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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The Jew in the NBA Finals


The list of Jewish players who have ever played in the NBA is short (and the list of notable ones is even shorter). The best ever is Hall-of-Famer Dolph Schayes, who was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1996.

The newest Jewish talent in the NBA–and first since Dolph’s son Danny last played in 1999–is Jordan Farmar, the backup point guard for the L.A. Lakers. Even more relevant for our audience, he’s from an interfaith family. His father was a non-Jewish African-American and his mother is Jewish (he was subsequently raised by his mother and his stepdad, an Israeli). Despite being a second-year player and making more than $1 million a year, he continues to live with his parents. (I’m sure his fellow players never give him guff about that.)

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Jewish-Irish Cultural Links


My 5-year-old son is really interested in holidays, especially ones that have special costumes. How do you explain St. Patrick’s Day to a Jewish boy–who lives in Boston? We passed people wearing green clothing and sparkly hats on the street yesterday, probably on their way to the famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which is the oldest celebration of Irish heritage in the United States. Being Irish is cool in Boston. But is it a Jewish holiday? Maybe!

Jewish-Irish t-shirt by Daniel GreeneYou can be Jewish and Irish at the same time; it’s not only the stuff of jokes. (I bow to Philologos of the Jewish Forward for having published the aged but still effective Sean Ferguson joke in his column this week–great timing!) Jews have a long history as a tiny minority in Ireland. There was probably a community as early as the 1200s, and unlike the Jews of England, Ireland’s Jews never underwent expulsion. They have had a small, visible and audible presence in the modern period as political and cultural figures.

The Jewish Advocate ran an article this past week in their print edition about Carl Nelkin, recently featured in the documentary Shalom Ireland. Nelkin, a Jewish community leader and a lawyer, is also a musician who has released an album of Yiddish music played on traditional Irish instruments. Jewish-Irish cultural blending goes beyond Leopold Bloom. I now have a small list of Jewish-Irish music CDs I’m going to be forced to acquire. Research for my job here, essential, very important! Continue reading

Judy Blume’s Legacy

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret

Most people hold dear books that they read as a child. Me, I can barely recall anything I read prior to turning 15 (and those books that I do remember, like the Encyclopedia Brown and Choose Your Own Adventure series, hold no special place in my heart). So “Judy Blume” has long been just another author name to me: one of several popular children’s authors, banished to the reserve stacks of my mind’s library.

Only recently have I realized that Judy Blume has been one of the most daring authors of the last 40 years. According to a new Q&A with Moment magazine, she “holds the dubious honor of being the second-most-censored author of the past 15 years, according to the American Library Association.” Her “most frequently challenged” novel (according to the ALA), Forever, tells the story of a high school senior named Katherine who had premarital sex and enjoyed it. (Maybe if it weren’t banned when I were a kid, I would have a sharper memory of Blume.)

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A hot knish with a side of awesome sauce…

Natalie Portman

I find a lot of great stuff on The Jew and the Carrot, a blog about Jews and food, like this blurb about Natalie Portman’s new project. She’s going to star with Irrfan Khan in Mira Nair’s next movie, Kosher Vegetarian. The title alone sends me, and it’s a movie about a relationship between a Gujurati man and a Jewish woman, so we’re sure to review it here. Maybe we’ll get hits from people trying to find recipes. (If you came here looking for vegan knish recipes, just comment and I’ll hook you up.) Plus, I think Natalie Portman is awesome. Continue reading

Dylan the Jew


In Friday’s post, I said Bob Dylan “grew up as a non-participating Jew.”

Leave it to my friend, the sage of Jewish celebrity trivia, Nate Bloom, to correct my error. Turns out Dylan was quite a bit more Jewishly involved than I thought, according to this email message from Bloom:

Bob’s parents were practicing Jews. A rabbi was brought in at his parents’ expense to the cold “Iron Range” to tutor him for his bar mitzvah. He had a bar mitzvah. He was sent to Jewish summer camp in Wisconsin (Camp Herzl)Bob’s kids with his Jewish ex-wife were all bar/bat mitzvah–with one exception. That’s a lot more practicing than half of American Jews.

The one exception is a child he fathered with a black back-up singer, a religious Christian, he secretly married and stayed married to for a few years in the ’80s.

His Chabad thing, in terms of close contact, ended in the late ’80s–although each year he goes to a Chabad synagogue near where he is on Yom Kippur and goes to the service.

Bottom line on Bob’s beliefs: he is clearly somewhat obsessed by religion. Some people make a plausible case that he has never given up being a Christian–based on the songs he plays–etc. But that he got turned off to organized Christianity. The bottom line is that nobody will probably ever know–he’ll probably go to his grave keeping his innermost beliefs to himself. And I don’t think he will really care if a rabbi presides at his funeral–no matter what he thinks about Jesus on his deathbed.

The Sopranos and Entourage


Last night, both of HBO’s buzziest shows, The Sopranos and Entourage, included interfaith relationships as part of their storylines. And both were chock full of stereotypes.

One of the plotlines on last night’s ep of The Sopranos concerns Hesch (Jerry Adler), a retired Jewish record producer who has loaned money to Tony Soprano and his late father for decades. In the new episode, Tony forgets that he owes Hesch $200,000 for gambling losses; when Hesch demurely asks for the money, Tony starts resenting one of his oldest friends, calling him “Shylock” and making cracks about his Jewish obsession with money–as opposed to Tony himself, who instead of politely asking for repayment of loans, beats you up and steals your stuff to remind you that you’re in arrears.

For the first time in the show’s storied run, we get a glimpse into Hesch’s personal life. His son, Eli, is apparently a religious Jew, and Hesch’s girlfriend is a much younger black woman. To its credit, the show treats Hesch and his girlfriend’s relationship matter-of-factly. No one even notes the racial or age difference between the two. And as much as Tony unfairly stereotypes Hesch, Hesch does the same with Tony–he says that most of the time, Italians are alright, but when you get on their bad side, they’re like animals.
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A Jew and a Nazi Fall in Love…


Some random articles I’ve collected over the last week or two:

  • Black Book, Paul Verhoeven’s (Basic Instinct, Total Recall) new film about the Dutch Resistance during World War II, premieres today in limited release. An interfaith relationship is actually at the center of the story–although I doubt many readers would be able to relate to this particular romance between a tough-minded Jewish spy and a gentle Nazi officer. Judging from his previous films, that premise will probably come off as even more offensive on screen, which is to say, I am looking forward to seeing this movie. I don’t expect, however, to be in the slightest bit enlightened about the dynamics of real interfaith relationships.
  • The ongoing fracas over conversion standards in Israel continues, according to The (New York) Jewish Week. The latest development is that the main pluralist conversion school has stopped sending converts to the official Orthodox conversion courts as a protests against the courts’ unreasonable standards. The head of the school, Benny Ish-Shalom, is calling for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to change the conversion system, but I’m guessing he has other issues on his mind at that moment (and given his political vulnerability, I doubt he’d be willing to take on the Orthodox establishment that runs the conversion courts). The loser, as it always seems to be in these disputes, is not the courts or the school, but potential converts.
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Bears in Space


To pay tribute to his late father’s Jewish heritage, an astronaut from an interfaith home brought a teddy bear into space. The bear was a replica of Refugee, a teddy bear donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by Holocaust survivor Sophie Turner-Zaretsky.

Astronaut Mark Polansky, whose mother is a native Hawaiian, asked the museum for some mementoes that would simultaneously pay tribute to his father Irving, who died in 2001, and bring awareness to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. The museum also gave him a photo of a child refugee from Darfur. The bear made its 5.3-million-mile journey on the Discovery mission in December, and Turner-Zaretsky, now 80 and living in New York, followed the shuttle’s progress every step of the way.