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Interfaith Celebrities: Revisiting Exodus and Narnia

May 13, 2008

The State of Israel declared its independence 60 years ago this month. There are celebrations in Israel all month long and there are anniversary events in many other countries as well.

The most famous film about the founding of the State of Israel is Exodus (1960). While a little dated, it still has many scenes of undeniable great power and a lot of gorgeous photography.

Exodus, from the novel by Jewish writer Leon Uris, was the first major motion picture filmed on location in Israel. Exodus played to sold-out crowds and earned five times its cost. It helped to foster a lot of good will towards Israel in Western countries.

Paul Newman in Exodus
Paul Newman in the Exodus movie trailer, 1960.

Exodus starred the incredibly good-looking Paul Newman as Ari Ben-Canaan. The Ari character is fictional--a composite of a lot of real life people. Ari is an almost too perfect hero.

The movie is set in Palestine in 1947 and Ari Ben-Canaan has served through World War II in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army (the Brigade, made up of Jewish volunteer soldiers from what was then called Palestine, really existed). As the movie opens, Ari is an officer in the Haganah, the para-military force created by the more politically moderate elements of the Jewish population then in Palestine. Ari's father is a leading political moderate, while Ari's uncle is a radical--determined to use whatever force is necessary to get the British to leave Palestine and thereby allow free Jewish immigration to the country and the creation of an independent Jewish state.

The British, who controlled Palestine from 1918 to 1948, appeased the Arabs by keeping Jewish immigration to Palestine at very low levels throughout the 1930s and '40s. This policy deprived most Jews fleeing Hitler of a safe refuge.

Early in the film, a shipload of Holocaust survivors hoping to settle in Palestine are intercepted by the British and interned on the island of Cyprus, then a British colonial possession. Ari goes to Cyprus to see about their welfare and meets Kitty (Eva-Marie Saint), a non-Jewish American volunteer nurse who is helping the interned Jewish survivors. Although she initially voices vaguely anti-Semitic views, Kitty has a good heart. Ari gives her a crash course in Jewish history as they travel around Cyprus and later, Palestine. Of course, they eventually fall in love.

Kitty's character is a very useful dramatic device. As she, a non-Jewish skeptic, gets converted to the Zionist/Jewish cause, the audience--mostly non-Jewish--also presumably was persuaded.

And--let's face it--it was hard for a huge portion of the film audience not to be persuaded when the hero was Paul Newman, then just about at the height of his sexiness.

Ari Ben Canaan was the only Jewish film role that Paul Newman has played during his long film career. Newman was born in 1925 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, an affluent Cleveland suburb with a large Jewish population. His father, who was Jewish, owned a profitable sporting goods store. His mother, born a Catholic, converted to Christian Science when Newman was 5. His father was a non-practicing Jew and his mother sent Paul to Christian Science sunday school for a couple of years. But, Newman told a reporter once, "It did not take."

For the most part, Newman has rigorously eschewed organized religion or identifying with a religion, once telling a reporter that he didn't believe in any religion and "I've been worked over by experts." On the other hand, he once said that if he was really "pressed," he would say he was a Jew, "because it is more of a challenge."

One is pressed to find a lot of explictly Jewish connections in Newman's life besides his Exodus role. He has been married twice and neither his first wife, nor his second wife, actress Joanne Woodward, is Jewish. I did catch a reference to Newman addressing a meeting of an organization of Haganah veterans living in the United States about seven years ago. So, one assumes Newman has some sentimental ties to Israel.

Also, Newman's for-charity company, Newman's Own, founded in 1982, finances worthy projects all over the world and has given away more than $200 million. One such project is the Holes-in-the-Wall family camps for seriously ill children. Fourteen camps worldwide have served over 100,000 children to date. Later this year, a new Hole-in-the-Wall camp will open in Israel and it will serve sick children of every religious background.

In a more general sense, whether defined in terms of Jewish, Christian, or secular charitable ideals--virtually no celebrity has lived a life of more useful public service than Paul Newman. Amid his charitable work, he has also had in a film career that is as significant as almost any actor in American film history.

After service in the Navy in World War II, Newman got a degree in dramatic arts. He struggled to gets parts in the New York theater, and with a wife and child to support, he thought of quitting and going into the family business. But he perservered, got good stage roles and was signed to a film contract in 1954. He avoided lightweight costume roles, typically given to good-looking actors, and made his mark in serious dramas like Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958).

Newman fell head-over-heels in love with actress Joanne Woodward in 1957 and even though he was guilt-ridden, he ended his first marriage to marry Woodward in 1958. They have been the model Hollywood couple, even though they live in Connecticut. Both have consistently acted in first-class plays and films and have frequently appeared together. Not a hint of scandal has ever been attached to either of them and their marriage has been a great love story.

Newman actually became a better actor as he aged and he gave gritty dramatic performances in some of the best films of the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s. He also showed some flair for comedic or light acting work, as in Slap Shot and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He has been nominated for the best actor Oscar eight times, winning once for The Color of Money. In 2002, at the age of 78, he earned a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for The Road to Perdition.

His frequent co-star, Robert Redford, once said that Newman always looked 10 years younger than he was. He has aged as well as anyone in the film business, despite some hard knocks he got racing cars at the professional level.

Paul Newman in 2005
Paul Newman in 2005. REUTERS/Jim Ruymen

In 2007, Paul Newman announced his retirement from acting. He is scheduled to direct a stage play that will open in October. There have been rumors that his health is failing. I hope they aren't true. Newman has lived a life as "well-lived" as any American alive today and every day he contributes, as he puts it, "to the common good."

An Odd Jewish Connection to Narnia

The children's fantasy adventure The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, opens in theaters on May 15. It is a sequel to the hit 2005 film, The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Both films are based on best-selling children's novels by the late British author C. S. Lewis (1898-1963).

Lewis, an atheist as a young man, became a devout Anglican Christian around 30. An Oxford professor, Lewis was the author of many books explaining his faith and putting forth, as it were, the case for Christianity. Even the Narnia novels have a Christian sub-text, which is explored in this article.

The Narnia film series almost didn't get made because Lewis' heirs, Douglas Gresham (a paid producer on both Narnia films) and his brother, David Gresham, aren't on speaking terms. Douglas is a fervent evangelical Christian, while David is an Orthodox Jew. It isn't exactly clear what role religion has had in their decades-long estrangement, but it seems to be a major factor in the split.

The Narnia films' "dealmaker" worked overtime as a go-between, and the brothers finally signed off on the film rights.

The Gresham brothers' mother, American writer Joy Gresham (1915-60), was born Jewish to a Hasidic family, but switched from being a communist to a Christian in the '40s (She was influenced to convert by Lewis' books). Joy moved to England with her sons in the '50s and eventually married C.S. Lewis. He adopted Douglas and David and left them his estate when he died.

Lewis and Joy Gresham raised the boys as Christians. David, however, rebelled and became an Orthodox Jew while still a teen in Lewis' house.

Lewis, to his great credit, had his kitchen cleaned according to Jewish religious law so that it could be used for the preparation of kosher food for David. He also brought in kosher meat and other kosher foods for David to eat.

David subsequently learned Yiddish and became a Hasidic Jew and a Talmudic scholar. While he's still Orthodox, he is no longer a Hasid.

A play about the romance of Gresham and Lewis, called Shadowlands, has twice been made into a film of the same name. The most recent and best known version is the 1993 film starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and American Jewish actress Debra Winger as Joy Gresham (Winger, who is very much still Jewish, got an Oscar nomination for best actress for her performance).

The film, like the play, depicts Joy Gresham as having only one son: Douglas. David simply does not exist in the play or the film versions of the play.

It is my understanding that the playwright, William Nicholson, did not write David out of history for any bad reason. The explanation is more prosaic: it was difficult to find one child actor who was a competent actor and child labor laws made it hard to arrange the schedule of one child actor so he could perform in eight stage performances a week. Having two young sons in the play would have more than doubled these problems. So, David was never written into the play and most casual fans of Lewis are unaware of his existence. In any case, David's religious "rebellion" took place after the events depicted in Shadowlands.

Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.

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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