Interfaith Celebrities: Politics, Movies and Rock and Roll

Politics and the “Shabbat Helper” Revisited

I wrote in a recent column that when Senator Barack Obama served in the Illinois legislature, he used to help out his friend, an Orthodox Jewish legislator, by performing some tasks that an observant Jew wouldn’t do on the Jewish Sabbath, like opening electric doors.

I commented that if Senator Obama won the presidency, he almost certainly would be the first “Shabbat Helper” in the White House. Shabbat Helper refers to a person who is not Jewish who is employed by a Jewish person, family or institution to do tasks that Jewish religious law forbids Jews to do on the Sabbath.

Well, I was wrong about Obama’s possible “first.” I just read historian Michael Beschloss‘ 2007 book, Presidential Courage. One chapter is devoted to President Harry Truman‘s decision, in the face of considerable domestic opposition, to grant American diplomatic recognition to the brand new State of Israel in 1948.

Beschloss writes that Truman first got to know Jewish people when he was a teenager in Independence, Mo., and a religious Jewish family, the Viners, moved in next door. Young Harry became close friends with the Viners’ teenage son and was “constantly” in the Viner home, getting his “first taste of matzo, gefilte fish and kugel.” So, when the Jewish Sabbath came, Harry was happy to help the Viners by doing little tasks and acted, as Beschloss puts it, as the family’s “Shabbat Helper.”

Like Senator Obama, Harry Truman was not formally compensated for his work. Rather, it was a sharing of kindnesses between friends. An analogous situation is found in several American cities where local Jews organize a “Christmas relief group.” It consists of a loosely organized network of Jewish people–mostly in health care and public safety jobs–who stand ready to fill in for Christians in these fields who want to take off Christmas day and spend it with their families.

Class Act

Candice Bergen, 64, is such a class act that I decided to go ahead with this item even though her latest movie, an all-star re-make of The Women, opened a couple weeks ago to surprisingly bad reviews and is almost out of the theaters. Bergen played the mother of the film’s lead character, Mary Haines (Meg Ryan). Bergen had better luck playing a fashion magazine editor in a smallish, but important supporting role in the recent Sex and the City movie, a box office hit. It is just now out on DVD.

Candice Bergen began her film career more than 40 years ago. She made 24 films between 1966 and 1988, but just two of these films had any comedy in them. Bergen was admired for her willowy WASPy beauty but got less respect for her dramatic acting.

Candace Bergen
Candace Bergen in 2006. Photo: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni.

However, in the mid-’70s, she began to guest frequently on Saturday Night Live and her comedic gifts were a revelation. Then she was cast as the star of the hit sitcom, Murphy Brown, which ran from 1988 to 1998. Bergen won the Emmy five times for best actress in a comedy series. In hindsight, it seems obvious that Hollywood studios made a serious error when they didn’t use her in film comedies.

There is a stereotype that you cannot be both beautiful and funny and this stereotype worked against Bergen. But comic talent was in her genes. Her late father, Edgar Bergen, was a very popular ventriloquist who had a hit radio program from 1937 to 1956 and was a household name in his heyday. To be a successful ventriloquist on the radio he had to be really funny, because nobody could admire his ability to throw his voice. Candice’s mother, actress and fashion model Frances Westerman, was also reported to be funny in real life.

Candice does not mention being raised in any organized religion in her 1984 autobiography, Knock on Wood. She says her father described himself as religious Swedish Lutheran but really didn’t practice. His funeral was at a Hollywood Episcopal church he had never attended. Likewise, her mother was a virtually non-practicing Protestant.

In 1978, Candice married for the first time, to Louis Malle, a famous French film director whose Catholic boarding school boyhood in Nazi-occupied France formed the background for his award-winning 1987 film, Au Revoir Les Enfants (“Goodbye, Children”).  Malle, a Catholic, was attending a Carmelite boarding school near Paris when he witnessed a Gestapo raid in which three Jewish students, who had pretended to be Catholic, were arrested. Also arrested were a Jewish teacher and the school’s headmaster, Father Lucien Bruel. The Jewish students and teacher were deported to Auschwitz and gassed upon arrival. Father Bruel was sent to another concentration camp where he died shortly after it was liberated. Father Bruel was later named a “Righteous Gentile” by the Israeli Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem.

Malle and Bergen had one child, a daughter, before Louis Malle died of lymphoma in 1995. In 1998, Bergen was introduced by mutual friends to New York Jewish businessman and philanthropist Marshall Rose, now 71. Perhaps they bonded over their mutual loss: Rose’s wife of 31 years had died of cancer in 1996. He had two adult daughters when he met Candice Bergen. Rose is reportedly a fairly religious Jew and his philanthropic work includes a term as the head of the board of trustees of the New York Public Library.

The couple dated for two years and married in a small ceremony in a Manhattan synagogue in 2000. They are still married and both seem to have been lucky enough to have found two good marriage partners in their lifetimes.

Jorma’s Jewish Journey

Most baby boomers know that Jorma Kaukonen was the lead guitarist for the seminal and extremely popular ’60s rock band The Jefferson Airplane. Jorma, as everyone calls him, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Rolling Stone magazine ranked him among the top 100 rock guitarists of all time. He has overcome a long history of substance abuse and continues to play both rock and acoustic folk music in venues across the country both solo and with his band, Hot Tuna.

In recent years, Jorma has been Grammy-nominated for his blues/folk music. He also runs Fur Peace Ranch, a very successful music and guitar camp in Southeast Ohio. Jorma and his wife live on the grounds of the Ranch.

Jorma Kaukonen
Jorma Kaukonen

Jorma’s Finnish-American father, Jorma Kaukonen, Sr., who wasn’t Jewish, was a career State Department diplomat. His late mother, teacher Beatrice Love (Kaukonen), was Jewish. Jorma was raised without religion, but with some Jewish cultural background. In 1988, Jorma wed his current wife, Vanessa Kaukonen, who was raised a Catholic. About five years ago, Vanessa got seriously interested in Judaism. She studied and eventually converted to Judaism. She brought Jorma along, as it were, and the two are now practicing Jews.

The whole story, beautifully laid out with a lot of biographical details, is found in this 2006 article in the New Jersey Jewish Standard by Jacob Berkman.

I recently contacted Jorma because he was going to play a couple of dates in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. I was curious if there had been any updates of note to the Standard article. I spoke to Vanessa Kaukonen. She told me that she has just joined the board of Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, at the University of Ohio, Athens.

But the big news was that Vanessa and Jorma adopted a Chinese baby girl about a year ago. They named her Israel Love Diana Lucy Kaukonen. “Love” is for Jorma’s mother; “Diana” is for Vanessa’s mother; and “Lucy” is for a family friend of the same name. I guess I don’t have to explain “Israel.”

Israel Love Kaukonen has among the most diverse and interesting backgrounds of any Jewish person I know of–and one of the coolest names, too.

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