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Singing the Jewish Gospel: A Profile of Mare Winningham

June 7, 2007

It's a busy week for Mare Winningham.

Her new play, "10 Million Miles," recently opened. Alternately moving and funny, its story is set to the music of singer/songwriter Patty Griffin in the same way "Moving Out" was created around the songs of Billy Joel. It is about a road trip two young people take from Florida to upstate New York, a trip during which they discover each other and themselves. It gives Winningham an opportunity to stretch her vocal muscles as she plays several characters the young couple encounters on their journey.

Winningham sing? She is of course best known as an actress, probably most notably for her role as quiet virgin Wendy Beamish in the defining Brat Pack hit, St. Elmo's Fire. But singing has been an integral part of her career, which brings us to the second part of her busy week. She'll appear Sunday, June 10, at Joe's Pub.

People surprised that Winningham sings will likely be even more surprised by her songs. Featured in her Joe's Pub engagement are songs from Mare's new recording, Refuge Rock Sublime, a country western album.

Of Jewish songs.

And therein lies a story. Winningham, 48, converted to Judaism five years ago, and it is that experience and its aftermath that she sings about. "Converts can be annoying sometimes," she says with a laugh. "We can be too enthusiastic and passionate, if there's such a thing."

Winningham laughs easily and often over the course of an interview. She doesn't look much older than she did when the Brat Pack was the rage. And there's certainly nothing bratty about her. She begins the conversation by apologizing for being just a couple of minutes late for a post-show meeting. She'd been called in for a last-minute costume fitting.

Mare was raised in Northridge, Calif. Her mother was an observant Catholic; her father agnostic. She was raised Catholic, had her first communion and was confirmed. But shortly after her confirmation, there was a disconnect between her and her mother's faith. She became "irreligious and secular and never developed an affinity for any religion."

Mare was interested in show business, though, and had the kind of quirky experiences in pursuit of her goal that make good copy and entertainment writers very happy. As a teenager, for example, she was a contestant on the "Gong Show."

"I was 16 or 17 years old, and I thought I might be able to get some money. I wanted to go to drama camp. So we (Mare and her mother) hatched a plan to get the pity vote, and I won. I came out and looked pitiful in a lime green shift. I didn't let them put on any make-up and when I came out with my guitar I sang 'Here, There and Everywhere' by the Beatles."

She used her earnings to attend a prestigious and very artsy West Coast camp. She enrolled in the theater program but brought along her guitar. "I played it every night. I got a lot of encouragement. That was where I first started writing songs, where I became a singer-songwriter."

At the time she attended Chatsworth High School in Chatsworth, Calif., which had a drama department of considerable renown. Val Kilmer and Kevin Spacey attended there the same time she did. In fact, she played Marie opposite Spacey's Capt. Von Trapp in a school production of The Sound of Music.

"We both got agents from that production."

Winningham started working immediately, mostly on episodic TV. By 1980, she'd won an Emmy for best supporting actress in "Amber Waves," an ABC Movie of the Week. St. Elmo's Fire came five years later. To set the record straight, yes she was in the movie, but, no, she wasn't in the Brat Pack.

"It was a strange relationship. I was in my late 20s and pregnant with my third child; they were 18 or 19. I had come from television. They had come from films mostly. When they did all the magazine covers, they had the whole cast except me. Maybe that was a good thing. Some people believe any publicity is good publicity. But being a member of the Brat Pack is not such a prestigious thing."

Winningham continued on with a solid career. She was a 1996 Academy Award nominee for her role as a country western singer in Georgia. She won another Emmy for her role as the title character's wife in the TV film "George Wallace." But apparently something was missing.

Mare was working in Toronto on a television movie and spent her evenings in a hotel room watching television. At the time, Bill Moyers' multi-part interview with Joseph Campbell was airing. "Campbell was talking about God and God-like figures and the spiritual. I kind of made a pronouncement to myself at that time that I think I'm an atheist. And almost at the time I said that to myself I had a powerful (epiphany) that said if you're going to reject something you should know what you're rejecting first."

So she decided to study the different religions and began with a class in Judaism at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in Los Angeles. This wasn't a creampuff course. It ran three-and-a-half hours every Monday, and you had to make up classes that you missed.

"There were 15 of us, many different types of people in the class. There were some Jews who were bat mizvahed, didn't do anything else (afterwards) and wanted to reacquaint themselves with Judaism. There were women who were converting for marriage and Russian women who were now allowed to practice their faith. It was a really interesting class."

Her instructor was a Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who said some things during the first session that resonated with Winningham:

"He said Judaism is a religion that emphasizes our behavior here on earth and how we treat each other. And I thought, that's fine with me. And then he spoke about Jacob wrestling with an angel and getting the name Israel, which means struggle with God.

"And that was just an exclamation point to what I was doing, having this struggle with God. I don't mean to compare myself to Jacob, but little bells went off when I heard that. It was the beginning of a long, beautiful journey and a love affair with Judaism. I didn't sit down and embrace this religion immediately. I embraced little bits and pieces that came my way.

"The other remarkable thing in the class was the encouragement to ask questions and challenge. We were being given an amazing amount of information and always being asked to challenge it. It was a perfect (concept) for me. The idea of Judaism was that if you weren't up to the task of saying what bothered you (about Judaism) than you weren't being a good Jewish student.

"The preciousness of education and learning and passing down the tradition (was something I loved). Inherent in that a child or a covert is encouraged to speak up and weigh in on everything. I just thought it was a wonderful aspect of Judaism. I continue to be in awe of it and see how it has lasted for millennium and millennium."

Every week she did a little more, lighting candles, adding a prayer to her routine. It was "overwhelming but very invigorating."

She changed and her children--she has five--noticed. "My daughter said you're really starting to love it, and she was right. I began to have a relationship with God, and I came to him through ritual. I came to him through homework." She laughs and pauses as she remembers.

"It was a beautiful, beautiful year. Methodical and slow, but I was growing. Finished the class in 2002 and spent a year observing all the holidays and keeping Shabbat. I wanted to be sure that I was really committed to this. This is a huge commitment."

Not everyone was happy with her decision to convert, though she won't say who objected. "There were people who were disappointed," she says quickly adding that her kids were not among the naysayers. "They could see how good it was for me."

Whenever they're together, the entire clan gathers for Shabbat (the Sabbath), and one of her sons attended Torah classes. Mare's mother also understood.

"My mother's reaction was more important to me, since she's the most devoted to her faith. I grew up with a mother who was devoted in the most beautiful way. Everyone in our family admired her for her religiosity. She goes to church every Sunday and all the holidays. She raised five kids and wanted them to embrace Catholicism. And when we didn't, that must have been very hard.

"I always found her very approachable, and when I started getting serious about Judaism and let her know, she said, 'You know, Mare, they were the first.' That is a perfect example of her getting the bigger picture. It was more important to her that her children be happy and have a relationship with God. When she found out I was having one that was more important to her than what religion it was in."

Like her interest in Judaism, the album is a result of some downtime while making a movie. She was in Arkansas filming War Eagle, a still unreleased feature, and was exposed to the familiar twangs of gospel and bluegrass music. That's where she decided to write gospel songs herself--but from a Jewish perspective. "It's music that first me like a glove," she says.

In songs like "The Convert Jig" she proclaims: "I will be a Jew like all of you. Your tree has grown a twig and I will dance the convert jig."

In another she asks "What Would David do?"

And in another she proclaims: "My six point has been from the very first day a reference for always forever and a day. I was 40 before I discovered its way."

Her original plan was take these songs on tour to synagogues and Jewish community centers around the country. But that was delayed when she was approached about "10 Million Miles." The delay may be longer than she anticipated.

The musical is a production of the Atlantic Theater Company and director Michael Mayer, the team that premiered "Spring Awakening" last year and brought it to Broadway this one. It's only scheduled to run until July 1, but if history is any indication… Mare says she'll be happy to stay on. (Ed.'s note: The play closed July 15, 2007.)

Meanwhile she's happy to see the sights of Jewish New York. "I've made a list of things I'd like to see." She's also conducted a mini-tour of the Big Apple's synagogues. Every Shabbat she attends a different one.

"My eyes are so wide open, coming to New York at this point in my life."

A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Curt Schleier

Curt Schleier is a New Jersey-based freelancer who writes about the arts and business. He also teaches business writing to corporate executives.

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