How Jewish Are Our Celebs?


On a brief trip to London last summer, I made a beeline for the Jewish Museum in Camden to catch an exhibit on Amy Winehouse, the colossally talented British singer who died in 2011 at the age of 27. “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait,” opened at the museum in 2013 and then traveled to the Beit Hatfusot in Tel Aviv and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, before its return engagement at the Camden museum in the bohemian neighborhood where the singer lived and died. Now running at the Jewish Museum of Australia, the exhibit includes an assortment of Winehouse’s clothes, her record collection and snapshots of her taken on such occasions as the bar mitzvah of her older brother, Alex.

Was Amy truly, in Alex’s words, used in the exhibit, “simply a little Jewish kid from North London with a big talent, who, more than anything, just wanted to be true to her heritage?” Or was playing up her Jewishness more as a marketing ploy for the museum? As the main curator of the exhibit, Elizabeth Selby, told the London Telegraph, presumably with a straight face, “One of the main objects that we have on display is a Jewish cookery book [Claudia Roden’s “Book of Jewish Food”] that Alex gave to Amy in 2002 … because she wanted to learn how to cook chicken soup.”

Wanting Jewish movie stars, musicians or politicians to feel the same deep connection to Jewish tradition that many of us do is nothing new. Acculturating second generation Jews like my grandparents, who came of age in the interwar period, defined their Jewish identity to a large extent in terms of the pride that they felt in Jewish stars like Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson, who demonstrated that Jews could be the objects of admiration rather than denigration.

In the middle of the 20th century, as Judaism itself became more mainstream, Jews still retained a clear sense of what differentiated them from non-Jews — even if they often chose to downplay their Jewishness. Think of Lenny Bruce’s classic 1961 routine, “Jewish and Goyish” (where soulfulness and Jewishness fit hand-and-glove), which starts off “Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish.” (One wonders how Elvis, if he were still alive, would react to the controversy over whether or not he was Jewish; many have pointed out that Nancy Burdine, his maternal great-great-grandmother, was a Jew.)

In the classic “Saturday Night Live” sketch, “Jew, Not a Jew,” which aired on Oct. 8, 1988, contestants in a game show, hosted by the clearly non-Jewish Tom Hanks — with Al Franken playing the off-screen announcer — had to guess if Penny Marshall, Michael Landon and Sandy Koufax were Jewish. The humor that derived from “outing” Jews was heightened further in Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” first performed in 1994, which suggests that celebrities who conceal their Jewishness deserve to be unmasked and compelled to confront their true identity. A more recent example is Larry David’s impersonation of Bernie Sanders during the presidential campaign, which brought Sanders’ Jewish identity more to the fore. When the news broke in July that the two are, in reality, distant cousins, the disclosure underscored the irony of Sanders’ tendency to de-emphasize his roots.

Not every celebrity who is Jewish wants to be labeled as such. In Abigail Pogrebin’s 2005 book, “Stars of David,” later turned into an Off-Broadway musical, 62 American Jews, all of whom are household names, talk about their connection to Judaism; many are clearly uncomfortable with their Jewish identity. This is unsurprising, perhaps, given that the outing of Jewish celebrities can take an anti-Semitic turn; in 2011, French authorities, ruling that a popular app, “Jew or Not Jew,” contravened rules against disclosing a person’s religious identity against his or consent, forced it to be removed from the App Store in their country.

I wonder if stars who are well-known as being Jewish should be permitted to keep their Jewishness to themselves. Case in point: Identifiably Jewish journalists who covered Donald Trump’s presidential campaign were subjected to death threats and other hate speech.

As the British journalist Anshel Pfeffer lamented in Haaretz in 2013, in a review of the original incarnation of the Amy Winehouse exhibit, “There is very little [in the exhibit] to connect Amy herself with her Jewish side, and what there is seems contrived.” Pfeffer wrote that he is led to wonder if “a celebrity who happens to be Jewish [is] necessarily a Jewish celebrity?” Or does the Jewishness of a star itself inevitably become public property for us to unearth, speculate about, commodify and judge? 

Ted Merwin is the executive director of Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore. He writes about theater for the paper. His column appears monthly.