Monday, January 19, 2009


I am going to ask a question that, as far as I can tell, nobody has ever asked before: Is Alanis Morrissette Jewish?

This question occurred to me when I visited her Wikipedia page recently. The section on her early life described her father as French Canadian. That much I knew already. But then it said something I did not know: her mother was a Hungarian immigrant named Georgia Mary Ann Feuerstein.

Feuerstein? Feuerstein?

I did some checking, and I came to a Google Books preview of Morrissette's biography, written by music journalist Paul Cantin. The book revealed that Ms. Feuerstein came to Canada as a child when her parents were escaping an anti-Soviet uprising. She and Morrisette's dad met as teenagers, but "Georgia's strict European parents did not allow her to date, and so they spent their time together playing badminton, broomball, and street hockey."

Neither this book nor the Wikipedia article gave any indication that Feuerstein--or Alanis, for that matter--had Jewish roots. I typed the words "alanis feuerstein jewish" into Google and found nothing.

This episode forms part of a bizarre pattern I've noticed. With most famous people, any smidgen of Jewish ancestry will get some press as soon as it is revealed. I remember the hoopla over Madeline Albright's discovery that her mother was a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Christopher Hitchens, too, seemed deeply affected when he found out his mother's mother was Jewish.

In 2006, it happened to Senator George Allen in the wake of the controversy over his "macaca" moment that probably cost him his Senate seat and his presidential aspirations for the 2008 election. (Since "macaca" is a racist slur in some French dialects, reporters were spurred to look into the background of Allen's French-speaking Tunisian mother, Etty Lumbroso, who turned out to be a Sephardi who had hidden her Jewishness from her husband and son all those years.) You simply don't see comparable attention given to people who discover, say, an unknown Italian ancestor.

In the 2004 presidential election, I saw at least one article describing the Jewish connection of three of the candidates: John Kerry's grandfather was Jewish, Wesley Clark's father was, and Howard Dean is married to a Jew.

There are even celebrities who have long been commonly, incorrectly thought to be Jewish by many people: Charlie Chaplin and Dr. Seuss (born Theodore Geisel) come immediately to mind. (I admit to being surprised about Dr. Seuss, who was apparently German-American. I always thought his pen name was a reference to the Hebrew word for horse. It turns out that Seuss is his actual middle name, and it is properly pronounced "soyce.")

That's why it's curious whenever a celebrity has hints of a Jewish past but no one seems to talk about it. John Goodman has a Jewish-sounding surname, but I have been unable to find any information at all about his ethnic or religious background. Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey) might have Jewish paternal ancestry, but it is rarely mentioned anywhere, and Starr has never identified as a Jew. Michael Caine (born Maurice Micklewhite) claims not to be Jewish, but he attended a Jewish school as a kid and speaks Yiddish.

You might wonder why I'm obsessing over this topic. I am afflicted by the condition made famous by Adam Sandler's Chanukah song, of having a weird preoccupation with trying to determine which celebrities are Jewish or of Jewish descent. Jews with this condition can easily be mistaken for anti-Semites, and vice versa. (The neo-Nazi site Jew Watch keeps a list of celebrities it identifies as Jews--often unreliably. An innocent observer stumbling on the page might easily think it was written by a Jew.) It is such a prevalent condition that it's a wonder no one has coined a word for it. I'd call it Sandlerism.

Mistaking Sandlerism for anti-Semitism was the subject of a funny anecdote in David Zurawik's informative book The Jews of Prime Time. An old SNL skit, co-written by Al Franken, featured a game show in which panelists were shown a photograph of someone famous and asked to guess if that person was Jewish or not. "Our first famous personality," said the host, "is Penny Marshall, the star of television's Laverne & Shirley. Okay, panelists, Jew or not a Jew?"

The skit cut to a mock commercial parodying a series of IBM commercials at the time called "You Make the Call." The narrator says, "Sandy Koufax is on the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It's Game Seven of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins. The stylish left-hander is involved in a tense battle.... Okay, IBM invites you to make a call: Sandy Koufax--Jew, or not a Jew?"

The game show returns and the host tells the audience that Penny Marshall is in fact Italian--and then awards prizes to the contestants who guessed "not a Jew."

The night after this skit aired, SNL producer Brandon Tartikoff (himself Jewish) received a call from his mother. "I'm embarrassed to call you my son. This Jew/Not-a-Jew sketch was the most anti-Semitic thing I've ever seen." There was a long pause. "Besides," she said, "I always thought Penny Marshall was Jewish."


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