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Interfaith Celebrities: Kicking Off Football Season and the Emmy Awards

Hebrew Pigskins 2008

Football season has begun! The following list of Jewish players in the NFL this season was prepared with the help of the Jewish Sports Review newsletter.

Sage Rosenfels, 30, is back-up quarterback for the Houston Texans. When starting quarterback Matt Schaub was injured in 2007, Rosenfels stepped in and led the team to three victories in four starts. Rosenfels could get the starting slot this season if Schaub continues to play poorly.

David Binn, 36, plays long snapper for the San Diego Chargers. A 14-year-NFL veteran, Binn was all-pro in 2007. Last season, Binn set the record for the most games anyone has played in a Charger uniform. Binn is a laid-back kind of guy; according to a recent article in the San Diego Union Tribune, he’s the envy of his teammates because of his social life, including his brief romance with Pamela Anderson.

Igor Olshansky
San Diego defensive end Igor Olshansky is made of steel. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst.

Lennie Friedman, 32, is an outside guard for the Cleveland Browns and a 10-year-NFL veteran. Friedman played in all 16 games last season, although he didn’t start any. Adam Podlesh, 25, punts for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Podlesh had a good rookie season in 2007. Igor Olshansky, 26, plays defensive end for San Diego; 2007 was Igor’s best season yet.

Finally, Geoff Schwartz, 23, is an outside tackle who was second team, All-Pac 10, with the University of Oregon. This season’s only Jewish NFL rookie, Schwartz was signed by the Carolina Panthers and is on the practice squad.

Rosenfels and Binn have an interfaith background: both are the sons of Jewish fathers. My sense is that Rosenfels identifies as Jewish but isn’t religious. Binn was raised without religion. However, when contacted, Binn was happy to be identified as a Jewish athlete in the Jewish Sports Review. (The rest of the players, above, have two Jewish parents).

Also, Jewish Sports Review‘s newest issue reports that Merrill Moses, the outstanding goalkeeper for the silver-medal-winning U.S. water polo team, is Jewish. The Review also ferreted out that wrestler Vasyl Fedoryshyn, who won a silver medal for the Ukraine at Beijing, is Jewish, too. I’m happy to add these two athletes to my prior coverage of the Beijing Games.

The Jewish Sports Review reports that verified Jewish athletes won 16 medals at the Beijing Games, including the two medals mentioned above. American swimmers Dara Torres (see previous columns), Jason Lezak, Garrett Weber-Gale and Ben Wildman-Tobriner, together, took home five golds, three silvers, and one bronze. American fencer Sada Jacobson won a silver and bronze. Briton Josh West won a silver in rowing. Argentine Gisele Kanevsky and Israeli Shahar Zubari won bronze medals in field hockey and windsurfing, respectively.

Not a bad total at all in light of the fact that there are only 13 to 14 million Jews in the world. By way of comparison: only 15 sovereign countries won more than 16 medals at the Beijing Games. In this Olympic year, as in past Olympic years, the reality of Jewish medal winners confounds the stereotype of the “non-athletic” Jew.

Emmy Time–Interfaith Connections

The Emmy Awards for television excellence will be shown on ABC on Sunday, Sept. 21, at 8 p.m. The following are the Jewish “on-camera” nominees, plus a few acting nominees with some interfaith connection.

Kyra Sedgwick has been nominated for best actress in a drama series, The Closer. Sedgwick, whom I profiled in depth in a previous column, is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Protestant father. She very much identifies as Jewish. Jeremy Piven (Entourage) and William Shatner (Boston Legal) are competing for the Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy series. Jon Stewart (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and Don Rickles (Mr. Warmth documentary on HBO) vie against each other for the award for best performer, variety or musical program. Bob Balaban was nominated for best supporting actor, mini-series or movie for his work on Recount and Shelley Berman, for best supporting actor, as a guest star on a comedy series, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Jon Stewart
But Emmy-nominated comedian Jon Stewart is made of awesome. Reuters/Eric Thayer.

Competing against each other for best supporting actress as a guest star on a comedy series are Sarah Silverman (Monk), Carrie Fisher (30 Rock) and Polly Bergen (Desperate Housewives).

Balaban, who is by coincidence Piven’s cousin, was also nominated for the Emmy for best TV movie director for Bernard and Doris. Silverman also had a second nomination for best original song for a raunchy, not family-friendly tune she penned for the Jimmy Kimmel Show.

Carrie Fisher, 51, currently taking a role in 30 Rock, is the daughter of Jewish singer Eddie Fisher, 80, who was most popular in the ’50s. Her mother is actress Debbie Reynolds, 76, who was raised a Protestant.

In 1959, Eddie famously left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor. Frankly, Eddie Fisher is a lousy father–spending almost no time with his children and almost never making a child support payment. He was addicted to one drug or another for most of the past 40 years and embarrassed his adult children and ex-wives by writing two tell-all memoirs.

Debbie Reynolds, on the other hand, was and is a strong and caring mother. She took it upon herself to give her two children with Fisher, Carrie and Todd, some exposure to their father’s faith. She took the children to services at various synagogues and churches and left it to them to decide what religion, if any, they would follow.

Carrie never became religious, but describes herself as Jewish. She married famous Jewish singer Paul Simon in 1983 in a Jewish ceremony, but the marriage only lasted a year. Carrie Fisher has never married again, but has a child from a brief relationship with someone she will not name.

Polly Bergen, 78, was born Polly Burgin in Tennessee, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist minister. An attractive woman with a lovely singing voice, she began as a nightclub singer and then became a film and TV actress. She reached the height of her popularity in the early ’60s, mostly playing in light film comedies (a notable dramatic role was a co-starring part in the original 1962 version of Cape Fear). In 1957, she married top Hollywood agent Freddie Fields, who was Jewish. The marriage lasted until 1975 and they had three children, two of whom were adopted.

Bergen converted to Judaism upon marrying Fields. In a late 1980s interview with journalist Tim Boxer, Bergen said that she still very much considered herself Jewish despite her divorce from Fields.

Sarah Silverman, as just about everybody knows, was romantically involved with comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. The irreverent Silverman often made jokes about their religious differences (Kimmel was raised a Catholic). In early July, without explanation–and without rancor–the couple’s spokesman simply announced that they were ending their five-year romance.

I made an error in my last column–actor Paul Giamatti did not win an Emmy–at least, not yet–for his starring role as John Adams in the HBO mini-series, John Adams. He is nominated (this year) for best lead actor in a mini-series or TV movie and he’s the heavy favorite to win. As noted in prior columns, Giamatti’s wife and son are Jewish.

Gabriel Byrne, 58, is nominated for best lead actor in a TV drama for his role as a psychiatrist on the HBO series, In Treatment. (The series is based on a hit Israeli TV show.) Byrne, a lapsed Catholic, was born and raised in Ireland and began his career as an archeologist and writer–often writing in Irish Gaelic, a difficult language that Byrne has mastered. He became an actor at age 29 and made his first trip to America in 1987. In 1988, he married Bronx-born Jewish actress Ellen Barkin. They separated in 1993 and divorced in 1999. The couple had two children while married, a boy and a girl.

Byrne remained in the United States after separating from Barkin and now lives in Brooklyn. Barkin and their children live in Manhattan. Byrne and Barkin are on good terms. A couple of years ago, Byrne told an interviewer that he is happy that his children are being raised in their mother’s Jewish faith.

Finally, I will note that Mary Louise Parker is nominated for best lead actress in a comedy series, for Weeds, a Showtime cable series. Parker plays Nancy Botwin, a woman whose late husband was Jewish. Many of the Weeds episodes make reference to the respective Jewish backgrounds of Nancy’s late husband, her late husband’s father, and her late husband’s brother. (The father-in-law is played by Jewish actor Albert Brooks and the brother-in-law is played by Justin Kirk, whose real-life mother is Jewish.)

Dancin’ Again

Dancing with the Stars, the mega-hit ABC series, starts its new season on Monday, Sept. 22, at 8p.m. The Jewish celebs competing this time are comedian Jeffrey Ross, 43, and actress/model Brooke Burke, 37. Ross is best known as the celebrity roast master on the Comedy Central TV comedy roasts.

Burke’s father is not Jewish, but I am not sure in what religion, if any, he was raised. Brooke Burke’s mother is Jewish and Brooke identifies as Jewish. She’s been engaged to former Baywatch hunk actor David Charvet, 36, since 2006 and they have had a boy and a girl in the last two years.

David Charvet was born and raised in France. Charvet’s father, Jewish businessman Paul Guez, was born in Tunisia, lived in France, and has long resided in the United States. Paul was the founder of GUESS Jeans and he’s been a big donor to Jewish charities. David took Charvet, his French mother’s maiden name, as his stage name. The actor was raised religiously Jewish and had a bar mitzvah. I suspect, from various clues, that David’s French mother is a convert to Judaism.

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


Author: Nate Bloom