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Interfaith Celebrities: Some Single, Some Scary, Some Golden

Jan. 6, 2008

The last season of ABC's popular reality show, The Bachelorette, ended with heartbreak for handsome Seattle Jewish bachelor Jason Mesnick, 32. Bachelorette DeAnna Pappas eliminated 23 male suitors before the final show in which she had to choose between marriage proposals from Mesnick and Jesse Csincsak, a pro snowboarder. She picked Csincsak, to whom she is now engaged.

But Mesnick, a personable, divorced single dad of a 3-year-old son, was a fan favorite and so ABC has brought him back as the sole male contestant on the new season of The Bachelor which started Monday, Jan. 5 at 8 p.m. Mesnick has already kind of let the cat out of the bag: he told People that his stint on The Bachelor will end with him happily engaged. But we don't know to which bachelorette. Last summer, the estate planning executive told the Cleveland Jewish News that he had a bar mitzvah ceremony and that while he isn't very religious, he celebrates Jewish holidays with his extended family. (Mesnick's grandparents live in Cleveland.) Religion, Mesnick said, came up briefly on The Bachelorette when Pappas, who is Greek Orthodox, met his parents in Seattle and asked a few questions about Judaism and religion.

Gary Oldman in The Unborn
Gary Oldman as Rabbi Sendak in The Unborn. Photo: Peter Iovino/Rogue Pictures

I believe Mesnick is the first Jewish (male) contestant on The Bachelor.

Dybukky Doings

The Unborn, a new film written and directed by David S. Goyer, 43, opens Friday, Jan. 9. Goyer had a huge hit last year as the co-writer of The Dark Knight, the Batman flick that broke box office records. The Unborn is horror fantasy thriller based on Jewish folklore about the supernatural figure of the dybbuk: a malicious possessing spirit of a dead person. As the film opens, a young woman (Odette Yustman) feels that a spirit is trying to take control of her and use her as a vessel to come into this world. We learn that the spirit is that of a young boy who died in the Holocaust and was a relative of the young woman. Gary Oldman co-stars as a scholarly, modern rabbi who tries to exorcise the dybbuk.

Goyer, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., went to film school at the University of Southern California. He has specialized in writing screenplays based on comic book stories. He had his first major hit in 1999 as the screenwriter of the vampire action thriller, Blade, based on a Marvel Comic book character. The Unborn is Goyer's original screenplay.

Goyer recently told an interviewer: "I knew about dybbuks ever since I was a kid. I'm half Jewish, I went to Hebrew school and so when I was growing up, like anybody, I was into monsters and I thought about it and was like 'are there any Jewish monsters?' So there's like the dybbuk and the golem and that's pretty much it."

Global Sparklers

The Golden Globe awards are a reasonable predictor of Oscar nominations and the relaxed Globes award ceremony is usually more fun than the stuffy Oscars. This year the Globes air on NBC, on Sunday, Jan. 11, at 8 p.m.

Most of the Jewish actors and actresses nominated for a Globe acting award this year are of interfaith background:

Franco and Penn in Milk
James Franco and Sean Penn in a scene from Milk.

Sean Penn is nominated for best actor in a film drama, Milk. Penn, who was raised in a secular household, is the son of a Jewish father (the late director/actor Leo Penn) and an Irish/Italian Catholic mother (actress Eileen Ryan) Milk is based on the life of Harvey Milk, the Jewish San Francisco supervisor who was the first openly gay elected official in America.

James Franco is nominated for best actor in a film comedy, Pineapple Express. Franco, who was raised secular, is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father of Portuguese ancestry.

Kyra Sedgwick is nominated for best actress in a TV drama, The Closer. Sedgwick, whom I have profiled in this column, is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a WASP father. She proudly identifies as Jewish.

Jewish actress Debra Messing is nominated for best actress in a TV comedy, The Starter Wife.

David Duchovny is nominated for best actor in a TV comedy, Californication. Duchovny, previously profiled, is the son of a Jewish father and a Protestant Scottish mother.

Happy-Go-Lucky, written and directed by Mike Leigh, a British Jew, is nominated for best film comedy. Competing in the same category is the Woody Allen comedy, Vicky Christina Barcelona. Vicky co-stars interfaith actress Scarlett Johansson, whose mother is Jewish.

Waltz with Bashir, an acclaimed animated Israeli film about the 1982 Lebanon War, is nominated for best foreign language film. It was directed and written by Israeli Ari Folman, who was 19 when he fought in the Lebanon conflict.

Nominated for best film director is Brit Sam Mendes, 43, who is of interfaith background. Mendes directed Revolutionary Road, a strong drama about suburban conformity in the 1950s.

Revolutionary Road, which opens in most theaters this month, features the stars of Titanic, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Winslet and DiCaprio earned best actress and actor nominations, respectively, for their Revolutionary Road performances and Revolutionary Roadwas nominated for best film drama.

Mendes, who was been married to Winslet since 2003, is the son of a non-Jewish Trinidadian father of Portuguese ancestry and a British Jewish mother. His parents split up when he was very young and Mendes was raised by his mother. Interview bits and pieces seem to indicate that Mendes identifies as Jewish. However, he is not religious.

Mendes was once the wonder child director of the British theater, doing great Shakespeare before he was 25 and mounting brilliant new productions of contemporary musicals like "Cabaret." He earned the best director Oscar for his very first film, 1999's American Beauty. Since then he has directed the feature films Road to Perdition and Jarhead.

Simon Cowell and J.D. Salinger (Did You Ever Think They Would Be in One Item?)

The new season of TV's highest rated show, Fox's American Idol, begins on Tuesday, Jan. 13. As in past years, the judges include Jewish singer/dancer and self-appointed "good cop," Paula Abdul, and her counterpart "bad cop" Brit Simon Cowell.

I noted in a 2007 column that a British newspaper piece by a family history researcher reported that Cowell's late father was Jewish. Well, it recently came out that Simon Cowell did not know that his father was Jewish until this newspaper piece was published. In an interview in the London Jewish Chronicle last November, Cowell calls himself "thrilled" to have learned that he is half Jewish. Nonetheless, Cowell offers no explanation in the Chronicle interview why his father never told him about his Jewish background. A reversed verion of Simon Cowell's story is found in the biography of author J.D. Salinger, who turned 90 on January 1, 2009.

Salinger, most famous as the author of Catcher in the Rye, is incredibly reclusive and it is difficult to judge the veracity of much of the biographical material about him. This is especially true about accounts about what he has been doing since he stopped writing new novels and stories for publication in 1965.

Salinger was born in Manhattan, the son of a religious Jew who prospered as an importer of kosher cheese and other kosher food products. His mother, born Marie Jillich, was raised Christian and was of half Irish and half Scottish background. She converted to Judaism around the time she married Salinger's father and changed her name to Miriam.

Salinger did not know that his mother was not born Jewish until around the time of his bar mitzvah, when he was 13.

Salinger virtually cut off his relations with his birth family after WWII and has gone on a lot of "religious trips," which may or may not include, depending on the account, Hinduism, Christian Science and Scientology.

The effect on Salinger of learning about his mother's true background is unclear. In any event, Salinger created probably the most famous half-Jewish family in American literature, the Glass family. The father of the Glass family children is Jewish and the mother is Irish Catholic.

The Glass family children are featured in Salinger's 1953 short story collection, Nine Stories. They also appear in his 1961 novel, Franny and Zooey and his 1963 novellas, published as one book: Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.

More than half of Salinger's total published writings are about the Glass family.

One of the few reliable first person sources on the post 1965 reclusive Salinger is author Joyce Maynard, who had a one year romantic relationship with Salinger in 1972-73. She was then was 18 and he was 53. In 1972, a memoir Maynard wrote for the New York Times Magazine caused a literary/cultural stir. Salinger liked the piece and wrote her, inviting her to meet him at his New Hampshire farm retreat. A romantic relationship followed their first meeting.

Maynard, the daughter of a Christian father and a Jewish mother, writes about her own interfaith background on her website. Maynard's piece also appears in Laurel Snyder's 2006 anthology Half/Life: Jew-ish. Tales from Interfaith Homes.

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." 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 "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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