Russian Dolls

23-year-old Diana Kosov, who wears a Star of David around her neck, breaks up with her Latino boyfriend, despite her expressed affection for him and his Maserati, after informing him she would only consider marrying a “Russian.”

According to Moses, “In that scene, everyone understands that Diana means she cannot allow herself to marry a non-Jew, but she uses the code word ‘Russian’ in place of ‘Jew’ or ‘Russian Jew’.”

The Jewish Week has an article out about the Brighton Beach (a Brooklyn, New York neighborhood) Jewish, Russian community. Well, the article is really about a new reality tv show called Russian Dolls, which airs on Lifetime. Variety summarizes the show with:

Apparently, “Jersey Shore’s” crimes against culture will include unleashing a torrent of heavily staged reality programs steeped in me-too ethnic stereotyping. Enter “Russian Dolls,” which has the distinction of show-casing the worst Russian accents since the early Bond movies, or back when Boris and Natasha began trying to kill moose and squirrel. Set in Brighton Beach — described by residents as “One square mile of Brooklyn jam-packed with crazy Russians” — it’s a Vodka-infused taste of Lifetime’s desperation to become hipper and get noticed. Will it work? Probably nyet.

Sounds delightful, eh?

So, back to the Jewish Week article, “Too Much Bling in Brighton Beach.” The second half of the article discusses the Jewish identities of the “characters” and intermarriage.

Arguing that as the percentage of Jews in the Russian-speaking community in South Brooklyn has receded from over 80 percent to 60 percent or less in recent years, even prominent Russian Jews have become more inclined to speak publicly of the community as “Russian-speaking” rather than “Russian Jewish.” (An influx of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Uzbeks and others accounts for the drop-off.)

Moses observed, “We are seeing an ongoing de-Judaization of this community, and what we see in ‘Russian Dolls’ confirms that it has become politically incorrect to use the word ‘Jew’ in many situations.”

A rabbi that works with the local Russian Jewish community said,

“Any reality show is obviously exaggerated and cannot be taken too seriously,” he said. “Still, it was good that the producers showed the guts to stand up against intermarriage. Yes, Diana called herself ‘Russian’ instead of ‘Jewish’; but the basic concept that one should marry inside one’s own community was upheld.” Rabbi Tokarsky added. “To compare ‘Russian Dolls’ to ‘Jersey Shore’ is like comparing animal life to plant life. ‘Russian Dolls’ is much better.”

Was upholding “intramarriage” the point of that scene? And was it really about a Jew marrying another Jew or was it about a Russian marrying another Russian? Is there a difference, and, if there is, does it matter?

[sup](L to R) Svetlana Rakhman, Anastasia Kurinnaya, Marina Levitis, Anna Khazanova, Renata Krumer and Diana Kosov star in Russian Dolls.[/sup]

Mazal Tov, Chely and Lauren

When our celebrity columnist, Nate Bloom, wrote about the engagement of Chely Wright to Lauren Blitzer, he posited, in an earlier draft, that theirs was the first celebrity, lesbian, interfaith wedding. I wasn’t certain. Much to the amusement of my friend and colleague over at Jewish Boston, David Levy, I started googling for proof. I tweeted,

This is not what feminism looks like: http://ow.ly/4OnQ0 (“Why are so many famous Jewish women lesbians?”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, googling failed to be helpful. The Google results ranged from highly amusing to pornographic to conspiracy theory meets anti-Semitism and homophobia (the latter can be seen, at your own discretion, by following the link in the above tweet), so I turned to some twitter buddies for help.

Both David and I asked questions to our followers at large, and to specific twitter buddies like Jewish musician Julie Silver and the folks at Keshet and Jewish Womens’ Archive, if they knew of other celebrity lesbian interfaith couples. (I believe Julie’s answer included her and her beloved wife…)

Unable to prove with certainty whether or not Chely and Lauren would be the first lesbian, interfaith, celebrity couple to be wed, the assertion was cut from the celeb column.

So why am I mentioning this now? Chely and Lauren will be married this weekend!

Although few details of the big day have been revealed thus far, Chely dished that it will be an outdoor ceremony with both a reverend and rabbi officiating, as the singer is Christian and her fiancée is Jewish. The reception will have a deejay, and guests would be wise to bring their dancing shoes!

And we, at IFF headquarters, are curious: which rabbi is co-officiating the ceremony? Lauren and Chely, if you’d recommend her/his officiating prowess to others, please recommend that they join our free Jewish Clergy Referral Service. We’re always looking out for rabbis who will officiate for interfaith couples, will co-officiate with clergy of other religions, and are LGBTQ friendly!

Mazal tov to the brides (kallot), whether they’re the first or amongst other happy couples!

Celebrity Updates: Ivanka and Gwyneth

Despite the frequency with which I blog about them, I actually have little care about celebrities’ lives. But they keep coming up in the news, saying things of relevance to intermarriage, interfaith families, so I guess I’ll have to keep blogging…

First, mazal tov to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner on the birth of their daughter on July 17.

The AP tells us,

Kushner is the owner of the New York Observer newspaper. He and Trump wed in 2009. She converted to Judaism before the wedding.

They’ve named their daughter Arabella Rose. I’m not quite sure where the name fits on the bizarre-celeb-baby-name chart, though it’s certainly saner than “Alef” (and has been described as “exotic” by Donald Trump).

If you want to follow the goings on in the Trump/Kushner home, Ivanka’s tweeting, starting with this one from Arabella’s second day:

Jared and I are having so much fun playing with our daughter! Arabella Rose is beyond adorable. She’s truly a blessing.

The next update is about Gwyneth Paltrow, a regular feature in our interfaith celebrities column.

An =http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2016674/Gwyneth-Paltrow-Ill-raise-Apple-Moses-Jewish.htmlarticle in the Daily Mail reveals,

She once claimed that she did not believe in religion.

But now Gwyneth Paltrow has revealed she wants to raise her children in the Jewish faith, following an appearance on the ancestry programme Who Do You Think You Are

The American actress, whose late father was Jewish film producer Bruce Paltrow, was moved to discover earlier this year on the show that her family came from a long line of influential East European rabbis.

And this has inspired her to raise daughter Apple, seven, and five-year-old son Moses in a Jewish environment, she told guests of a London event hosted by Jewish charity the Community Security Trust.

Her decision is a far cry from comments she made last year about her experience of being raised as both Jewish and Christian.

‘It was such a nice way to grow up,’ she said, but later added: ‘I don’t believe in religion. I believe in spirituality. Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world.’

Gwyneth, if you need any resources for yourself, your husband or your family, we’re here for you.

Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied Picked a Name

I was reviewing my Google Reader before leaving the office this evening, when something caught my eye. Now, at first I thought it was a joke. After all, I’d previously poked fun at the names celebrities give their babies.

UPDATE: June 20 Feeling a little cheeky, Crushable offers up some name suggestions for Li’l Portman. The bris is scheduled for June 22. We’ll have to wait until then to find out his name…

If you haven’t yet, click that Crushable link for some, uh, interesting celebrity names.

But anyway, no, this was for real.

As our friend Julie Wiener reported,

the inter-engaged Natalie Portman has reportedly named her new son Alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. If the Portman-Millepied family’s next child is a girl, will she be named Beth?

And everyone from HuffPo to OK! magazine weighed in, with People.com officially confirming it:

Natalie Portman and fiancé Benjamin Millepied get an A-plus for the name they picked for their baby boy.

Their son’s name is Aleph, a source confirms to PEOPLE.

So what’s in a name? Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, much like alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Aleph is the number 1 in Hebrew and can also be spelled “alef.”

Its esoteric meaning in Judaic Kabbalah, as denoted in the theological treaty Sefer-ha-Bahir, relates to the origin of the universe, the “primordial one that contains all numbers.”

Once more officially confirmed, I guess we’ll find out if it’s Alef or Aleph…

Welcome to the world, Ale(f/ph)!

Mazal Tov, Natalie and Benjamin!

Ok, so the details are vague, but I know you’ve been holding your breath since the Golden Globes, if not earlier, waiting, sitting on the edge of your seat… So here you go:

According to The Telegraph and other sources, Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied have had their baby!

People magazine, which broke the news, gave no details of where the baby was born or when. A publicist for Portman was unavailable for comment on Wednesday.

Natalie Portmand and fiancé Benjamin Millepied are “celebrating” the birth of their baby boy. I’m guessing we’re still within the first 8 days of his life, as the couple have not yet shared the name with me (or the rest of the press). My theory, in part, is based on some of the other Jewish traditions Portman followed during her pregnancy:

She admitted she stuck to tradition when it came to babies’ births.

” think it’s a Jewish thing to be kind of superstitious,” she said in April. “You don’t do any of the baby stuff before the baby arrives.”

Natalie and Benjamin, if you’re looking for a mohel who’ll work with an interfaith family, just fill out our Clergy Officiation Referral Service form!

Mazal tov to the new family!

UPDATE: June 16 For more, check out Rabbi Jason Miller’s blog post (on his blog or on Huffington Post).

UPDATE: June 20 Feeling a little cheeky, Crushable offers up some name suggestions for Li’l Portman. The bris is scheduled for June 22. We’ll have to wait until then to find out his name…

UPDATE: July 6 We have a name!

Gwyneth Paltrow Discovers Her Roots

Our celebrity columnist, Nate Bloom, just gave us a head’s up: This Friday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? will follow Gwyneth Paltrow’s exploration of her Jewish ancestry.

The Canadian Jewish News tells us,

Actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s ancestral search, which will be told in a new episode of the NBC TV program Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA),  might not have happened if not for Jewish Records Indexing – Poland (JRI Poland).

Founded by Montrealer Stanley Diamond, JRI-Poland is an online searchable database of 4.2 million records related to Polish Jewry.

The April 1 episode of the celebrity documentary series will feature the Academy Award-winner’s genealogical journey.

And,

The Paltrow roots go back to a long line of rabbis named Paltrowicz from northeastern Poland and the towns of Suwalki, Lomza and nearby shtetls.

“The show’s researchers tapped into into JRI-Poland’s online database as the starting point in documenting Paltrow’s ancestry,” said Diamond.

You can read the full article here.

Or watch the trailer for the Friday, April 1 episode here.

On Dame Elizabeth Taylor z”l and Conversion

Yesterday, the world lost an actress, an activist and a humanitarian when rabbi">Elizabeth Taylor died, at age 79.

She was really one of the first people in the public eye to take on the AIDS epidemic and embrace those living with HIV and AIDS. She took some of the fear away, and led a fight that still survives.

Late in life she became a social activist. After her friend Rock Hudson died, she helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research and helped raise money for it. In 1997, she said, “I use my fame now when I want to help a cause or other people.”

She was a really remarkable woman.

Increasingly, Ms. Taylor divided her time between her charitable works (including various Israeli causes) and commercial enterprises, like a line of perfumes marketed under her name. She helped raise more than $100 million to fight AIDS. In February 1997, she celebrated her 65th birthday at a party that was a benefit for AIDS research. After the party Ms. Taylor entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for an operation on a brain tumor. (From the NYTimes obit.)

Elizabeth Taylor also converted to Judaism over 50 years ago, sometime between her marriage to Mike Todd and wedding Eddie Fisher*. Fisher was Jewish, so it’s possible that she converted to marry him. 

Which got me thinking: How common were conversions circa 1958/1959?

In the book of Ruth, Naomi tried to get Ruth to go back to her own people 3 times before Ruth became a part of the Hebrew people. As a result, some rabbis “reject” a potential convert three times before discussing conversion with them. In 1950s Hollywood, did Taylor have to do that? And how did that take less than a year?

Today, it’s common for conversion to take at least a year (at least two years in many cases). And for many individuals it’s an even longer process than that, between deciding to explore Judaism, talking with a rabbi, taking conversion classes, and finally taking the dip in the mikvah (or otherwise completing the process). How did Dame Elizabeth convert in under a year? Was that the norm back then?

*This got the office excited, so I’ve got to include a footnote: Eddie Fisher was married to Debbie Reynolds, who wasn’t Jewish. Together, they had two children: Carrie and Todd (quite probably named after Elizabeth’s husband, Mike Todd, who died around the time of Todd’s birth). Eddie ended his marriage to Debbie to marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth is Carrie’s step-mother (maybe). But more importantly: Princess Leia is from an interfaith family!

Sheen and Galliano are… Jewish?

Wait, what? Now we find out that Charlie Sheen and John Galliano are… Jewish?

The question is: can these revelations be believed? After all, a very clever way to defuse bad press about anti-Semitism would be for the perpetrator to end up being Jewish himself.

That way, he is no longer a racist but merely a self-hating Jew:  a tragic figure with a twisted psychic relationship to his own roots.

Mel Gibson must be kicking himself for not having thought of it first.

On the other hand, maybe this new twist of events is just bizarre enough to be true.

Read more.

Natalie Portman, Hadassah and Dior

Though their website doesn’t mention it (yet?), Hadassah just sent out a press release:

NEW YORK – Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, salutes Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman for speaking out publicly against John Galliano, Christian Dior’s recently dismissed head designer.  Portman, who endorses Dior’s Miss Dior Cherie perfume, recently used her spotlight from winning this year’s Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Black Swan to denounce Galliano’s remarks.

It continues…

Hadassah National President Nancy Falchuk released the following statement:

“Natalie Portman has had quite a week; she won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and she proved herself to be a leader in the Jewish community by condemning anti-Semitic comments made by designer John Galliano.  We are proud to have Natalie as a passionate advocate and supporter of Hadassah’s work in the fields of health, medical advancement and Jewish education, advocacy and volunteerism.  We congratulate her not just for her Academy Award, but for her willingness to be a leader and role model for those around her.”

So here’s the question I pose to The Jewish Establishment in general: are we now acknowledging that Jews who have interfaith families (Portman is engaged to Benjamin Millepied, who is not Jewish, and is also pregnant) can be Jewish leaders? Great!

Good to know that denouncing anti-semitism is all it takes to have Jews welcomed back into the community’s good graces.

There were certainly many accounts in the Jewish media and blogosphere and from the Jewish Establishment (Haddassah wasn’t among them) about how Portman had done wrong, had made a mistake, etc., for being in an interfaith relationship. What I find interesting is that a mainstream organization like Hadassah is now clearly saying that intermarried Jews (or engaged-to-be-intermarried Jews) can be leaders in the Jewish community and passionate advocates and supporters of Jewish organizations. Fantastic! We agree. Intermarriage isn’t the be all end all. It’s one decision. And it doesn’t detract from someone’s ability to be an involved, passionate Jew.

Charlie Sheen

I admit it: I’m the last person to follow a story about Charlie Sheen. The truth is, I just don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me that his personal life is a mess; that it’s creating a mess in his professional life, though I do feel sorry for the rest of the cast and crew on Two and a Half Men who will get paid less this year as a result of a shortened production schedule; and that the result is creating a mess online, clogging up the series of tubes that make the internet.

But here I am, blogging about Charlie Sheen. Because there’s now two angles that I do find interesting, and relevant to InterfaithFamily.com: Sheen’s ex-wife, Brooke Mueller, is Jewish. His (their) twin boys are Jewish. (Sheen is not Jewish.)

So, first, there’s the rampant anti-semitism in Hollywood, an industry largely run by Jews (at all levels, from actors and writers up to studio executives). And the latest round of drama unfolding for Sheen includes allegations of anti-semitism:

Brooke Mueller, in court documents, has accused Charlie Sheen of sending an anti-semitic text message about his manager, Mark Burg. Mueller alleges that Sheen wrote, “I must execute mark b like the stoopid jew pig that he is.”

Or is Mueller using Sheen’s phone to send messages making him look bad, as Sheen’s (Jewish) former publicist claims?

Is Sheen getting lessons from Mel Gibson (Gibson’s trying to “save” Sheen!)? How does this compare to the John Galliano (Dior) mess? How does the entertainment industry handle this? What are the ramifications (both for Sheen and for the anti-semitic trend in general), if any? Is it possible that Sheen’s former publicist was just trying to protect his former client by claiming that Mueller is somehow using Sheen’s phone to make him look bad when it was Sheen himself doing the dirty work? Sheen is clearly unstable and I think the people in his camp were/are attempting to do damage control at every angle because Sheen is destroying his life. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the anti-semitism allegations.

The second issue is, what does this mean for the boys? Divorce can be hard enough without a media circus and public scandals. Throwing in anti-semitism (real or alleged) to an interfaith family’s divorce must be confusing, at the very least, for their boys.