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Interfaith Celebrities: Roasting Joan Rivers

August 5, 2009

On Sunday, Aug. 9, at 10 p.m., Comedy Central will present a roast of famous Jewish comedian Joan Rivers, 76. I was pleasantly surprised that this roast, unlike some recent comic roasts on Comedy Central, features a true A-list of well-known comics who are known for their ability to deliver a comic insult line with actual wit.

The TV special's host is Kathy Griffin, who comes from the same comedic school as Rivers. Both specialize in being funny/nasty about the foibles of celebrities. The other speakers include Carl Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried, Jeffrey Ross, Brad Garrett of Everybody Loves Raymond fame, Mario Cantone and Tom Arnold.

Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers at the Kennedy Center last year. Photo: Reuters/Mike Theiler.

All the performers above are Jewish, with the exception of Griffin (who frequently discusses being a "very" lapsed Catholic on her Bravo TV specials) and Mario Cantone, an Italian-Catholic gay stand-up comedian best known for playing Charlotte's acid-tongued, funny gay best friend, Anthony, on Sex and the City. The Anthony character's catty persona is very close to Cantone's real-life stand-up style.

Some people who just remember Arnold from his former marriage to Roseanne Barr might be surprised by his selection as a roast speaker. Like many other entertainers who first became famous because of their marriage to a more famous person, Arnold has had to prove repeatedly that he's talented in his own right. His peers know he's talented--hence his inclusion in the Joan Rivers roast special. But I don't think a lot of the public knows how funny he can be.

For those people unfamiliar with Arnold at his best, I say rent the really fun film True Lies (1994). Tom Arnold is a perfect comic foil for True Lies stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. It's just a shame that Arnold has not been cast in more of such well-written roles.

Tom Arnold, now 50, grew up in a small Iowa city in a working-class family. He was one of six children and was raised a Methodist. He put together a comic routine and hit the stand-up circuit in 1980. While on the circuit in 1983, he met Barr, already famous for her "domestic goddess" stand-up routine. Arnold was a virtual unknown at the time and he had a bad drinking problem. In a recent profile in the Salt Lake City Tribune, he credits Roseanne with his "life."

Despite the [1994] divorce and not speaking to Barr in person since then, it was Roseanne who "validated" him by thinking he was funny back when they met on the comedy circuit. And just as significant, it was Barr who inspired him to quit drinking. "I would have been dead without Roseanne," Arnold said.
Tom Arnold
Tom Arnold has a Jewish star tattooed over his heart. Photo: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch.

Barr, now 56, grew up in Utah. Her family kept their Jewish background secret from their mostly Mormon neighbors. Sometimes they even attended Mormon religious services. Back when Barr met and wed Arnold, she seemed a proud, mainstream Jew. Since about 2004, however, Barr's writing on Jews and Judaism has included barely comprehensible screeds on her web blog about being a kabbalist and follower of Jesus Christ. Some of the things she's written would absolutely be called anti-Semitic if a non-Jew said them. When this month she appeared dressed as Hitler and made bizarre anti-Semitic jokes in a supposedly edgy article in Heeb magazine, I joined many people who thought she'd gone over the edge.

In 1988, Barr got her own TV show, Roseanne, and hired Arnold as a staff writer for the show. The sitcom became a monster hit and ran until 1997. Shortly after the beginning of the show's run, Arnold and Barr began having an affair. Arnold was not married, but Barr was still married to her (non-Jewish) husband of 15 years who is the father of three of her children.

Barr divorced her husband in 1990 and married Tom Arnold. They had a quickie civil wedding. A couple of years later, Arnold converted to Judaism and he and Barr had a Jewish wedding in a synagogue.

Arnold said in his autobiography that his marriage to Roseanne prompted an interest in Judaism, especially as he helped Roseanne's kids with their Hebrew-school homework. But a trip to Roseanne's home state resulted in a "surprise" that really kindled his interest in Judaism. The Salt Lake City Tribune says:

Two decades ago, on his first trip to Utah with Barr, Arnold received genealogy records from officials from the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ... . To his surprise, he found he was descended from Eastern European Jews, a lineage he had never known about. The discovery added impetus to Arnold's quest to convert to Judaism, which was initially prompted by his marriage to the Jewish comedian famous for the top-rated TV show Roseanne. Arnold said he still practices Judaism, and it was at a Passover seder in 2008 where he met his fiancée, Ashley Groussman.

In his autobiography, Arnold says his Jewish ancestors were named "Cohen" and that was his maternal great-grandfather's name.

Frankly, I was pleased to find the Salt Lake City Tribune piece quoted above. Tom Arnold is not such a famous guy that one can easily find press updates about his Jewish ties. About seven years ago, I found a reference to him attending Jewish New Year services at a Los Angeles synagogue, but not much about him being Jewish since.

I think one can safely assume Tom's current fiancée is Jewish, given where they met.

Arnold and Barr divorced in 1994. Arnold refused to take alimony from Barr, even though she made more money. He has made his own living, appearing in middle-budget films, on TV shows and doing stand-up comedy. Currently he hosts Redneck Wedding, a surprise reality show hit on the CMT cable network.

Oh, and I really think Adam Sandler should think about apologizing to Tom Arnold for this lyric in Sandler's third "Chanukah Song" (2002) about Jewish celebrities: "Tom Arnold converted to Judaism, but you guys can have him back!"

Ehrlichman's Jewish Ancestry

On June 24, the Nixon library released another audio tape that former president Richard Nixon had recorded during his presidency. It included what most labeled an anti-Semitic exchange between Nixon and evangelist Billy Graham. This tape followed the release, since 1974, of other tapes in which Nixon made slurs against Jews and even asked that the tax returns of Jewish Democratic contributors be audited (it is unclear if any audits were, in fact, done).

The recent tape prompted a friend of mine, a family history expert, to look at the backgrounds of Nixon's aides. He told me he was quite sure, based on census records, that top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman (1925-1999), had some Jewish ancestry. This astonished me, since Ehrlichman was often referred to as one of the two Nixon White House "Prussians," along with Bob Haldeman, another top aide with a Germanic last name. The Prussian moniker referred not only to the aides' assumed ancestry, but to their tough demeanor and their harsh way of dealing with most people.

I found a discussion of Ehrlichman's Jewish ancestry in The Palace Guard, a 1974 study of the Watergate scandal co-written by Dan Rather. For whatever reason, Ehrlichman's Jewish ancestry doesn't seem to have been noted in any Jewish or general press article since 1974.

Ehrlichman's paternal grandfather was an Austrian Jewish immigrant who settled in Seattle, did well in business and co-founded the city's first Orthodox synagogue. His Jewish wife converted to Christian Science and raised the couple's four children in that faith. John's father, a Christian Scientist by faith, married John's mother, another Christian Scientist. The Palace Guard says that Ehrlichman never identified as a Jew. He even joined a "no-Jews" allowed college fraternity at UCLA in the late '40s.

In writing this column, I have come across memoirs of many people with Jewish ancestry and Jews who "don't look Jewish," in which they recount their discomfort when someone who didn't know about their Jewish background made an anti-Semitic remark in their presence. I was curious about how Ehrlichman reacted when Nixon made anti-Semitic remarks in front of him. Well, there's no clear answer to that question, but there are some clues.

Apparently Nixon had a finely tuned antenna as to his audience. Nixon's most important Jewish political appointees swear that he never made an anti-Semitic remark in their presence. These include speechwriter William Safire, lawyer Leonard Garment and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean said in a 2002 interview:

He's [Nixon] deadly serious in these [anti-Semitic, anti-women and anti-black] conversations. While I never heard this from Nixon when I was in the Oval Office, it was one of the things that surprised me when the tapes surfaced. It seems that Nixon had different types of conversations with different people. I find that he was at his worst, it seems, with Bob Haldeman, his chief of staff. When talking with Haldeman, his anti-Semitism is at its worst. He's less so with Ehrlichman. Nixon was also very open with [United States Attorney General John] Mitchell, as he is with Haldeman. So it depends on with whom he's talking.

Did Nixon temper his anti-Semitic remarks in front of Ehrlichman because he knew about his Jewish ancestry or could sense it made him uncomfortable? I don't know for sure, but it's an interesting question.

As far as I can tell, Ehrlichman never was an "amen chorus" for Nixon's anti-Semitic remarks--unlike Haldeman, Mitchell and, very sad to say, Billy Graham.

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." 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 language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.

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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