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Interfaith Celebrities We Admire

June 22, 2010

Tony Awards Take Two

Like Ruth Abrams, the editor of this site, I cannot help myself from adding a few follow-up things about the recent Tony Awards ceremony. In her June 14 blog entry, Ruth said how she had come to admire and root for Daniel Radcliffe, 21, and Scarlett Johansson, 25, interfaith actors who are leading admirable lives and have matured into dedicated actors.

 Daniel Radcliffe at the Tony awards
Daniel Radcliffe at the Tony Awards, June 14, 2010. Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson.

I confess a rooting interest for them, too. Not only do I admire the same things that Abrams does, I irrationally consider these two actors my journalistic babies.

I was the first reporter for the Jewish press, and almost the first reporter anywhere, to report, in September 2004, that Johansson was of interfaith background and that her mother is Jewish.

Radcliffe's Jewish background became the basis for an item in my very first column for this site. A friend had alerted me to a 2006 interview with an Australian TV news station in which Radcliffe, for the first time, detailed his interfaith background. His mother is Jewish and his father is not. My column item was the first time Radcliffe's background was noted in any mainstream media outlet other than the Australian TV station itself.

A commenter to Abrams' blog entry about the Tonys added another reason to admire Radcliffe, in addition to his work supporting gay youth and other good causes: "Daniel Radcliffe is also a supporter of the UK's Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and has narrated a short film for them called The Legacy of Hope."

I am happy to report that Scarlett Johansson won the Tony. The award adds to her reputation as a real acting talent who also happens to be stunningly beautiful. It was a nice coincidence that Radcliffe presented the award.

What wasn't nice was way the Tony stage director paired actress Katie Holmes with Radcliffe as his award co-presenter. Radcliffe is only 5 feet 6 inches tall and quite slender. Holmes is 5 feet 10 inches and was wearing heels that brought her height to at least 6 feet. Such duos are often found in comedies, but this pairing was unintentionally comic.

Adding to the silly effect was the fact that Holmes was wearing a strapless gown and showing a lot of cleavage. I'm sure that I wasn't the only one who thought that if Radcliffe and Holmes hugged—as often happens with award presenters---both would be embarrassed as to where Radcliffe's head met Holmes' body.

The day after the awards, the internet was abuzz with photos of the duo and comments about them. Many people said that Tom Cruise, Holmes' husband, is only 5'7" (or maybe 5'8") and he appears comfortable appearing with his taller wife. However, others chimed in that Holmes almost always wears flat shoes when with Cruise.

Radcliffe, 20, is an intelligent and steady young man with a sense of the more important things in the world and so I'm sure that he won't lose any sleep about this incident. Still, I suspect that he and his managers will take steps to see that this doesn't happen again. It doesn't do an actor any good to appear almost dwarf-like in front of a TV audience that includes many important casting directors.

Bill T. Jones accepts award
Choreographer Bill T. Jones poses with one of his Tony Awards for "Fela." Photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson.

Jewish actor Dustin Hoffman is the same height as Radcliffe and, so far as I can tell, he's avoided just this situation at scores of awards shows.

As long as we are casting blame, I have to blame myself for omitting to mention, in my last column, the Tony nomination of African American dancer Bill T. Jones, 58.

Jones won the Tony for best choreography for the musical "Fela," about a famous Nigerian activist and composer, Fela Anikulapo. Jones also wrote the "book" (or story) of the show and "Fela" was nominated for eleven Tony awards, winning three.

I knew that Jones was half of a famous and famously groundbreaking interfaith couple. His late professional and life partner was Jewish dancer/choreographer Arnie Zane.

They were an unlikely pair. Jones is tall and black and the son of upstate New York parents who eked out a living as farm workers. Zane was short, and white, and the son of Italian Jews who owned a small restaurant in New York City. In 1971, they met at SUNY Binghamton in upstate New York. Zane was a recent graduate of Binghamton. Jones was a student and Zane spotted him during a post-graduate trip to the campus. (By the way, SUNY Binghamton, now called Binghamton University, is this writer's alma mater.)

Jones and Zane were one of the first openly gay celebrity couples, and they also happened to be an inter-racial and interfaith couple--quite a lot for the early 1970s. In 1982, they formed the Bill T. Jones-Arnie Zane dance company. The company quickly gained critical and popular success.

Sadly, Zane died of AIDS in 1988. Jones did not change the name of the company after Zane's death.

The Bill T. Jones-Arnie Zane dance company has continued to flourish. It has toured scores of foreign countries and Bill T. Jones won a MacArthur "genius" fellowship in 1994.

Jones and Zane, as this 1990 NY Times profile makes clear, were virtually inseparable partners from the day they met until Zane died.

Almost More Stars than the Oscars

An amazing number of "A" list stars attended the American Film Institute (AFI) gala lifetime achievement tribute to Jewish stage and film director Mike Nichols, 79.

The gala was held on June 11th and a tape of the event will be shown on the TV Land cable station on Saturday, June 26, at 9 p.m., with an encore showing on Sunday at 4 p.m.

A refugee from Nazi Germany, Nichols is one of only a dozen people who have won a Tony, Grammy, Oscar and Emmy. He has won six Tonys for best director of a play or musical and he was been nominated three times for the Oscar for best director, winning once for The Graduate.

On May 27, Nichols was one of the guests at the White House reception saluting Jewish American Heritage month. He was accompanied by his wife of 22 years, TV anchorwoman Diane Sawyer, who isn't Jewish.

Back in February, I profiled Nichols and his interfaith marriages in this column. Nichols was then about to appear on the PBS series, Faces of America, which traced the ancestry of 12 famous Americans. The show's family history researchers confirmed that Nichols was distantly related (fifth cousins) to famous German Jewish physicist Albert Einstein. Nichols' mother had told him of this relationship, but he thought it was just one of those family "tall tales."

Several speakers at the AFI tribute made a joking reference to Nichols' relationship with Einstein. Jewish director and actress Elaine May, 78, who was in a comedy duo with Nichols in the '50s, said: "Einstein was a very sad man when he died because he hadn't achieved a Combined Field Theory… But if he's watching tonight--he's got to be immensely happy that he's Mike Nichols' cousin."

Soccer Penalty Kicks---Straight from the Correction Corner

In my last column, I said that the American soccer team going to the World Cup in South Africa had two Jewish members: Benny Feilhaber and Jonathan Bornstein. I correctly described Bornstein's interfaith background. However, relying on an old source--I should have checked further--I erroneously said that Feilhaber was the son of Austrian Jewish parents who settled in Brazil.

On June 8, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles set the record straight with an interview with Feilhaber, himself. Like Bornstein, he is of interfaith background.

Feilhaber told the Jewish Journal: "My father is Jewish, and I have a connection with Judaism through my father and my grandparents. I know our history as a people and embrace being Jewish myself. Of course, my proudest moment as a Jew was having my bar mitzvah in front of all my family and friends."

However, the Jewish Journal: did make a mistake when it identified a third American player, defender Jonathan Spector, 24, as Jewish. A Journal editor told me they did this based simply on the fact that Jonathan's paternal grandfather, Art Spector, an original member of the Boston Celtics basketball team, was identified as Jewish in some sources.

I collaborated with a family friend to research the truth. Art Spector's father, a native of Russia, was Jewish and his mother may or may not have been Jewish. Art Spector was either raised Christian or converted to Christianity--his funeral was in a Protestant church. It appears virtually certain that Jonathan Spector's other three grandparents had no Jewish background. Jonathan's mother is a non-Jew, born in post-war Germany. He graduated from a Catholic high school and referred to his father as "Irish and English" in an interview.

The whole story illuminates the assumptions that still underlie how we identify Jews in public life. We tend to assume that a white celebrity with an identifiably Jewish surname is Jewish, even though we know that there are a lot of Jews with non-Jewish names--like Johansson--and that not all Jews are white. Bad things can happen when these assumptions or stereotypes are not challenged and debunked in most Jewish homes--when children are not informed that these stereotypes no longer fit a larger and larger share of the broadly defined Jewish community.

Drake (aka Aubrey Graham Drake), the half African-American, half Canadian white/Jewish rapper, said in an interview he gave to Heeb, reprinted on InterfaithFamily.com:

I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish. When kids are young it's hard for them to understand the make-up of religion and race." [He recalls being called a schvartze, repeatedly.] "But the same kids that made fun of me are super proud [of me] now. And they act as if nothing happened."

My heart breaks when I hear a story like Drake related, because in writing the stories of celebrities with Jewish heritage, this is not the first time I have heard this exact same tale about Hebrew school bullying from a celebrity of mixed African American and Jewish background. If the parents of these "cruel kids" ever realized themselves that American and Canadian Jewish communities are now very varied, maybe they would sit their kids down and explain things and this bullying would stop forever.

Not many people think this through, but I am convinced that the flip side of assuming someone famous is Jewish based on race and surname has the effect of "defining out" those who identify as Jewish who don't fit these assumptions.

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." 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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