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Interfaith Celebrities: Toronto's High Holiday Problem, Songs for a "Black Sabbath"

Aug. 31, 2010

Toronto Film Festival vs. The High Holidays

The prestigious Toronto International Film Festival begins the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 9, and ends on Sept. 19, the day after Yom Kippur.

Journalist Martin Knelman, writing for the Toronto Star, pointed out that a large proportion of the Festival’s patrons are Jewish--as are so many of the film industry’s key players, like buyers and sellers of films. According to the 2001 Canadian census, Toronto is home to 165,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish population center in Canada.

Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman
Paul Giamatti (L) and Dustin Hoffman play son and father, respectively, in Barney's Version, based on the Jewish-themed Canadian novel. The film will have its world premiere Sept. 12 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Photo courtesy Serendipity Point Films.

A Festival spokesman said the organizers had no choice but to stick to the Festival's usual starting and ending dates, but to accommodate Jewish patrons, they added additional screenings of films showing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Traditionally, a Canadian film opens the Festival. However, the biggest Canadian feature film, Barney’s Version, from a novel of the same name by the late Canadian Jewish writer Mordechai Richler, will not be shown on Sept. 9 as originally scheduled. The film’s Canadian producer, Robert Lantos, a fairly observant Jew, insisted that Barney's Version not premiere on Rosh Hashanah. It will instead be shown Sept. 12.

Barney's Version tells the life story of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a blunt, politically incorrect Canadian Jewish man who is twice married to non-Jewish women. Jewish actor Dustin Hoffman plays his father.

Giamatti, who is not Jewish, is married to a Jewish woman, Elizabeth Cohen, and they are raising their son in his mother’s faith.

Giamatti spoke to the Toronto Star while Barney's Version was being made. He said: "I've been drafted into playing Jewish characters before and as soon as I saw the script I knew I wanted to play this part. But Barney is an iconic Canadian book by an iconic Canadian writer. I'm an American, so I hope I don't blow it."

I think Giamatti is being too modest. He is emerging as one of the great character actors of our time, much in the same way that Hoffman achieved this status in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Giamatti was particularly good playing Jewish film characters in such films as American Splendor and Cinderella Man, for which he earned an Oscar nomination.

The Jewish High Holy Days also overlap this year with New York’s and London's Fashion Weeks. Both events feature big runway shows by leading designers and are meant to promote the industry. As with the Toronto Film Festival, the organizers of these events cited "logistical problems" as their reasoning not to change the date of these events.

Still, a lot of Jews connected to the fashion industry are quite annoyed that no accommodation was made for the holidays, writes Leslie Albrecht.

One point Albrecht doesn’t make--but I think is obvious to visitors to this site--is that a lot of interfaith families, too, don’t want to choose between a spouse’s faith and the demands of commerce. They reasonably want the world to make "a little space" for the major holidays the family celebrates, whether that is Yom Kippur or Christmas.

African-American Greats Sing Jewish Songs

In 2006, I began an annual holiday tradition on this site. I posted a list of the Jewish composers of the 25 most popular Christmas songs (that are still under copyright protection). The article turned out to be one of the most popular on the site and has been referenced in several articles in major newspapers.

I have noted that there are also a few Jewish holiday songs that were written by non-Jews, such as Woody Guthrie. So there is some, if not a great deal of, reciprocity between the majority non-Jewish population and the minority Jewish population in terms of holiday song creation.

Many non-Jewish singers have sung Jewish songs. Some years back, I was surprised to learn that Connie Francis, who is of Italian Catholic background, recorded what still might be the biggest selling album of Jewish songs, Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites in 1961. (A re-issue CD came out in 2006, but appears now to be out-of-stock just about everywhere).

The article I read explained that the Jewish record buying public was a pretty big profit center for the record companies in the 1960s, and the companies encouraged their artists to record music for the Jewish, and even larger Italian-American and Hispanic-American communities. Francis says that Jewish fans still say nice things about her and Jewish Favorites decades after it was made.

The same reasons that led Francis to record Jewish songs led Jewish songwriters to write hit Christmas songs. Sure, they wanted their Christmas songs to be appreciated by the intended audience, but, most of all, they wanted to make a good living via writing a hit song for the mostly Christian public that bought Christmas music.

Likewise, I knew that the great African-American singer Johnny Mathis, who isn’t Jewish, recorded a version of the solemn Yom Kippur prayer, "Kol Nidre," in 1959. On Sept. 14, "Kol Nidre" will be re-released by the Idelsohn Society for Music Preservation, a volunteer-run non-profit.

Until recently, I had no idea that so many legendary (non-Jewish) African-American singers sang Jewish songs.

"Kol Nidre" is just one of 15 tracks on the Society’s CD, Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations. It features Jewish songs sung by many great African-American singers, including Mathis, Cab Calloway, Slim Galliard, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone.

Contrary to what I said about Connie Francis and Jewish composers of Christmas songs, it does not appear that African-American singers recorded the songs compiled on the Black Sabbath CD with a big payday in mind.

Rather, it was an organic outgrowth of the amazing exchange of musical talent and musical traditions between the Jewish-American and African-American communities. It’s not so surprising that as Jewish and African-American musicians and composers worked together that every so often an African-American would be moved to cut a Jewish-themed song.

Many of the strings of this interchange are found in the late Horne’s personal and professional life. Her track on the CD is "Now," an early ‘60s tune about the denial of civil rights to black Americans. It is sung to the tune of the famous Hebrew song, "Hava Nagila."

"Now" was written by Jewish songwriters Jule Styne, Adolph Green and Betty Comden. I am sure that the pursuit of human rights, and not profit, motivated them to write this song for Horne. (By the way, Styne also wrote the music for "Let It Snow," one of the top 25 Christmas songs).

As previously noted in this column, Horne’s second husband was prominent Jewish film music conductor Lenny Hayton. Horne’s granddaughter, screenwriter Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married), is the bi-racial daughter of famous Jewish film director Sidney Lumet and African-American writer Gail Buckley, Horne’s daughter with her first husband, who was African-American.

Below, Slim Galliard sings "Dunkin’ Bagels." It's a real treat.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. 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. 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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