Actress Lea Michele discovers her Greek-Jewish roots

“Glee” star Lea Michele took a deeper look at her Greek-Jewish roots on the TLC television series “Who Do You Think You Are?”

The episode is scheduled to air on Sunday, and is the season finale of the series, The Forward reported.

Michele, born Lea Michele Sarfati in the Bronx to an Italian mother and a Jewish Sephardic father, reportedly identifies with the Catholic faith of her mother in which she was raised.

On the TV show, she discovers that her paternal grandmother’s family were Sephardic Jews from the port city of Salonika, or Thessaloniki, in today’s northern Greece.

Michele is guided through the archives that tell her about her family history by the University of Washington’s Sephardic studies chair, Devin Naar, the university’s Jewish studies department said in a statement released last week.

“Most Americans probably have never heard of Sephardic Jews,” said Naar, who is also a professor in the history department. “So for such a prominent celebrity to speak so publicly and intimately about her connection to this often invisible history and culture will be a turning point. It’s really exciting: The episode will familiarize Americans with the very existence of Sephardic Jews and hopefully pique their curiosity and inspire them to learn more.”

Naar said he located specific documents regarding the actress’ ancestors in the remnants of Greek Jewish community archives housed in New York and Moscow, despite the near-complete destruction of Greek communities and their records during World War II.

Michele starred as Rachel Berry on “Glee” from 2009 to 2015, and currently stars in Fox’s horror-comedy series “Scream Queen.”

TV’s Jewish characters of color

As of last month, ethnic minority characters with half-Jewish hyphenated last names are now featured on three of the most popular shows on television.

Having one such character was interesting, two was a coincidence, but three is a trend.

The characters in question are:

* Tina Cohen-Chang, a former member of the show choir on Fox’s Glee. Tina’s religious background has never been mentioned on the show, but her last name strongly suggests a part-Jewish, part-Chinese origin. Interestingly, the character is played by Korean-American actress Jenna Ushkowitz, whose adoptive father’s own father was Jewish; hence the last name.

* Dean Levine-Wilkins, the newest attorney on the outstanding CBS courtroom drama The Good Wife. African-American actor Taye Diggs plays Wilkins, and he describes the character as a “hot-to-trot lawyer.” Diggs has a Jewish connection, too. His own “good wife” of eleven years is actress Idina Menzel of Wicked and Frozen fame. The couple, who recently separated, named their dog Sammy Davis, Jr. because, Diggs has said, “My wife is Jewish; I’m black.” And their five-year-old son Walker is, of course, both.

* Isabella Garcia-Shapiro, a supporting character on the wildly successful and long-running Disney Channel animated show Phineas and Ferb. Her mother is Mexican, and her father is Jewish-American.  

Glee and The Good Wife have never explored the religious identities of their hyphenatedly Jewish characters, though Isabella observes Chanukah while the other characters celebrate Christmas. And the show featured a “Mexican-Jewish Cultural Festival” with a song whose lyrics included “There is kreplach on tostadas, a pupik in our piñata, we kibitz when we lambada.”

Good for Hollywood for introducing characters who seem to be both of Jewish extraction and people of color. It’s a good reflection of today’s Jewish community, which is no longer quite so monolithically white. Intermarriage, cross-racial adoption, and increased comfort with conversion across ethnic lines have led to a greater rainbow of Jews in our pews.

Personally, I have half a dozen Jewish friends (some Orthodox, some not) of minority extraction. Certainly in my relationships with them – and hopefully in the wider Jewish community – their skin color is as relevant as their eye color. 

It’s no small achievement that Hollywood has begun to diversify the racial background of its Jewish characters.

Happily, some parts of the Jewish community have begun to do so as well. For example, Behrman House, the largest Jewish textbook publisher in North America, now publishes curricula with images of Jewish children who are from racial minorities, are disabled, or who have same-sex parents. And the Web site of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) is filled with images of happy Reform Jews who are not white.

However, other major Jewish organizations have a less impressive track record. I did a non-scientific survey, counting the apparent ethnicities of the first fifty Jewish-identified faces I found on the Web sites of 10 important Jewish groups. Leaving aside the URJ, several organizations (Hillel, Jewish Federations, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, J Street, the American Jewish Committee, and B’nai Brith) have one or two Jews who appear to be racial minorities in my sample. Another two (Aish HaTorah and the National Jewish Democratic Council) had none. 

Who cares? We’re all the same, right?

Sure, but imagine an African-American Jewish girl who only sees white faces when Jewish characters are in movies, or when she reads Jewish magazines, or when she browses synagogue brochures. It sends a message that “Jews are white,” which is precisely the opposite message of the one her parents give her at home.

We’ve come a long way from Juan Epstein, the Jewish Puerto Rican “Sweathog” on the 1970s ABC sitcom Welcome Back Kotter. Epstein’s double ethnicity was a frequent source of wisecracks on the show. By contrast, the Jewish-minority identities of today’s equivalent characters tend to be utterly unremarkable.

And why not? 

David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter @DavidBenkof; or E-mail him at

Lea Michele asks for privacy after boyfriend Cory Monteith’s death

In the wake of her boyfriend Cory Monteith’s tragic death, Lea Michele has released a statement requesting to be left alone.

“We ask that everyone kindly respect Lea’s privacy during this devastating time,” a rep for the actress told People.

The Jewish “Glee” star, 26, was in Mexico when she learned that Monteith was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room on Saturday. “She was shaking when she heard the news,” a friend told the Daily News.

While Canadian-born Monteith, 31, who co-starred with Michele on “Glee,” openly struggled with substance abuse (his last rehab stint was in April), the cause of death is still unknown.

“We have interviewed everyone he was with the night before,” Vancouver Police Constable Brian Montague said Sunday. “For the most part, it has been turned to the coroner’s office, who will be determining the next steps with respect to establishing cause of death.”

The autopsy is scheduled for today.

Archie Comics feature film in the works

Archie comics lovers, rejoice!

Warner Brothers Pictures announced last Thursday that they are partnering with Glee writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and director Jason Moore to bring Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge and the rest of the ‘Riverdale gang’  to life on the big screen.

Archie Comics, founded by Jewish editor and publisher, John L. Goldwater,  first hit the news stand in 1942. Archie Comics animated spinoffs have been produced since the 1960s, and NBC aired the TV film “Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again” in 1990.

Now, Goldwater’s son, Jon Goldwater is CEO, and hopes to convey a modern “high school” narrative film based off Archie Comics, while still appealing to a teenage audience to whom comic books have become exceedingly sparse.

Aguierre-Sacasa explains, “The idea for this is to capture a very truthful, authentic coming-of-age story with these kids that includes heartache, that includes pain, that will obviously temper the fun and the hijinks,” said Aguirre-Sacasa. “It’s going to be a fun – hopefully – summer movie, but we’re not shying away from the truth and the awkwardness and the growing pains of being a teenager.”

With comics upon comics stacked in my attic, and as someone who has (not ashamed) seen the 90′s TV movie (twice), I’m greatly looking forward to this film. Nothing describes awkward, young, and lovesick better than the Betty, Veronica, and Archie love triangle.

HaZamir Los Angeles members make their voices heard

After facing down a formidable Milken Community High School sound system and the best vocal efforts of the knights of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” who inadvertently “crashed” a recent rehearsal, the feat of harmonizing with 250 singers during a pair of sold-out concerts at New York City’s Lincoln Center should be a cakewalk for one local Jewish choir.

OK, maybe not a cakewalk, but come what may, HaZamir Los Angeles, the only West Coast chapter of the International High School Jewish Choir HaZamir, will be ready for its big event on March 17, said its founder, director and conductor Kelly Shepard. That’s when the group will perform in two concerts in celebration of HaZamir’s 20th anniversary.

Created by conductor Matthew Lazar, the Zamir Choral Foundation seeks to strengthen Jewish commitment through Jewish choral singing. HaZamir focuses on high school-age students. With more than 20 chapters across the country and in Israel, HaZamir — the word means “nightingale”  — accepts students of all levels of Jewish faith.

When asked what brought them to HaZamir, current L.A. members gave an assortment of reasons, ranging from an interest in music, to word-of-mouth from past members to the prospect of joining a community. Many members of the current choir have sung with other choral groups both in and out of school.

“A lot of the songs are new for me, and I like learning new songs,” junior Danielle Lowe said. “The songs you learn here aren’t typical Jewish songs.”

To veterans like Shepard and some of his students, the annual Festival concerts are simply referred to as “Festival,” but even with several past successful showings under their collective belts, the returnees are anything but jaded.

“There’s a bigness you can never imagine until you’re in that moment,” said Shepard, who has taken six previous HaZamir groups to Festival. “One of my favorite moments of the whole weekend is the first time they all sing together. We sing the ‘HaZamir Anthem,’ which we have all sung individually in our local chapters for months. When we all sing it together — 300 teenagers — I make a point of looking at the rookies and seeing the expressions on their faces. It’s a bit of a mind-blow for them.”

“You’ve heard everybody sing before, but when you’re up there on that stage, there’s another feel to it, and you feed off everybody’s energy,” added Celine Torkan, a senior and participant in two previous Festivals who will graduate out of HaZamir at the end of the year. “And you shouldn’t be afraid to let go and pretend like you’re alone on stage like a pop star. Go out there and have fun.”

Torkan auditioned for and was accepted into the HaZamir Chamber Choir and even had a solo in last year’s Festival. 

“I had a little extra time with some of the conductors to practice that solo and how I represent myself on stage and everything,” she said. “HaZamir has been such an amazing experience, and it’s so sad for me to think I’m going to be leaving this year.” 

Starting in the fall, all of the HaZamir chapters in the United States and Israel start working on the same musical program. This year’s 10-song lineup includes the aforementioned anthem, two world premieres and the “Yugnt Hymn,” a song which Lowe said is “so hard that even listening to the track I can’t get it.”

“First of all, it’s in Yiddish, and I don’t speak Yiddish,” said Lowe, who is in her first year with HaZamir. “There are all these strange rhythms, and it’s difficult pronouncing all those words. Hopefully I’ll get it.”

At 23 members, the 2012-13 chorus is the largest yet for Shepard, and more than half are first-year members. The choir practices weekly at Milken in Bel Air, where Shepard — who is not Jewish — chairs the performing arts department. Not all of the choir members are from Milken; several have been recruited from elsewhere by Shepard, assistant director Rebecca Schatz and by enthusiastic members of HaZamir past and present.

On a Sunday late afternoon, two weeks before Festival, Schatz picked out a tune on a piano in the music room at Milken. Shepard was due to arrive after the final curtain of Milken’s production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” which Shepard was conducting. The HaZamir singers would know exactly when the “Spamalot” was over — the sound system was blasting the audio of the performance into the music room, and neither Schatz nor any of the choir members knew how to turn off the system.

“Do your best to listen to each other,” Schatz told her singers, “and not to that.”

As a high school junior at Milken, Schatz went to Festival with Shepard before the HaZamir local chapter even officially existed. She eventually returned to Milken to assist Shepard even while she is enrolled in rabbinical school at nearby American Jewish University.

“It’s important that these kids really know their music and are really on top of their own musicality,” she said. “We want to make sure they’re aware of the intensity they’re about to walk into.”

For his part, Shepard had been a music instructor for several years at Milken when he was solicited by the Zamir Choral Foundation to open the L.A. chapter of HaZamir. Being part of the choir not only looks good on a college application, he said, it also helps build the foundation for a solid musical education. 

“Generally speaking, students in Los Angeles are not getting from most public or private schools as good a music education as they could be getting,” Shepard said. “So it’s particularly good they have this opportunity. We work on musicianship and on the kinds of things I think music teachers should be working on.

“It’s not just about preparing music,” he continued. “It’s about understanding music for music’s sake and creating an environment to give them a rich music education as well.”

As he took Schatz’s position behind the rehearsal piano, Shepard guided his singers through “L’Eyla,” another HaZamir perennial. The song title translates to “upward” or “rise” and contains swelling melodies backed by African tribal beats. But it has a resonance to the Jews as well, and Shepard wanted to make sure that his singers understood exactly what kind of a song they were presenting.

“Think about this,” he told them. “Jews are rising through history, generations of Jews. Guess what: as many times as you try to kill us, here we are and we will continue to rise.”