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Interfaith Celebrities: The Story Behind Eliot Spitzer's Intermarriage

Just about everybody has got in their commentary about the scandal engulfing Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York. So why should I be an exception?

When the scandal first broke, I remembered that Abigail Pogrebin had interviewed Spitzer about his Jewish background and his interfaith marriage for her 2005 book Stars of David. Re-reading the Pogrebin interview didn't provide much additional insight into the scandal. Still, I think that many of my readers are curious about Spitzer's Jewish background and his marriage.

Spitzer's own background is similar to many Jews of his generation. His grandparents were quite religious, but his own parents, he relates, were a lot less devout. While Eliot's father had training as a cantor, he worked as a civil engineer and then went on to make a fortune (perhaps $500 million) in real estate. Eliot Spitzer's mother was a literature professor. His parents, Spitzer said, attended synagogue infrequently. His father told Eliot when he was a boy that he would be happy if Eliot read Abba Eban's History of the Jews in lieu of a bar mitzvah.

Eliot Spitzer resigns

Eliot Spitzer's father had training as a cantor. Photo by: Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Spitzer did not have a bar mitzvah. His mother, Spitzer said, later regretted that she did not insist on a bar mitzvah, but her regret was more wistful than deeply felt.

Despite his lack of formal religious training, Eliot Spitzer told Pogrebin that he attributes many aspects of his character and beliefs to his Jewish background: freewheeling discussion between adults and children in his childhood home, an emphasis on academic achievement--and later in life--helping others, including new immigrants, via government.

Spitzer's father's business success helped give Eliot great advantages, including an expensive private school education at the top-flight (and heavily Jewish) Horace Mann school in Manhattan.

However, Spitzer didn't just rely on the old man's money. He used his education as a launching pad to build an incredible résumé at elite colleges--a Princeton University undergraduate degree (where he was student body chairman) and a Harvard Law School degree (where Spitzer made the Law Review and worked as a research assistant for Alan Dershowitz).

Spitzer's wife, Silda Wall, grew up in a middle-class Baptist home in North Carolina and got her undergraduate degree from Meredith College, a good women's liberal arts college in North Carolina that is historically associated with the Baptist church. Her outstanding college academic performance gave her a chance to join the American meritocratic elite and she entered Harvard Law School in 1980. She met Spitzer at Harvard Law and they married in 1987. They have three daughters ages 18, 15 and 13.

Wall worked as a lawyer for a top Wall Street firm until she retired in 1994 and devoted herself to non-profit volunteer work and raising her children. Her retirement made it easier for her husband to run for political office and Spitzer has publicly expressed his gratitude to his wife for making this decision.

Spitzer spoke at length with Pogrebin about his children's religious identification and upbringing. His story is similar to that of many interfaith couples.

Before they married Spitzer and Wall talked about the religious upbringing of their children but never came to a clear understanding. Spitzer says, "It probably wasn't the deal breaker on either side, so it sort of got pushed aside and we delayed."

Spitzer told Pogrebin that the only time his daughters went to church was when they visited his in-laws in North Carolina. This church-going, Spitzer says, made him "flinch"--"but I bear it." Meanwhile, he said, he was comforted that his children were growing up in heavily Jewish New York, attending Horace Mann school: "My view is that they are here in New York and they're growing up in a culture that is essentially a transmission to them of Jewish values."

Asked if his children think of themselves as Jewish, Spitzer said, "They probably consider themselves confused, but that's like all kids. I think that they are very conscious of the fact that they are Jewish, but Mommy might not be, but that's okay."

Spitzer noted that all three of his children went to Hebrew school, although the oldest one decided not to have a bat mitzvah. He added that it would be counterproductive to push his daughters on this issue. Finally, he said the family celebrated Hanukkah but also had a Christmas tree.

One marriage that did survive a lurid sex scandal is that of political consultant/Fox News commentator Dick Morris, who was born Jewish, and his wife, journalist Eileen McGann, a Catholic. In 1996, President Bill Clinton brought in Morris as a campaign advisor. Morris, however, was forced to resign when it came out that he was seeing a prostitute, whose toes he liked to suck. Morris would regale this prostitute with insider stories about the Clintons.

McGann left Morris, but eventually they reconciled based on an agreement that Morris, a non-practicing Jew, would get treatment for his sex addiction and convert to Catholicism. Morris did get treatment and became a Catholic.

I doubt that Spitzer is going to become a Baptist to save his marriage and something tells me that the prospect of her husband finding Jesus is the furthest thing from Silda Wall's mind right now.

Conversion Headline News

Last September, I noted that TV news journalist Campbell Brown, who was then about to join CNN, married Jewish political consultant and Fox News commentator Dan Senor in October 2006. The New York Times gave their courtship and wedding ceremony a big spread, but there was no mention that Brown, who was raised a Catholic, had converted to Judaism.

Well, I just became aware, via a Cleveland Jewish News article, that Brown converted to Judaism around the time of her marriage. The News caught up with Brown and Senor last October when they both spoke at a Cleveland Jewish Federation meeting. Senor said of his wife's conversion: "It was great, in large measure because both of our parents were so supportive and enthusiastic."

Brown, Senor and Senor's mother visited Senor's mother's hometown in Slovakia last summer. They also went to Auschwitz, where most of Senor's mother's family was killed. His mother, Dan Senor told the News, survived the Holocaust because, "Righteous gentiles hid her."

Last June, Brown gave birth to the couple's first child, a son.

Avid readers of this column already know that CNN Chief National Correspondent John King, who was also born a Catholic, has told the press that he is studying to convert to Judaism in advance of his May marriage to Dana Bash, a Jewish journalist who is CNN's congressional correspondent.

John King, CNN correspondent
John King, CNN correspondent

I suppose if every Jewish CNN journalist took off for the Yom Kippur holiday, management would have to call in reserves. Other Jews at CNN include anchor Wolf Blitzer and talk show host Larry King (whose wife is Mormon--his children with his current wife are being raised in their mother's faith). Former CNN anchor Aaron Brown is Jewish, too, and he told Pogrebin that his wife is a convert to Judaism and a lot more religious than he.

Finally, somebody wrote a few comments about this column below a blog entry by Managing Editor Micah Sachs. Among other things, he said that I never seem to note conversions to another faith by a famous Jew. Well, there aren't a lot of those nowadays. But, since I am discussing CNN, I will note for the record that former CNN commentator Robert Novak, who was born Jewish, became a devout Catholic a decade ago. Novak, a conservative journalist who has called himself "the Prince of Darkness," is famous for his role in the Valerie Plame case. If there was a fantasy league where you could trade famous people between religious groups, the way you can trade baseball players, very few of my Catholic friends would ever trade John King or Campbell Brown for Robert Novak. I’ll leave it at that.

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." 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." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. 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. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) 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.

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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