In my last column, I mentioned that singer Michelle Chamuel, 27, was one of six remaining contestants on The Voice, NBC’s hit talent show. I noted that Chamuel is openly lesbian and that she and her mother attended an egalitarian congregation, for at least several years, located in Chamuel’s hometown of Amherst, MA. I said that I didn’t know if her father was Jewish or not.
Michelle Chamuel singing “Time After Time” in The Voice‘s semi finals.
As I write this, Chamuel is one of three finalists left in the competition. For the last two weeks, she has garnered so many TV audience votes that she didn’t even have to sweat-out the judges’ decision as to whether she would “survive.” By the time you read this, you will know, or can shortly find out, whether she’s the winner this season. The last show airs tonight, June 18, at 9 p.m. I think it’s very likely that Chamuel will go on to a high profile, successful career even if she is not the winner. She has a great voice and an engaging stage presence.
Since I wrote my last column, I spoke to a cousin of Chamuel. She informed me that Chamuel’s father, Jacques, an engineer, and her mother, Jolie, a doctor, are both Egyptian-born Jews who moved to the States in the early 1960s. (Michelle’s parents are long divorced.)
Virtually all of Egypt’s 80,000 Jews were forced to flee Egypt between 1948 and 1967. Increased hostility throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and into World War II, coupled with the fact that Jews were denied citizenship, resulted in incredible governmental and public pressure on Egypt’s Jews to leave the country.
In Egypt, I was told, Michelle’s parents were members of the Karaite Jewish community. Karaites are now a very small wing of Judaism, but centuries ago their numbers were much larger. They embrace the Torah, but reject the oral law and the Talmud. There is only one Karaite synagogue in America with its own dedicated facility.
When we talk about Judaism today, we’re actually referring to “Rabbinic Judaism.” There is also an offshoot of ancient Judaism called Karaite Judaism, that does not acknowledge rabbinic interpretations of the Torah. While this is not the place to go into Karaite Judaism in depth, it’s relevant as Karaites face parallel situations to interfaith couples and those of interfaith backbround. Namely, whether or not Karaites (like those born of interfaith relationships) are Jews. Today, many Karaite Jews, from Egypt or elsewhere, have been absorbed into the mainstream of Israeli Jewish life and they have mostly joined “regular” synagogues. The same is true in the United States.
But there have been high-level Orthodox rabbinical debates in Israel, going on to this day, as to whether Karaites are Jews. One main reason for this debate: Karaites follow what the Torah text appears to say, that Jewish status is automatically conveyed by virtue of having a Jewish father. Traditional rabbinical Judaism, via interpretation of the Torah many centuries ago, ruled that automatic Jewish status is conveyed via a Jewish mother. (In 1983, Reform Judaism decided that Jewish status could be conveyed by either parent.)
The Kararite support of “patrilineal” descent is one of the main reasons that many rabbis question whether they are “bona fide” Jews.
Yes, the “who is a Jew?” debate, based on whether your father or mother is Jewish, gained ground with the rise in Jewish/Christian marriages in the last half of the 20th century, but it’s not a new debate. I learned, sort of through a “Voice” contestant, that this debate has been going on since at least 900 C.E., when Karaite Judaism first clearly emerged.
The pilot episode of The Amanda Show.
I Actually Spoke with Amanda Bynes and here’s what I think about the current situation.
Nate Bloom: Well, if I may say this, you really do sparkle, yourself. You have an inner light that a lot of performers don’t.
Amanda Bynes: Thank you for saying that. My parents said you “don’t want to lose your sparkle.” So many people are dark and gloomy and horrible to be around. If I felt I was losing my happiness I would go to an island and figure out was going on in my life.
Bloom: You seem to be part of the group of young performers who are never in the gossip pages. Did your family life have something to do with that?
Bynes: Definitely. I was raised by strict parents. I wasn’t allowed to go to the mall alone until I was around 16. I have really smart grounded parents who weren’t nouveau riche. They really earned their money and they know the value of a dollar. They gave morals to me and I wouldn’t want to do anything that would embarrass my parents.
The preceding is an excerpt of an interview I did with now-famously troubled interfaith actress Amanda Bynes, now 27, in 2007 for InterfaithFamily. I am quite sure it is the only interview she has ever given to a religious or Jewish community-related media site.
Even though I spoke to Bynes, I didn’t want to join in the chorus of media pundits and comics who have never been in contact with her, but nonetheless have commented, often in a mocking way, about every incident involving her since 2010.
A recent article about the troubles of child/teen actors by former child actress Mara Wilson provided a contextual roadmap for Bynes’ current troubles.
Here is a somewhat enhanced version of the brief biography I wrote in 2007:
Born and raised in Southern California, Bynes came from a stable middle-class household. Her Catholic father is a retired dentist and her Jewish mother was her father’s office manager. She told me she was exposed to both faiths and, as of the time of our 2007 interview, she hadn’t decided to follow one faith or the other.
When Bynes was a small child, she would come home and tell her dad what happened at school. He thought her delivery was funny. So he enrolled his then 7-year-old daughter in summer enrichment classes for kids at The Comedy Club, a famous Los Angeles nightclub. When she was 9 years old, she performed in a graduation night performance at another club, The Laugh Factory, where she also took classes. This performance caught the eye of TV producers Dan Schneider and Brian Robbins. They cast her (1996) in Nickelodeon’s ensemble TV show, All That. After Bynes became the show’s breakout star, Schneider persuaded Nick to build a program around her, The Amanda Show. The Amanda Show was almost like a kid version of the old Carol Burnett Show, with Bynes doing comic skits and sketches.
In 2002, she made her film debut in Big Fat Liar, following that up with the hit WB comedy series, What I Like About You, which ran from 2002-2006. Her next two flicks, which most appealed to a teen audience, were pretty successful (What a Girls Wants, 2003, and She’s the Man, 2006).
And here’s a brief biography from 2007 forward:
Most of my interview with Bynes concerned her co-starring role in the film version of the Broadway musical Hairspray, which was about to be released. The film turned out to be a critical hit and a modest box-office success. The college campus comedy, Sydney White, released the same year, and starring Bynes, was almost a total flop and some critics began to question her talent. Bynes earned only three acting credits following that film. She was in a 2008 Lifetime TV movie; did a TV voice role; and had a large role in the hit 2010 movie, Easy A.
The last credit is deceiving: It was something of a step back for Bynes, then 24, to play a high school student in Easy A, and she wasn’t even the film’s star. In 2007, she told me, “I’m 21 and it is fitting that I am doing a role [Sydney White] that puts me in college because if I was in school, now, I would be in college.”
Meanwhile, she lost roles to other actresses; a TV pilot she made wasn’t “picked-up”; and a clothing company for which she designed failed after 18 months (2009).
In 2010, she tweeted that she was retiring from acting. A few weeks later, she retracted her retirement via Twitter.
In 2012, she has two separate car accidents, one involving a police car. She faces DUI and hit and run charges that are still pending and could get her jail time. In March, 2013, she tweeted photos of her dramatic change in appearance: strange hair, cheek piercings, and heavy make-up. Recently, she’s been tweeting unflattering photos of herself in her underwear, or naked, except for some “strategically placed” hair.
Also, for almost three years now, there have been almost daily bizarre tweets about other celebrities, including a graphic one last April about her desire for interfaith rap star Drake, 26.
On May 23, she was arrested after allegedly throwing marijuana paraphernalia out of her Manhattan high-rise apartment window. She was first taken for a psych evaluation at a hospital, followed by booking at a police station.
I mentioned interfaith actress Mara Wilson, now 25, in my special InterfaithFamily article, “My Top Five Christmas Movies with Major Jewish Connections.” Wilson, who identifies as Jewish,  co-starred in the 1994 TV remake of Miracle on 34th Street. She is also remembered for playing Robin Williams’ younger daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and was the star of the hit children’s movie, Matilda (1996). She virtually retired from acting in 2000 and now pursues other interests, including playwriting.
On May 28, Wilson wrote an article entitled, “7 Reasons Child Actors Go Crazy (An Insider’s Perspective),” for the website Cracked.com. Here are those reasons, in reverse order, with my comments about how they relate to Bynes:
Wilson writes, in part:
I chose to start acting when I was 5. It was my decision, and my parents tried their hardest to discourage me. When I insisted, they allowed me to act, but were always very protective of me. I saw many child actors who did not have that, and they were all miserable. Kids whose parents pushed them into acting often grow up to resent them…[or] they were doing it for the money [even] supporting their family.
I have no reason to believe that Bynes’ parents looked to their daughter for financial support. But it’s probably playing with fire to put a 9-year-old child in talent showcases held in a prominent Los Angeles comedy club. One can imagine that talented children from around the country, accompanied by high-anxiety parents, appear in these Hollywood showcases and are more than aware there are serious talent scouts in the audience.
Even good, non-stage-parent parents can have trouble asserting authority over their kids. My parents, I think, did most things right. They didn’t always pick the greatest movies for me to be in, but they were supportive and responsible about money. But even they had to answer to a higher power.
Rick Bynes, and perhaps his wife, too, were not “non-stage” parents. By definition, someone who manages his child’s acting career is a stage parent. As for “asserting authority”: apparently Bynes’ parents asserted too much authority, as I will explain below.
Wilson writes, in part:
Combine the regular amount of free stuff celebrities get with all the presents people give kids just for being cute, and you’ve got a recipe for one spoiled-ass child… A year in a kid’s life seems like an eternity, and they think anything happening now will happen forever. Years of adulation and money and things quickly become normal, and then, just as they get used to it all, they hit puberty — which is a serious job hazard when your job is being cute…. A child actor who is no longer cute is no longer monetarily viable and is discarded. He or she is then replaced by someone younger and cuter, and fan bases accordingly forget that the previous object of affection ever existed.
As Wilson says, even the most grounded child actor gets a feeling of entitlement, and I have no reason to believe that Bynes, who was the star of her own kids’ shows, didn’t have that feeling at times.
Bynes was fortunate enough to make the transition from child to teen roles fairly successfully. But, like many child stars, when she hit her early 20s, she was competing, apparently not very successfully, with the army of adult acting hopefuls who descend each year on Hollywood. Bynes’ prior fame undoubtedly got her interviews, but it didn’t, it seems, get her roles.
Wilson writes, in part:
To be a teen idol is to be vulnerable. Brooke Shields has said that being a sex object led her to feel like she wasn’t in control of her own body. Natalie Portman has said similar things.
One has to believe that Wilson is on to something here in regards to a bad rebound effect from a child/teen’s star’s public image. Bynes, as I wrote in 2007, was the “girl next door type.” While I suspect mental illness is the main cause of her sexually graphic tweets and photos, I think that “in that mix” is a reaction to the fact that she had to present, herself, so long, as a “good girl.”
Also, I should add that Bynes, like many actresses who feel a need to kick-start their careers and change their image, posed in lingerie for a men’s magazine in 2010. I suspect many actresses consider these shoots as just part of the business and not that much different from roles in which they appear less clothed than the script/story really needs.
But I do think such a photo shoot would “play with the head” of someone like Bynes, who long presented herself as “squeaky-clean” and who, it is safe to say, was probably having mental stability issues even back then. Subsequently, Bynes had to process the hard truth that posing in her underwear didn’t result in any great film/TV offers.
Wilson writes, in part:
Probably one of the reasons I was never big into partying as a teen was because I was scared of the public finding out…. Nearly every teenager rebels. But most of them have about five people they need to answer to when they screw up: teachers, school administrators, and their parents or guardians. …Now imagine if you, as a kid, had millions of people watching your every move. First, there’s your own entourage…And then there are the fans: kids your age who think they know you because they’ve seen your face on TV, parents who pray you stay squeaky clean because their children want to be you… Having to live up to your fan base is a little like having to deal with a million strict parents who don’t actually love you… But when they get older, they have more freedom. They also have money and little to no experience making decisions for themselves, so their rebellions are going to be on a much larger scale. The whole world will see it. And if there’s one thing the whole world loves, it’s a public breakdown.
Almost all of this is applicable to Amanda Bynes. I didn’t feel, for most of my interview with her, a spark of engagement or wit, as I have felt when I have interviewed some other celebrities. Her tone was flat and I thought, for the most part, she was just doing a duty that her acting career entailed. She came alive, it seemed to me, only when I asked her a question she probably hadn’t heard before. She presented herself, to me, as a dutiful daughter with unequivocally great parents.
But, now I know, this was not the whole story even in 2007. In October, 2012, People reported:
Early on she was very close with her family, but by her late teens Bynes clashed with her parents, says a source. She sought to legally emancipate herself from them before withdrawing her petition. Bynes leaned on her Nickelodeon producer Dan Schneider and his wife, Lisa Lillien. “She was spending a lot of time with us,” says Lillien. “But she never left her [family’s] house.”
Bynes’ first boyfriend was Taran Killam
One can imagine her parents’ reaction to this relationship. I don’t think it’s an accident that Bynes sought emancipation around this same time. Her delayed rebellion was flaring and one flame was her relationship with an adult man.
As I see it, by 2009, everything was beginning to come together to cause the public breakdown that Wilson talks about above. The current (June 17) issue of People notes: “As she [Bynes] began aging out of the teeny-bopper roles that made her famous — and very rich, ‘she hit a wall,’ says a source, she really didn’t know where she fit in.” This is echoed by a source of mine who ascribes most of her troubles to career frustration.
People goes on to say that her friends noticed her turning sullen. However, she only seemed to drink soft drinks, so they suspected a chemical imbalance and not substance abuse.
Bad things have a way of cascading, and in early 2010, Bynes was fired from the cast of the Owen Wilson comedy, Hall Pass, after, People says, she exhibited strange behavior during filming and came unprepared for work. This was not long after her clothing company went bankrupt and a movie sequel to Hairspray was cancelled.
Also, what Wilson doesn’t mention is that bipolar and schizophrenic disorders tend to manifest themselves in person’s late teens or 20s. The stress that Bynes was under, or felt she was under, could have exacerbated these possible underlying conditions.
Wilson writes, in part:
If I were to talk to Lindsay Lohan, I’d encourage her to get… out of acting and into something soothing. Take up botany or something. But she wouldn’t be likely to listen to me — and not only because I’m younger and way less hot than her. It’s because she’s been acting all her life, she has little education, and in her mind, there’s nothing else she could do… I worked several crappy jobs when I was younger, and prayed every day that no one would recognize me. Eventually, I had to stop caring: It didn’t affect my paycheck, and I liked working hard (which led to me getting a job I actually liked). But most former child stars are proud and sensitive and don’t have much of an education. It’s easier for them to hold onto what they did in their past and make money that way.
Money, as of yet, doesn’t seem to be an issue for Bynes and if she is seriously mentally ill, it may be a curse: it allows her to act out without worrying about the necessities of life.
Sadly, it appears that Bynes’ mental illness manifests itself in a “stage act” fueled by the new tools of social media, like Twitter. In the past, former child actors made the news via “traditional” methods like bad behavior in clubs or on the road. Now, they don’t even have to leave their apartments to be part of the 24-hour infotainment industry.
One wonders if she would have been much better off if she had been pushed to at least try and get a college education, like Natalie Portman and Brooke Shields, and opened herself to other types of people and ideas.
Wilson writes, in part:
People who meet me as an adult are often surprised that I’m alive and have never been in prison or rehab. Sometimes they’re disappointed I’m not cooler: I’m a normal-looking woman living in a two-bedroom apartment… I write stuff and tell stories, but I’m not a celebrity and wouldn’t want to be one. I’m much more “reformed drama nerd” than “former child star,” and I like it that way… Child stars who are best off as adults usually do one or two projects, then get the hell out of Hollywood, at least for the next few years. They go to Harvard or Yale (or my alma mater, NYU)… and learn to do something besides act….That’s my suggestion for kids who want to act, by the way: Make sure it’s really your choice, get out of it when it stops being fun, and get an education.
Wilson makes many good points, but she doesn’t address the fact that mental illness is a real problem in all sectors of our society and that a former child star might have become mentally ill even if they had the best possible childhood acting experience.
Reports say that Bynes’ family staged an intervention two years ago. People magazine says Bynes “was paranoid and she refused it all.” Last March, her parents moved from Austin, TX to Los Angeles to try and help her, but she then moved to New York, where she mostly holes up alone in her apartment.
Two weeks ago, she was seen, with a shaved head, moving from mirror to mirror in a wig shop and staring oddly at herself. Britney Spears, too, shaved her head just before her father and others managed to legally intervene and got her the help that staunched her melt-down and, in time, brought her back.
To be frank, my sense, from talking to Bynes, and other sources, is that she isn’t a bad person and was long heralded as one of the most polite young performers around. So she more than deserves your sympathy and prayers. Legally, it will be very difficult for her parents to force her into treatment. But I hope that they succeed or she goes voluntarily and gets her “sparkle” back.
Americans love a comeback. If she recovers, she will be very marketable for a time, and if a return to acting is what she wants, she could do it.
In my article about Christmas movies with a Jewish connection, I said that Wilson was of interfaith background: that her mother was Jewish and her father was not. I said this based on a personal source who told me this years ago. But I have come to feel this info was “shaky.” I found several interviews, etc. in which Wilson has called herself Jewish and I am sure her late mother was Jewish, based on other records. But I don’t know for sure whether her father is Jewish, by birth or conversion, or is simply not Jewish. I tried, but was unable to reach Mara.
Portman is one of many child/teen actors who have defied the so-called child actor curse and gone on to success as adult actors. Many of the Jewish/interfaith actors mentioned in this column also began acting quite young and have been successes, including: Scarlett Johansson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Sean Penn, Sara Paxton, Emmy Rossum, Mayim Bialik, Seth Green, David Krumholtz, Alicia Silverstone, and Barbara Hershey.