A Pint of Guinness, A Cup of Manischevitz: Some Irish/Jewish Connections

A Dozen Famous People with Irish and Jewish backgrounds

In alphabetical order, with a few notes about each, here they are:

1. Matthew Broderick, born 1962. Broderick was born and raised in New York. His late father, actor James Broderick (TV’ s Family), was an Irish-American Catholic. His late mother, Patricia Biow Broderick, was an American Jew. She was a screenwriter and painter. Broderick was raised in no faith but strongly identifies as Jewish in a cultural sense. He has long been married to Sarah Jessica Parker, whose late father was Jewish. Their only, child, a son, is named James, after Broderick’ s father.

2. Brooke Burke, born 1971. Burke was born in Connecticut, the daughter of an American Jewish mother and a father of mixed Irish, French and Portuguese heritage. Although her religious upbringing is unclear, she identifies as Jewish. Burke is famous as a model and as a TV host. For almost 10 years she hosted the cable TV travel series, Wild On!

Since 2006, Burke has been engaged to Jewish actor David Charvet (Baywatch) and they have two children together. Burke has two other children from a previous marriage.

Last year, Burke had her biggest moment in the spotlight when she showed she could really shake a leg. She was the winner of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.

3. Jennifer Connelly, born 1970. Connelly’ s American father is of Irish Catholic and Norwegian descent. Her American Jewish mother is from a religious family of Eastern European Jewish background. A New York native, the beautiful Oscar-winning actress (A Beautiful Mind) was raised in no faith and isn’t religious.

4. Harrison Ford, born 1942. Ford grew up in a Chicago suburb, the son of an Irish Catholic father and a Russian Jewish mother (both his parents were American-born). The famous actor was raised in no religious tradition and is not religious. When asked, Ford is open to talking about his Irish and Jewish backgrounds. In 2004 he accepted an award from B’nai B’rith International for his work on behalf of the environment.

5. Alyson Hannigan, born 1974. Hannigan first became known playing the Jewish character Willow Rosenberg on TV’ s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She also played Jason Biggs’ girlfriend/wife in the American Pie movies. Currently, she co-stars in the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Her father, Al Hannigan, is of Irish-American background. Her mother, Emily Posner, is Jewish. Alyson was raised by her mother in Atlanta. The actress has never talked to the media about her religious upbringing or beliefs.

6. Sarah Hughes, born 1985. In 2002, Hughes won the gold medal in women’ s figure skating at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. In the finals, she came from behind and grabbed the gold via a performance that was highly artistic and virtually flawless.

Sarah was born and raised in Great Neck, N.Y., a suburban town on Long Island. Her father, attorney John Hughes, is a Canadian of Irish Catholic descent. John’s father, an immigrant from Ireland to Canada, played pro soccer in Ireland in the 1930s. John was on the Cornell University hockey team which won a national championship in 1970. While at Cornell, John met Sarah’ s Jewish mother, Amy Pastarnack, who is a Long Island native.

John and Amy have five children, including Sarah and her younger sister, Emily, now 20. Emily, also a figure skater, competed at the 2006 Olympics and won a silver medal at the 2007 United States national figure skating championships.

Sarah’s brothers had a bar mitzvah ceremony, but Sarah did not have a bat mitzvah due to the time pressure of the incredible training regimen she began at the age of 3! Nonetheless, Sarah has told the press that she identifies as Jewish. She wears a Star of David on a necklace when she skates.

Now retired from competition, Sarah either has finished or is about to finish her undergraduate degree at Yale University.

7. Kevin Kline, born 1947. Kline, an Oscar-winning actor, grew up near St. Louis, the son of an American Jewish father and an Irish-American Catholic mother. He was raised in his mother’s faith. Kline has been married since 1989 to actress Phoebe Cates and they have two children. Cates’ father was Jewish and her mother was half Chinese Catholic and half Jewish. In an interview with Irish America magazine, Kevin Kline noted that he became acquainted with and “fond of Judaism” during his long residency in New York. He said that he and Cates were raising their children in both faiths and allowing them to decide on a religion.

8. Michael Landon (1936-1991). Landon was the famous star actor of TV’s Bonanza, Highway to Heaven and Little House on the Prairie. He directed some episodes of Bonanza and was the major force behind the other two TV series as their lead actor, producer and director. He also often wrote scripts for those shows.

Landon was born Eugene Orowitz, the son of an American Jewish father who was a small time actor and movie theater manager. His mother, Peggy O’Neill, was of Irish Catholic background and she had a minor career as an actress and dancer. Landon grew up in a small town in New Jersey, where he suffered from a great deal of petty anti-Semitic harassment. His excellence as a javelin thrower got him a scholarship from the University of Southern California. An injury ended his athletic career and the scholarship, so Landon tried his hand at acting. He got small roles and then, in 1959, was cast as a co-star of Bonanza, which ran until 1973.

Landon’s first wife was Jewish and his two children with his first wife were raised Jewish. His next two wives were not Jewish and Landon agreed to raise the children from those marriages in his wives’ respective Christian faiths. While non-practicing, Landon identified as a Jew his whole life. He made a point of creating Jewish supporting characters for Little House and Highway.

Landon was buried in a Los Angeles Jewish cemetery not far from the gravesite of Lorne Greene, the Jewish actor who played his father on Bonanza.

9. Anne Meara, born 1929. Meara, a comedian and actress, was born in New York, the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants. In 1954, she married Jewish comedian/actor Jerry Stiller (born 1927). They were married in a civil ceremony and Jerry never asked Anne to convert to Judaism. However, by the time they wed, Anne’s Catholic faith had lapsed and over time she felt drawn to Judaism and Jewish culture. So, six years into her marriage, she decided on her own to convert to Judaism. Jerry credits her with drawing him closer to his faith.

Stiller and Meara have had an amazingly varied career(s) as a comedy team and as individual performers. Their work includes films, TV, stand-up comedy and hilarious commercials that they wrote and performed together.

Meara has done some serious Broadway theater acting. Jerry, of course, hit it big as a co-star of TV’ s Seinfeld and, later, The King of Queens. Meara had a recurring role on the latter TV show and was a regular on Archie Bunker’ s Place.

Stiller and Meara are the parents of famous actor Ben Stiller and actress Amy Stiller.

10. Sean Penn, born 1960. Penn is the son of the late actor/director Leo Penn, an American Jew of Eastern European descent. His mother is Eileen Ryan, a former actress of Irish and Italian Catholic background. Leo Penn was a secular Jew, while Ryan is a practicing Catholic.

Penn, who born and raised in the Los Angeles area, had a secular upbringing. He calls himself agnostic. He just won the best actor Oscar for playing Jewish gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk in Milk.

11. Daniel Radcliffe, born 1989. Radcliffe, of course, is most famous as the star of the Harry Potter movies. He was born and raised in England. His father, Alan Radcliffe, is a literary agent of Irish Protestant background born in Northern Ireland. Radcliffe’s Jewish mother, Marcia Gresham, a TV casting agent, was born in England. (Her family’s last name was anglicized from Gershon.)

In a recent interview with the Daily Beast website, Daniel Radcliffe was asked: “Your mother is Jewish. Do you identify as Jewish?” Radcliffe replied: “Absolutely. I really do. My dad is Northern Irish and my mum is Jewish. Though I am not religious in the least, I am very proud to be Jewish.”

12. Ben Stiller, born 1965. Ben Stiller, who was born and raised in New York, grew up around TV, film and stage productions. His list of film and TV projects over the last few decades is so long that I cannot repeat them here. Suffice it to say he is one of the biggest current box office stars. He once wryly noted that he suffers from both “Irish and Jewish guilt.”

Jews in Ireland

There have been Jews in Ireland since the Middle Ages, though the community has never been very large. Jews are first mentioned in political documents in the 12th century. It’s unclear whether they underwent expulsion when England’s Jews did in 1290. The largest the Irish-Jewish community ever became was around 5,000 people in the 1940s. Though there was some Jewish immigration to Ireland from Portugal in the 1500s and from Germany in the mid-19th century, most of Ireland’s Jews came there from Lithuania in the period between 1880 and 1920. Today there are about 1,800 Irish Jews.

In spite of the small size of Ireland’s Jewish community, it has been culturally and politically vibrant. You can read more on Jewish Ireland.org, the official website of Ireland’s Jewish community. The Jewish Virtual Library also has a Virtual Jewish History Tour of Ireland. Another resource is the website for the documentary Shalom Ireland.

Famous Irish Jews

The two most famous Irish Jews were Chaim Herzog (1918-1997) and Robert Briscoe (1894-1969).

Herzog, who was born in Belfast and mostly grew up in Dublin, was the son of the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. A boxing champion in his youth, he had an incredibly distinguished career as a combat officer in the British army during World War II and in the Israeli army afterward. He ended his service in the Israeli army as a major general. He later served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and was President of Israel (an honorary, non-political post) from 1983-1993.

Briscoe is best known as the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin, an honorary post that he was appointed to in 1956 (it is a one-year job). He was born in Ireland, the son of Eastern Europe Jews. Less well known is that Briscoe had an important, if not major, role in the fight for Irish independence.

Briscoe also served in the Irish Parliament, as did his son, Ben Briscoe (who also served a term as Dublin’ s Lord Mayor.)

The linked biography repeats the hilarious line about Briscoe that famous American baseball player Yogi Berra supposedly said. When informed that the mayor of Dublin was Jewish, Yogi replied, “Only in America.”

Robert Briscoe appeared on the game show What’s My Line? in the 1950s. Perhaps most interesting is a little part at the end of the What’s My Line? segment where Briscoe, “speaking as a Jew,” defends the Irish Catholic church from the implied accusation that the Church had a hand in censoring the Irish theater.

In honor of Robert Briscoe, the Emerald Isle Immigration organization of New York, dedicated to helping Irish immigrants, gives an annual award to New York Jewish leaders who help Irish immigrants. In 2007, the organization gave the award to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), who is Jewish. In 2008, two Jewish attorneys were honored.

Three Interesting Irish /Jewish Couples

1. Frank McCourt, author, and Ellen Frey, publicist.

Frank McCourt was born in the U.S. in 1930 but raised in Ireland. McCourt, a now lapsed Catholic, wrote the best-selling memoirs, Angela’ s Ashes, ‘Tis and Teacher Man.

In 1994, McCourt married Frey after a five-year courtship. Frey is Jewish. They met at the Lion’s Head pub, the famous Greenwich Village literary watering hole.

The New York Times chose the couple’s courtship and wedding as the subject of a profile in 1994. The two married before McCourt became famous with the publication of Angela’ s Ashes.

2. Frank McCourt, businessman, and Jamie Luskin McCourt, baseball executive.

Frank McCourt, an Irish-American business executive and real estate developer, has been the sole owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers since 2004. His wife Jamie Luskin McCourt, who is Jewish, has been Dodgers team president since 2005. She is the highest-ranking female executive in Major League Baseball.

Jamie McCourt didn’t get her job just because she is married to the team owner. As a profile in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles outlines, she has a tremendous business and law background.

The couple has four sons, who were raised in their mother’s Jewish faith. The McCourts belong to the Los Angeles Temple for the Arts. In 2006, as I learned from an article in Variety, Frank McCourt was honored with the Scopus Award, the highest honor conferred by the American Friends of Hebrew University.

3. Sala Galante Burton (1925-1987) and Philip Burton (1926-1983)

Philip Burton represented San Francisco in Congress from 1964-1983. He was a lion of the liberal left and a champion of human rights, labor rights and AIDS funding. He was one of the earliest environmentalists in Congress and was the main force behind the creation of national parks in urban areas. He was of Irish Catholic background. He died of a heart attack in 1983.

Sala Burton fled Poland with her Jewish parents just ahead of the Nazi occupation and grew up mostly in San Francisco. She was actively involved in civic and Democratic Party organizations at a young age and met Philip at a Young Democrats meeting in 1950. They married soon after and had one child. Sala was elected to Congress in a special election in 1983 to serve out her late husband’s term and was re-elected to Congress in her own right in 1984 and 1986. She died of cancer in 1987.

Both Philip and Sala Burton were mentors to Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic Party activist. Nancy Pelosi was elected in 1987 to complete Sala Burton’s term in office. Pelosi has been re-elected every two years since and, in 2003, she became House minority leader. In 2007, she was elected Speaker of the House.

Nate Bloom

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the , Detroit Jewish News and the . New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant “oldies but goodies”) will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L’Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties). The author welcomes questions and celebrity “tips,” especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com.


Author: Nate Bloom