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Interfaith Celebrities: Santa's Jewish Family, and Margot at the Wedding's Near-Minyan

Nov. 22, 2007

Santa’s Jewish Kids

Paul Giamatti, currently co-starring in Fred Claus, is raising his children Jewish with his Jewish wife Elizabeth Cohen. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

In an earlier column, I referenced a now year-old quote from non-Jewish actor Paul Giamatti (Sideways) in which he said that he was an atheist and that his young son would probably be raised in the Jewish faith of Giamatti’s wife, Elizabeth Cohen.

Well, I guess Paul and his wife have made a decision. In a recent issue of Parade magazine the Oscar-nominated Giamatti said:

I don't celebrate Christmas anymore. I haven't for years, because my wife is Jewish. But we really go out in a big way for Hanukkah, and my (6-year-old) son goes bananas for it.

Parade asked him about celebrating both occasions and Giamatti replied: “That would be a lot of work. The kid gets a full week of Hanukkah and that's enough. I think if we threw in a tree and presents from Santa, he'd just get confused.”

Parade’s questions about Christmas were prompted by Giamatti’s co-starring role in the Christmas movie, Fred Claus, which opened on Nov. 9 to lackluster reviews and fairly weak box office. (Giamatti plays Santa; Vince Vaughn plays Santa’s brother, “Fred Claus.”)

The Jedi Too

Ewan McGregor, one of the stars of Trainspotting and the recent Star Wars prequels, is also raising his children as Jews with his Jewish wife Eve Mavrakis (L), a film production designer. Photo by REUTERS/Luke MacGregor.

Another very good actor, Ewan McGregor, has also decided to raise his children in the faith of his Jewish wife. McGregor, 36, married his wife, Eve Mavrakis, 41, in 1995. She is a French Jew of Greek Jewish descent and a prominent film production designer.

McGregor, a handsome Scotsman, was born a Protestant. He first became well-known as the star of the surprise 1996 hit, Trainspotting. Since then he has co-starred in quite a few excellent films including Moulin Rouge and Black Hawk Down. But he really became internationally famous when he played the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.

Last September, McGregor told a Scottish paper that he and his wife are raising their three daughters in their mother’s Jewish faith. Ewan and Eve have two “natural” daughters: Clara, 11, and Esther, 5. In April 2006, they adopted a 4-year-old girl from Mongolia named Jamiyan.

McGregor told the same paper that he has been to Israel several times: “My family is Jewish and we went there because of that.”

Congrats to Ryan Braun

As virtually every baseball fan has heard by now, Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers’ hitting sensation, was named National League Rookie of the Year for 2007. Braun, the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, is the first Jewish ballplayer to win the Rookie of the Year award.

Braun’s interfaith background was covered in my Sept. 20 column for this site and I think those who haven’t yet read that column item will find it very interesting. I took to task a couple of Jewish newspaper journalists for failing to note Braun’s interfaith background (especially a very misleading article on Braun distributed by JTA).

I’m pleased to say that my column was read by the JTA editorial staff and, with my permission, they sent out an edited version of my Ryan Braun article that many Jewish papers published last month.

Almost a Minyan at Margot at the Wedding

Director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach, the son a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, has cast his latest film, Margot at the Wedding, with all manner of Jews, part-Jews and non-Jews married to Jews. Photo courtesy Paramount Vantage Films.

Noah Baumbach’s new film, Margot at the Wedding opened in limited release on Nov. 19, with more theaters being added in subsequent weeks. I cannot really recall a movie dividing “intelligent” critics as much as this film has.

For example, the New York Times’s A.O. Scott liked the film, calling it “squirmingly funny” and “frequently brilliant.” Time’s Richard Schickel, on the other hand, headlined their review, “Margot’s Misconceived Wedding,” and savaged the film and the filmmaker.

Margot, which was written and directed by Baumbach, is a complicated tale about family of East Coast literati riven by conflicts between family members. They come together for the wedding of family member Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Malcolm (Jack Black). The lead character, Margot, Pauline’s sister, is played by Nicole Kidman.

Baumbach, 38, became well-known as the director/writer of The Squid and the Whale (2005), which earned him an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Squid, which was semi-autobiographical, told the tale of the dissolution of the marriage of a college literature professor and his wife, whose writing career takes off as her husband’s sputters. The story was told from the perspective of the older of the couple’s two sons (a character clearly based on Noah himself).

Baumbach is the son of a Jewish father (novelist/critic Jonathan Baumbach) and a non-Jewish mother (Village Voice critic Georgia Brown). While he was not raised in any faith, Noah told a couple of Jewish papers back in 2005 that he identified as Jewish--especially “the people of the book” aspect of being Jewish.

One thing is for sure: Baumbach seems to cast a lot of Jewish and half-Jewish actors in his films. Squid and the Whale featured Jewish actor Jesse Eisenberg, now 24, as the older son and Owen Kline, now 16, as the younger son.

Among the cavalcade of Jewish-ish actors in Margot at the Wedding are Jennifer Jason Leigh (L)--who is also Baumbach's wife--and Jack Black, whose father converted to Judaism when he married his mother. Photo courtesy Paramount Vantage Films.

Kline is the son of actor Kevin Kline and actress Phoebe Cates. Owen’s ethnic/religious background is so complicated that I will explain it in detail when he appears in a new film. Suffice it to say that he is 5/8 Jewish, 1/4 Irish Catholic, and 1/8 Chinese Catholic. (Not many people can say that!)

Halley Feiffer, who played the older son’s girlfriend in Squid, has a supporting role in Margot. Halley, 22, is the daughter of famous Jewish cartoonist/writer Jules Feiffer and his (Jewish) wife, writer/stand-up comic Jenny Allen.

Owen Kline got his role in Squid because he was recommended by Margot co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh, 45.

Leigh, who dated Noah Baumbach for four years before marrying him in 2005, has been great friends with Owen’s mother, Phoebe Cates, since they co-starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High back in 1982.

The fact that Leigh is Jewish may come as a surprise to many. I’ve been tempted to call Leigh a “stealth Jew” because she never talks about being Jewish. But I realize that the stealth label is really unfair because Leigh keeps every aspect of her private life very private. I cannot recall her doing an interview in which she discussed her private life in any depth.

Leigh’s father was Jewish actor Vic Morrow, who co-starred in the ‘60s hit TV show, “Combat!” He was killed in a famous accident in 1982 while filming a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Her mother, Barbara Turner, is a former actress and successful screenwriter. A personal acquaintance of Turner’s told me she is Jewish--or else I would never have known.

Jack Black, as I noted in a previous column, is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father who converted to Judaism when he married Jack’s mother. (His parents are now divorced).

Also appearing in supporting roles in Margot are Matthew Arkin and Flora Cross.

Arkin, 47, who is Jewish, is the son of Oscar-winning actor Alan Arkin and the brother of actor Adam Arkin. Cross, 14, made her film premiere as a Jewish girl in The Bee Season (2005). Like Arkin, Cross is Jewish. Her parents are long divorced and Flora was raised by her Jewish father, journalist Joseph Cross, while her older brother, actor Eli Marienthal, was raised by their Jewish mother, Lola Marienthal.

If all this weren’t enough, John Turturro is also in Margot. Turturro isn’t Jewish, but he loves to play Jews, holding (by my count) the record for the most Jewish character film parts ever played by a non-Jewish actor. He has been married to Jewish actress Katherine Borowitz since 1985 and they have two children.

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. Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah.

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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