. (See my prior column on Braun.)

Joining Braun on the Brewers' roster is outfielder Gabe Kapler, 32, who broke in with the Tigers in 1999 and was with the Red Sox from 2003-2006. Kapler was a highly touted prospect but injuries and substandard performance have relegated him to being a fringe major leaguer. But that didn't stop him from being a clubhouse leader and one of the most popular players on the Red Sox's 2004 World Series championship team. 

In 2007, Kapler retired and took a minor league coaching job. He decided to come back this year and signed a one-year deal with the Brewers. He has done well in spring training. Kapler has also been active in Jewish charity work.

Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, 29, had a breakthrough season in 2007. He hit .288, with 16 homers, a ton of walks, and a Golden Glove for his perfect fielding (he didn't make a single error all season). Youkilis, who had a bar mitzvah, was raised in a religious Jewish home. Last September, he set up a charity foundation to help poor kids, recently telling a reporter:

In my religion, the Jewish religion, that's one of the biggest things that's taught, is giving a mitzvah, forming a mitzvah. I was always taught as a kid giving to charity. You're supposed to give a good amount of charity each and every year. That probably started in my youth.

Completing the roster of major league Hebrews are: Colorado Rockies pitcher Jason Hirsh; Chicago Cubs pitcher Jason Marquis and outfielder Sam Fuld; Pittsburgh relief pitcher John Grabow; Texas Rangers third baseman Ian Kinsler and relief pitcher Scott Feldman; Houston Astros catcher Brad Ausmus and New York Mets reliever Scott Schoeneweis.

As in most recent seasons, more than half the active Jewish players come from interfaith homes. Kapler, Youkilis, Hirsh and Marquis have two Jewish parents, while the rest of the active players listed above have one Jewish parent.

Meet the Rodriguez Family

Currently filming in Chicago is Humboldt Park, the first major holiday (i.e. Christmas) film about a Latino family--the Puerto Rican Rodriguez family of Chicago.

The film opens as the three Rodriguez children (two sons and a daughter) make their way back to Chicago for Christmas with their parents (played by Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Peña).

One son (played by Freddy Rodriguez) is a soldier just back from Iraq, where he was wounded. The daughter, who is supposed to be a struggling TV actress, is played by actress Vanessa Ferlito ("CSI NY").

The other son, played by John Leguizamo, is a New York lawyer, who, in the words of the movie's publicity release, "is struggling to start a family with his Jewish wife."

Actress Debra Messing, of Will and Grace" fame, plays Leguizamo's Jewish wife. (Debra Messing is Jewish in real life.)

Debra Messing Looks Fabulous
Debra Messing "does some mean salsa" in her new movie with John Leguizamo. Reuters/Mario Anzuoni.

The Chicago Sun Times says about Leguizamo and Messing's interaction on the set:

But Leguizamo gives Messing--whom he jokingly calls ''a cute little white girl''--high marks as a fast study of Latino culture. ''She does some mean salsa in this movie. A little hip-hop, too. She goes crazy. I love it!' Messing enjoys being ''the odd girl out'' in the story, she says. Admitting that the role has also brought her an education about Puerto Rican culture in particular, Messing says, ''I love to be experiencing onscreen what much of the [non-Hispanic] audience will be experiencing when they come to see this movie.''

Leguizamo, who has a long list of movie and TV credits, was born in Colombia. He is Catholic, and has Puerto Rican, Colombian, and Lebanese grandparents. In 1968, when Leguizamo was 4, his family moved to Queens, a very ethnically diverse section of New York City.

In real life, Leguizamo is married to a Jewish woman--Justine Maurer, 39, an estate planner. They have been together since 1997 and they have two children who were born before the couple officially tied the knot in 2003.

Leguizamo and Maurer had an interfaith wedding ceremony that incorporated Jewish and Catholic elements.

In an amusing 2005 interview with the New York newspaper, Newsday, Leguizamo said that he and his Jewish wife, Justine, have swapped stereotypical ethnic qualities:

She likes to go to bars and hang out with friends constantly. And a lot of times I like to be alone, hang out with my music, read a book. So that would be more my Jewish intellectual side, being alone, and her loving to be a party girl, going up there and rocking the parties and stuff [is her Puerto Rican side].
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." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. 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.

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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