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Interfaith Celebrities: Tribute at the Kennedy Center

Dec. 26, 2008

Hanukkah is a time of miracles--and I guess you could define it as a near miracle when President George W. Bush gave vocal political opponent Barbra Streisand, 66, a kiss on the cheek at a White House ceremony for this year's Kennedy Center honorees. A few hours after the Dec. 8 White House shindig, Streisand and the other honorees were feted from the stage of Washington's Kennedy Center. The Kennedy Center award is for lifetime achievement in the arts.

Joining Streisand at all the festivities was her husband, actor James Brolin, 68. As noted in a previous column, Streisand, who is Jewish, married Brolin, who isn't Jewish, in a Jewish ceremony in 1998. Brolin is the father of actor Josh Brolin and the father-in-law of actress Diane Lane.

Morgan Freeman and Barbra Streisand
Morgan Freeman and Barbra Streisand with their Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Awards. Photo: Mike Theiler / Reuters.

Queen Latifah opened the stage tribute to Streisand, saying that, "She [Barbra] took the stage like butter on a bagel." Latifah was followed by Broadway singing star Idina Menzel (Wicked) and pop singer Beyonce Knowles. They both belted out some Streisand classics.

Menzel, who is Jewish, was recently profiled in this column. She is married to African-American actor Taye Diggs, who isn't Jewish.

The other 2008 Kennedy Center honorees are African-American actor Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy), country singer George Jones, dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp, and rock musicians Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who.

A tape of the stage tribute airs on CBS on Tuesday, Dec. 30, at 9 p.m.

Gossip Girl Goes Interfaith

Producer/writer Josh Schwartz, who is Jewish, created probably the most prominent fictional interfaith family in the history of American TV when he made the Cohen family of Newport Beach, Calif., the central focus of his TV show, The O.C.. The program, which was launched on Fox in 2003, was a big worldwide hit, but ran out of gas after five seasons and ended in 2007.

The Cohen family consisted of father Sandy Cohen, who was Jewish and a do-gooder attorney, his wife, Kirsten Cohen, who came from a rich WASP family, and their teenage son, Seth Cohen. The storyline had it that Seth invented a blended tradition holiday he dubbed Chrismukkah. The first Chrismukkah show aired in 2003 and it became an O.C. tradition to have an annual Chrismukkah show around this time of year.

In September, 2007, Schwartz's new TV series, Gossip Girl, began on the CW network. It is inspired by a popular series of novels of the same name by Cecily von Ziegesar. The novels focus on the lives of rich socialite teenagers living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

A few of the novels' characters are Jewish and certainly there is a larger Jewish population in Manhattan than in Newport Beach, Calif. However, Schwartz said in an interview last year that he just didn't see an opening for a Jewish character early in the series.

Schwartz recently changed that with the introduction of Jewish character Cyrus Rose, played by Jewish actor Wallace Shawn. In a recent episode, which can be seen here, on the CW website, Rose, a successful businessman, marries Eleanor Waldorf, a wealthy Episcopalian society woman. She is the mother of teenager Blair Waldorf, one of the series' central characters.

Cyrus is much more stereotypically Jewish than Sandy Cohen ever was. He teaches Blair the proper way to eat a bagel and lox, and what extras--like onions and capers--to put on it.

Cyrus is a warm, nurturing guy who seems like the male equivalent of the classic Jewish mother. He's so caring that hitherto pretty icy Blair starts showing maternal instincts towards her friends. When asked about this, Blair says: "I've just been spending too much time with Cyrus, and I'm turning Jewish."

Rose and Eleanor Waldorf arrange a wedding ceremony presided over by a rabbi and an Episcopal priest. It is held, as Jewish tradition mandates, under a huppah. Traditional Jewish wedding vows are said, along with some vows the couple made up themselves.

I basically just skim episodes of Gossip Girl. Nonetheless, it seems to me that Shawn and Margaret Colin, the actress who plays Eleanor Waldorf, are easily the most accomplished actors in the Gossip Girl cast. Their scenes together seem genuine despite the soap opera-y dialogue they are given. Their realism is a testament to their acting skills.

Meet David Gregory

David Gregory
David Gregory, Moderator on Meet The Press. Photo: Fred Prouser / Reuters.

As you have probably heard, NBC News Chief White House Correspondent David Gregory has been named the permanent new moderator of NBC's Meet the Press.

The appointment was not a surprise. Gregory had been the favorite since his mentor, NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert, died unexpectedly last June. Meet the Press, a weekly program featuring interviews of top political figures, has been on TV for more than 60 years and hosting the program has always been a prestige position.

Russert became the show's host in 1991 and gradually transformed Meet the Press into the most important TV news interview program. Russert, a very skilled and personable interviewer, raised the bar for anyone who followed him as the show's host. It is a major vote of confidence in Gregory's skills that he was picked to follow Russert.

According to his offical NBC bio, Gregory started in small TV markets, showed a lot of talent and got a job as a network correspondent, joining NBC News in 1995.

Gregory was born and raised in Los Angeles. His father Don Gregory, who is Jewish, is a theatrical and film producer. His mother Carolyn Surtees, who isn't Jewish, is an account manager. David was raised in his father's Jewish faith, but fell away from practice until recently.

In 2000, Gregory married Beth Ann Wilkinson, who isn't Jewish, in a civil ceremony. Wilkinson, the daughter of a retired Navy submarine captain, is a prominent attorney. She and Gregory met when she was a special prosecutor for the Justice Department, working on the horrific Oklahoma City bombing case. Gregory was covering the case for NBC News.

In March 2008, Gregory spoke at a United Jewish Communities conference in Washington, D.C. about his growing and renewed interest in Judaism. An interest, he said, that his wife Beth encouraged.

Shortly after the conference, Gregory told the Washington Jewish Week:

What I decided was [that] what mattered [to me] was not just a sense of actual knowledge or attending High Holiday services, it was to understand how to live Jewishly ... [and] find daily meaning in Judaism ... Shabbat has become a lot more important to me as a way to stop and think about what matters most to me ... what kind of father and husband I want to be .... a bedtime Sh'ma with [my] children is a way to model Judaism for them and create a Jewish narrative in their lives that's not just obligatory ... I was born into a tradition. Who am I to let it slip through my fingers?

Other sources say that Gregory is now studying Jewish texts about once a week with a Washington-area rabbi.

I confess: I broke a Jewish religious rule and turned on the TV during this past Yom Kippur to catch snatches of the Presidential election news. I noticed that David Gregory did not work that solemn holiday and there was a substitute host on his daily MSNBC news program, Race for the White House (re-named since the election, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.)

Audience Participation Corner: Fantasy Jewish Celebrity Basketball

David Gregory stands 6-foot-5. President George W. Bush nicknamed him "Stretch" when Gregory covered the 2000 Bush presidential campaign. For the sports fans out there who are putting together a fantasy Jewish celebrity basketball team, I would start with Gregory and include actor Brad Garrett of Everybody Loves Raymond fame--he's 6-foot-8. I would also include Ray Benson, the 6-foot-7 lead singer and leader of the famous country swing band Asleep at the Wheel. Benson is literally and figuratively the biggest Jew in country music.

You're welcome to e-mail your suggestions for the rest of the team to me. Obviously, celebrity height and/or verified college ball experience would be rational reasons for inclusion in the fantasy team. Celebrities with an interfaith background, of course, are eligible for consideration. Female celebrities are also eligible for consideration. Jewish players currently playing pro or college ball are excluded. In other words, the celebrity has to be famous for something other than playing basketball.

I'll report back in the future with the e-mail responses. E-mail me at Middleoftheroad1@aol.com. Please put basketball in the subject line.

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. 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. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. 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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