Gwyneth Paltrow’s Jewish Conversion and Its Meaning for Other Patrilineal Jews

News has just come out that actress Gwyneth Paltrow will be converting to Judaism. To many, this is a confusing bit of news because we have always thought of Gwyneth Paltrow as Jewish and listed her among today’s most famous Jewish celebrities. However, it is her father who was Jewish and not her mother, the actress Blythe Danner. This means that Gwyneth Paltrow is what is known as a “patrilineal Jew” — only Jewish through the lineage of her father. In Reform Judaism, she’s considered a full member of the Jewish people, but this isn’t the case in a more traditional Jewish interpretation of Jewish identity.

Paltrow’s high profile conversion to Judaism will raise the profile of this controversy in modern Jewish life. A 2007 JTA.org article discussed the various solutions to the problem of how to recognize patrilineal Jews in a traditional congregation. Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar LA (and other rabbis) have begun a custom of having all teens in the synagogue immerse in a mikvah with the appropriate blessings before the year of their bar or bat mitzvah thereby converting those Patrilineal Jewish children who were raised Jewish, but wouldn’t be considered Jewish according to Halacha (Jewish law). I recently published a blog post about Gwyneth Paltrow’s upcoming conversion and what it will mean for the thousands of Patrilineal Jews who might not have considered the need to formally convert.

We rabbis often lament about how many issues divide our people. We pray differently, we keep kosher differently, we talk about Israel differently, etc. The truth is that while these topics make us debate with each other and cause us to affiliate with our own congregations and communities and organizations, they don’t change the fact that we’re all part of the Jewish people. The only issue that truly does divide us in the sense that it keeps us from uniting as one people is the issue of Jewish identity — what’s commonly called “Who’s a Jew.”

 

Gwyneth Paltrow (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

The 1983 decision by the Reform Movement (in North America, not in Israel) to consider those with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as fully Jewish changed the rules of the game. In my first decade as a rabbi serving communities of young Jewish people (both on a college campus and at a Jewish camping agency), I’ve been asked numerous times by patrilineal Jews whether I consider them Jewish. At the end of a Birthright Israel trip a young female participant asked if I would be willing to officiate at her wedding even though her mother isn’t Jewish. As a Conservative rabbi I find these to be the most challenging questions I’m asked. My Reform and Orthodox rabbinic colleagues respond to these questions without much hesitation or difficulty. The Reform rabbi is able to cite the movement’s resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames the answer with cut-and-dry legal wording, explaining that the definition of Jewish lineage according to Halacha (Jewish law) is a child born to a Jewish mother or one who undergoes proper conversion.

Like many Conservative rabbis this issue hits home with me. I have cousins who consider themselves Jewish according to the Reform Jewish tradition in which they’ve been raised, but who are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law. As time goes by we will find many more of these individuals, and likewise find ourselves wrestling with how to deal with these issues. There are thousands of people who came of age in the 80s when the Reform Movement put into writing what many Jewish families were already following — namely that a “half-Jew” could be treated as a full Jew. Many of these individuals consider themselves full-fledged members of the Jewish people, but also know that there are those who don’t consider them as such. Issues arise when these individuals (known in rabbinical literature as “Zera Yisrael” — the seed of Israel) enroll in a traditional Jewish day school or choose to be married by a Conservative or Orthodox rabbi. These stories don’t often get much publicity. Patrilineal descent is usually only brought into the mainstream when discussing the Jewish lineage of a celebrity or a professional athlete. Rachel Bilson, the teen actress of “The O.C.” is often listed as a Jewish celebrity, but only her father is Jewish and she thus wouldn’t have been able to have a bat mitzvah at a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue. Ryan Braun is the most well known Jewish baseball player, but it’s through his father that he claims his Jewish ancestry and therefore wouldn’t be awarded an aliyah in many congregations.

Now a mega celebrity is catapulting the topic of patrilineal descent right onto our dinner tables just weeks before the High Holidays. Rabbis might feel inclined to include this issue in their Rosh Hashanah sermons this month. Gwyneth Paltrow has long been considered a Jewish actress by her fans and those in Hollywood who know that her father was Jewish. Paltrow’s mother is Blythe Danner, the actress known most notably for her roles in television’s “Will and Grace” and the movie “Meet the Parents”. Now, Paltrow has announced that she has been in the process of a conversion to Judaism. This has led to confusion among many who thought Gwyneth Paltrow was already Jewish.
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Drew Barrymore Plans to Remove Tattoos for Conversion to Judaism

A year ago I wrote about Drew Barrymore’s journey toward conversion to Judaism and how she was turning to her friend Adam Sandler for assistance.  At the time she was engaged to marry Will Kopelman, an art consultant who is Jewish. The couple married on June 2, 2012 in Montecito, California and welcomed their child, a daughter named Olive Barrymore Kopelman, on September 26, 2012.

Some were surprised that Drew didn’t convert to the Jewish faith before getting married (this is her third marriage) or at the least before delivering her first baby. But she reported that it was a long process and she didn’t want to take the plunge before she was ready. About Judaism, Drew has said “It’s a beautiful faith and I’m so honored to be around it. It’s so family-oriented… the stories are so beautiful and it’s incredibly enlightening. I’m really happy.”

Photo: Algemeiner.com

Well, it now appears that Drew is ready for her conversion and she’s taking a rather drastic step. TMZ.com reports that “Former wild child Drew Barrymore has decided to REMOVE her tattoos because she is CONVERTING to Judaism for her husband Will Kopelman! The new mom wishes to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, something that can only happen if she erases all permanent ink from her person.”

Drew has six tattoos according to the post on TMZ and will experience quite a bit of pain as she’s having all six removed in preparation for her conversion. But what I want to know is who is advising Drew that she has to have these tattoos removed before converting to Judaism. As I wrote on this blog almost five years ago, the notion that Jews cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have tattoos is a myth. It’s a bubbe-meise, an old wives’ tale. An article in the NY Times even referred to this supposed prohibition as an “urban legend,” explaining that, “the edict isn’t true. The eight rabbinical scholars interviewed for this article, from institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, said it’s an urban legend, most likely started because a specific cemetery had a policy against tattoos. Jewish parents and grandparents picked up on it and over time, their distaste for tattoos was presented as scriptural doctrine.”

While I wouldn’t encourage someone who was converting to Judaism to get a tattoo I also wouldn’t make them have any preexisting tattoos removed. There’s just no reason to go through the painful process of tattoo removal before Jewish conversion since the rule forbidding those with tattoos to be buried in a Jewish cemetery is a myth. As I explained in my blog post, Rabbi Alan Lucas, in a 1997 teshuvah (legal response) for the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, raised the question of tattooing in Judaism. Lucas concluded that there are diverse opinions among the rabbis concerning the the prohibition of tattooing based on the Torah’s verse in Leviticus 19:28 stating, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, nor incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

The mishnah explains that it is the lasting and permanent nature of tattooing which makes it a culpable act, but Rabbi Simeon disagrees and says that it is only the inclusion of God’s name which makes tattooing prohibited. I don’t believe that Drew Barrymore has any tattoos on her body that include God’s name so that shouldn’t be an issue. Furthermore, there will likely be several important laws of Judaism that Drew will not follow after her conversion. I don’t think that she should somehow raise the importance of a prohibition of tattooing above many important laws that she’ll likely gloss over.

If Drew decides to forgo the tattoo removal, I can promise her that she won’t be the only Jewish person with tattoos. And she certainly won’t be the only Jewish celeb with tattoos either (see Lena Dunham and Adam Levine). Even though Drew wasn’t Jewish at the time, the couple was married by a rabbi, had a ketubah witnessed, and stood under a chuppah. And according to the Algemeiner.com website, Drew and Will Kopelman have promised to raise their daughter Olive in a traditional Jewish manner. I think that’s great, but if I were the one advising her in her conversion to Judaism I would focus less on those tattoos and more on Shabbat observance, keeping kosher, and sending Olive to a Jewish day school. I wish Drew the best of luck in her conversion process.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Top Yom Kippur Apologies of the Year

Yom Kippur begins on Tuesday evening next week and it will mark the 5,773rd year (give or take) that Jews will reflect on their misgivings and seek to be better in the coming year. It’s also an ideal day for apologizing for wrongdoing.

I love the list that JTA compiled of the top apologies of the year. They might not have all been heartfelt or sincere, but they were interesting nevertheless.

Of course, Detroit’s own Delmon Young made the list after apologizing for his anti-Semitic rant outside the Detroit Tigers’ Manhattan hotel this past spring. I think we’re still waiting for apologies from Michigan Speaker of the House Jase Bolger for banning Rep. Lisa Brown from speaking on the floor of the Michigan House for using the word “vagina” a few months ago. And an apology might be appropriate from the owner of a clothing store in India that goes by the name “Hitler”.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.)

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.)

For skinny dipping in the Sea of Galilee during a congressional visit to Israel.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

 The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee

For circulating unsubstantiated claims about casino magnate and Republican Party donor Sheldon Adelson.

Peter Madoff

Peter Madoff, brother of Bernie Madoff

For helping deceive investors in his brother Bernie’s Ponzi scheme.

Yeshivah College of Melbourne, Australia

Yeshivah College of Melbourne, Australia

For not doing enough to stop sexual abuse in its midst.

Detroit Tigers outfielder and DH Delmon Young

 Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young

For launching into an anti-Semitic tirade at a New York hotel.

Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

 Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure

For initially suspending funding for Planned Parenthood.

Andrew Adler, former owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times

 Andrew Adler, former owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times

For an opinion column in which he counted President Obama’s assassination as among Israel’s options in heading off a nuclear Iran.

The East End Madrassah, a Toronto Islamic school

The East End Madrassah, a Toronto Islamic school

For teaching students about “crafty” and “treacherous” Jews.

Tehmina Adaya, owner of the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica, Calif.

Tehmina Adaya, owner of the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica, Calif.

For not being quicker to address charges that her hotel had discriminated against pro-Israel activists.

Texas state Rep. Larry Taylor

 Tehmina Adaya, owner of the Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica, Calif.

For saying “don’t try to Jew them down” during a public hearing.

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone

For being disparaging in a meeting with Jews.

Wodka Vodka

Wodka Vodka

For putting up billboards with the slogan “Christmas Quality, Hanukkah Pricing.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Brett Cohen’s Not Famous (Or Is He?)

Who is Brett Cohen? He’s just a regular person who has become famous for pretending to be famous while not being famous. Did you follow that?

Brett Cohen was curious to see what would happen if he walked around Times Square looking like he was famous, complete with bodyguards, Paparazzi and a film crew. Guess what? It worked. Tourists posed for photos with him. Kids clamored to get his autograph. And when Times Square pedestrians were asked what they thought of Brett Cohen by the film crew, they acted like they were his biggest fans, raving about his work as an actor in a recent Spiderman movie and praising his latest song.

Regular guy Brett Cohen posing as a celeb in New York City’s Times Square

So this 21-year-old Jewish SUNY at New Paltz college student proved that anyone can pretend to be a celeb as long as you can play the part. The YouTube video (below) of Brett’s shenanigans is already going viral and his “experiment” has been covered by Mashable, the Washington Post, Reddit, and The Daily What. So, not only did Brett Cohen prove that he could fake fame, but he managed to get his 15 minutes of it along the way.


But Brett Cohen isn’t the only one parading around Times Square pretending to be someone he’s not. I was duped earlier this month when I thought I caught a glimpse of Snoop Dogg in Times Square. A man who is a spitting image of the rapper (now called “Snoop Lion”) was walking at a celeb pace with a large entourage. After taking a photo with the lookalike (below) I still wasn’t sure he was the real deal so I posted the photo on Facebook asking my friends if they thought this was actually Snoop Dogg or an impostor. Turned out that the majority thought it was really him.

With a guy who looks an awful lot like Snoop Dogg

It was when I overheard a member of his entourage ask for a small donation from a group of teens who wanted a photo with the supposed celeb that I realized it wasn’t the real Snoop Dogg. This apparently wasn’t his only night pretending to be Snoop Dogg. My cousin’s wife, Ashley Broad of “Hardcore Pawn,” had been similarly duped the week before in Times Square by the same Snoop Dogg lookalike.

So what does this say about celebrity and how we respond to it? Many Times Square tourists pay a good deal of money to visit Madame Tussauds New York and get their photo taken with wax models of their favorite celebs. Is that any different than getting a photo standing next to “Nobody Brett Cohen” or “Not Snoop Dogg”?

In the Jewish calendar we’re now in a period of personal introspection as we approach the High Holy Day season. What does Brett Cohen’s foray into faux stardom teach us? I wonder if Brett Cohen felt differently about himself during his hour of celeb status. Perhaps he got a taste of what it feels like to be a celebrity who can’t walk a few feet without being hounded for photographs and autographs. Perhaps he felt larger than life and enjoyed the feeling. Perhaps he was just trying to prove a point that we’re all too star struck to even realize that we don’t really care if the celeb is even a legitimate celeb.

One thing is for sure — our society continues to go ga-ga over the wrong celebs. The young entrepreneur, Nancy Lublin, who took her inheritance and started a non-profit for homeless women to get free business suits for job interviews will go unnoticed walking through Times Square and yet thousands will flock to catch a glimpse of a Kardashian sister. I’m glad Brett Cohen’s experiment worked because it will give us all something to think about. We’re all mega-celebrities in our own way. Thank you Brett Cohen!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish?

Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish? That seems to be the question of the day. Natalie Portman, who starred in “Black Swan” along with three other Jewish actresses all playing ballerinas (Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey), will marry Benjamin Millepied and have his baby.

Perez Hilton broke the news earlier today that not only is Natalie Portman now engaged to marry her choreographer from “Black Swan,” but that she is also pregnant. Now, Googlers the world over want to know if the Jewish/Israeli actress is marrying within the faith. Turns out that the French Benjamin Millepied is not an MOT.

According to the Israeli online paper Ha’aretz, the 29-year-old Israeli-born actress and Millepied, a well-regarded ballet dancer and choreographer, met during the making of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller that stars Portman as a ballet dancer. Portman has been nominated for best actress by the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. Millepied played a small on-screen role in the film as a dancer.

Update: While Cyberspace is buzzing about whether Natalie Portman’s beau is a “Member of the Tribe” or not (ABC News reports his faith is unknown), New York City-based writer Marla Garfield is working the conspiracy theory angle. She wrote on Facebook: “I doubt that Millepied is even that guy’s real last name. In French, it means ‘a thousand feet,’ and the dude plays a dancer in ‘Black Swan.’ That’s just too ridiculous to be real. I bet his last name is Schwartzenbergerfeldowitz or something.”

Cross-Posted to the “Rabbi J in the D” blog at Community Next.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller