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Interfaith Celebrities: Politicians, a Witchhunt, Grammy Nominees and More!

February 7, 2012

Melting Pot Surprises: Mitt Romney and Zach Braff (Related!) and the Salem Witch Trials

I often tell people that American Jewish and non-Jewish families have long been more "interfaith" than many seem to believe.

Senator John Kerry

Not long after the first Jewish settlement in America (1654), American Jews began intermarrying with non-Jews. Intermarriage has continued over the centuries, as has conversion to Judaism or conversion away from Judaism.

Today, millions of non-Jewish American families have Jewish ancestors and/or living Jews in their immediate or extended families. Likewise, a substantial portion of American Jews have an American non-Jewish ancestor in their family tree and/or non-Jewish relatives in their immediate or extended families. You can see these facts demonstrated in recent presidential campaigns and, to a degree, in the present race for the White House.

Former Governor Howard Dean

For a decade or so, I've collaborated with my friend Michael, whose genealogical research skills I greatly respect, as we've looked into the religious and ethnic backgrounds of candidates seeking their party's nomination for the American presidency. (Michael, by the way, is a Canadian of interfaith background).

In 2004, it was revealed that Senator John Kerry's father's parents were born Jewish, but converted to Catholicism around 1900. The Senator, and his brother, Cameron Kerry, who were raised Catholic, were not aware of their Jewish ancestry before 2004. Ironically, Cameron Kerry, 61, a college professor and influential advisor to his brother, converted to Judaism in 1983, shortly before marrying a Jewish woman. He is presently Vice-Chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

General Wesley Clark

Senator Kerry's main opponent for the Democratic nomination in 2004 was former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, now 63, who is Protestant. Dean's wife is Jewish and his children were raised in their mother's faith.

Also in 2004, General Wesley Clark, now 67, who briefly ran for the Democratic nomination, talked about his Jewish father, who died when Clark was very young. He was raised by his Protestant mother and stepfather and didn't learn about his father's Jewish background and make contact with his Jewish relatives until he was a teen. (Since then, he has had a warm relationship with some of his Jewish relatives.)

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

In 2000, when Hillary Rodham Clinton was running for a Senate seat in New York, she disclosed that she had a Jewish "half aunt" (the daughter of her maternal grandmother's second marriage to a Jewish man). In 2008, when Clinton ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination, her Jewish family connection was noted in this column.

I have previously noted in this column that President Obama, whose ancestors and relatives include Baptists, Methodists, Mormons, Catholics and Muslims, has a Jewish half-brother. Here's a brief, updated re-cap:

President Barack Obama

In early 1964, the three-year marriage of Barack Obama, Sr. and the President's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, ended. A few months later, the senior Obama began dating a Jewish American woman, Ruth Beatrice Baker, and married her at the end of 1964. She had two sons with him, one of whom, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, born 1965, survives. This half-brother of the President is Jewish by traditional Jewish religious law, although he appears to practice no faith. He is quite an accomplished businessman, pianist and novelist, with an Ivy League (Brown) undergraduate degree. The senior Obama's marriage to Ruth Baker Ndesandjo, who is still alive, ended in 1971.

Now here's a surprise that Michael just stumbled on "sort of by accident" when he looked into the background of Zach Braff, 36, the Jewish comedic actor who starred in the hit TV sitcom, Scrubs and wrote, directed and starred in the 2004 indie film hit, Garden State.

Former Governor Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney, 63, and Braff are both 8th generation descendants of Rebecca Nurse, also known as Rebecca Nurse Towne (1621-1692). Romney and Braff are, in fact, blood cousins.

Nurse, a devout Protestant woman, was accused and convicted of witchcraft during the infamous Salem, Massachusetts witch trials, and was later hanged. Nurse is a central character in The Crucible, the great 1952 play by Jewish playwright Arthur Miller, which used the historical witchcraft trials to comment on the McCarthyism of the day. As this linked biography says, her conviction did much to discredit the trials even as they were happening. She was considered, by most of Salem, to be a very pious woman and the jury had to be browbeaten into convicting her.

I'm guessing you're saying to yourself, "I'm not surprised that Mitt Romney had ancestors in America as far back as 17th century Massachusetts, but Zach Braff?"

Just below is Braff's family background as now found in his Wikipedia entry. My friend Michael recently edited the Wiki entry to include Braff's mother's full maiden name and the fact that she is a convert to Judaism. He also added links to two fairly obscure articles he found in which Braff and his brother, novelist Joshua Braff, 43, discussed their religious upbringing and their mother's conversion to Judaism:

Zach Braff, best known for Scrubs and Garden State.
Braff was born in South Orange, New Jersey. His mother, Anne Brodzinsky (born Anne Hutchinson Maynard), is a clinical psychologist, and his father, Harold Irwin "Hal" Braff, is a trial attorney and sociology professor.His parents divorced and re-married others during Braff's childhood. One of his siblings, Joshua, is an author. Braff's father was born Jewish, and Braff's mother, originally a Protestant, converted to Judaism before marrying his father. Braff was raised in Conservative Judaism, and has said that he is "not a huge organized religion guy". He has wanted to be a filmmaker since his early childhood, and has described it as his "life dream."

Not long after Michael told me the somewhat surprising news about Braff's mother's New England WASP background and conversion to Judaism (previously noted nowhere but in these two interviews), he wrote me again and said, "You know what? Both Zach Braff and Mitt Romney are descendants of Rebecca Nurse who was hanged as a witch in Salem."

I laughed a little when Michael told me this. It's pretty funny that Zach Braff, the star of a hit sit-com and a Jew, and Mitt Romney, a very wealthy Republican politician and a Mormon, are both descendants of a devout Puritan Protestant woman who was persecuted by other Puritans on a false charge of witchcraft and Satanism. As they used to say: "Only in America."

I will certainly agree with anyone who reads this column and comments that despite their "cousinhood," Braff and Romney are very different people. Not only were they raised in different religions, but they have very different personalities. Scores of political pundits have said that Mitt Romney comes off as incredibly "buttoned up" and that he doesn't seem to be able to convey much humor on the campaign trail. Many (perhaps unfairly) have called him "robotic."

On the other hand, Braff obviously has a great sense of humor. He showed this during the long run of his TV show Scrubs. In Garden State, Braff showed another type of talent. It was a very well-written film that sensitively explored deep family conflicts. Braff virtually laid his character's soul bare in his performance.

Still, the fact remains, Romney and Braff are blood cousins, albeit very distant ones. I am quite sure that neither knows that they are related, but it isn't a "total shocker" given the history of intermarriage in America.

As a matter-of-fact, I am sure Braff and Romney, both literate men, could have an "only in America" animated discussion about the religious persecution of Braff's Jewish ancestors and the similar persecution of Romney's Mormon ancestors. Then they could talk about the horrible end of their famous mutual Protestant ancestor, Rebecca Nurse. I think it's very likely that both have seen one of the many film, TV or stage productions of The Crucible.

Grammy Highlights

Will any of these nominees take a Grammy award home this year?

The Grammy awards, for musical excellence, air on CBS on Sunday, February 12, at 8 p.m. Presenters include Gwyneth Paltrow, 39, and Drake, 25, the superstar rapper. (Both are of interfaith background.) Drake's second smash-hit album, Take Care (November 2011), was released too late for 2012 Grammy consideration. But next year, he'll certainly be a multiple nominee.

2012 Jewish/interfaith nominees in the marquee categories include Ari Levine, 30, who co-produced and co-wrote Grenade, sung by Bruno Mars. It's up for song and record of the year and Levine is nominated for producer of the year. Also: Adam Levine, 32, the lead singer of Maroon 5, is up for the best pop duo performance Grammy for Moves Like Jagger with Christina Aguilera. Nominated in the same category are Tony Bennett and the late singer Amy Winehouse for Body and Soul. Barbra Streisand's album, What Matters Most, is nominated for best traditional pop album and Andy Samberg's comedy trio, Lonely Island, is up for best comedy album.

All the nominees mentioned above are the children of two Jewish parents, except for Mars, Aguilera and Bennett, who aren't Jewish, and Adam Levine, who is of interfaith background. (Aguilera's ex-husband is Jewish and they wed in a Jewish ceremony.)

It's worth noting here, close to Valentine's Day, that last year, at about this time, I included Adam Levine in a special article I did for InterfaithFamily.com about romantic songs written by (and sometimes performed by) persons of interfaith background and romantic songs by famous Jewish songwriters performed by non-Jewish singers. I encourage you to check it out!

Sit-Com Actor Wields a Hammer

Bronson Pinchot is back on TV, restoring homes.

Remember actor Bronson Pinchot, 52, who co-starred on TV's Perfect Strangers? Born Bronson Poncharavsky, he's the secular son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Since 1999, he has been masterfully restoring 19th century buildings in the small town of Haverford, Pennsylvania. The new six-episode DIY (do It yourself) cable channel show, The Bronson Pinchot Project, shows off Pinchot's work. (The series begins Saturday, Febuary 11, at 10:30 p.m.) Pinchot does a lot of the restoration work himself and also acts as his own general contractor.

Next issue: the scoop on the Jewish and Interfaith Oscar nominees!

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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