This article originally appeared in the Forward on March 5, 1999.
If Gwyneth Paltrow wanted to belong, who would kick her out of any club?
Given her long rabbinical lineage, you’d think the Jews would be happy to have the Oscar-nominated blond bombshell as a member of the tribe. Ah, but the rabbis come from her [late] father Bruce Paltrow’s side, the telltale tresses and the long neck from her mother, Blythe Danner, and so she doesn’t count, as least according to the traditional definition adhered to Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and even by Reform Jews, since she wasn’t raised as a Jew. If there’s a case to be made for accepting patrilineal descent, it’s the dashing Ms. Paltrow (on the other side of the aisle, let’s welcome the star of “The X-Files,” David Duchovny, who is Jewish on his father’s side). WE should accept her into the fold with open arms, treat her like royalty and hold her up as a role model for single, modern twenty-something Jews to emulate, fawn over and draw into the crowd.
Imagine the scene if our Gwyneth, on Oscar night, went up on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium to collect an award and said, “Oy vey, I’m so farklempt!” What is she went on “Oprah” afterward and, leaning forward, earnestly grasping the talk show host’s hands in hers and said in a teary voice, that despite her love affairs with Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck, what she really wanted in life was to find a nice Jewish boy to settle down with and raise a family? What if she and Winona Ryder, who would change her name back to its original Horowitz, showed up at Friday night services at Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun, hand—in—hand in their best girlfriend way, and mingled among the other young adults after services looking for Jewish men?
That kind of scene would certainly get stragglers like me to check out the scene for myself, and maybe I’d meet some other celebrity gawkers, and so on, and so forth. Gwyneth and winona would be the best thing to happen to Jewish continuity since the era between when Billy Joel fired up “Piano Man” and when he married the decidedly un-Jewish Christie Brinkley.
With the Bronfmans from Universal, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and even Roseanne getting involved in Jewish life and Jewish causes, why haven’t the young Jews of Hollywood come forward? Where is Alicia Silverstone shilling for Israeli Bonds? Jonathan Taylor Thomas (ne Weiss) becoming the posterboy for the new Birthright Israel program, or listing United Synagogue Youth as one of the “normal” activities he wants to pursue after quitting “Home Improvement”? What about “E.R.” stars Noah Wyle and Julianna Margulies doing public service announcements urging newlyweds to get tested for Canavan’s disease?
It’s nothing new for Jews to crowd Tinseltown and then not be up-front about it. Hollywood legends have been changing their names to go mainstream for a century and staying away from identifiable Jewish roles. Hollywood producers and directors tone down or erase Jewish content in their own productions. But what would have been so bad about one Jonathan Taylor Weiss gracing the cover of Teen Beat? Or about Patricia Arquette leading her many-religioned siblings in a rousing version of “Dayenu” as they finally sort out their collective piety and sign up with their mother’s side and the Chosen People? Or about Sarah Michelle Gellar of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to clear up the is-she-or-isn’t-she debate over her heritage?
What do young Jews have to be proud of — in that Mark Spitz/Sandy Koufax way — coming out of Hollywood today? Adam Sandler is the most Jewish of the successful young Jews. Ben Stiller plays Jewish characters every once in a while (his mother, Anne Meara converted when she married Jerry Stiller). Jerry Seinfeld may have kept discussions of Judaism out of his show, but his relationship with Shoshanna Lonstein was a model for Jewish continuity. And then there’s Mark Feuerstein, star of the now-defunct NBC sitcom “Conrad Bloom,” prime time’s short—lived and much—sanitized foray into the sexual dysfunction that is the subject of Philip Roth novels.
“What’s surprising is that there are a lot of Jewish porn stars,” says Barbara Kligman, who self-published the zine Plotz, which has a feature that “outs” Jewish stars. She says she has trouble coming up with names to fill out the list these days because she’s gone through all the possibilities already A friend at Playboy supplies an endless list from the nether regions of entertainment. Otherwise, she’s down to music stars and talking about Liz Taylor’s conversion. Nobody else wants to come forward.
Jewish organizations need to attract young, pretty faces the same way they need to attract the rest of us — getting them into events, convincing them of the values of Jewish family life and getting them to believe in God. Stars suffer the same sorts of distractions and confusions as those of with with plainer lifestyles. They are career—oriented and working in an assimilated world. They have grown up with mixed families and mixed religions and, like many of that lackadaisical Generation X, have few strong thoughts about anything. Noah Wyle once tried to describe his religious background to me, and the tale quickly god convoluted. His parents are nominally Jewish, but after divorce and remarriage and with his assemblage of siblings, half—siblings, step—siblings and ex—stepsiblings, holidays just don’t have the same meaning, whether they are Jewish, Christian or secular. He just plays a doctor on TV, and he doesn’t know much about anything. His co—star, Julianna Margulies, merely claimed when I asked that religion was never a big issue in her household.
Given Hollywood’s penchant for being into the coolest thing at the moment, stars could be easier to crack than recalcitrant young lawyers and stock brokers. If Scientology can attract the movie-star set, why shouldn’t Jewish groups see if they could get the likes of Fred Savage, Paul Rudd or Liev Schreiber to do the same things at a Jewish community center Torah study? Let them whisper in the back rows of a local shul about Tori Spelling’s nose job or Rachel Weisz’s shoes. They’ll draw a crowd.
Ms. Pinsker served as an editor at the Forward.