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Interfaith Celebrities: The Dark Knight

July 22, 2008

The new Batman film, The Dark Knight, opened spectacularly last Friday, July 18, setting box office records. It is a sequel to 2005's Batman Begins, which also starred Christian Bale in the title role. Both films were directed by Christopher Nolan and both were co-written by David S. Goyer, who is Jewish. (Yes, there is a bit of irony that a Jewish guy has a last name that includes the Hebrew word for a non-Jew, "goy.")

Nolan and Goyer have succeeded in reviving the Batman movie franchise after several lackluster Batman flicks almost buried the cinematic version of the Caped Crusader. The original Batman comic book character was created by the late Bob Kane, born Robert Kahn. Kane was Jewish, like most of the comic book writers who created the iconic super heroes of American comics.

Goyer is the director and writer of The Unborn, a Jewish-themed horror film that has strong echoes of The Exorcist. Gary Oldman, who has a co-starring role as a policeman in The Dark Knight, stars in The Unborn as a modern rabbi who seeks to rid a beautiful Jewish woman of an evil spirit. It is done filming and will be released in 2009.

Christian Bale, 34, is the stepson of feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, 74. Steinem, who had never been married before, wed Bale's father in 2000 and they stayed married until his death from cancer in 2003. David Bale was a businessman, animal rights activist and environmentalist.

Maggie Gyllenhaal
The multi-talented Maggie Gyllenhaal. Photo: Reuters/Chris Pizzello.

Steinem's late father was a non-practicing Jew and her mother was a non-practicing Episcopalian. While her father never talked about his Jewish background, her mother--a social activist until mental illness struck her down--presented Judaism to Gloria "as a wonderful heritage and gift and great tradition of social justice and culture." (Quoting Steinem in Abigail Pogrebin's book, Stars of David.) Steinem says her only connection to Jewish religious practice is her annual attendance at a famous Feminist Seder that she helped found in New York in the '70s. Another founder was Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a well-known Jewish feminist author who is the mother of Abigail Pogrebin.

Steinem defines herself as "a foul weather Jew"--feeling most Jewish-- and emphasizing her Jewish side--when Jews are under attack.

Maggie Gyllenhaal has a juicy co-starring role as assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight. Dawes is a childhood friend of Batman and knows his secret identity. They also have a romantic thing going on.

Gyllenhaal, the sister of actor Jake Gyllenhaal, is the daughter of film director Stephen Gyllenhaal, who isn't Jewish, and screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, who is. I wrote about the Gyllenhaal family in an earlier column.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is multi-talented--I love the way she puts across a song. She doesn't have a stunning voice, but she has something--dramatic timing maybe. I've embedded my favorite Gyllenhaal performance from the soundtrack to the movie Happy Endings, in which she has a number of good performances as a singer. This is a full performance of the ballad, "How Lucky Am I?" Maggie co-wrote this song.

Barack Obama, Shabbos Goy?

The July 21 issue of Newsweek has a cover story about Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. Titled "Finding His Faith," the Newsweek article analyzes Obama's Christian faith--how the Senator came to be a believing Christian. Obama's father, a black Kenyan, was raised a Muslim, but became an atheist as an adult. Obama's white American mother was raised a Protestant, but she ended up an agonistic who didn't attend any church on a regular basis.

One paragraph in the Newsweek piece discusses Obama's friendship with an Orthodox Jew who served in the Illinois legislature with him:

Amid the hubbub, Obama continued to try to work out for himself what it meant to be a person of faith. In 1999, while still in the Illinois State Senate, he shared an office suite with Ira Silverstein, an Orthodox Jew. Obama peppered Silverstein with questions about Orthodox restrictions on daily life: the kosher laws and the sanctions against certain kinds of behavior on the Sabbath. "On the Sabbath, if I ever needed anything, Barack would always offer," remembers Silverstein. "Some of the doors are electric, so he would offer to open them … I didn't expect that."

So, if Obama is elected--he would be the first Shabbos goy ever to occupy the White House.

Barack Obama
Senator Barack Obama on the campaign trail. Photo: Reuters/Jim Young.

The Yiddish term Shabbos goy refers to a non-Jewish person employed by a Jewish person, family or institution to do tasks that Jewish religious law forbids Jews to do on the Sabbath. These tasks can include anything that is defined as "work" under Jewish religious law. Lighting a fire is defined as work, so, in earlier times, a Shabbos goy would light cooking/heating stoves. Completing an electric circuit is also defined as work. In more recent times, some observant Jews have asked non-Jews to turn on or turn off electric lights or--as Senator Obama did--push an electric button for a door. Technically an observant Jew isn't supposed to ask someone else to perform these tasks nor to handle money on Shabbat, so either there is payment arranged in advance, or a friend could just do a favor for another, the way Senator Obama did for Senator Silverstein.

Personally, I have always found the whole "Shabbos goy" phenomenon to be a little strange and hypocritical. As odd as the job is, it is indisputable that the position of the Shabbos goy has brought a lot of Christians and Jews together in a positive way. A number of famous Christians worked as a Shabbos goy for a Jewish family when they were children or teens and they have remarked how it was a window for them into Jewish family and religious culture. The experience, they said, moved and changed them.

In the early 20th century, songwriter Harry Warren (1893-1981), an Italian-American Catholic who was born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna, earned a penny for every coal stove he lit for his working-class New York Jewish neighbors. Warren went on to win three songwriting Oscars and mostly worked with Jewish songwriters.

Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, and also an Italian Catholic, worked as a Shabbos goy when he was a boy. So did New York newspaper journalist and novelist Pete Hamill, who is of Irish Catholic background. Hamill, 73, who is currently on the staff of the New Yorker magazine, wrote a novel inspired by his experience as a shabbos goy, called Snow in August (1998), that was also made into a film of the same name.

Last October, Hamill appeared at a forum to discuss the intersection of Irish, Italian and Jewish ethnic groups in New York and how they influenced each other. He rattled off the names of other famous Shabbos goys--Gov. Cuomo, film director Martin Scorcese and Elvis Presley--and said:

I became the Shabbos goy at the synagogue. So every Saturday morning, I would go in, on my way to Holy Name Church, with my surplice on my arm, and I would do whatever the rabbi would ask me to do: turn on the gas stove, whatever, and there would be a dime on the shelf at the front door, which he wouldn't touch, and off I'd go.

As for Elvis' time as a Shabbos goy, and the widespread story about Elvis' alleged Jewish ancestry--I'll talk about those things next month on the 31st anniversary of "the King's" death.

Cyd Charisse and Tony Martin--Christian Funeral at a Jewish Cemetery

Cyd Charisse, the famous dancer and film actress, died last month at age 86. She was best known for her 1950s films opposite Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley. Charisse was a tall, dark beauty with great dance skills and a lot of class.

Charisse and her husband, singer Tony Martin, seemed to have set some sort of record for a Hollywood marriage--they wed in 1948. Martin, now 95, is Jewish and was born Alvin Morris. He was most popular in the '40s and '50s as a romantic crooner. His music went out of style in the '60s, but Martin still found regular work as a nightclub singer. Remarkably, he still is performing. He did a few New York City engagements this year.

Cyd Charisse was born with an odd but Jewish-sounding name, Tula Finklea. But the actress was not Jewish and she was raised and buried as a Methodist.

Tony Martin chose to bury his late wife at the Hillside Jewish Cemetery in Los Angeles, a favorite eternal resting spot for Jewish celebrities. A Jewish fan attended her Methodist religious funeral--held in a chapel at the Hillside cemetery--and his blog entry about the funeral is very interesting. He includes an embedded film clip of an exciting Charisse dance number. It's a touching way to recall a marriage of 60 years in Hollywood. Plus, I didn't know they allowed Christian funerals at some Jewish cemeteries. Maybe you didn't know that either.

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." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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 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. 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. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Yiddish for "gentiles," or someone who is not Jewish. Some use this term with affection, however it's still largely understood to have a derogatory connotation.

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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