I write most of the Noshes items for The Standard. Most of-my items are about Jewish entertainment celebrities, but sometimes I cover Jews who are famous in other fields of endeavor like the sciences, business, and literature.
I like to think of myself as someone who writes an intellectually honest column even if my standards as to who is a Jew are liberal. Let me explain.
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.
Readers will quickly notice that-the celebrities I count or designate-as Jewish are named in capital letters in my newspaper column. This allows me to avoid constantly using the adjective "Jewish" in connection with a person. I don’t have to say, for example, that "Jewish actor Judd Hirsch co-stars with Jewish actors David Krumholtz and Rob Morrow in the CBS series,"NUMB3RS." I can simply say, "JUDD HIRSCH stars with DAVID KRUMHOLTZ and ROB MORROW…."
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. I almost always give this information as to a person with one Jewish parent in at least one of my columns in which the person is mentioned. But space limitations prevent me from repeating-this level of background detail in every column in which the person is mentioned.
Every blue moon, I will-mention in my column a-person with "some Jewish ancestry" who was raised as a Christian. Usually I do so because that-person is prominently in the news. For example, say someone with a "very Jewish" name is nominated for an Oscar — but was raised as a Christian. Well, I figure that readers are wondering about that nominee. So, it is reasonable to take a little column space and explain his or her background — and the name of such a person is not highlighted.
Do I make mistakes? Yes, but not very many. I am careful about using as many good sources as possible to make sure anyone named in capital letters meets the standards mentioned above.
To be frank, my journalistic honesty leaves me open to criticism that I find unfair. Most of the general press and a very large part of the Jewish press do not do my level of research and simply label this or that famous person "Jewish." I constantly see people with "some Jewish background" who were raised as Christians being labeled "Jewish." Or these media sources-just completely get it wrong and label as "Jewish" people with no Jewish ancestry whatsoever.
In my experience, almost all readers will accept, without complaining or inquiring, the "Jewish" label when it is applied to a famous person in an article in the Jewish or general press. They will assume that the person is the child of two Jewish parents — especially if that person has a "Jewish" name.
However, I strive to be intellectually honest and usually give the reader the person’s background — i.e., noting that this parent or that parent is Jewish. Then, I find, some readers will 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. Such readers also are unaware that I don’t highlight people with one Jewish parent who were raised and/or identify with another faith — almost always Christianity.
Part of the criticism I get is based on what I call "head-in-the-sand syndrome." During the 19’0s 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. Jewish journalists, writing for a fairly observant Jewish newspaper audience, didn’t want to give the "bad news" to their readers. Then, as now, they tended to put the most Jewish gloss on the famous Jewish subjects of their journalism.
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 Episcopalians? No.
Well, as most Jews have heard, intermarriage rates among American Jews have now reached 50 percent in some areas of the country, like the West.
Still, if you live in an old, established Jewish neighborhood, your day-to-day Jewish life is-somewhat like the ’50s. Intermarriage rates, while rising, are still not very high and it is easy for people in a relative Jewish cocoon to believe that when they read about a celebrity with a Jewish name in People magazine, that he or she is just plain Jewish, i.e., the child of two Jewish parents.
But this assumption is just plain wrong. 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.
Intermarriage rates among "ordinary Jews" began soaring around 1970, and now we are seeing the children of those marriages filling the ranks of the famous.
Am I happy about this? No. Regardless of what wing of Judaism one belongs to or what strategy one thinks is best in regard to intermarriage, there is no denying the fact that children of two Jewish parents are much more likely to be raised Jewish than the children of intermarriage. Thus, 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, ranging from the viability of Jewish organizations to the weakening of Jewish religious and Jewish secular culture to a very serious eroding of the political clout of American Jews.
I cannot solve this problem myself. But I will not pretend, as many do, that it does not exist and put a "happy," unreal Jewish gloss on the celebrities I write about and just call them Jewish without giving their full background.
Yes, I could just include halachic Jews in the column (the children of Jewish mothers). That is a whole other debate that would require a whole other article. Suffice it to say that I do have my own views on this
But just on a practical level, I would be driven crazy if I only covered halachic Jews in my column. I would constantly get e-mails asking me why I do not cover a whole raft of celebrities that most people think are "just plain Jewish." I would have to write an annual appendix to my column of hundreds of names of people I am not covering because their mothers weren’t Jewish. So I just lay out the facts and leave the determination of Jewish status mostly to the reader.
So what, you may ask, is the value of the column?
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 am not saying that the high place that celebrities have in our culture is good or that an actor or rock star is more important than a Nobel Prize winner. On the other hand, it is a good thing, I think, to give Jewish people — especially young people — examples of "cool Jews," so they feel a specific Jewish connection to "celebrity culture.
I do write the column with some attention to Jewish continuity. I do try to highlight it when a Jewish celebrity does something for the Jewish community. I do highlight the marriages of one Jewish celebrity to another
or the birth of a child to a Jewish celebrity in a Jewish marriage.
In regard to marriages and children, I admit I am a little guilty here of putting on a "happy face." I don’t usually report on the marriages of Jewish celebrities to non-Jews (especially if the ceremony was conducted by a Christian clergyman) and I don’t report on some Jewish celebrity standing by as his or her children with a non-Jewish spouse are baptized. I figure there is only so much "bad news" my readers can take. However, even in this, I feel I am more intellectually honest than some Jewish celebrity bloggers, or even some writers for Jewish papers, who just say congratulations to such and such celebrity on the child’s birth — without seeming to care or check that the child was baptized.
There is no perfect way to do a column like this or to satisfy everyone. Some celebrities don’t fit in 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.
So, I just take it week by week and person by person. If I have a choice of items on two different people, I tend to go with the item on the Jewish celebrity I know to be "more Jewish" in terms of upbringing, self-identification, and practice. Beyond that, I adhere to the standards-described above.
Finally, I also think the column has value because it is fun and because it is mostly good news. I am not revealing any secrets when I say that so much of "Jewish news" about the secular world is depressing — anti-Semitism; the endless Arab-Israeli conflict; the demographic crisis I spoke of above. It’s nice and somehow spirit-raising to take vicarious pleasure and pride in the accomplishments of Jews in popular culture. In other words, pause to "shep nachas" between choruses of "oy, oy, oy."
Nate Bloom lives in California and his column appears in five Jewish newspapers around the country. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.