“Outing” Celebrity Jews as Jews

  

We’ve seen these articles before, or heard the rumblings from co-workers or friends. “Did you hear that [famous person] is Jewish?” In our own celebrity column, the famous are “outed” as having Jewish ancestors on a fairly regular basis.

Every time another celebrity is surprised with the news that they’re Jewish — Madeleine Albright, Senator George Allen, playwright Tom Stoppard, John Kerry (on his father’s side) — the same series of perplexed shrugs ripple through the media. Did they really never know? What made the Jewish parent turn away? Anyway, what’s the difference? Are you Jewish if you never practiced Judaism? And why is this even in the newspaper?

Good questions. Thanks, Jewish Daily Forward.

The latest new-Jew is Ralph Branca:

Ralph Branca, 85, the onetime Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher best known for throwing the most notorious homerun ball in baseball history, the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” which lost his team the 1951 National League pennant to the New York Giants. A lifelong Catholic, he learned of his mother’s Jewish origins earlier this summer from a journalist who then turned it into a 1,900-word front-page story in the August 15 New York Times. The usual reactions followed: What is he now, a Jewish athlete? Why does anyone care? And why 1,900 words of this trivia in the world’s leading newspaper?

J.J. Goldberg, who wrote Joining the Tribe Late in Life: The Ever-Widening Circle of Celebrity Jews in the Forward, suggests that there are other questions that should be asked, but never are:

Why are there so many such cases? If there are this many among the famous (and this list is very partial), how many more are there who aren’t famous? How many never find out because they’re not famous enough for journalists to poke through their family secrets? Are there any discernable [sic] patterns? Is anyone’s life changed afterward? Can we — should we — learn anything about Jewish life from these dramas?

There are some answers in the article, if you want to click on over.

But I think the other unasked question, of relevance to readers of InterfaithFamily.com, is: if celebrities or other famous people are so readily declared Jews, after their parents turned away from Judaism, or after a couple generations have not practiced Judaism or even known they were Jewish, why aren’t the same standards applied to the rest of us, the non-famous? If Celebrity X can be proclaimed Jewish in the media, a couple generations after their last relative practiced Judaism or identified as a Jew, why can’t Regular Citizen Y get the same treatment? Why are so many descendants of interfaith families struggling to have their Jewish identities acknowledged by the community, when the press seems so willing to hand it over to athletes, politicians and actors?

Goldberg concludes,

What does all this mean? Heaven only knows. And precisely because Heaven only knows, we shouldn’t expect to find all the answers. The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.

I would suggest instead, “The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for those already in our midst and for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.”

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!

Tackling Interfaith Relationships on the Small Screen

  

I’ll admit it.  I was watching an old episode of Felicity a few nights ago on DVD, and it tackled the issue of interfaith relationships.  The episode, entitled “Kissing Mr. Covington,” included a back story about a couple, Sean and Meghan, who were an interfaith couple. 

Sean has to have cancer surgery and he turns to his Jewish roots for solace.  His girlfriend, Meghan, is not Jewish, and Sean breaks up with her because they don’t observe the same religion.  Little did he know that the man sharing his hospital room was Rabbi Morgenstern, who says that Sean is a fool for breaking it off with a loving woman like Meghan.  Sean reacts by proposing to Meghan, and, while she turns him down, she does say that she’s open to learning more about Judaism.  Sean is thrilled.  The episode concludes with a loving embrace by the couple.

I’ve seen this episode before, when it first aired in 2000, but watching it now had a more profound effect on me.  The writers were quite progressive in bringing interfaith relationships out in the open.  It begins to open a dialogue on the show about budding interfaith relationships, and why it could be important to have this discussion early on (a position we at InterfaithFamily.com fully endorse!).

Watch the scenes from the episode here:


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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)!

Pregnant In Heels: Talk about Religion!

  

True story: A friend recently came home from visiting her boyfriend’s family and told us about this docu-reality show, Pregnant In Heels, that she’d watched with his mom. We all kind of laughed at the premise (Rosie Pope, a “maternity concierge, fashion designer, and pregnancy guru” coaches women through pregnancy in style). But we were assured that Rosie often makes fun of the women (and their partners) who are far-too-often completely clueless about what having a baby will mean. Next thing we knew, six of us were glued to the TV for the full hour, watching the show (which is now on the DVR recording list).

So I was pleased to hear that interfaith issues were tackled on this week’s episode, ”Clueless” (which is still saved for me on my friend’s DVR). I was not impressed to hear that the couple was nearing their due date and had never discussed religion. One person on a message board summarized the couple’s stance succinctly with, “Neither one of us cares about our faith so we had a non-religious wedding ceremony but I’m going to flip [out] if you try to take MY daughter to temple/mass.”

We’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: talk about religion well before your child appears in your lives! Figure out how you’re going to raise them, which role(s) each parent’s religion will play in the lives of your kids and in your home as a whole. And if you’re stuck? Ask us, we’d be happy to point out resources for you.

Passover Hodgepodge the Third

  

In case the first two Passover blog posts weren’t enough, here’s the third, and final, installment:

Gateways: access to Jewish education just announced their Passover resources for kids with special needs. Or, as one employee put it, “a whole lot of ways to help kids who have special needs (or just get bored, or are pre-readers!) to participate in and enjoy the seder.” You might also check out Gayeways’ Seven Strategies for a Successful Seder for All Learners – Pointers for a perfect Passover from Gateways’ Special Educators, Therapists & Specialists.

JewishBoston has a Passover youtube playlist. Seriously. It includes Les Matzarables (which we at InterfaithFamily were singing, and had stuck in our heads, a few weeks ago)…

Having recovered from that Shalom Sesame video (or maybe to help you recover?), check out the Passover Martini on the Gloss. (I’m not sure why there’s so much Passover cocktail action this year, but the first post also had cocktails.)

The BJPA (Berman Jewish Policy Archive, out of NYU) offers up four articles, representing the four cups of the seder, on the “mixed, modern seder.” Mixed marriages, Jews and Christians, Jews and Palestinians, and Jews and Jews.

And food. So much food, recipes, yumminess to share!

For those of you who are addicted to your iPhones, Tablet Magazine has a round up of apps that “offer everything from a simulated candle for ferreting out hametz to a Ten Plagues noisemaker that you never knew you needed.” And how else would you know which of the half dozen haggadot to download or which games? (And, thinking ahead, they also review iPhone apps for counting the Omer. My favorite, that I’ve been using since 2008, is Sefirat HaOmer.)

There are great resources for kids on Uncle Eli’s site, but be warned: it hasn’t been updated since the late-90s, so be prepared for frames and music!

For the more social justice inclined, a hodgepodge can’t be complete without mention of two more resources. COEJL (the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) explains the value of Hunger Seders, “to celebrate the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, introduce the challenges our nation faces in regard to hunger and nutrition, and present opportunities for action and advocacy opportunities to combat hunger.” Then there’s the Uri L’Tzedek Food and Justice Haggadah Supplement, as reviewed on Jewschool. The supplement, featuring 26 articles and insights about food, justice and Pesach, is available via free download.

Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) has a Passover Torah study on the diversity of the ancient Israelite community. Their Passover resources include recipes, lesson plans, global traditions and more.

And with that, I wish you all a happy Passover – chag sameach!

The Second Passover Hodgepodge

  

Ok, so maybe the last Passover Hodgepodge didn’t contain everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Passover, but it had a lot to offer. Still, there was more I could have shared.

On the Reform Judaism blog, Ben Dreyfus approaches a seemingly simple question: how many days is Passover, 7 or 8? “When does Pesach end? Why do some calendars say it ends April 25 and others say April 26?  The answer in most Reform Jewish communities is April 25, but the history is complicated….”

G-dcast presents a new spin on the Passover story of the Four Sons: 

Atlanta Interfaith are hosting an Interfaith Pesach Seder, which is great. But what makes it even better? It’s for a suggested donation of $10!

Serious Eats, one of my favourite foodie blogs, has a delicious-looking recipe for “matzo brei with pear and dried sour cherries.” Wow. I will definitely be trying it this year. (For more recipes, don’t forget to check out our Jerusalem Post has a feature on “non-traditional items showing up on seder plates. Of particular interest, did you know that some folks put an artichoke on their seder plate to symbolize interfaith families (this was actually taken from Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael’s article on our site!) while others use a kiwi (this is from Jim Keen’s article on our site!). (The JTA has a similar article.)

I’ve tweeted (and posted to Facebook) a Peep S’mores interfaith video before (see below). Now there’s an instructional article on JewishBoston.com too!

If you’re looking for yet another free, downloadable Haggadah, you might want to check out Including Women’s Voices: The Jewish Women’s Archive edition of JewishBoston.com’s The Wandering Is Over Haggadah.

For a current reinterpretation of the seder plate, Tablet has a News Junkie’s Seder Plate, complete with Qaddafi charoset and bitter Boehner herb.

And stay tuned. There’ll be one more Passover hodgepodge before the seders start!

The Passover Hodgepodge

  

It’s been a while since I’ve rounded up some favorite links, but what better excuse than Passover? There’s something for everybody!

Let’s start with Passover and Easter in a Box. For your convenience, you can now get Passover standards (matzah, a seder plate and grape juice) packaged with Easter treats (candy, chocolate bunnies and Easter cookies).

Sweets aren’t your thing? Is that skewed a little young for your tastes? There’s always the Sipping Seder, a seder in cocktail form! If this isn’t a great way to introduce Passover to your friends and family (of legal age), I don’t know what is.

Looking for the 2011 version of the Passover story? Check out this video:

This year we found a great crop of Haggadahs for all tastes and styles:
[list][*] – JewishBoston.com has a Haggadah and a Leader’s Guide, which is free, downloadable, and easy to edit;[/*]
[*] – Haggadot lets you pick and choose, for free, which components you want to use and download, as you crowd-source your customized Haggadah;[/*]
[*] – and The Forward has a review of seven more that you can find at your favorite store.[/*][/list]

Following her recent post on religion, exploration and making Passover kid-friendly, Galit Breen has blogged about more ways to make Passover fun for kids.

My buddies at JewishBoston.com are to blame (or be thanked) for this punk seder cover song:

You might enjoy the interfaith Passover video ecard, featuring Rabbi David Wolpe and an interesting version of “Eliyahu Ha’Navi” in the background.

That’s it for now…. Enjoy!