Does it matter that Gwyneth Paltrow is raising her kids as Jews?

July 25, 2011

After coming across the recent headline announcing actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s decision to raise her kids as Jews, many probably thought, ‘Who cares?’

That was probably followed by, ‘Hmm, I didn’t know Gwyneth Paltrow was Jewish’ (she’s half, actually; father Bruce Paltrow was Jewish, mother Blythe Danner is Christian, as is hubby and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin). But once you get past that, and what was at best a mixed-religious upbringing or worse (if we’re going to judge), a secular one, the next natural question is: ‘What does Gwyneth Paltrow know about raising Jewish kids? Come to think of it, what do any of us know about raising Jewish kids?’

According to Marcia Alesan Dawkins, a USC visiting scholar in Ethnic Studies from Brown University and columnist for the Huffington Post, the Paltrow proclamation is an important one because it highlights some of the complexities and nuances of engaging in religious life in the modern age.

“Paltrow may be making a statement that’s more about spiritual and cultural uplift and less about religious commitment or intensity,” Dawkins wrote on USC’s media and religion blog, The Scoop.

In a comprehensive post that covers media responses to everything from Paltrow’s Jewish authenticity (“Many argued that although Paltrow was raised with a Jewish sensitivity and intends to share similar values with her family, neither she nor her children qualify as Jewish according to Jewish law.”) to speculation about how her husband feels about having Jewish kids (the Christian Post sniffed that Paltrow’s husband, ‘Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin, is known as a devout Christian, and there has been no news or comments from the singer on how he feels about this radical change in faith for his children’), Dawkins challenges the notion that this is just another headline in celebrity gossip.

“Coverage of Paltrow’s announcement generally shares one important quality: confusion over what Jewish identity is and means. Is it a matter of ancestry or a religion? Is it an ethnicity or nationality? Is it a culture or a parenting-decision? Is it a physical phenomenon like circumcision? Or is it an aura that can be manufactured and sold in popular culture?” Dawkins writes.

“While a glamorous Hollywood star’s religiosity may seem like soft news, these questions get at the heart of some of the most important issues of our time.”

Where religious identity meets ritual practice is a gray area for most American Jews, since the majority are assimilated, unaffiliated with organized Jewish institutions and consider themselves to be what is known as “cultural Jews” (i.e., they eat lox and bagels, partake in Chinese take-out on Christmas, maybe check out a synagogue on the high holidays and other such Seinfeldian rituals—but they do not, for the most part, consider themselves “religious”—oy, the word! the horror!).

That Paltrow intends to grapple with some of the major issues facing Jewish identity, either with or on behalf of her kids is commendable, if only because she is adding rich layers of inner and outer life to her children’s orientation in the world. Especially since Apple (infamous biblical object) and Moses (famous biblical character) will predictably grow up in a world of immense privilege, where the search for morality and meaning can be amplified. 

Read more at USC’s The Scoop

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