Joining the Tribe Late in Life: The Ever-Widening Circle of Celebrity Jews

By J.J. Goldberg

Published August 17, 2011, issue of August 26, 2011.
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Every time another celebrity is surprised with the news that they’re Jewish — Madeleine Albright, Senator George Allen, playwright Tom Stoppard, John Kerry (on his father’s side) — the same series of perplexed shrugs ripple through the media. Did they really never know? What made the Jewish parent turn away? Anyway, what’s the difference? Are you Jewish if you never practiced Judaism? And why is this even in the newspaper?

The latest victim of this Gotcha! game is Ralph Branca, 85, the onetime Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher best known for throwing the most notorious homerun ball in baseball history, the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” which lost his team the 1951 National League pennant to the New York Giants. A lifelong Catholic, he learned of his mother’s Jewish origins earlier this summer from a journalist who then turned it into a 1,900-word front-page story in the August 15 New York Times. The usual reactions followed: What is he now, a Jewish athlete? Why does anyone care? And why 1,900 words of this trivia in the world’s leading newspaper?

There’s another series of questions that should be obvious by now, but never gets asked. Why are there so many such cases? If there are this many among the famous (and this list is very partial), how many more are there who aren’t famous? How many never find out because they’re not famous enough for journalists to poke through their family secrets? Are there any discernable patterns? Is anyone’s life changed afterward? Can we — should we — learn anything about Jewish life from these dramas?

As it happens, there are some answers, and not what you’d expect. Albright’s parents and the mothers of Allen, Stoppard and journalist Christopher Hitchens were European Jews (North African in Allen’s case) who barely escaped the Holocaust and concluded that Judaism was a death sentence, which they vowed to spare their children. Like Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungle for decades, unaware the war had ended, some unknown number of Jews came to America after the war convinced the threat would never end and determined to keep their children safe.

John Kerry’s paternal grandparents Fritz and Ida Kohn made the same decision a generation earlier, as the European storm was brewing. Kerry’s father was born Catholic, but an older brother, the senator’s uncle, was born Jewish before the family’s conversion. As for George Allen, his mother made it clear once her son learned of her past (from a 2006 Forward article disclosing that his infamous “macaca” slur was actually Tunisian slang) that she’d kept the secret for her children’s safety. Hitchens and his brother were informed by their grandmother in 1987, after their mother died.

Are lives changed by the knowledge? Sometimes. Hitchens, an outspoken anti-Zionist, wrote in the Forward in 2000 that his ethnic heritage meant nothing, but by 2002 he was raging in Vanity Fair about the growing anti-Semitic threat to the unwary West, including “people like me.” His anti-Zionism had morphed from a fiery radicalism into a lament that Israel hadn’t fully solved the Jews’ problems. (I asked him that fall if his Jewish roots hadn’t touched him deeper than he’d realized. His reply: “I think you’re right, chaver.”)

General Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander and Democratic presidential contender, was sought out in graduate school by a long-lost cousin who told him his birth father, who died when Clark was 4, had been a Jew named Benjamin Kanne. Clark publicly denied the information affected him, but friends said it fueled his insistence that NATO end the genocide in Bosnia, and his wife once asked an Israeli hosting a diplomatic dinner to light candles and bless the wine, “because Wesley is Jewish and it’s meaningful to him.”

Sometimes the impact is more mysterious. Neither Kerry nor Albright ever showed interest in their roots, but Kerry’s younger brother Cameron speculated it might somehow have inspired his own decision to convert to Judaism years before. Researchers describe a noticeable “boomerang” effect in which non-Jewish children of intermarriage end up marrying back into the Jewish community. The mysteries are endless.

As for Ralph Branca, his life won’t change much after 85 years as a Catholic. He told the journalist, though, that it might have made a difference years ago. That career-defining 1951 pitch, he said might have been God’s punishment because “I didn’t practice my mother’s religion.” (“He was smiling but sincere,” the reporter wrote.) Earlier still, as a child, he wouldn’t have agreed to be a neighbor’s Shabbos goy and light her stove on Friday nights if he’d known he was forbidden. “I’m not going to sell my soul for a penny,” he said.

What does all this mean? Heaven only knows. And precisely because Heaven only knows, we shouldn’t expect to find all the answers. The best we can do is to keep our minds and hearts open and leave the welcome mat out for wandering kinfolk who find their way home.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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