Lena Dunham posts wedding plans on Instagram


You probably think Lena Dunham is nothing like the lovely cast members of “Princesses: Long Island.” You are most definitely wrong.

Not only is the “Girls” creator a Jewish woman dating a Jewish guy (Fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff), but like the reality starlets, she too harbors elaborate wedding fantasies. On Saturday Dunham posted to Instagram this sketch of her dream “Pretty In Pink” style wedding dress, accompanied by a list of the music (Sade) and food (Tofurkey) to be featured at her nuptials.

“An upsetting document from 2002, back when I was fienden’ to get hitched,” Dunham’s caption reads.

Okay, so she did draw this up when she was 16. Since the princesses are all mentally 16, though, we felt it was okay to draw the comparison.

Lena Dunham's sketch. (Instagram)  

‘Nick and Norah’ star Kat Dennings is infinitely Jewish, in her own way


Who would use tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, as a lead-in to a movie love scene?

Norah Silverberg, the lead character in the hit teen comedy, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” that’s who. The film tracks an offbeat love story between high school students Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) as they traverse through New York City in search of a mysterious band (“Where’s Fluffy”) and Norah’s lost, drunken girlfriend.

Along the way they meet an interesting cast of characters, including Norah’s ex-boyfriend, the sleazy Tal (Jay Baruchel), who is using her in hopes her famous dad will produce his Jew-power album. Oh yeah — and Norah tells Nick about tikkun olam — right before she makes her move on him.

But actress Kat Dennings, who is Jewish, like the character she plays, didn’t know the concept before the film. “I had to ask people around the set about the Hebrew words,” she said in a phone interview with The Jewish Journal. “I couldn’t pronounce it.”

Dennings, who is 22 and lives in Los Angeles, is different from Norah, an 18-year-old who lives in Englewood, N.J. For one thing, she’s not a “JAP” — as Nick calls Norah in the film.

“I don’t even know what JAP really means,” Dennings said. “That’s just something kids say to each other.”

She said she is very different from Norah, except “for both being brunettes and Jewish,” and “I tend to worry a lot and take care of my friends — I take a mothering role,” she said.

The trailer

Still, she was attracted to the film, based on a 2006 novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (Knopf Young Adults) that had far more Jewish references. (In the book, Norah talks often about Judaism.) The film’s Judaism has been “moviefied,” Dennings said.

“I liked that Norah was a strong and unique female lead, not the type of girl I was used to seeing in films like this,” Dennings said. “I liked that she was Jewish — it’s different from what I’ve seen in the past.”

Although she says she’s “a billion percent Jewish” (“I don’t think I have any relatives who aren’t Jewish”), she considers herself more ethnically and culturally affiliated than religiously so, as do many of her generation.

For example, on her blog — which she’s had for an astonishing seven years — she has posted a video titled “Happy Purim!” about her and a faux pregnant friend clowning around. “It had nothing to do with Purim, but we filmed it on Purim,” she said.

After an article about her appeared in Vanity Fair, she blogged, “push Aunt Nancy aside and throw open the screen door, because ‘Hollywood’s Next Wave’ just got a lot Jewisher.”

The youngest of five children raised in Philadelphia, “I went to my little friends’ bat mitzvahs, but I’m not that into religion,” she said.

Which is funny, since the pale-skinned, pouty-lipped actress’ first standout role was in “Sex and the City,” playing Jenny Brier, a teen who hires Samantha to do publicity for her bat mitzvah.

She says she’s not worried about being stereotyped; she’s also starred in “40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Charlie Bartlett,” and guest starred in TV’s “CSI: Miami” and “Without a Trace.” She is also set to film “Sendor,” with Woody Harrelson.

Judaism, she said, “is an important part of my history, but, as a whole, religion is not a part of my life.”

“It’s a background thing, but I’m proud to be Jewish.”

Q & A With Bahar Soomekh


Persian Jewish actress Bahar Soomekh earned some serious attention last year when she played a young Iranian in “Crash,” the Academy Award winner for best picture. She’s now appearing in an even bigger role — playing alongside Tom Cruise in the thriller, “M:I:III.” On the eve of the film’s debut, Soomekh spoke about growing up Persian Jewish in Los Angeles and about her career.

The Jewish Journal: Can you share with us a little about your background?

Bahar Soomekh: I was born in Tehran. My father is a poet. We moved from Iran in 1979, but before the revolution. I pretty much grew up in Los Angeles and learned English by watching TV. I went to the Sinai Akiba Academy and later to Beverly Hills High School.

JJ: What sort of training have you had as an actor?

BS: I played the violin for 13 years, but acting was always what I yearned to do. I went to UC Santa Barbara. There were no Persians or Jews there, and I was just able to lose myself and enjoy the college life. I studied environmental studies and did theater for fun — never thinking I could pursue it as a career. I later came back to Los Angeles, got a corporate job and I was just miserable. I did sales during the day and took acting classes at night. I did that for a couple of years to get myself trained and get a better understanding of the world beyond theater. The scariest thing I ever did was quit my job to pursue acting full time. That was two and half years ago. I quit my job, started pursing acting seriously and not even three months later, I booked “Crash.”

JJ: How did you manage that?

BS: I fought very hard to get the part. My agent at the time wasn’t very good. I read the script and I was dying, my heart was aching to be a part of it. I loved my character, Dorri, so much and really related to her. I kept calling my agent, and he wouldn’t even try. I heard through the grapevine that they were going to offer another woman the part. So in desperation, I called the one Hollywood person I knew, another Jewish Persian girl at William Morris named Ashley Daneshrad. She called them and said don’t give the part to this other woman until you give Bahar Soomekh a chance. I went in there and gave them my heart and soul. I went into my car and cried for about 40 minutes. And then two days later, I got the call that I booked it.

JJ: What was it like working opposite a major Hollywood actor like Tom Cruise?

BS: It’s so surreal. Tom Cruise was my childhood crush. I was obsessed with him since “Top Gun.” I can recite every single line of that film, and here I am I getting to meet him and work with him.

JJ: What was your family’s reaction when you told them you wanted to be an actress?

BS: My parents were not encouraging in the beginning. Who wants to see their daughter out of work all the time? Every parent wants their child be a doctor or lawyer. At first they were definitely hesitant, but now they’re so proud and excited.

JJ: How important is Judaism in your life now, and how are you involved in the community?

BS: I think Judaism has enriched my life and developed who I am. I hope to instill in my family a belief in tikkun olam. One of my dreams is to bring attention to environmental and children’s issues.

“M:I:III” is in theaters now.

Article courtesy The Forward.

 

A Rough-and-Tumble Return


Actress Jessica Lundy was mostly working TV guest starring roles when she landed the part of Roberta in John Patrick Shanley’s "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" last month. The searing play spotlights two survivors who meet, clash, have sex, reveal secrets and begin to heal one another. Lundy’s character, an incest victim, cajoles and physically tussles with Danny (Matthew Klein).

"Initially, I thought, ‘My God, I don’t know if I can do this; I’m really scared," said the Jewish actress, who played Gloria on the hit sitcom "Hope & Gloria." "I’m not known for theater and the role is much darker than anything I’ve ever done."

Klein, however, thinks Lundy "brings a wonderful, unpredictable quality to the role. She can switch in an instant from one emotional extreme to another."

If the fictional Roberta is a scrappy survivor, so is Lundy. With her Catholic mother and Jewish father, she grew up in a "preppy, WASPy" Avon, Conn., where Jews weren’t allowed to play golf at the country club. Nevertheless, she said, she "always strongly identified with being Jewish…. Jewish survival despite centuries of persecution is inspirational because there’s been no surrender or sense of defeat."

Lundy had an easier journey as a young actress. By 21, she was playing Jackie Mason’s daughter in "Caddyshack II"; in 1991, she landed her first sitcom, "Over My Dead Body."

When the film and TV jobs began dwindling several years ago — partly because of the dearth of roles for women over 30 — she began looking for theater work.

Her career angst helped her to identify with the desperate character of Roberta: "I’ve had moments of despair when I’ve felt ‘This is the end of the road for me,’" she said.

Rehearsing the play has proved intense.

"Every day I’d come home exhausted and dirty because we were crawling on the floor and sweating and battered from the raw, ugly emotions," she said, hoarse from shouting her lines. "Sometimes I find myself thinking like the character offstage: Everything feels more sensitive and irritating and I can’t hold back my anger, frustration or disgust quite as well…. But while this kind of role can strip you bare, it’s also thrilling. When I said I wanted to be an actress as a child, this is what I meant."

The play runs Oct. 7-28 at Stage 52, 5299 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (310) 229-5295.

Black (and Jewish) Is Beautiful


Rain Pryor solemnly chants the "Kol Nidre" as the spotlight reveals her silhouette — wearing a hilariously oversized Afro wig.

"What’s the big deal if I’m black and a Jew?" she says.

She answers the question in her irreverent solo show, "Fried Chicken & Latkas," which describes her tortuous journey toward self-acceptance. Pryor — the daughter of comedian Richard Pryor — virtuostically transforms into characters such as her great-grandmother, a brothel madam who taught her to tame her "in-between hair" and to cook fried chicken. Adopting a Brooklyn accent she becomes Bunny, her Jewish maternal grandmother, who taught her to speak Yiddish, light Shabbat candles, make brisket and, of course, latkes.

The singer-actress also morphs into the first-grade teacher who said she couldn’t play the lead in the school play because "there are no black Raggedy Anns."

"I cried for days after that," Pryor, 34, said in her Canon Theatre dressing room.

She’s had to deal with the same frustrations as an adult actress, which is one reason she’s developed "Fried Chicken." At a time when autobiographical monologues can launch actors to stardom (think John Leguizamo and "Sexaholic"), she’s hoping to showcase her unique talents and prove she’s capable of more than the TV roles for which she’s best known.

Her strategy seems to be working. Pryor — who played a junkie lesbian on Showtime’s "Rude Awakening" — moves "Chicken" to the Comedy Store next month.

"I’m hoping the show will help people see me for who I am," she said.

Her background is singular. Her mother, Shelley Bonus, was a go-go dancer and her father was a wild new comic when they met at Los Angeles’ Stardust club in 1965. Thereafter, the enthused Bonus donned a blonde Afro wig and turned her apartment into an "African Heritage Museum," according to her daughter. In the play, Bunny describes her shock upon entering the apartment and seeing "a black velvet Jesus nailed to the cross; I think I even saw his eyes glowing."

Pryor believes neither side of the family was initially thrilled when the couple married in 1968: "At the time, it was hard to explain an interracial marriage, let alone a biracial child," she said.

It didn’t help that, after separating from her husband in the late 1960s, Bonus moved her daughter to Beverly Hills for the superior school system.

"It was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, yet crosses were burned on our lawn," Pryor said. "At school, children said, ‘You’re a n—-.’ But on my father’s side of the family, ‘n—-‘ was a term of endearment, so while I didn’t like the word, I was also called it when I visited my dad’s house."

While Pryor saw her father only sporadically when she was a child ("He was busy being a genius," she said), she was riveted by his revolutionary, expletive-filled act. "I’d share it in show and tell," she said. "The teacher would say, ‘What did you learn this weekend,’ and I’d say, ‘I learned to say m———-!’ and I’d get in so much trouble." Equally confusing was her stint at a Reform Hebrew school where classmates told her there were no such thing as black Jews.

"Because it was so hard for me to be accepted into Judaism, I pushed it away," she said.

Pryor took solace in her acting and dancing lessons.

"Performing allowed me to escape into someone else’s world," she said.

By age 18, she was playing tomboy T.J. in ABC’s "Head of the Class"; within a few years, her identity crisis had caused her to descend into alcoholism and a series of abusive relationships.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that she got sober, read a slew of self-help books, engaged a therapist and took a counseling job at Beit T’Shuvah, the program for recovering Jewish addicts.

"I have to credit [the program’s] Rabbi Mark Borovitz for allowing me to feel Jewish for the first time, and really opening up that world," she said. "I started to study the Tanach and to learn the songs of Debbie Friedman and Shlomo Carlebach. For a time, I thought I would become a cantor."

Instead, she began writing a series of autobiographical songs and sketches that became "Fried Chicken & Latkas."

While she was initially nervous about her family’s response, relatives on both sides said they loved the show. She’s performed parts of it for her father, who has battled multiple sclerosis since 1991 and is now completely paralyzed.

Grandma Bunny called the show "beautiful. I’ve seen Rain perform before, but this was like she came out of her shell and she was Rain, her own self."

Although Pryor culturally identifies as black and Jewish, Judaism is her religion. She has been married for a year to a Catholic man who hopes to convert and to raise their children Jewish. In the meantime, "Fried Chicken" has helped her integrate her diverse identities.

As she says at the end of the show: "I’ve come to love my family and my heritage."

"Fried Chicken" plays at the Canon Theatre Wednesdays, 8 p.m., through Sept. 17. For tickets, call (310) 859-2830.

One Shagadelic Sourpuss


She’s back, baby — and dare we say it? — she’s shaggable. In the third go-round of Mike Myers’ Bond spoof, "Austin Powers in Goldmember," Mindy Sterling returns as Frau Farbissina ("sourpuss" in Yiddish), Dr. Evil’s number-one squeeze and henchwoman. But she’s decidedly less, well, farbissina.

"She’s a bit more domestic," says 49-year-old Sterling, an improv veteran. "She’s a lot more attractive. She even has a hot little love scene."

A tarted-up Frau — initially based on Lotte Lenya’s shrill character in "To Russia With Love" — locks jaw with Evil (Myers) in a hilarious prison conjugal visit sequence. "I wear a blond wig with hideous dark roots, a very short jeans skirt, garish press-on nails and outrageous falsies in my bra," says Sterling, who was glad to ditch Farbissina’s usual military garb. "The dutiful Frau’s trying to blend in with the other white-trash wives visiting their hubbies in prison."

The over-the-top scene is what one would expect of Sterling, who honed her comic instincts growing up with a Borscht Belt comedian dad, Dick Sterling.

It was while doing improv at the Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles that she first met Myers, who remembered the Jewish actress while casting his first Powers film in 1997. He said he got Farbissina’s Yiddish name from his Jewish wife and mother-in-law — the inspiration for his schmoozy "Saturday Night Live" character, Linda Richman, the host of "Coffee Talk."

In the 1999 sequel, Frau’s revealed to be the mother of Dr. Evil’s nebbish son, Scott (Seth Green). In "Goldmember," a sexier Sterling gets slapped on the tush by Michael Caine, who portrays the titular spy’s groovy-but-deadbeat dad.

The actress hopes to play an even more femme Frau in the future. "I’d love it if the fourth movie explores domestic life at home with the Evils," she says. "Like, if Frau has a pregnancy scare or Scottie’s dating — very much like ‘The Osbournes’ on MTV."

"Goldmember" opens today in Los Angeles.

The ‘Jewish’ Side of Linda Hamilton


Linda Hamilton, the buff action star, is studying Yiddish-language tapes.

The image is startling for anyone who remembers her as Sarah Connor, the all-American waitress-turned-warrior in James Cameron’s “Terminator” flicks. It’s even more startling when you consider that the Yiddish is for a play, Lou Shaw’s “Worse Than Murder: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg,” which opens tomorrow at the Ventura Court Theatre in Studio City. Hamilton plays Ethel Rosenberg, who was strapped into the electric chair in 1953 and executed, along with her husband, for conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Soviets.

Sitting on a faded gold couch in the bland rehearsal space at the Court, the petite, smoky-eyed actress says even she was surprised she accepted the part. “I’d sworn off heavy roles since ‘Terminator 2’ because I was just so sick of playing these very earnest, strong women,” she says. Instead, Hamilton did some acclaimed TV movies, films such as “Dante’s Peak” and a comedy or two.

But when her manager came calling with “Murder” six weeks ago, the 45-year-old actress couldn’t resist. “Its very largesse attracted me,” she says. “It’s a period piece, it’s a romance, and I have to transform myself into a tenement Jew from the Lower East Side.”

It’s only her second theatrical role in two decades, but then again, Hamilton — who’s declined a role in “T-3” — can afford to be picky: “I married well,” she says, wryly alluding to her hefty divorce settlement from ex-husband Cameron. “Of course, people raise their eyebrows when I tell them I’m doing theater in the Valley, but I don’t care. I’m just so ignited with joy to be onstage again.”

Hamilton was born three years after Ethel Rosenberg died, and a world apart. She says she grew up in “a very boring, white Anglo- Saxon” Maryland home, where she struggled to differentiate herself from her identical twin sister, Leslie, a cheerleader. “I voraciously read books,” she recalls. “I got fat, and I cut off my hair and my eyelashes. I wanted to be ugly.”

She also wanted to become an actress, which she accomplished after studying theater in New York and landing the role of the ethereal DA on the CBS drama, “Beauty and the Beast” in 1987.

Hamilton morphed into a muscle-bound Amazon for the “Terminator” films, enduring excruciating training sessions with ex-Israeli commando Uzi Gal on “T-2: Judgment Day.” “I hated him most of the time,” she says with a laugh. “He would yell at me and throw tennis balls while I was shooting weapons blindfolded. I’d go off to the bathroom to cry for a minute, then I’d wipe away my tears and go back.”

The Rosenberg play –in which Ethel requests the “Kaddish” en route to the electric chair — requires preparation of a different sort. Hamilton, who’s been reading Torah and studying old union songs, says she feels “overwhelmed by the challenges of not just playing Jewish, but steeping myself in [Yiddishkayt].”

Yet she identifies in one organic way with her character: “I don’t have to work very hard to bring up abandonment issues,” says the actress, whose father died when she was 5. “For Ethel, it was abandonment by family and country. For me, it was abandonment by father and a series of men.”

Hamilton adds that she’s chosen not to meet the Rosenbergs’ sons because “they were too young to have anything but emotional memories of their mother.”

Conversely, Shaw, the co-creator of “Quincy,” spent dozens of hours interviewing the now-50-something sons at their homes in Massachusetts. The brothers granted the 76-year-old writer the rights to their book, “We Are Your Sons” and their parents’ “600 Death House Letters.” Apparently, they found a sympathetic ear in Shaw, who’s been fascinated by the Rosenbergs since following their trial as a young writer during the Hollywood communist witch hunts. Though most historians now concur that at least Julius Rosenberg was guilty of some kind of espionage, Shaw says he came to a different conclusion after perusing FBI documents, trial transcripts and some 30 books.

While some viewers may feel his melodrama whitewashes the Rosenbergs, Hamilton insists she’s uninterested in portraying Ethel as a “wronged woman.” “I want to play the whole person — hubris, flaws and all,” she says.

Yet she isn’t above a case of nerves about the show: “It’s just fear, like someone has their hand over my heart,” she says, placing her hand on her solar plexus. “The role is huge, and I’m already prepared for the critics to be unkind to me, like, ‘Why is she playing a Jewish character’ or ‘What’s she trying to do, prove she’s an actress?’ But the fear is just part of the process. It lets you know you’re doing a good job.”

For tickets and information about the play, call (818) 752-8563.

Portman’s Fight


A month before the release of her new film, "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," Natalie Portman tackled a more terrestrial conflict: defending Israel.

The Jerusalem-born actress — who plays Darth Vader’s squeeze Padme Amidala — objected in her Ivy League college newspaper to a law student’s essay condemning Israel. Faisal Chaudhry’s essay decried a "racist colonial occupation… [in which] white Israeli soldiers destroy refugee camps of the brown people they have dispossessed."

"It just angered me that someone who is obviously intelligent enough to attend law school could be so misinformed," says the 20-year-old, who immigrated to the United States at age 3.

So the porcelain-skinned actress dashed off an April 12 letter to the editor dismissing the essay as "a distortion of the fact that most Israelis and Palestinians are indistinguishable physically. The Israeli government itself is comprised of a great number of Sephardic Jews, many of whom originate from Arab countries…. Until we accept the fact that we are constituents of the same family, we will blunder in believing that a loss for one ‘side’ — or as Chaudhry names it, a ‘color’ — is not a loss for all human kind."

The vivacious, effusive Portman says her letter gleaned "positive response on campus from both Arabs and Jews. "But she was less pleased with an April 29 Time magazine story comparing Queen-turned-Senator Amidala to the United Nations secretary-general. The piece says, "Padme, in a scene cut from the film, sounds like Kofi Annan pleading for Palestinians when she tells the Senate, ‘If you offer the separatists violence, they can only show us violence in return!’"

Portman, her bubbly voice suddenly hushed, says "I’d hate to think I’m ever portraying Kofi Annan as a benevolent queen." She pauses, then adds with feeling, "But I agree violence is not an answer."

Long before Portman was proving the pen is mightier than the lightsaber, she grew up in a "Star Wars"-less household on Long Island. The daughter of an Israeli fertility doctor and an American-born artist, she didn’t see George Lucas’ original "Star Wars" films until she was cast in the prequels. She says that the flicks, while paradigms of American pop culture, weren’t iconic for her predominantly Israeli family. "I do remember a couple cousins running around on the Jewish holidays imitating Chewbacca," confides Portman, who visits Israel twice yearly and has dual citizenship.

Back in her American suburb, Portman says she attended a Conservative Jewish day school through seventh grade "to preserve my Hebrew and my sense of Israel more than anything religious." Like many Israelis, her parents were proud but secular Jews, so young Natalie did not become a bat mitzvah. "Because I had hardly ever been to temple, it just would have seemed like a false thing to do," she says. "Also, I think the way people were bat mitzvahed where I lived seemed much more to be an excuse for a party and for people to write checks to you and to have an extravaganza than a religious experience."

The young actress — who was "discovered" by a Revlon scout in a pizza parlor at age 11 — was dismayed when her budding career caused classmates to spurn her. "In seventh grade, I cried every day when I came back from shooting ‘The Professional,’" she says of her debut film.

Portman switched schools and went on to portray gritty characters light-years away from her nice Jewish-girl self. She was a beguiling preteen in "Beautiful Girls," a pregnant Oakie in "Where the Heart Is" and Susan Sarandon’s beleaguered daughter in "Anywhere But Here." One critic described her as a "ravishing little gamine," though her protective parents wouldn’t let her do sex scenes. She also doesn’t use her real surname — Portman is her grandmother’s maiden name.

Nevertheless, she insists, "I don’t think you have to equate who you are with the characters you play — that’s your job as an actress. And since nice Jewish girls from the suburbs don’t make very interesting movies, at least I’ll never have to play myself."

Portman’s most personal role was the lead in "The Diary of Anne Frank" on Broadway in 1998, for which she received rave reviews while maintaining straight A’s. "I grew up with the Holocaust, because my grandparents lost their entire families," says the actress, who noted an eerie similarity between a relative’s story and Anne’s. "My grandfather’s 14-year-old brother was also hidden, but one day he couldn’t take it anymore and he ran outside and was shot." No wonder Portman frequently found herself crying offstage: "It’s a stunning realization when you come to see how much historical memory affects you," she says.

After director George Lucas cast her in his three "Star Wars" prequels, Portman couldn’t help but compare the saga’s clone warriors (predecessors to Darth Vader’s storm troopers) to Nazis. "The clones actualize the sort of deindividuation necessary to give rise to something like the Holocaust," Portman says.

The actress also feels "Star Wars" — with its desert landscapes, warlords and shadowy villains — has particular resonance since the Afghanistan war. The saga explores how Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen in "Episode II") turns to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader; a question one could ask of American-born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh. "Why there is evil in the world and what purpose it serves will keep imitative mythologies like ‘Star Wars’ alive," Portman says.

She found herself pondering the same question during a visit to Israel three months ago. While sitting on a Tel Aviv beach, her reverie was interrupted by explosions. "Then we heard the ambulances coming," Portman says. "When we got back to the hotel, we heard that 20 [people] my age had been killed in a suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium, just a block away from where we had been."

Despite the Middle East crisis, Portman is determined to keep on visiting Israel. But she’s unsure if "Star Wars Episode III" will commence shooting in North Africa next year. "I have a feeling we’ll have to figure something else out," says the psychology major, who takes advanced Hebrew, attends Hillel and reads the Israeli newspaper Ha’Aretz. "It would be great if we could end up shooting in Israel, because we’ve got plenty of good desert there."

"Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" opens May 16 in Los Angeles.

Sleeping With Kerouac


In the Weston, Conn., cotillion class she was forced to attend at age 12, Nancy Balbirer learned that girls were expected to wear white gloves, to keep a dance card — and to keep quiet.

"Ladies weren’t supposed to be raucous or funny or irreverent, but I was all of those things, and I associated them with being Jewish," says the performer, whose witty autobiographical monologue, "I Slept With Jack Kerouac," at the Court Theatre, recounts her journey from repressed girl to empowered woman.

Her odyssey began when she bonded with her Aunt Betsy, an actress who provided respite from Weston’s WASP Hell. "She used salty language and she was theatrical," says the performer, whose dad is Jewish and mother, Lutheran. The routines young Nancy invented to rouse Betsy from her depressions taught her about the healing power of performance.

After appearing in the off-Broadway revival of "Hurlyburly" and recurring roles on "Seinfeld," Balbirer felt anything but powerful. "As an actress, you get so depressed, waiting around for people to call you," says Balbirer, who was also nursing a broken heart. (Her ex’s breakup line: he couldn’t commit because he was the reincarnation of freewheeling beat author Jack Kerouac.)

To cope, Balbirer took a memoir-writing workshop in 1999 and began writing "Kerouac," which concludes with her visit to a bubbe-like Wiccan. To help her get over her boyfriend, the Yiddish-speaking witch advises Balbirer to burn a phallic candle and to throw the remnants into a living body of water. "It was like the tradition of tashlich," says the actress, who converted to Judaism before her 1999 wedding.

Now she’s bringing her theme of female empowerment to a breast cancer benefit on Feb. 7 that will feature a "Kerouac" performance and Kerouac readings by Playboy bunnies. "These women are always doing stuff for guys, so I thought, ‘Let’s get them to do something for us,’" she says.

For more information, call (310) 289-2999.

Redefining Beauty


Four years ago, Camryn Manheim walked into David Kelley’s office, feeling glum. She knew the executive producer didn’t want her for his new ABC drama, “The Practice.” After all, Hollywood typically ridiculed women who were 5-foot-10 and a size 22. Kelley practically yawned throughout her interview. “It was disastrous,” she told The Journal.

But slinking out of his office that day in 1996, the Jewish actress spotted a cribbage board — and felt a spark of chutzpah. “Why don’t we f— this audition and I’ll play you right now for the part?” she said. “If I lose, you’ll never see me again. But if I win, I walk out of here with the script.”

Kelley suddenly lost his bored look. “You don’t understand,” he warned. “I play the computer.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she retorted. “I play for money.”

Kelley didn’t play Manheim that day, but he was impressed enough to create a “Practice” role just for her: the gutsy, no-nonsense lawyer Ellenor Frutt. “When I got the phone call from my agent, saying that I had gotten the part, I sat down in the middle of my kitchen floor … and wept,” Manheim wrote in her 1999 memoir, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” (Broadway.) Her sense of victory was sweet. It came after a bitter, 20-year battle for acceptance in a business that worships svelte actresses — a battle that nearly cost Manheim her life.

When her NYU drama professors strongly suggested she lose weight or leave the program in the late 1980s, she began taking speed and accidentally overdosed. “For the longest time, I hated myself because I was fat,” she says. “I let just one thing define me. Then I decided I wasn’t going to conform to a standard that wasn’t developed with me in mind.”

Manheim’s campaign against the beauty myth culminated with her accepting an Emmy for best supporting actor in 1998. Wearing a low-cut black Emanuel gown, Payless shoes and Target earrings (12 in one ear), the “Practice” star thrust the award high over her head and declared, “This is for all the fat girls!”

The self-professed “poster child for fat acceptance,” says she used the f-word deliberately in her Emmy acceptance speech. “If you say a word enough, it robs it of its power,” she explains. And the show offered the perfect opportunity to advance her cause. “It’s abhorrent to me that women hate themselves so much for being overweight. I want to do everything in my power to fight that.”

Fighting injustice appears to be genetic for her. Born Deborah Frances Manheim, she grew up in a culturally Jewish home in Long Beach. Her Polish-immigrant grandfather was an early organizer of the millinery workers union. Her mother, Sylvia, attended the Yiddishist-socialist IWO schools and worked as a switchboard operator for the Communist Party. Manheim’s Uncle Bill organized the New York taxicab drivers and eventually became secretary-treasurer of local 840 of the Teamsters Union. Her father, Jerry, a math professor, picketed segregated restaurants in the 1950s, and was denounced as a communist by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “He was blacklisted,” Sylvia told The Journal. “He lost his job, and I went to work selling freezers door-to-door. It was a difficult time for our family.”

Nevertheless, the Manheims continued to equate their Judaism with social action, toting young Camryn to rallies to protest racism and the Vietnam War. When Camryn was arrested at a pro-choice rally in the early ’80s, she called her parents from jail. “Mazal tov!” Sylvia shouted into the phone.

Manheim quips: “For my family, protesting injustice is like ‘mitzvah therapy.'”

During her childhood, Manheim, now 40, felt that her parents supported every kind of underdog save one: the fat person. When Manheim began gaining weight at age 11, her parents shlepped her to a series of psychiatrists and hypnotists. They even tried bribery. When Camryn was a preteen, she signed her first contract: “If you lose 15 pounds by March, we’ll buy you a brand new bike.”

“We thought Camryn would have more boyfriends if she were thinner,” Sylvia says sheepishly.

Manheim’s self-esteem plummeted. She tried to hide her body with baggy Levis, which she even wore into the shower. At the age of 13, she says she missed all her friends’ “baruch atah adonais” because mom wouldn’t let her wear pants to bar mitzvahs.

A few years later, she found respite working summers at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where big, busty wenches were de rigueur. More acceptance followed at UC Santa Cruz, where the actress wore Birkenstocks and protested against the Miss California pageant. During a post-graduation trip to Israel, an empowered Manheim decided to change her ho-hum name to something more stylish. “Some people get to the Wailing Wall and have a vision; I heard a voice,” she writes in her book. “Camryn … Camryn … Camryn.”

But when Manheim enrolled in NYU’s esteemed graduate drama program in the 1980s, she ran smack into size discrimination. Professors hounded her to reduce. “They said ‘You are never going to work if you are a big girl,'” the actress says. “The subtext was, ‘We don’t want that black mark against our school.'”

At NYU, Manheim was always cast as a middle-aged frump. “I was also Rebecca Nurse in ‘The Crucible’ — she’s at least 80,” the actress recalls. “And Queen Margaret in ‘Richard III’ — she’s not just old, she’s dead.”

A desperate Manheim began taking speed daily to lose weight. When she dropped 80 pounds, her professors were jubilant. “But I was a wreck,” she says.

After her near-fatal overdose on speed, she quit drugs and nicotine — and promptly gained back all her weight. When she flew home to visit her parents, who now kvell over her, they couldn’t hide their disappointment. After some unpleasant words with her father, Manheim packed her bags and didn’t speak to him for almost a year, she writes in her book.

Back in New York, she immersed herself in liberal causes, took a job as a sign-language interpreter and worked on regaining her self-esteem. When leading roles didn’t come her way, she wrote a hilarious, poignant one-woman show, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” about being fat in a society obsessed with being thin. The monologue, filled with “fat survival” tips such as “stay horizontal on the beach,” played to packed houses off-Broadway in 1995. When a casting director sent Kelley some videotaped scenes of the show, Manheim earned an audience with the TV drama king.

In 1996 she snagged the role of Frutt, who, like Manheim, is culturally Jewish and determined to fight for the underdog.

But her very first day on “The Practice,” the actress discovered she was going to have to play an additional role: that of “Fat Police.” When the director described her character’s first shot of Frutt eating a doughnut, Manheim convinced him to lose the food, not wanting to reinforce stereotypes.

When the prop guy put a huge bowl of candy on Frutt’s desk, Manheim again confronted the director. “Let me tell you a little secret. Fat girls don’t keep candy on the desk. They keep it in the drawer,” she said.

The bowl was moved.

When Manheim later learned that a love interest was in the works for Frutt, she lobbied Kelley to cast a hunk in the role. Not only did she get her wish (actor J.C. McKenzie), she also convinced Kelley to write her some juicy love scenes.

Off the set, Manheim continues to lobby against the beauty myth and to show that “big women can be sexy.” The cover of “Wake Up, I’m Fat!” depicts the actress wearing a swimsuit and a beauty pageant-style banner reading, “Miss Understood.” “I wanted it to be in-your-face,” she says. “I also felt I needed to do something that was scary for me — which was to be half-naked in public — to show I was facing my fears.”

In April, Manheim starred in and executive-produced the ABC movie, “Kiss My Act,” one of the rare television programs in which the fat girl gets the cute guy. She says she’s motivated by the self-hating letters she receives from overweight women. “They’re heartbreaking,” she says.

Since winning her Emmy, Manheim has been featured on the cover of magazines such as People, TV Guide, Mode (the publication for full-figured women) and this month’s More.

When asked if her success has changed things for big women in Hollywood, Manheim sighs loudly. She points out that Julia Roberts is rumored to have been signed to play the overweight heroine in a movie version of the book, “She’s Come Undone,” Wally Lamb’s novel about a girl’s journey from fat teenager to trim adult. “I am going to lead the crusade against that,” Manheim says, grimly. “I am desperate to see a big girl in that role, myself or someone else.”

Meanwhile, the actress is continuing to enjoy her latest role: that of single mother. In March, the unmarried actress gave birth to a boy, Milo (named for the hero in her favorite children’s book, “The Phantom Tollbooth”). And while she won’t reveal the identity of his father, she will say she plans to raise Milo culturally Jewish, emphasizing social action.

Though Manheim doesn’t belong to a synagogue, she supports Hadasssah and the annual Justice Ball, which benefits Bet Tzedek Legal Services. She believes Frutt would approve of the nonsectarian legal program. “Jewish charities offer opportunities for everyone, which is what I love about the Jews,” the actress says. “You do not have to be a certified Jew to reap the benefits.”

“The Practice” airs Sundays, 10 p.m. on ABC.


Favorite exclamation: Man-oh-Manischewitz!

On her old amphetamine habit:

“The scary thing about speed is that it works.”

“Sure, it may kill you, but you’ll look great in that coffin.”

Worst confrontation with an NYU drama professor:

“You, Camryn Manheim, have a very bad attitude.”

Camryn: “I have a fat attitude?”

How to stand up on the beach without looking fat:

“You have to maintain the camouflage of the towel while trying to slide the shorts on up over the buttocks region, and then you have to say something in a dramatic fashion to cause a diversion, like ‘Hey, look, it’s Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out in the surf!'”

Why she wrote her show, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!”:

“I wanted to create the only role for which I would not be rejected.”

On parents:

“[They] know how to push your buttons, because, hey, they sewed them on.”

First question on Camryn’s “boyfriend application”:

Do you have an on-again, off-again girlfriend?

(If so, do not complete this form).

Excerpted from Manheim’s 1999 memoir, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!”

Benefiting Women’s Theater


America’s favorite Italian mother from Long Island — who’s really a Jewish gal born in St. Louis — will headline a benefit Monday for one of Los Angeles’ most innovative cultural contributors.

Doris Roberts, who plays Marie Barone on the popular sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," will read the Grace Paley story "Goodbye and Good Luck" at a fundraiser for the Jewish Women’s Theatre Project (JWTP) on April 23.

Roberts agreed to participate in the fundraising evening after being approached by JWTP advisory board member Ellen Sandler, a former co-executive producer for "Raymond."

"She is a great performer; she is Jewish, and proudly so, and she wanted to lend her celebrity to our group," Sandler told The Journal.

It was JWTP producing director Susan Merson’s idea to use the Paley story, in which a woman reminisces about her long association with a Yiddish theater troupe.

Roberts, 75, first worked on Broadway in 1956 as the understudy to Shirley Booth in "Desk Set" and began her film career in the late 1960s.

Although Roberts has portrayed a number of Jewish characters over the years, including the kind neighbor Mrs. Kavarsky in the 1975 film "Hester Street" and Mrs. Van Daan in a TV production of "The Diary of Anne Frank," her most widely seen role before Marie Barone was probably that of secretary Mildred Krebs on the TV series "Remington Steele," which she played for four seasons in the mid-1980s.

She won an Emmy award in 1983 for her portrayal of a homeless woman in "St. Elsewhere" and has been nominated for her role as the overbearing but well-meaning Marie on "Raymond."

The benefit comes at a busy time for Roberts, who is also currently appearing in "The Vagina Monologues" at the Cañon Theater in Beverly Hills; the JWTP had to move the date of the fundraiser after Roberts was offered a three-week stint in the theater piece. "She never backed out," Lewis said. "We are grateful that she was able to give us her one night off."

The JWTP benefit will be held at the home of Maxwell Salter, the former mayor of Beverly Hills, and his wife, Janet, who is president of the Beverly Hills Theater Guild.

Sandler said the April 23 event, which includes a dessert reception, and Roberts’ participation in the evening comprise "a way for us to reach out into the community and expand our audience."

And be prepared for some yummy treats if you go. "This is an event planned by and for Jewish women," Sandler said, "so of course, there’ll be chocolate."

For information about the Jewish Women’s Theatre Project fundraiser, 8 p.m. Monday, April 23, call (310) 398-7117.n

Roseanne’s Personal Ad


Actress and talk-show queen Roseanne is looking for a few good Jewish men.

Not for herself, but for her three unmarried daughters, the thrice-married and divorced actress says.

Roseanne’s pitch, delivered on her syndicated talk show and later on Howard Stern’s morning radio show, runs verbatim, as follows:

“Are you a normal guy? Are you a single, Jewish, successful, marriage-minded male who is free of any criminal record? Do you have most of your teeth? If you have answered yes to all these questions and you are not some money-sucking leech, then I have the perfect mate for you.

“I am looking for three normal, healthy, Jewish, single men who are psychologically sound and mentally stable and do not smoke. I have three, count ’em, three, beautiful, single daughters who someday I would like to see married and give me some grandchildren. But with the losers they keep bringing home, that doesn’t seem likely.

“If you like girls who never get up, always complain and who are lazy and smoke, I’ve got the girl for you. I require that you have a mother who you think I will get along with, and, since the objective is grandchildren, your mother must understand that I am the alpha-grandmother.

“I am asking you out there if you think you have what it takes to date one of my daughters. Please make a videotape of five minutes or less, telling me why you think I should let you date one of my beauties. Three lucky victims, I mean winners, will be chosen, and we will fly you out here to go on a date with my daughters. Good Luck!”

This talking matrimonial ad may be just a bit unorthodox, but it’s for real, affirms Roseanne’s publicist, Matt Labov. There actually are three single daughters — namely, Brandi, 27; Jessica, 23; and Jennifer, 22.

Applicants from outside the United States are welcome. “‘The Roseanne Show’ runs in 30 countries, so any man can enter, as long as he’s Jewish,” says Labov.

So far, responses have been limited. “I guess a lot of the guys are shy,” says Labov.

Interested nice Jewish boys are invited to mail their videotapes to Date My Daughters, The Roseanne Show, P.O. Box 48558, Los Angeles, CA 90048. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Hasta la Vista, Yentl


Goodbye, Columbus.

And goodbye Portnoy, Tevye and Yentl, too.

A glance back at the films of 1998 reveal Jewish characters who break the mold, overturn the stereotype, and stretch the image of Jews on-screen.

Instead of bubbes, hausfraus and pickle men, there were Jewish junkies, gangsters and wild women in the quirky arena of independent film. The striking roles drew striking actors: Ben Stiller was a Jewish heroin addict and TV writer in “Permanent Midnight”; Renee Zellweger played a sexually frustrated Chassid in “A Price Above Rubies”; Ally Sheedy portrayed a tormented artist and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor in “High Art; John Turturro starred as the Holocaust author Primo Levi in “The Truce”; and Minnie Driver was a Sephardic Jew and gothic heroine in the 19th-century drama, “The Governess.”

Forget the traditional movie images of Jewish urban or suburban life. “The Cruise” is a documentary about an eccentric, homeless New York tour guide, “Speed” Levitch; “Safe Men” spotlights some bumbling Jewish gangsters; and Peter Berg’s debut film, “Very Bad Things,” reveals some nice Jewish boys who do some not-so-nice things in Las Vegas and beyond.

Most mind-bending of all is Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, “Pi,” a Jewish sci-fi flick about a paranoid mathematics genius who is pursued by shadowy Wall Street figures and Chassidic Kabbalists.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan has a theory about the range of Jewish outsiders who are protagonists these days. “The popular culture seems to be pushing everything toward the extremes, and we’re seeing that reflected in the movies, especially in independent film,” he says.

The Jewish films of 1998 are mostly the work of young filmmakers, in their 20s and 30s, who are making first or second features, capitalizing on multicultural chic to express who they are. Nowhere was the trend more apparent than in the work of women directors, who mined their pasts to create bold heroines struggling with issues of Jewish identity.

In Brit Sandra Goldbacher’s “The Governess,” a Sephardic orphan disguises herself as a Gentile in 1840s England to find work in the larger world. Feeling as if a Star of David is emblazoned on her forehead, she journeys to a remote manor house and begins a torrid affair with the master.

Tamara Jenkins creates a very different, iconoclastic Jewish heroine in “Slums of Beverly Hills,” her semi-autobiographical tale of a female Portnoy, whose adolescent angst is exacerbated by the fact that she’s poor in the quintessentially wealthy Jewish suburb.

Filmmakers such as Jenkins and Goldbacher “feel more emboldened to deal with Jewish issues than in the past,” says Neal Gabler, author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.” “It’s part of a continuing trend of ethnic awareness. Artists are more comfortable asserting their ethnicity.”

If 1998 was the year of the bold Jewish heroine, it was also the year of the standout Holocaust-themed film. Besides “The Truce,” there was the poignant “Life is Beautiful,” Roberto Benigni’s Cannes-winning, Chaplinesque tragicomedy about a sweet, sad man who protects his son in a concentration camp. The liberation documentary, “The Long Way Home,” won the Academy Award. And Nazis and neo-Nazis were the focus of Bryan Singer’s “Apt Pupil” and Tony Kaye’s “American History X,” starring Edward Norton.

In 1998, we also had plenty of Woody Allen, not only in Barbara Kopple’s documentary, “Wild Man Blues,” which follows the reclusive director around Europe with his paramour, Soon-Yi, and the upcoming Allen feature, “Celebrity.” The animated DreamWorks film, “Antz,” stars Woody’s voice as the rebellious, Central Park worker ant Z, who tells his analyst it’s tough to be the middle child in a family of 5 million.

For Leonard Maltin, the film critic for “Entertainment Tonight,” the proliferation of Jewish characters is a positive thing. “It asserts that we exist,” he says, “and that we are part of the fabric of American life.”


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