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Interfaith Celebrities: A Jewish American Idol

October 27, 2009

Recently singer Adam Lambert, 27, the runner-up in the last American Idol competition, sat down with Gail Zimmerman, the arts editor of the Detroit Jewish News, and spoke for the first time about his interfaith background. Lambert had mentioned that he is Jewish in a Rolling Stone interview. However, he had never really gone into his religious background at any length. You can read Zimmerman's interview with Lambert online at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles website.

Adam Lambert
Adam Lambert is an up and coming singer. Photo: Reuters/Fred Prouser.

J(ewish) N(ews): Speaking of your people, there are some things your Jewish fans are curious about. Are both of your parents Jewish?

A(dam)L(ambert): No, my mom is.

JN: The Rolling Stone article said you dropped out of Hebrew school at age 5.

AL: I think I was a little bit older than 5. Probably like 9.

JN: How were you able to sing those songs in Hebrew that everyone's listened to over the Internet?

AL: Oh. All phonetic. I don't speak Hebrew. I wasn't bar mitzvahed, unfortunately.

JN: So did your family celebrate the holidays?

AL: We did celebrate Hanukkah as opposed to Christmas. So we stayed true to our roots that way. And we celebrated Passover occasionally. I mean I hate to say it, but we were kind of Jewish by form. Lightly Jewish. Diet Jews. More of a heritage thing.

(True to his heritage, and to the spirit of tikkun olam, Adam has requested that his fans donate to charity rather than buying him gifts. For more on his campaign to help support arts and music in high-need public schools, go to DonorsChoose.org/Adam Lambert.)

Notwithstanding his second place finish, Lambertlooks to be one of the very few singers to come out of American Idol with all the tools necessary to have a long-lasting career as a top pop singer.

Lambert's single for the film 2012 is in stores and the single from his new solo debut album will be released on Nov. 24. You can hear many of Lambert's performances of Jewish songs on Youtube. In this one he is singing with Noa Dori, an Israeli singer who lives in Los Angeles, at a concert in memory of Yitzhak Rabin in 2005.

An Education

An Education, a British film, opened in limited release earlier this month, with more cities being added throughout the month. The film got good reviews virtually across the board. Even if you don't get a chance to see it in the theaters, look for it on DVD.

Because it is a "little film" and a British one, you might have missed the reviews and are unaware that an interfaith romance is at the heart of the movie. The film is based on a bestselling memoir by Lynn Barber, a British journalist. At age 16, Barber dated and nearly married Simon Goldman, a Jewish gangster from the circle of Peter Rachman, a notorious Jewish slumlord. The romance with the man in his 30s shaped Barber into the distrustful yet successful interviewer she became.

Writer Nick Hornby and director Lone Scherfig fictionalized Barber's book, changing the names of the characters and some of their characteristics. Peter Sarsgaard, the actor who plays the older man in the story, here called David, is awfully good looking compared to the "rather short, rather ugly, long-faced, splay-footed man who talked in different accents and lied about his age" that Barber describes in an excerpt of her memoir in The Guardian. Sarsgaard, who is Catholic, is married to one of my favorite Jewish actresses from an interfaith background, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

But Hornby and Scherfig don't soft-pedal the anti-Semitism in the general environment of British society in the 1960s in their fictionalization. Barber expressed satisfaction with the film to Ella Taylor, herself a British Jew, in a very illuminating profile of Barber (and the film) in the LA Weekly. Taylor writes:

No one gets off lightly in An Education--not Barber or her parents, not David or his pals, and certainly not the casually anti-Semitic headmistress (Emma Thompson, magnificently horrid in a Thatcher bouffant), who kicks Jenny out of school for getting engaged, and to one of them. "We're all very sorry about what happened during the war," she enunciates crisply. "Did you know that the Jews murdered our Lord?"

Singled out for praise in every review of the film is Carey Mulligan, 24, a British actress who plays Jenny. Mulligan has been "keeping company" with interfaith actor Shia LaBeouf, 23. They co-star in the sequel film, Wall Street 2, which is currently filming.

New York, I Love You

Speaking of LaBeouf, he currently can be seen in the film, New York, I Love You, an anthology of 11 shorts. It opened in limited release earlier this month, with openings in additional cities throughout October.

The films' respective directors were given certain restrictions. Each film had to have some sort of romantic encounter, could not run more than 8 minutes and had to reasonably meld or interconnect (no blackouts) into the next film. The same restrictions were applied to the similar, preceding anthology film, Paris, Je t'aime (2006). The company that made both films plans to release Rio and Shanghai-based films in 2010--and in 2011, Mumbai and Jerusalem.

In one short narrative segment, LaBeouf plays a Russian émigré bellboy, with a withered leg, who is kindly attentive to an aging opera star (Julie Christie) making her last visit to a hotel she loves.

In another film segment, Jewish actress Natalie Portman, 28, plays a Hasidic Orthodox Jew who is about to get married. She playfully haggles with Jain diamond merchant (played by well-known Indian actor Irfan Khan, who is Muslim) about the price of his wares. As they speak, they have romantic daydream fantasies about each other, fantasies that would take them away from their tradition bound religious communities.

Hebrew for "repairing the world," a goal of the Jewish covenant with God. 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 spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. 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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