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Interfaith Celebrities: The 2011 Oscars

February 15, 2011.

The Academy Awards ceremony takes place on Sunday, Feb. 27 (ABC; 8 p.m. EST, 5 p.m. PST). Many of the nominees, below, were profiled in this column before. The ceremony is being co-hosted by actress Anne Hathaway and interfaith actor James Franco, 32, who is also an Oscar nominee.

There are an especially large number of Jewish/interfaith nominees this year! Read on for more information and links as I cover the more popular categories. In the technical categories, like sound, make-up, etc., it is extremely difficult to gather any detailed biographical info on those nominees.

Documentary Makers

New York-based filmmakers Karen Goodman, 60, and her husband, Kirk Simon, also 60, are nominated for best documentary short subject, Strangers No More. It’s about a school in southern Tel Aviv, Israel, attended by children from 48 different countries. A large proportion of the school’s students are the children of African refugees and undocumented foreign workers, many of whom have fled conflicts in their own countries. The film, which is about 40 minutes along, follows life at the Bialik-Rogozin School.

Simon recently told the Israeli press:

I feel that this Academy Award nomination will help in getting the necessary attention so that we could help the children of undocumented workers stay in Israel. I believe that the task this school is facing deserves global recognition, and that we must allow these children to stay and get their education at Bialik-Rogozin.

There is much more info on the film’s official site.

Goodman and Simon have been making acclaimed documentaries for 25 years, including quite a few for PBS. Their 20 documentaries to date have earned them four Oscar nominations and three Emmys.

It wasn’t that easy to piece together their personal background, but I think the following is accurate. Goodman is Jewish. Her parents, the late Frank Goodman and Arlene Wolfe Goodman, were legendary Broadway theater and TV press agents.

Simon is not Jewish. He grew up in a town near Philadelphia and both his parents were business executives. It appears the couple met at Hampshire College, both graduating in 1972. In 1987, they wed in a non-denominational ceremony. I know they have at least one child, a daughter, who is now 14.

Composers

Randy Newman, 67, has been nominated 20 times for best song or best score, winning once. This year he is up for the best song Oscar for “We Belong Together” (from Toy Story 3). He competes with Alan Menken, 61, who’s been nominated 19 times for a “music” Oscar, winning 6 times. This year, Menken is nominated for “If I See the Light,” from Tangled. Menken, who is Jewish, wrote only the music for the nominated song. Newman wrote both the words and music.

Newman’s uncles were famous film music composers Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman. His father, a physician, was the only one of the Newman brothers who didn’t go into music. He was also the only one of the brothers to marry a Jewish woman. It is my understanding that Randy’s first cousins, David and Thomas Newman, also famous film composers, were raised in their mother’s Christian faith. Randy, himself, is secular. His brother, a physician, is a practicing Jew.

Screenwriters

Nominated for best adapted screenplay are: Aaron Sorkin, 49 (The Social Network); Lee Unkrich, 43, (co-writer, Toy Story 3, which he also directed); Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit, which the Coen brothers also direction); and Debra Granik, 48 (co-writer, Winter’s Bone, which she also directed).

Up for best original screenplay honors are: Mike Leigh, 67 (Another Year, which he also directed); Stuart Blumberg, 41, and Lisa Cholodenko, 46 (The Kids are Alright, which Cholodenko also directed); David Seidler, 73, (The King’s Speech); and Scott Silver 46 (co-writer, The Fighter).

The Fighter, a gritty, documentary-like film about a Boston boxer was a good fit for Silver, a Boston-area native who began his film career making a documentary that included gritty scenes about street hustlers.

All of the above screenwriters, with one possible exception, are the children of two Jewish parents. My crack family history researcher, Michael, tells me he is quite sure that Unkrich’s father is not Jewish. His mother is Jewish.

I didn’t know Unkrich was Jewish until just after the Golden Globes ceremony, when my friends at the Cleveland Jewish News clued me in. So, unlike a lot of the persons mentioned above, he was not in my Golden Globe coverage for this column.

Unkrich’s parents divorced when he was quite young; he was raised by his mother. Unkrich grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Chagrin Falls.

He studied acting in Cleveland and then got a degree (1990) in cinema from the Univ. of Southern California. In 1995, the new Pixar animation studio, located near San Francisco, asked him to take a temporary assignment editing some of the footage of the first Toy Story movie. He stayed on with Pixar and, in 1999, was promoted to co-director of Toy Story 2. He was also the co-director on two other Pixar hits, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. He was the sole director of Toy Story 3, and was one of the co-writers of the film.

Unkrich appeared at the 2011 Golden Globe awards to accept the Globe for Toy Story 3 (best animated film).

Unkrich and his wife have three children and belong to a San Francisco-area synagogue. Some years back, he showed an early preview of a Pixar film (The Incredibles) as a special fundraiser for his local Jewish Federation’s early childhood education programs. His daughter, Hannah, was bat mitzvah last May. Hannah did the voice of Molly, the sister of Andy, the lead “human” character, in Toy Story 2.

Best Foreign Film/Best Animated Film

Susanne Bier, 50, a Danish Jew, directed and co-wrote In a Better Place, a best foreign language film nominee. If her film wins the Oscar, like it won the Golden Globe (best foreign language film), Bier will be the one accepting the Oscar.

Likewise, if Toy Story 3 wins the Oscar for best animated film, like it won the Globe, the award will be presented to Unkrich.

While this writer included Bier in his Golden Globe coverage, almost all of the rest of Jewish press failed to mention her in their press coverage about the recent Globe Globe awards. However, the LA Jewish Journal had an interesting interview with her last week that fills in some biographical details, including her marriages.

Best Picture

The best picture Oscar goes to the film’s principal producers. Ten films are nominated for best picture. Here are the producers I’ve been able to confirm as Jewish: Mike Medavoy, 70 (Black Swan); Todd Lieberman, 38, (The Fighter); Jeffrey Hinte-Levy, 43, (The Kids are Alright); Scott Rudin, 52, and the Coen brothers, 56 and 53 (True Grit); Rudin, again (The Social Network); and Emile Sherman, 38 (The Kings Speech).

Sherman is an Australian Jew and their “Oscar pride” this year. His father, Brian, is a self-made wealthy businessman whose philanthropy has made him quite famous in Australia. In 2009, Sherman produced $9.99, a stop-action animated comedy film co-written by acclaimed Israeli writer Etgar Keret. It was made in Australia and Israel.

Medavoy is an almost legendary Hollywood film producer and former studio executive. He was born in Shanghai, China. His whole early biography is on this (fascinating) linked piece, written by Medavoy, in which he describes his recent (July, 2010) return trip to China; parents’ odyssey, first finding a refuge (c. 1920) in China from war and anti-Semitism in Russia, then fleeing post-WWII strife in China (1947) for a refuge in Chile; and finally come to the States with his parents in 1957.

He writes in this piece that the parents of his (non-Jewish) wife, Irena, had a similar odyssey:

I feel lucky to have had some success in my chosen profession. I have always wanted to make sure that my sons, Brian and Nicholas, and my wife, Irena, would never live in those kinds of times. Irena’s parents, who were Russian Orthodox, had both been in German concentration camps. Like my parents, who had gone to Chile, hers strangely enough had gone to Morocco and had arrived in America in the same year, 1957.

Medavoy has been married three or four times (accounts vary). His son, Brian, now 46, was his child with his first (or second) wife, Marcia Rosenthal, who I presume is Jewish. Brian, a respected producer in his own right, is the co-head of his father’s company. In 1986, Medavoy married Patricia Duff, a major Democratic Party fundraiser who was constantly in the political news/society pages in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The story goes that they split-up because Duff wanted a child and Medavoy didn’t. She went on to marry Ronald Perelman in 1994, the billionaire head of Revlon. Perelman is an Orthodox Jew and Duff converted to Judaism around the time of their wedding. They had one child together in a marriage that lasted 18 months. Duff and Perelman then filled the gossip pages for the next 15 years as they battled over everything, including child custody.

Meanwhile, Medavoy went on to marry Irena in 1995 and they had a son, Nicholas, now 13.

By all accounts, Perelman, though a big charitable giver, is impossible to stay married to. After Duff, he married Jewish actress Ellen Barkin in 2000. She finally couldn’t stand his boorishness anymore and left him in 2006. They didn’t have children together. Even so, a very nasty divorce fight, mostly about money, followed. Meanwhile, as I have noted before in this column, Barkin and her [first] ex-husband, actor Gabriel Byrne, who isn’t Jewish, have had wonderfully amicable relations since their split and, with Bryne’s complete approval, their two sons have been raised Jewish.

Feature Film Directors

Vying for best feature film director are the Coen brothers (True Grit); Darren Arnofosky, 41, (Black Swan); and David O. Russell, 52 (The Fighter). Russell, as I noted when he was nominated for a Golden Globe for the same film, is the secular son of a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother. I discussed Aronofsky’s Jewish background, and his relationship with interfaith actress Rachel Weisz in recent columns. Also discussed in a prior column was the Coen brothers’ Jewish background, and Joel’s interfaith marriage to actress Frances McDormand.

Actresses/Actors

Jewish actress Natalie Portman, recently the subject of several column items, is nominated for best actress for Black Swan. She has to be considered the favorite to win the Oscar, having won the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award for the same role. Portman, 29, who is pregnant, has still not told the world whether her fiancé, dancer Benjamin Millepeid, is Jewish or not. But she hinted that he isn’t in a recent interview with CBS news.

Hailee Steinfeld, 14, is nominated for best supporting actress for her debut film performance in True Grit. As I said in a recent column, Steinfeld is the daughter of a Jewish father (trainer Peter Steinfeld, the brother of famous fitness trainer Jake Steinfeld). Her mother’s father is half Filipino and half African American. Her mother’s mother is of WASP background. I don’t know if Hailee was raised in any faith.

Steinfeld has been almost completely silent about her family background in interviews. She did mention that she had some Filipino ancestry in one interview. However, has never discussed her famous uncle or really anything else about her ethnicity or religion.

I gathered my information from public records and was the first reporter to lay out her family history. Since then, this information has spread from my column to all sorts of media sources. I wish I knew more, but I can understand why a teenager flooded with media queries about everything would not want to open up about her family life.

Competing for the best actor Oscar are Jewish actor Jesse Eisenberg, 27, and interfaith actor James Franco. Eisenberg is nominated for performance in The Social Network, in which he played the (Jewish) co-founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg.

Each year, all the Oscar nominees are invited to a luncheon thrown by the Motion Picture Academy. This year's luncheon took place on Feb. 7 and reporters got a chance to ask the nominees questions as they left the luncheon.

Eisenberg told the gathered journalists that the endless round of Oscar-related events, like the luncheon, was a bit exhausting, and it also reminded him of his youth. The Associated Press reports:

"When I was 13 I had to go to Bar Mitzvahs every weekend, and this is like the same thing: Put on a suit every weekend to go meet with a lot of Jews," [he joked]. "I guess the alternative is worse, where no one likes your movie. I've experienced that and this is better."

Franco, the secular son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father of Portuguese and Swedish descent, is nominated for his performance in 127 Hours. Like The Social Network, 127 Hours is based on a true story. It is based on the memoir of Aron Ralston, a desert hiker who had to cut off his own arm (2003) to free himself from some rocks in order to survive.

Franco is a fascinating figure. It is simply astonishing how many serious artistic projects he is involved with (films, TV, painting, short story writing).

One footnote about Franco: I think it is really possible that Franco, who was raised in no faith, might follow in the path of Eisenberg and have a bar mitzvah some day.

When most adults say they might have a bar mitzvah some day, I usually don't take them seriously.

But Franco isn't an ordinary guy or actor. It is, I believe, unprecedented for a successful Hollywood actor to forego some lucrative film roles so he could go back to school and earn multiple college degrees.

I think the odds are good that Franco will follow-up on what he said in 2009: that he wanted to have a bar mitzvah.

In 2009, the AP reported:

James Franco got a spoof bar mitzvah and was forced to milk a "gay" cow on Friday to earn his pudding pot as Harvard's Hasty Pudding Man of the Year.

The 30-year-old Franco, who played Harvey Milk's first love in Milk, also received a fake bag of marijuana for his role as a clueless pot dealer in Pineapple Express at the roast by Harvard's student drama group.

Franco, whose mother is Jewish, said he was not raised Jewish. He said he once told The New York Times he felt deprived because he never had a bar mitzvah. "Yeah, I guess I wasn't a man until tonight," he joked Friday.

The fake ceremony featured a "Rabbi Spider Man" and "Yentl Express" dancers who performed in drag to "Havah Nagila."

"I don't know if this counts in rabbinical law or whatever, but if it doesn't, I do plan to have a bar mitzvah," Franco said.

 

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." 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." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

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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