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Interfaith Celebrities: More Sex, Sparring Partners and Fallen Heroes

May 25, 2010

Sex and the City 2 opens this Thursday, May 27. Based on the film's trailers, it looks like a TV season's worth of plot twists have been encapsulated in a 90 minute flick. This is what we know: Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker, 45) and Mr. Big (Chris Noth) are having some problems with their two-year-old sex and the city 2 postermarriage. Carrie realizes some sparkle has been lost when she catches Big flirting with a sultry Spanish woman (Penelope Cruz). Then, in Abu Dhabi, Carrie runs into old flame Aiden (John Corbett) and maybe sparks fly. Meanwhile, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) seems to be doing well, but Charlotte (Kristen Davis) admits mothering two young kids is tough. Finally, there's Samantha (Kim Catrall)--who is back to her bed-hopping ways.

The supporting cast includes Jewish actor Evan Handler as Harry, the Jewish lawyer husband of Jew-by-choice Charlotte, and Willie Garson, a straight Jewish actor who plays Stanford Blatch, Carrie's WASP and gay friend.

Parker, an interfaith actress whom I have profiled before, has three young children with her husband, actor Matthew Broderick, who also comes from an interfaith family.

Parker recently told Heat magazine: "I don't feel like [the glamorous and childless] Carrie--my life is so different, my choices are different. But I love her. I love playing her and everything about her--the good, the flawed, the mistakes, the bad choices." The magazine also asked Parker about her beauty regimen, and she said: "I don't have one. I feel old and tired! I have children I run around after. I try to walk as much as possible, and other than that I buy every cream possible."

An Unusual Matched Pair

This is not a run-of-the-mill Jewish celebrity story. It is not a conventional story about a non-Jewish woman who decides to adopt the faith of her Jewish husband. Everything about this story is out-of-the-ordinary and that's what it's so interesting and, yes, fun to report.

On Saturday, June 5, after the sun has set and the Jewish Sabbath is over, Yuri Foreman, an Orthodox Jew and the current holder of the World Boxing

Yuri Foreman and Miguel Cotto
World Boxing Association welterweight champion Yuri Foreman (R) and three-time world champion Miguel Cotto pose after a news conference announcing their June 5th title fight at Yankee Stadium in New York, April 9, 2010. Photo: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton.

Association (WBA) Super welterweight championship, will enter a ring in the middle of Yankee Stadium. He will box Miguel Cotto, the holder, at various times, of three boxing championships. They will fight for the WBA junior welterweight title (154 pounds).The bout will be televised live on HBO World Championship Boxing, beginning at 10:15 p.m. Eastern, 7:15 p.m. Pacific time.

There is no clear favorite in this match, which is the main event of the night. Cotto, who is of Puerto Rican background, has fought better competition than Foreman. But he has not been boxing that well in the last few years and he is fighting at a weight that is higher than usual for him.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were many top Jewish boxers and some Jewish boxing champions. They almost all were born into working class, immigrant Jewish families and boxing was a way up and out of poverty. However, as the American Jewish community, as a whole, prospered, it produced fewer and fewer boxers. The same thing is true of other American ethnic groups.

Today, there are very few professional Jewish boxers and Foreman, frankly, is something of a novelty act. He's an Orthodox Jew who can box and is currently studying to be a rabbi!

His wife, Leyla Leidecker, 29, is a pretty professional model, a documentary maker and a former top pro fighter who trained Hillary Swank to box in Million Dollar Baby. It's not the usual story!

Foreman was born in Belarus and moved to Israel when he was 9 and learned to box in an Arab gym in Israel. He moved to the States in 2000 and turned pro in 2002. Neither he nor Leyla was religious when they met in 2003 and fell in love.

Leyla was born and raised in Communist-controlled Hungary, an officially atheist country. She says she was a teenager before she realized that Christmas was a religious holiday.

However, they both felt something was missing from their lives. Not long after they started dating, Leyla googled for Kabbalah classes, which led, in a roundabout way, with them both taking classes about Judaism with an Orthodox rabbi.

It was a gradual process, but they both got more and more into the study of Judaism. Leyla converted to Orthodox Judaism in 2006. They both follow virtually all Orthodox strictures, such as keeping kosher and not working on the Sabbath.

It's no wonder so many newspapers, especially Jewish ones, have wanted to cover their story. In The Jewish Press, the story was "Orthodox Jew Boxes His Way to the Top," but for the JTA, the story was "Leyla Packs a Punch for Judaism." In the New York Times profile, the angle was, "Studying to be a rabbi, fighting to be a champion."

But I think my favorite anecdote is one in a recent New York Daily News article, "Brooklyn boxer Yuri Foreman has gorgeous pugilist wife in his corner at Yankee Stadium":

Foreman and Leidecker even traded jabs up until Leidecker left the sport to direct documentaries, but it wasn't much fun, she admitted. "We are not the same size," she said. He's 154 pounds, and she's just 125 pounds. "I like to spar with guys who are smaller. It is hard to spar with someone much bigger," she said.

Jeez, when you hear that a married couple are "sparring partners"--you assume something is going wrong. Here are a couple who were literally (loving) sparring partners!

Remembering

This column appears the week before Memorial Day and I thought it appropriate to say something about service personnel from Jewish and interfaith families who have died in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Back in 2004, I wrote a newspaper piece about Jewish service personnel (some of interfaith background) who had been killed in these wars as of mid-2004. My piece was published in the Jewish Daily Forward and re-printed in about four other Jewish newspapers. There were "only" eight Jewish service personnel who had died in combat at that time--and I was able to write a manageably sized newspaper article that included a short obituary-like profile of each one.

Around the time I wrote my Forward piece, Brian Kresge, an active duty American Jewish soldier, launched the the website Jewsingreen.com. The site provides valuable information on how you can help Jewish service personnel and an ever-lengthening list of Jewish service personnel killed in action.

Updating this list is not an easy task, as I discovered when I wrote my original article. It is impossible to compile an absolutely accurate list of the Jewish service personnel who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Defense Department no longer keeps statistics on the religion of their personnel. Moreover, Jewish chaplains observe a policy of strict confidentiality regarding the faith of service personnel and will neither confirm nor deny whether a war casualty was Jewish.

However, through newspaper obituaries and similar sources most of the Jewish/Interfaith service personnel who have been killed in combat can be identified. Jewsingreen.com also is assisted by site visitors who inform the site about the deaths of Jewish soldiers and soldiers from interfaith families.

As of this date, the count is 39 dead. These 39 combat deaths include a British Jew and an Australian Jew who were killed in Afghanistan while fighting with their respective countries' military forces. The rest are American, including two women. In order to make real the sacrifices that all our serving military have made and are making, I am including profiles of a few of the people who have died.

Sgt. Elijah Tai Wah Wong, 42, of Mesa, Arizona was killed Feb. 9, 2004 in Sinjar, Iraq when he and other soldiers were trying to move a cache of unexploded rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds, which had been seized from enemy forces. The cache blew up, killing Wong and another soldier.

Wong was with the 363rd Explosive Ordnance Company, Army National Guard, based in Casa Grande, Ariz.

As reported by the Chicago Tribune: "He himself was a composite of widely different cultures, a living example of the United States' hodgepodge of infused immigrant experiences, religions and races. His Chinese father, Wong Ning Nam, who was born in 1908, came to the U.S. by ship from Hong Kong. He landed in San Francisco without a suitcase and settled eventually in New York, where he married a Jewish woman, Wong's mother, Olga. 'My father came to this country with the shirt on his back," said Wong's sister, Helga. 'In the course of one generation, he has five children who are college-educated and own their own homes, as well as some of them owning their own businesses.'"

Wong was born and raised in New York and attended an Orthodox Jewish summer camp in New Jersey with his brother, Dov Wong. He moved to Israel as a teenager. He went to an Israeli high school and became a soldier in the Israeli army. He enlisted in the Air Force after returning to the States. Wong also served in the NY Air National Guard and the Air Forces Reserves before enlisting in the Arizona National Guard. He worked as a probation officer for Maricopa County, Arizona and was the married father of three minor children.

Helga Wong told the Tribune, "He was probably the most amazing person I have ever met. He really cared about everyone and everybody." She told the Arizona Republic that his work for the probation department was "Part of his plan to save the world. He tried to help the former inmates under his supervision work their way back into society. He believed in his country, with all its pros and cons.... I cannot imagine how many countless lives were saved by the (explosives) he had processed already."

Ironically, Helga Wong, a New York ballet dancer, saw one of the planes slam into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 from the window of her mother's downtown apartment.

Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Jacobson, 21, was killed providing convoy security Sept. 28, 2005 near Camp Bucca, Iraq, when the humvee she was riding in was hit by an improvised explosive device.

Jacobson was born in Florida, and raised near Fresno, California. She was assigned to the 17th Security Forces Squadron at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. Jacobson had been in the Air Force for two years and had been deployed to Iraq for more than three months. She was initially assigned to a detention camp in Iraq, but volunteered for more dangerous duty.

She is the first female Airman killed in the line of duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"She was an outstanding Airman who embraced life and took on all the challenges and responsibilities with extraordinary commitment to her country, her comrades and her family," said Col. Scott Bethel, 17th Training Wing commander at Goodfellow.

As reported by the New York Jewish Week, "The terrorist attacks of 9-11 had motivated Elizabeth Nicole Jacobson, an 11th-grader when the terror attacks occurred, to join the military. 'I told her over two years ago that enlisting after 9-11 meant she would definitely see combat,' her father, David, recalls. "She said she was prepared for that. She believed that being there [in Iraq] meant not fighting them here.'''

Jacobson had a complicated religious background, like many children of inter-faith families. Her father, David Jacobson, is Jewish, while Elizabeth's mother, Marianne, is not Jewish. Her parents divorced when she was a young child and Elizabeth was baptized and mostly raised Christian. However, her father began a journey to become a much more religious Jew about ten years ago and is Orthodox, today.

Her father's Orthodox Judaism greatly interested Elizabeth and, on her own volition, she requested that the word "Jewish" be put on her dog tags before being sent to Iraq.

David Jacobson was touched by this gesture, even though as an Orthodox Jew, he did not consider his daughter Jewish. (Unlike Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, Orthodox Jews interpret Jewish law to mean children of Jewish mothers are Jewish, not children of Jewish fathers.)

One Jewish newspaper quotes David Jacobson and Elizabeth's paternal grandfather as saying that Airman Jacobson had expressed a desire to convert to Orthodox Judaism upon her return to the States. Another Jewish newspaper piece leaves this a bit less clear. It is clear that her father's transformation from a secular Jew to a religious one had impressed and affected Airman Jacobson.

Elizabeth Jacobson was buried in a non-denominational ceremony that incorporated some Jewish traditions--including a plain shroud and plain coffin. Touchingly, David Jacobson added that he said the Jewish prayer for the dead for his daughter. The Talmud, he said, allows a Jewish parent to mourn a non-Jewish child in this way.

At the funeral, Air Force officers presented her father and mother with American flags. Her family also received Elizabeth Jacobson's Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Navy Lieutenant Miroslav "Steven" Zilberman was killed on March 31, 2010. The following paragraph, an excerpt from an article in the Columbus Dispatch, April 23, 2010, describes his last moments:

The plane had blown an engine over the northern Arabian Sea, and the lead pilot, Lt. Miroslav "Steven" Zilberman, had to make lightning-quick decisions. The E-2C Hawkeye, returning from a mission in Afghanistan, was a few miles out from the Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier. Zilberman, 31, was a veteran U.S. Navy pilot who had flown many times in the Middle East with the Hawkeye, a turbo-prop aircraft loaded with radar equipment. The starboard propeller shut down, causing the plane to become unstable and plunge. Zilberman ordered his three crew mates, including the co-pilot, to bail. He manually held the plane as steady as possible so they could jump....He held the plane level for them to do so, despite nearly uncontrollable forces. His last act earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the Navy's highest medals.

Zilberman's crew mates were rescued alive. His body has been lost at sea.

Zilberman was born in Ukraine, not far from Chernobyl. His Jewish parents left in 1991, seeking a better life for their only son. They settled in Columbus, Ohio. He graduated from high school and enlisted in the Navy so his parents wouldn't have to pay for his college education. His mother tried to veto the enlistment because, as she said, "military service in the Soviet Union was awful for Jewish people." But her son wanted to serve America and follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, a Soviet pilot who fought the Nazis.

A special Navy program allowed him to get a computer science degree while serving. At the time of his death, he was about to take a post as a Navy flying instructor in Florida and he was studying to go to medical school. He was married to a local Columbus girl, Katrina Yurchak, who was a graduate of the city's Torah Academy. They had two young children. Lt. Zilberman's widow, his parents, and his children attended the memorial service in Norfolk, Va., where a rabbi presided and Katrina was presented with her husband's medal.

Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. 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.

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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