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Around a year ago, the website Jewhoo.com went off-line. Created and maintained by Nate Bloom, an Oakland-based writer, Jewhoo was the definitive site to go to to find out which celebrities were Jewish–and which weren’t. It was an amazing resource for Jewish journalists, and I’m sure I was not the only one who mourned its loss.
The site sort-of lives on in a different form in a series of columns that Bloom continues to write for the New Jersey Jewish Standard, j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California and three other Jewish papers. Bloom’s research is impeccable; he pores through every article on celebrities with Jewish-sounding names he can find to determine what their Jewish connection is. Are both parents Jewish? (Not that often.) Was the father Jewish? (Sometimes, but that can mean the celebrity practices some other religion.) Was the mother Jewish? What religion does the celebrity practice now?
It’s tricky work, especially because so many celebrities are secular and are uncomfortable talking about religion. He’s like an ethnic/religious detective, snooping out who’s really Jewish–and who just has a -berg in their surname.
Interestingly, these standards are very close to the definition of Jewish that the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 used, with the slight clarification that those with one Jewish parent who practice a non-monotheistic religion (e.g., Buddhism or paganism) would be counted as Jews, and those who practice a monotheistic religion other than Judaism (i.e., Christianity and Islam) would not be counted. Nate actually addresses this issue in his column:
While he doesn’t reveal his own feelings on the debate over matrilineal vs. patrilineal descent (Bloom will voice his opinion on any TV show or movie, including ones he hasn’t seen, but is notoriously reticent about any details about his personal life or his Jewishness), he does take a fair approach to the whole issue. He says:
That’s reasonable, considering his readership runs the gamut from the liberal Bay Area to the heavily Orthodox Teaneck, New Jersey.
Despite his attempts at even-handedness, Bloom still says he gets criticized when “some readers… use the detailed information that I provide and turn around and accuse me of labeling as ‘Jewish’ people who aren’t–because they are not children of a Jewish mother or for some other reason.” He says:
But he clearly struggles with the whole intermarriage issue, saying “intermarriage represents a real demographic problem for the relatively small American Jewish population–a demographic problem that can translate, in a generation or so, into a host of serious consequences for American Jewry.” Because he is constantly writing about celebrities who don’t have a serious Jewish commitment, he is clearly sensitive to the accusation that doing what he does promotes intermarriage, or promotes a notion of Jewish identity devoid of religious content. He asks himself: “So what, you may ask, is the value of the column?” and answers:
I’ve always taken an interest in Jewish celebrities–as both a writer and reader of Jewish press–but I’ve never been able to fully justify it. It can often seem like a cheap, shallow way to connect to Judaism, but Bloom’s rationale is the most persuasive, eloquent explanation of the value of highlighting Jewish celebrities I’ve yet seen.
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