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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 | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Jewish JTS Movies Philosophy Theology

Richard Dreyfuss as Abraham Joshua Heschel

Here’s my latest post on the “Rabbi J in the D” blog at Community Next

One of my favorite movies as a kid was 1987′s “Stakeout” starring Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez. Watching the movie on VHS (remember those?) years later as a college student at around the same time I was discovering the writings of the Jewish theologian and civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I don’t recall ever thinking to myself, “You know, that Richard Dreyfuss is so good at playing Detective Chris Lecce in “Stakeout,” he’d do a fine job playing Heschel too.”

But, Dreyfuss has actually gotten rave reviews playing Rabbi Heschel in “Imagining Heschel” at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York. This, of course, isn’t the first time the actor played a teacher. After all, he played music teacher Mr. Glenn Holland in the 1995 film “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Antisemitism Celebrities Hollywood Movies

Hangover 2 Trades Mel Gibson for Liam Neeson

Here’s my latest post for the Community Next blog “Rabbi J in the D”:

After Mel Gibson made “The Passion of the Christ” movie a few years ago, he lost many of his Jewish fans.

After Mel Gibson made his anti-Semitic sentiments known by freaking out at a cop a few years ago, he lost the rest of his Jewish fans.

So, this summer when his wife Oksana Grigorieva (who has a Jewish father according to some reports) made his sexist and racist rants public, most Jewish people had already come to the conclusion that Mel’s nuts. Even if he is anti-Semitic and might even share some of his father’s notorious Holocaust denial views, “Meshugana Mel” had become more of a punchline in the Jewish community than an ADL-level concern.

Now, Mel seems to have divided Hollywood. Whoopi Goldberg recently defended Mel and tried to convince everyone that he’s not a racist. Zach Galifinakis, on the other hand, recently refused to work with Mel on the Hangover sequel, in which they wanted him to play a crazy cab driver.

So, Mel is no longer going to be in the Hangover 2 movie. Who did they get to replace him? None other than Liam Neeson — the man who played the man who saved hundreds of Jews in Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust film “Schindler’s List.”

No word yet on what Mel Gibson’s father thinks of that!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Education Hollywood Humor Movies Television

Why Tony Danza Should Stay Out of the Classroom (& Reality TV)

Here’s my latest blog post for Community Next’s “Rabbi J in the D” (a Jewish celeb blog):

One evening in the summer of 2000 when I was working as a chaplain intern at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, I walked into one of those family waiting rooms outside of the patient unit. The television was turned on to a new reality TV show called “Survivor.” I watched for about ten minutes and then promised myself that I would no longer watch reality television. Ever. Again.

So, it’s been over a decade and reality TV has taken us from people trying to survive on a deserted island to families with too many kids and too many problems. From celebrities in need of rehab and dance lessons to Italians in New Jersey. I still don’t watch any of that. Some would say it’s my loss for not watching “The Bachelor” or “American Idol,” but I think it’s a wise move.

But then I heard that Tony Danza was coming back to TV. This time he wouldn’t be a housekeeper, but a public high school teacher. And I thought to myself, “This is not going to go very well.” I had to tune in (or at least set my DVR since I’m a little busy as a rabbi on Friday evenings!).

If you haven’t seen A&E’s “Teach: Tony Danza,” I recommend you don’t. The former “Who’s The Boss” and “Taxi” star is teaching 10th grade English for this new reality show. When I watched a little bit of the show, I immediately thought about all the other actors who would be better teachers than Tony Danza. In fact, since this is a Jewish celebrity blog, I came up with a list of Jewish actors who already have teaching experience on TV or the big screen.

Here’s my list:

Richard Dreyfuss (“Mr. Holland’s Opus”)

Ben Stein (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”)

Bridgette Wilson (Veronica Vaughn in “Billy Madison”)
*She’s not Jewish, but her husband, Tennis player Pete Sampras, has a Jewish paternal grandmother

Jeremy Piven (“Old School”)

Harry Shearer (Voice of Seymour Skinner on “The Simpsons”)

Gabe Kaplan (“Welcome Back Kotter”)

Honorable Mentions (They’re not Jewish):

  • Paul Gleason (“Breakfast Club”)
  • Dennis Haskins (Mr. Belding in “Saved By the Bell”)
  • Robin Williams (“Dead Poet Society”)
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger ( “Kindergarten Cop”)
  • Tina Fey (“Mean Girls”)

The bottom line is: Anyone but Tony Danza!
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Conservative Judaism Detroit Holidays Hollywood Jewish Michigan Movies

Sean Penn Movie in Detroit Wants Conservative Jewish Extras on Shemini Atzeret

There have been a lot of movies being filmed here in Michigan over the past couple of years because of the lucrative tax and loan incentives for film production in the state. Apparently Sean Penn will be in Detroit making a new movie called “This Must Be The Place.”

I just received an email message (see below) that the film is looking for extras for a Jewish funeral scene. I fit the description that they’re looking for (I am a Conservative Jew, and I’m between 30-40 years old). The problem is that the two days they need these 30-40 year old Conservative Jewish people are Erev Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret respectively — two major holidays on the Jewish calendar.

The movie, “This Must Be The Place,” stars Sean Penn and is about a Holocaust survivor and his son. I guess when they decided to advertise their need for extras in a Jewish funeral scene, they didn’t consult the Jewish calendar or they would have found that these two days are not the most ideal for the type of movie extras they’re looking for.

And, by the way, I’m wondering if the film’s producer can explain how a Conservative Jew, which is based on ideology or synagogue affiliation, looks different on camera than other Jews. I guess they’re looking for non-Hasidic looking Jews as extras in the movie and thought this was the best way to advertise it.

Personally, I can’t wait for this movie to be released so I can see if I know anyone sitting in the funeral when they should have been in synagogue for the holiday.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Jewish Movies Ritual Television

Lenny Kravitz and His Tallis Make Cameo Appearance on Entourage

Photos of celebs, pro athletes and politicians wearing a kippah (yarmulke) aren’t unusual, but you don’t often see stars wearing a tallit (tallis or Jewish prayer shawl) on TV.

I’ve seen pics of famous Jews like Leonard Nimoy (Spock on “Star Trek”) and Bob Dylan rockin’ a tallit, but it’s unusual to see it in movies or television.

When I think about seeing the tallit on TV and in movies, I think of Ben Stiller wearing one in “Keeping the Faith,” the rabbi in Seinfeld famously wearing one while sitting at his office desk, and Krusty the Clown in a tallis at his bar mitzvah on an episode of “The Simpsons.”

Last night, in an episode of “Entourage,” in its seventh season on HBO, guest star Lenny Kravitz is seen in a synagogue for his niece’s bat mitzvah wearing a tallis (no kippah oddly enough). Super-agent Ari Gold (played by Jeremy Piven and based on Rahm Emanuel’s brother Ari) calls Lenny Kravitz to see if he’s available to appear in a movie. Kravitz even speaks a little Hebrew to the rabbi while he’s on the phone with Ari. Piven, himself, wore a tallis on the show a couple seasons ago at his daughter’s bat mitzvah.

Kravitz is actually half-Jewish, as Adam Sandler sang in one of his “The Hanukkah Song” versions. Jeremy Piven also tweeted that Kravitz is half-Jewish before the premiere of this season’s Entourage. Lenny Kravitz, himself, posted HBO’s sneak peak at his appearance on the show on YouTube (see video below).

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Jewish Movies News Obituary Television

Corey Haim, Son of Israeli is Dead at 38

Corey Haim is not the first Jewish teen actor from the 1980s to die tragically and certainly not the first child actor to overdose. River Phoenix, whose maternal grandparents were Jewish emigrants from Hungary, died of a drug overdose on Halloween morning in 1993. Now, teen heartthrob Corey Haim has died of a drug overdose at 38.

Corey Haim was born to a Jewish mother from Israel and a Jewish father from Canada. The son of Judy and Bernie Haim, Corey Haim became famous following his role in “The Lost Boys.” He also starred in the 1980s movie “License to Drive” and was later part of the reality TV show “The Two Coreys,” alongside Lost Boys co-star Corey Feldman, who is also Jewish.

The Jewish Chronicle reports that “Haim had been open about his battle with prescription drug addiction, including Valium. He was found dead by his mother in his Los Angeles apartment.”

Many celebrities have been victims of teen drug abuse themselves, with some of them never making it out alive.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Environmentalism God Hebrew Hollywood Jewish Movies Theology Torah

How Jewish is Avatar?

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed James Cameron’s film “Avatar.” It is unusual for me to enjoy a fantasy movie so much that I have to see it a second time in the theater, but this was the case with this 3-D film about a futuristic planet (Pandora), inhabited by an indigenous population that is destroyed by a human army in its effort to mine a precious mineral called “unobtanium.”

Knowing that the local tribe on Pandora is called the Na’vi, the Hebrew word for prophet, I went into the theater listening closely for other Jewish references or connections. And I found several.

There have been some very interesting articles about the Jewish connections in Avatar. Never one to disappoint with his scholarly understanding of theology and theodicy, Jay Michaelson penned two separate articles about Cameron’s Avatar. In his Huffington Post essay, the author of “Everything is God” explains the theological underpinnings in the film. He writes, “Avatar’s Na’vi subscribe to a combination of pantheism and theism, a view scholars today call “panentheism.” As scholar of religion Gershom Scholem observed, panentheism is usually rooted less in faith, as the New York Times’s Ross Douthat said, than in experience. Like mystics here on Earth, the Na’vi have an experience of unity of consciousness with other beings, all of which (themselves included) are really just manifestations of one Being, which they call Ai’wa.”

In his article in The Forward, Michaelson focuses on the environmentalism theme of the film. He explains that the philosophy of Avatar “is a bit of pantheism, a bit of nature mysticism and a surprising dash of monotheism, as well. In other words, it’s Kabbalah, as filtered through the Hasidism of the 19th century and the neo-Hasidism of the 20th and 21st. “Avatar” tells the story of Pandora – the world of the Na’vi – threatened by human ore mining. Where “Avatar” departs from classical Kabbalah and Hasidism is in its environmentalism. Classical Kabbalah and Hasidism do not speak in “Avatar’s” environmental terms, because “environmentalism” would have made no sense to people living before the Industrial Revolution.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, on the website, covers many of the obvious Jewish themes in Avatar (Na’vi, man versus God, shomrei adama/protectors of the earth, etc.), but adds some fresh ideas as well. I especially like his theory that the mountains that hung over the heads of the Na’vi population are reminiscent of the midrash explaining that God held Mt. Sinai over the heads of the Israelites like an inverted cask (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a).

Sergey Kadinsky, writing on Heshy Fried’s “Frum Satire” blog, connects the outsider’s experience of Avatar protagonist Jake Sully trying to fit into the Na’vi community with a convert to Judaism.  He also notes the similarities between the Na’vi method of slaughter and that of the shochet (Jewish ritual slaughterer).

I found several other Jewish connections in Avatar; whether Cameron intended them or not, I don’t know. There are also a lot of connections to other religions including Christianity. In fact, I read an interview with James Cameron in which he said he wanted to have as many different faith traditions represented in the film as possible. Supposedly, the scene in which Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) carries the dead Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) at the end of the film is supposed to be a reversal of Mary carrying Jesus. And I’m sure the name “Grace” is intentional.

Perhaps the main character’s name “Jake” is intended to be like “Jesus” or maybe even the biblical patriarch Jacob. Since Jake Sully is transformed, his character could indeed be a link to Jacob who has to endure a wrestling match with God’s angel (Genesis 32:4-36:43) before his name is changed and he becomes the leader of the people. Jake Sully had to wrestle the toruk to be transformed and accepted by the people. After wrestling the toruk, he is able to connect to the being in a very powerful way. Jacob’s connection with God was bolstered following his transformative wrestling experience.  Additionally, Jake Sully had to go to a holy place (The Tree of Voices) before being accepted and it is in this holy place where he goes to sleep and dreams (When Jake sleeps as the Avatar, he wakes up as his human body). Jacob renamed the place in which he dreamed Beit El (House of God). Both Jake Sully and the Patriarch Jacob didn’t realize the places they were in were holy until they fell asleep there.

The “J” name for Avatar’s protagonist could also be symbolic of other nevi’im (prophets) in the Jewish Tradition, like Jeremiah, Joel, Job, etc. or even biblical kings like Josiah.

In Avatar, a Navi became close to another Na’vi by saying “I See You” or “Oel ngati kameie.” Each time I heard this, I focused on the word n’gati, which could come from the Hebrew nogeah, to touch or become attached. Variations on this word include the Hebrew term “nogeah badavar” (to be involved with) or n’giah (to touch someone).

Blech might be on to something when he reminds his reader that “the root word navi really means seer, someone with the capacity to see more than others. And that is exactly the point of the story.” That is, the Na’vi in Avatar couldn’t predict the future (or they would have seen the impending doom of the human army), but they did understand the power in seeing the “other.”

I’m not sure if the name Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) has any connection to the Hebrew word neturei, as in Neturei Karta (Guardians of the City), but she certainly saw herself as a guardian of Pandora. I know that James Cameron was advised by many linguists, so any of these connections are possible.

Kadinsky’s comparison of the attack on the Tree of Voices to the Romans breaching the walls of Jerusalem and the ultimate destruction of the holy Temple in 70 CE is apt. There might be some connections as well between Pandora and Eden, with the Tree of Knowledge considered to be off limits and then “attacked” for gain (knowledge of self in the Torah and unobtanium in Avatar). Lastly, I think there is a connection between the name of the Na’vi spirit Eywa and the Tetragrammaton name for God (YHWH).

Sure, it’s possible to just watch Avatar as another Hollywood blockbuster/Oscar nominee and enjoy the beautiful CGI scenery, a simple plot, and a politically charged clarion call to conserve our natural resources, respect indigenous peoples, and protect our environment against big corporations that can afford their own army. But, I think it’s more fun to look for the connections with different faith traditions. Some, like the Pope, will find the religious messages of Avatar problematic. Others, will find deep spiritual meaning in these metaphors.

I ultimately choose to pay homage to the brilliant work of James Cameron. Not only did he create an entertaining epic, he also gave us some challenging topics on which to meditate.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Holocaust Jewish JTS Movies

Basterds at the Seminary

JTA writer Ami Eden began his blog post about the showing of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” at the Jewish Theological Seminary as follows:

There are many wonderful things to say about the Jewish Theological Seminary, but let’s face it — it’s not exactly where all the hipsters meet. Honestly, how many times do you find yourself saying: I’m going to a really cool event at JTS tonight.

Important. Interesting. I’ll even give you provocative (sometimes). But, cool?

Well, to be fair, I guess I also wouldn’t characterize JTS as the hippest place in Manhattan. Sure, the six years I spent there in rabbinical school were some of the best and most exciting years of my life, but “cool” programs were not the Seminary’s forte. Recently, times have been tough on JTS with harsh financial woes, budget cuts, and the downsizing of its faculty and staff. They have even decided to close the Seminary on Fridays to save money. I do give Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor, a lot of credit for trying to turn things around and improve the image of JTS. Although, some might do a double-take at the recent programs the Seminary has hosted.

First, there was the event a couple months ago hosted by Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Esti Ginzburg, and sponsored by Birthright NEXT and the Council of Young Jewish Presidents. The party for young Jewish New Yorkers was described as “an evening of fashion and passion.” However, having JTS (the academic center of Conservative Judaism) sponsor a party hosted by a bikini model didn’t sit well with many of my female rabbinic colleagues.

Rabbi Joanna Samuels wrote in the Forward, “An institution that trains clergy should probably stay away from events fronted by swimsuit models. People who learn, teach, and advocate for the highest values of our tradition are not going to increase Judaism’s appeal – or their own – through forcing an association with low-brow celebrity culture. The religious leaders who chase after celebrities in the name of kiruv -lo and behold! -often turn out to be using their Torah-for-the-masses public face as a screen for their own narcissism or social climbing.”

Well, I’m not sure the event demanded that level of criticism, but I too found it odd that JTS would host such an event. Hopefully, it achieved its mission of getting hundreds of professional, active, vibrant, young Jews to a party in which they could network (network, by the way, means date and then get married whereby they will produce Jewish offspring to repopulate the Jewish community).

The next event the Seminary produced could also be described as cool and controversial, although in a different way. When I received an e-mail publicizing the screening of Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds, I immediately recognized it as the Seminary trying something new and different. When I read that Tarantino himself would attend the event, I booked a flight to NYC. I didn’t want to pass up a chance to watch a Tarantino film with Tarantino. I’ve been a big fan of the filmmaker’s for years, and Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and the Kill Bill movies are among my favorites.

So, how does a Jewish academic institution like JTS come to host a screening and panel discussion of this violent, controversial, and profanity-laden film? Here’s the story:

Rabbi Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi in Alexandria, Virginia did what many rabbis (myself included) did on Yom Kippur this past Fall. He delivered a sermon based on the Holocaust film everyone was talking about — Inglourious Basterds. Moline tells his congregation that this is, in some twisted way, a feel good Holocaust movie for us Jews. He explains that it is cathartic to view the film, in which the Nazis die horrific deaths, as a revenge fantasy. His sentiments were not much different than the sentiments of many rabbis, including Rabbi Irwin Kula. In his articulate review of the film on the Huffington Post, Kula concluded, “Thank you, Quentin Tarantino. You have reminded us, whether you intended to or not, that we are never as powerful as our greatest fantasies and never as powerless as our worst nightmares.”

So, Jack Moline’s sermon makes its way to Lawrence Bender, the producer of the film. Bender also reads Irwin Kula’s review on the Web. He reports about both of them to Quentin Tarantino, who is interested in what rabbis think about the film. Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice-chancellor of JTS, suggests to Chancellor Arnie Eisen that the Seminary show the film and host a panel discussion including Lawrence Bender. Some calls were made, some Jewish connections to Hollywood utilized, and that’s how a Hollywood producer came to find his way to 3080 Broadway to sit on a panel moderated by the Seminary’s chancellor, and including Rabbi Jack Moline and Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky (a biblical scholar and self-proclaimed lover of gory films).

Following the 2 1/2 hour film, shown in Feinberg Auditorium on a large, rented HD screen with dynamic stereo sound, Bender announced to the dismay of the audience that Mr. Tarantino would not be attending due to a sore throat. While I was certainly disappointed that I traveled to NYC to see and hear Tarantino, the panel discussion (titled: “Jewish Persecution and the Fantasy of Revenge”) was very interesting nevertheless. It began with Chancellor Eisen reading from Irwin Kula’s impressions of the film (the crowd was obviously taken aback when Eisen didn’t censor himself in reading Kula’s words which included a profanity or two). Kalmanofsky then gave an exciting perspective on why she loved the film so much and had no problem with the violence or the revenge cast upon the Nazis. Moline said much of what he had spoken in his Kol Nidrei address, and explained that he returned to the pulpit the next morning on Yom Kippur day to give a different take on Holocaust memory and the respect deserved by the victims. All agreed that after so many Holocaust films had been produced, this one offers a much different take. And one that was a breath of fresh air.

Lawrence Bender spoke about traveling to Israel and Munich with Tarantino to show the film to audiences there. Everyone laughed when he recounted the story of his sitting down to lunch with the actor who played Hitler. The actor was in full makeup and sat alone during the lunch break. Bender recalled that he sort of felt badly for the guy and joined him. Perhaps, the highlight of the panel discussion was Lawrence Bender’s own father, who sat in the audience behind me and kept offering his own assessment of the film’s message (see video clip below).

All in all, it was a much different JTS-sponsored program than I remember attending as a student at the Seminary. Things have certainly changed at JTS and I’m glad the administration is trying new things. Chatting with Marc Wolf earlier that day, he dropped a hint about what could be his next big production at JTS when he asked if I’d seen the Coen Brother’s new film “A Serious Man.” “Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear them talk about that film here?” he asked.

Here’s a video clip of Lawrence Bender and Arnie Eisen talking about Inglourious Basterds:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Humor Jewish Movies

Jewish Movie Spoofs

I recently created two Jewish movie posters that spoof actual movies. Both are now on the website. They spoof the movies “Friday Night Lights” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”. In less than one day each of these has been viewed over 25 times. The RoboCop spoof (“RabbiCop”) I made for less than a year ago is close to reaching 1,000 views.

Friday Night Lights Rabbi Cop - RoboCop
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |