Gosh Darn It, People Voted for Him

Al Franken and Franni Bryson
Al Franken and his wife of 32 years, Franni Bryson.

Eight months after the election, Al Franken (D, Jewish) was declared the winner of Minnesota’s 2008 Senate election over incumbent Norm Coleman (R, Jewish). That makes Franken the 13th sitting Jewish U.S. senator. Like Coleman, Franken is intermarried.

In 2003, Franken talked about his family with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:

JJ: I read that your wife is Catholic, and save for a seder once a year your life is low on Jewish practices. Yet, Jewish references and Jewish experiences appear repeatedly in your book [Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them, A Fair and Balanced Look at The Right, Dutton, 2003]. Can you tell me a little bit about your Jewish life today? How much does Judaism figure into your daily experience?

AF: My wife is a fallen Roman Catholic…. We don’t belong to a shul, and my kids have really been raised with no formal religious education, but they definitely consider themselves culturally Jewish. Partly it is growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was quite the opposite of my experience.

My wife—every year we have a Chanukah dinner and she makes the best latkes and … the best brisket on the Upper West Side.
But my kids definitely consider themselves Jewish, have very Jewish senses of humor and went to a high school that was two-thirds Jewish.

And the most important aspect of this—we did go to a Reform temple when I was a kid, and my parents were not particularly devout, but we were taught that there was a certain ethical base to our religion that was the essence of our Judaism, and I think my kids have grown up with that.

The Next Big Half-Jewish Hip Hop Star?

Aubrey Graham, AKA “Drake,” a former star of Degrassi: The Next Generation, is apparently about to be bigger than the Beatles, Elvis and Michael Jackson combined, if you are to believe this hyperbolic story in the Toronto Star. He hasn’t released an album yet, but Kanye West has directed his video, he’s touring with Lil Wayne this summer and he’s going to appear on a new single from Jay-Z.

We reprinted a profile of Graham a few years ago. His father, an African-American, is a musician, and his Jewish mother is an educator. While marketers are now calling him “the Derek Jeter of rap,” he didn’t date while attending a tony Toronto high school:

“It was very awkward,” he said. “I never had a girlfriend. Not one of those girls would bring me home. It would be too risky.”

In this blog post from Cosmogirl!, Graham writes about how he received a home gym for Hanukkah from his mother and grandmother because “my grandmother says I am too skinny to be a rapper.” The post also implies that Graham identifies as Jewish himself.

Will Graham–ahem, Drake–join the Beastie Boys in the tiny fraternity of nice Jewish boys who’ve become stars in hip hop? We’ll find out when his first official album debuts later this year.

Extra! Extra! Star Trek’s Director Is Intermarried

Scary monster
We were going to use a picture of the slick new Starship Enterprise, but this still from the original series is indescribably cooler.


A new Star Trek movie comes out today!!!!

Wait? You already knew that? Darn. The Internet just can’t keep up with newspapers and TV. (Especially in this economy.)

Even if you knew about the movie, I’ll bet you didn’t know the director is Jewish? (Oh. You knew that too? I feel small.) BUT. I bet you didn’t know J.J. Abrams is in an interfaith marriage!

Yup, the newly appointed Geek Lord and Overseer is married to a Catholic woman, as he told the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:

JJ: I don’t want to make any assumptions — because being Jewish in Hollywood means lots of different things — so I’ll just ask why people think you’re Jewish.
JJA: My name is Jeffrey Jacob Abrams — it’s a tough one to get around. My family wasn’t very religious, but I’m very proud of my heritage. My wife is Irish Catholic and it’s a fascinating thing having married someone who’s of a different religion, because you get to understand and see and respect another way of growing up and believing. That to me is interesting and healthy. I do consider myself Jewish, and I take my kids to services on holidays because that is something really important to me.

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Pop Culture Link Roundup

Yeah, I know, I’m not exactly up to date on pop culture. I know everything that’s happening in a certain corner of the internet, but it’s an awfully geeky corner. Sometimes, though, the goodies come to me.

Hillel, The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, ran a short interview with Top Chef winner Hosea Rosenberg, the child of an interfaith family. Everyone in my office informed me that they didn’t like Rosenberg’s behavior on the reality television program. I never saw the show, and I thought he looked kind of cute–but where are the recipes?

There was a review of the new Star Trek movie in Variety and it looks like a total InterfaithFamily.com plot: Spock’s childhood choice to identify with his Vulcan side when the humans teased him too much. I guess it’s a requirement of my job to go to both this movie and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince–two bicultural heroes who have to choose to identify with one side or the other of their heritage. (Oh, come on, that is not a spoiler, the entire world read that book.)

Here’s a useful link for IFF readers:  an online guide to Jewish wedding traditions. How is that pop culture? Well, I got it from a friend on Twitter. Twitter is pop culture, right?

Here’s a link that might not be useful but you won’t be sorry if you follow it:  Maira Kalman added another page to her blog with art at the New York Times, And The Pursuit of Happiness. In her description of a visit to the US Supreme Court, Kalman writes:

And then I meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is petite and elegant. I think, move over Jane Austen as my imaginary best friend forever. Make room for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would have gone to my high school for music if her parents had let her. Whose favorite artist is Matisse. (I rest my case.)

Maira Kalman is my imaginary BFF.

Purim is Coming

Purim comes but once a year and when it comes you know it’s here–because people get really silly. I am not sure whether this article about Christian salt is for real. Yes, OK, maybe there is someone out there who doesn’t understand that Jews use kosher salt for removing the blood from meat and feels weirded out by salt with a Jewish star on it. But this part of the article made me think this could be a put-on:

If the salt takes off, Godlewski plans an entire line of Christian-branded foods, including rye bread, bagels and pickles.

Oh come on, people! This has to be a Purim joke!

On the other hand, that Christmas decoration that looked in the photo like someone is burning a cross on your lawn that was all over the web last December turned out to be a real product from a real organization, so who knows.

Matthew Scott, who wrote a nice article for InterfaithFamily.com about being in an interfaith relationship and learning to cook and eat Jewish food, was one of several people to bring the Christian salt story to my attention. He was also the first person in my network to find the new 92nd Street Y Purim video, Meshugene Men–though I’d read about it on jbooks.com, in a fun interview with comedy writer Rob Kutner, who made the video. I’ve embedded it below the cut. Continue reading

Why Bill Maher’s Wrong

Love him or loathe him, there’s one thing we can all agree on about Bill Maher: he’s a jerk.

In Religulous, his documentary-cum-diatribe on the horrors of religion, his approach to his interview subjects is at best mocking, at worst contemptuous. He variously interrupts, laughs at, winces at and provokes his subjects. He edits the interviews to highlight their ignorance and intercuts their answers with clips from old movies that are more amusing than insightful. This approach would be brave if he were interviewing, say, the Pope or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it’s just mean-spirited when he’s talking with the guy who plays Jesus at a Christian amusement park or the pastor at a truckstop church. Only a handful of his subjects–such as Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Rabbi Dovid Weiss of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta International–merit such ruthless mockery.

But misguided aesthetics aside, is Maher’s message worth heeding? Um, no.

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The Death of Cool

Paul NewmanThe coolest man on the planet died this weekend.

Sure, Paul Newman had all the outward accoutrements of cool: the mesmerizing blue eyes, the charming smile, the fame, the wealth, the love of car-racing. But what really made him cool was his character.

Here was a man who was still a heartthrob into his 80s, yet was married to the same woman–and by all accounts, a faithful and adoring husband–for more than half a century. His face was so famous that he could have made millions in marketing it outside of movies, but instead he used it to sell an ever-growing line of food products, with all of the profits (more than $200 million!) going to charity. And despite all his achievements, he was humble and self-effacing. Nate Bloom sent me this passage from a Los Angeles Time article on his death:

Friends said Newman abhorred what he called “noisy philanthropy.” He felt the awards and honors offered him were excessive and once declined a national medal in a letter to President Clinton, calling such recognition “honorrhea.” Continue reading

Jews in the Presidential Campaign and the Blogosphere

I get a lot of Jewish blogs in my RSS reader, and one of the ones I follow, The Velveteen Rabbi, had a link to another blogger who had liveblogged a conference call with Barack Obama. A group of rabbis has started a group called Rabbis for Obama, which the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has called “a first in US politics.” Apparently 900 rabbis from all denominations were on the call; three rabbis asked questions of the candidate. Obama quoted from the Talmud and used Hebrew phrases with some facility.

Interesting! As both candidates court the Jewish vote and attract Jewish supporters, we’re going to get to see a lot about Jewish culture in the news.

In other Jewish blogging news, and on a completely different, non-political note I have been digging Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. It’s a group blogging effort by a group of diverse Jewish writers. They have begun a three-year reading ofThe Book of Legends (in Hebrew, Sefer Ha-Aggadah) by Haim Nahman Bialik, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the publication of the collection of Jewish legends by the famous Hebrew poet. I love the diversity of the writers’ perspectives.

The Candidates’ Jewish Connections

Michelle Obama has a rabbi in her family, Anthony Weiss of The Forward reported on Tuesday:

Michelle Obama, wife of the Democratic presidential nominee, and Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of a mostly black synagogue on Chicago’s South Side, are first cousins once removed. Funnye’s mother, Verdelle Robinson Funnye (born Verdelle Robinson) and Michelle Obama’s paternal grandfather, Frasier Robinson Jr., were brother and sister.

Funnye (pronounced fuh-NAY) is chief rabbi at the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in southwest Chicago. He is well-known in Jewish circles for acting as a bridge between mainstream Jewry and the much smaller, and largely separate, world of black Jewish congregations, sometimes known as black Hebrews or Israelites. He has often urged the larger Jewish community to be more accepting of Jews who are not white.

Meanwhile, according to Ron Kampeas and Eric Fingerhut of JTA, Joe Biden’s son married into a Jewish family.

On the Republican side, no Jewish connections in John McCain’s or Sarah Palin’s families have come to light (unless you count McCain’s newly adopted pet Democrat, Joe Lieberman). But don’t worry, as the 2004 election cycle showed us, if there’s a Jew–or even a miniature Israeli flag–somewhere in their family trees, somebody will find it.

Philip Roth on Intermarriage

American PastoralI recently finished reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1997. Roth of course has written extensively about Jewish men who fall in love with non-Jewish women–and the parents who disapprove–and American Pastoral is no different. Except when it is.

Unlike most of his other protagonists, the central character in American Pastoral is not a Roth-surrogate. The hero of American Pastoral (and to be sure, a hero is what he is), is a tall, athletic, endlessly optimistic blonde businessman and former high school sports star nicknamed “the Swede.” In short, he is the anti-Roth. But like Roth’s typical parade of Zuckermans and Portnoys, he is Jewish, and he is from New Jersey.

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