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Interfaith Celebrities: Will Smith's Jewish Movie Family and Tony Nominees

June 4, 2013

At the Movies

It's probably some sort of first: a famous African American actor is in a big-budget movie in which both his wife and his daughter are played by actors of mixed African and Jewish background.

Jaden Smith and his father Will Smith star in After Earth.

The actor is Will Smith, 44, and he is the star of After Earth, which opened last Friday, May 31. Here's the plot, in a nutshell: An apocalyptic event causes most people to evacuate Earth for a distant planet. A thousand years later, Smith and his son (played by his real-life son, Jaden Smith, 14) crash-land on Earth and have to deal with all sorts of dangerous stuff.

Appearing, as his wife and daughter, respectively, are Sophie Okonedo, 44, and Zoë Kravitz, 24.

The Oscar®-nominated Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda) has been profiled in this column before. She is the daughter of a Nigerian father and an English Jewish mother and was raised Jewish by her single mom.

Kravitz is the daughter of actress Lisa Bonet, 45, and musician Lenny Kravitz, 49. Bonet's mother is Jewish and her father is African American and not Jewish. Lenny Kravitz's late father was Jewish and his mother, a native of the Bahamas, was black and not Jewish. Long in demand as a fashion model, Zoe has compiled a list of increasingly better screen roles.

Since I last mentioned Zoë Kravitz, I've learned that she identifies herself as a secular Jew. Her father has long called himself a non-denominational Christian.

Co-starring in another "futuristic" sci-fi flick is interfaith actor Max Burkholder, 15, who has not previously appeared in this column.

Opening on Friday, June 7, is The Purge, a dark thriller about a future America in which crime is legalized for a 12 hour period each year (so everybody can vent their frustrations). Ethan Hawke, 42, plays a nice guy who must decide whether to let a stranger into his bunker-like home, which also harbors his wife and two kids. Burkholder plays one of Hawke's children.

Burkholder is best known for playing "Max Braverman," the child with Asperger syndrome on TV's Parenthood. A friend, curious about his background, did some internet/family history research and found out that Max's father, Scott Burkholder, is of Protestant background, and that his mother, Kelly Wolf Burkholder, is from a Southern Jewish family. He also found a reference to Max having his bar mitzvah in a Memphis, TN synagogue in 2011.

Maybe Yes, Maybe No — Check Her Out, Whatever

As I write this, Michelle Chamuel, who is about 26, is one of six remaining contestants on The Voice, the hit NBC reality talent show. On May 28, Chamuel garnered enough popular votes from the TV audience to be "saved" and didn't have to sweat-out the judges' decision whether she would be one of the two contestants to be eliminated that night. By the time you read this, you will know, or can soon find out, whether she has survived the "round of six" competition held on June 3 and 4, and will be one of the four remaining contestants in the rounds airing at 8 p.m. on June 10, 11, 17, and 18.

Born and raised in Amherst, MA, she lived, until recently, in Ann Arbor, MI where she was a university student and the powerful lead singer of a locally popular band. An out lesbian, Chamuel told a lesbian community website in 2011 that she doesn't define herself, except as a "lesbian musician or Jewish artist." I managed to find out that Michelle and her mother attended an Amherst egalitarian synagogue for at least several years. I was unable to determine if her father is Jewish or not.

Neil Patrick Harris, seen here at the 2012 awards, will host the Tony's again this year.

Tony® Time

The Tony Awards® will air on CBS on Sunday, June 9 at 8 p.m. Once again, Neil Patrick Harris, 39, hosts. Presenters will include Jewish actor Jesse Eisenberg, 29, and interfaith actress Scarlett Johansson, 28.

Larry Kramer, 77, the famous Jewish playwright and AIDS activist (The Normal Heart) will receive the Isabelle Stevenson Humanitarian Award for his for his work as the co-founder of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC).

Here are the Jewish and interfaith nominees in all but the technical categories. Here and there (especially in the case of interfaith nominees), I provided some detailed biography.

By the way, while the show's producers share the Tony® nomination for best play or musical; I've simply noted the work's author or composer(s)/lyricist(s).

Acting Categories:

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play: Judith Light, 64, Assembled Parties.

Jessica Hecht, Jeremy Shamos, and Judith Light star in Assembled Parties.

Light, who is Jewish, is probably still best known as the co-star of Who's the Boss, the long-running sitcom. Most people don't know that she has compiled a very distinguished stage career including three successive Tony® nominations (including this one) in this category. Last year, she won the Tony® for her performance in the play, Other Desert Cities. It was about a non-Jewish family, divided by political and other differences, who gather together at Christmas, 2004. This year, Light is nominated for playing a member of a secular Jewish family who gather on Christmas Day, 1980, and twenty years later, on Christmas Day, 2000.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play: Danny Burstein, 48, Golden Boy; and Richard Kind, 56, The Big Knife.

Burstein, who has earned four Tony® nominations to date, is best known as a stage actor, although he has a number of supporting film and TV credits. Blessed with a strong singing voice, he frequently appears in stage musicals and was nominated, last year, for a Tony® for his performance in the musical, Follies.

This year, he is nominated for playing "Tokio," the trainer of the Italian-American boxer who is the central character of Golden Boy. The play, by the late Jewish playwright Clifford Odets, was first staged in 1937.

Burstein is the son of an American Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who was born in Costa Rica.

Last March, Burstein co-starred in a revival of the late Lanford Wilson's 1980 play, Talley's Folly, about the 1944 courtship, in the Deep South, of a Jewish immigrant and a Protestant woman. Both characters, in their own way, are troubled outsiders.

The revival, which got a rave in The New York Times, ran though May 5, 2013. The role prompted the Jewish community paper, The Forward, to interview Burstein:

The affable Burstein? says he understands what it's like to feel alienated. Born to a Costa Rican mother and a Jewish father, he was always the odd man out, though he said he identifies most strongly as a Jew. Indeed, he was labeled "Jew" growing up in a blue-collar Irish community in the Bronx and Queens, and the memories cast a long shadow. "The kids would throw pennies at me," he noted. "They wanted me to go scrambling to pick up the pennies. It was the idea, ?Go pick up the pennies, Jew.' Those are the things that stick with you when you are 6 or 7. You don't forget it"?His father's influence in his life was equally potent in shaping his performance. A philosophy professor who introduced young Burstein to plays, theater and other live performances, he lost many members of his family in the Holocaust?Though he says that the play speaks to all audiences, Burstein says that it may have special resonance for Jews, "who have had a long history of suffering, yet also experienced great triumph, like Matt and Sally. That's a beautiful image: to come away from a play with its hopefulness for Jews and gentiles alike."

Kind, who is Jewish, is a familiar face to TV viewers. He had a recurring role on Mad About You and co-starred on Spin City, the long running sitcom. By coincidence, his nomination is for his performance, as a Hollywood big-wig, in another revival of an Odets' play. This revival of The Big Knife didn't get great reviews and The New York Times reviewer said part of the fault was Odets: he explored many of the same themes better in Golden Boy.

Best Book and Score

Best Book of a Musical: Harvey Fierstein, 60, Kinky Boots

Harvey Fierstein is a repeat nominee.

Fierstein, who is Jewish, is famous as both a playwright (Torch Song Trilogy) and as an actor (his stage roles include Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and "Edna Turnblad" in the stage musical version of Hairspray). Raised in a Conservative Jewish household, he had a bar mitzvah. Now he defines himself as an atheist, while acknowledging he is a cultural Jew. Kinky Boots is based on a British film about a struggling shoe factory owner who saves his company by making shoes for drag queens.

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre: Trey Anastasio:, 48 (music) and Amanda Green, 48 (music and lyrics), Hands on a Hardbody; and Benji Pasek, 27 (music and lyrics) and Justin Paul, 27 (music and lyrics), A Christmas Story: The Musical

Anastasio, who isn't Jewish, is best known as a member of Phish, the famous four-member rock band (which includes two Jewish members: Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman). He is known for working on "non-Phish" projects, and his decision to write a musical that made its way to Broadway isn't a total surprise.

The show was based on a 1997 documentary of the same name about people who competed to see who could keep a hand on a truck the longest in order to win the truck. Anastasio teamed-up with Broadway veteran Green, who is Jewish. She is the daughter of the late Adolph Green, who was a famous Broadway lyricist and book writer (On the Town). Her mother is Tony®-winning, (Jewish) musical theatre actress Phyllis Newman, 80. Newman was the first winner (2009) of the Isabelle Stevenson Award for her work for women's health services.

A Christmas Story: The Musical, is based on the 1983 movie of the same name that has become an iconic Christmas film. As most of you know, it humorously recounts the efforts of a young boy attempting to get the Christmas gift of his dreams. The musical stage version opened for a limited run in November, 2012, and closed shortly after Christmas. It got good-to-stellar reviews and is already scheduled to play again during the 2013 holiday season.

As many readers of this column know, since 2006 I have written an annually updated article for Interfaith Family about the Jewish composers and lyricists who have written the most popular Christmas or "holiday" songs. This article has been a "hit" with site visitors.

Therefore, when the Tony® nominations came out in April, I was immediately curious whether either, or both, of the composer/lyricists of the hit show, A Christmas Story: The Musical, were Jewish. Well, so far, it's turned out to be as cool an interfaith Christmas music story as you might find.

Pasek, who is from Philadelphia, PA, and Paul, who is from Westport, CT, met when they were undergraduates at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. They clicked and formed a composing team that has had considerable success since their graduation (writing shows for Broadway and other stage venues, as well penning tunes for the TV series Smash).

I wish I knew a lot more about Paul. I know that he grew up in Westport and graduated from the town's top quality public high school. I also know, from an interview with Pasek, and from a 2009 interview with Paul, that his father is a minister. He told the Westport News in 2009, "I grew up with church music, pop music, but I'm also a theater kid."

But I haven't been able to find much more about his family or the denomination in which he was raised. Still, I think one can more than safely say he grew up in a religious family.

Pasek, who was also raised in a religious home, was the subject of a long interview by the Detroit Jewish News in 2011 when the show played a local theater in advance of a then just-possible Broadway run.

Here are a few excerpts from that interview:

Pasek, whose dad, Jeffrey Pasek, is a lawyer active with the American Jewish Congress. His mom, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, was active in the Jewish day school attended by her son? "Hopefully, I'm following in the great tradition of Irving Berlin and other Jews writing Christmas songs," Pasek says. "Jews are often considered analytical so I think we give an outside perspective looking at Christmas."?. "I'm interested in figuring out how to write Jewish-themed shows and music that is relevant to my generation," explains Pasek. "For a year, I taught at a Hebrew school and created a class to present Jewish learning in appealing ways. We developed videos of us reinterpreting Jewish text and making it contemporary."

Best Play

Richard Greenberg, 55, Assembled Parties; and Nora Ephron (1941-2012), Lucky Guy

Tom Hanks is in Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy.

Greenberg, who is Jewish, has written over 25 plays. He is still perhaps best known for Take Me Out, which won a Tony® award for best play in 2003. Still very contemporary, it is about the conflicts that arise when a major league baseball player casually announces he is gay. Assembled Parties was praised as smart, funny, charming, and moving.

Lucky Guy is about newspaperman Mike McAlary, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his stories about police brutality in New York City. A year later, he died of cancer at age 41.

Ephron, who was raised in a secular Jewish home, was the daughter of two successful Hollywood screenwriters. She was first famous as a journalist. In the mid-1980s, she became a successful screenwriter (When Harry Met Sally and Silkwood). In 1993, she directed her first film, the hit Sleepless in Seattle, which she also wrote. She had hits and misses in the years that followed, but her last film, Julie and Julia (2009) was a hit.

Ephron was married three times. Her first husband, humor writer Dan Greenburg, now 76, is Jewish. They split-up in 1976. Not long after, Ephron married Jewish journalist Carl Bernstein, now 69. He is, of course, famous for being one of the two reporters who broke the Watergate scandal. Infamously, Bernstein cheated on her (1979) while she was pregnant and home taking care of their toddler son. She turned that episode into the best selling (thinly-disguised) novel, Heartburn, which was later made into a Mike Nichols film.

In 1987, she wed Nicholas Pileggi, now 80, a famous Italian (not Jewish) American journalist. They had a very good marriage that only ended with her death.

Nice to note: Journalist Jacob Bernstein, 35, one of the two sons that Ephron had with Carl Bernstein, is now making an HBO documentary about his mother entitled Everything Is Copy. Last April, Jacob recounted, for The New York Times Magazine, how his mother managed to write a great play about McAlary's courage as she battled her own cancer with great courage and unflagging wit.

Best Musical: Tom Kitt, 39, (music) and Amanda Green, 48, (lyrics), Bring It On; and Benji Pasek, 27 and Justin Paul, 27 (music and lyrics), A Christmas Story: The Musical

Bring It On is based on the 2000 film of the same name about the competitive world of cheerleading. It played out of town for a long time and its Broadway run was met with pretty good, if not glowing reviews.

For more on Green, see above. Kitt, who is Jewish, is a musical theater veteran (composer and conductor) who won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony® awards in 2010 for his score for Next to Normal, a rock musical about a bipolar mother. I only very recently learned he is Jewish and that, at least once, he has composed music for synagogues.

Best Revival of a Musical

Charles Strouse, 84, (music) and Martin Charnin, 78, (lyrics), Annie; Rupert Holmes, 66 (music and lyrics), The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Stephen Schwartz, 65 (music and lyrics), Pippin; and Richard Rogers (lyrics) and Oscar Hammerstein, II, Rogers & Hammerstein's Cinderella

Both Strouse and Charnin are Jewish.

Holmes was born David Goldstein, in England, the son of an American soldier (and bandleader) stationed in Britain and a non-Jewish, English mother. His family moved to the States when he was six years old and he grew-up in a New York suburb. I've never read whether he was raised in any faith or practices any faith. I do believe that his childhood sweetheart, and his "still and only wife", is Jewish.

Holmes first became famous as the composer and singer of the 1979 novelty hit, "Escape (the Pina Colada Song)." He surprised many when he emerged as the writer and composer of a hit Broadway musical in 1985 (Edwin Drood). He has gone on to write other stage hits.

Schwartz, who is Jewish, is also famous for writing the one of the first hit rock musicals about Jesus, Godspell (1971). More recently, he had a monster hit with the stage musical Wicked (2003).

Cinderella's Rodgers was Jewish. While hardly practicing, he and his wife did contribute to Jewish institutions like the Jewish Museum of New York. Hammerstein, as I have written before, was the son of a Jewish father and an Episcopal mother. He was raised in his mother's faith; but was secular as an adult.

Best Revival of a Play: Clifford Odets, Golden Boy; and Lyle Kessler, 69, Orphans

Both Odets and Kessler were/are Jewish.

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." 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." 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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