Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Arts & Culture Jewish Schools and Yiddish Still Don’t Make Actor, Director Jewish

December 19, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Interviews with Norman Jewison and Michael Caine don’t resolve every reservation about “The Statement,” but they do yield some interesting items about two movie veterans who grew up Christian in Jewish neighborhoods and often are taken as “Members of the Tribe.”

Jewison, 77, grew up in a working-class district in the east end of Toronto with large Jewish and Irish Protestant populations, and he attended a Jewish school.

By virtue of his last name, young Norman often was taunted by the Irish kids as “Jew boy” and “Jewie,” and he identified so closely with his Jewish classmates that he asked his parents why they didn’t observe the Jewish holidays.

He was crestfallen to learn that he was a Methodist, a denomination he laughingly says is made up of “tough, mean-spirited people.”

When his hit film, “Fiddler on the Roof,” premiered in Jerusalem, Jewison was seated next to then-Prime Minister Golda Meir.

“Everybody naturally assumed that I was Jewish, and Golda kept calling me ‘boychik,’ ” he recalls.

Through some genealogical research, Jewison has discovered that all gentile Jewisons originated in the Yorkshire region of England.

He theorizes that they’re descendants of the 12th-century Jewish community of York, 150 of whose members were massacred in 1190.

“I know all about discrimination and anti-Semitism,” Jewison says. But he says he also is offended by Jews who use derogatory terms to describe non-Jews.

When Jews “talk about a ‘shvartze,’ a ‘shiksa,’ of someone being ‘treif’– that perpetuates uncivilized behavior,” he says.

Michael Caine has made some 90 films over a 50-year span, but nowadays he accepts a role only if it’s amusing — such as his portrayal of Austin Powers’ father — or challenging.

“I decided to play the French Nazi Brossard because his character was the farthest removed from my own,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to sympathize with Brossard, but I play him as a pathetic and sad man. I have talked to many racists and I always come away feeling how pathetic they are.”

“I have also known religious fanatics of all stripes. Whenever one of them says he is willing to die for his religion, what he means is that he’s willing to kill for his religion,” Caine says.

Born Maurice Micklewhite, Caine grew up in London’s heavily Jewish East End, where his cockney father was a fish-market porter and his mother was a cleaning woman.

The future actor also attended a Jewish school, where a classmate was future playwright Harold Pinter, and functioned as a Shabbos goy for his Jewish neighbors.

“I went to their homes and lit the fires and earned a sixpence. That was a lot of money to me then,” he reminisces.

The Yiddish he picked up in his youth came in handy when Caine started making movies in Hollywood. His facility with the language led to considerable speculation that he was at least partially Jewish.

Actually, he grew up in a mixed Catholic-Protestant home. His wife Shekira, of Kashmiri descent, is a Muslim.

“If I am struck by one thing, it is how alike all people are,” Caine says.

Recommended from JTA