What Makes a Celebrity Jewish

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.

In a fascinating column recently published by the New Jersey Jewish Standard, Bloom explains how he defines Jewishness–and responds to his occasional critics.

I count as “Jewish” any famous person who has at least one Jewish parent, was not raised in a religion other than Judaism, and does not practice, as an adult, a faith other than Judaism.

Converts to Judaism are an exception. Quite rationally I count them as Jewish even if they did not have a Jewish parent or were raised in another faith.

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:

There is no perfect way to do a column like this or to satisfy everyone. Some celebrities don’t fit into neat categories–like Jews who claim to practice Buddhism but say they are still Jewish. Buddhism has no deity, and when you look into what these so-called Jewish Buddhists practice of Buddhism, sometimes it is no more than a few meditation techniques that are not much different from those taught in secular classes. I still don’t know exactly how to deal with this situation.

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:

In the case of someone who has one Jewish parent, I try to note in the column which parent is Jewish. This allows readers to make up their minds as how they want to view that person–Jewish, not Jewish, whatever.

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:

Part of the criticism I get is based on what I call “head-in-the-sand syndrome.” During the 1920s through the 1960s, when intermarriage was rare among “ordinary Jews,” it was very common in most sectors of the entertainment world.

But it wasn’t talked about much in the Jewish press or in profiles of Jewish celebrities in the Jewish press…

You cannot blame these journalists of prior generations. Did their readers want to hear that the Jewish George Burns, a beloved figure, was married to a Catholic (Gracie Allen) and that his children were raised in her faith? No.

Did they want to hear that the Jewish Lauren Bacall agreed to raise her children with the non-Jewish Humphrey Bogart as Episcopalian? No…

I am almost surprised these days when I find out that a famous Jewish person is marrying another Jew. I would say that almost half of the famous “Jewish” celebrities in entertainment under the age of 30 are not the children of two Jewish parents.

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 think the column has value in promoting Jewish continuity by letting people know how many famous people are Jewish and, I hope, they will realize that that somewhat hard-to-define thing, “Jewish culture” is an engine–an engine of certain valuable cultural traits–that constantly produces accomplished people incredibly out of proportion to Jewish numbers. I hope readers will be influenced to believe it is a culture worth preserving.

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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