Re: Was Jack a practicing Jew

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Posted ByLaura Leff on June 29, 2002 at 18:23:15:

In Reply to: Was Jack a practicing Jew posted byBob R on June 29, 2002 at 15:17:17:

: Not to get into religious issues ,but I have often wondered if Jack and Mary were agnostic or practiced in the Jewish faith.Many performers attempted to keep hidden their religious backgrounds,especially the "Jewish commedians" and I believe Jack was among them.Not to be cynical,but Jack always performed Christian type shows ie Easter,Xmas etc. without reference to Judaic holidays.I am of the Jewish faith,so this is not intended to show any religious or any negative reflections on Jack's personal beliefs,but rather for only historical interest.In my opinion ,Jack,regardless of his personal beliefs, was one of the finest human beings that existed,irregardless of any religious faith.He truly followed the universal "golden rule" and humanitarism.

Over the years, this question and related issues have been posed to me many times. Some people maintain that Jack "wasn't Jewish enough" for some of the reasons you mentioned. Others claim that he was "too Jewish" because he was using some Jewish stereotypes, such as playing the violin and being cheap.

Jack's parents were practicing Orthodox Jews. Some time during his vaudeville years, it seems that Jack abandoned much of the "observant" practice (e.g., keeping kosher, tefilin, daavening, etc.). I even stumbled across a comment today in an article where Jack recalls his first meal at the Great Lakes Naval Station (1917), which included ham and eggs. It may not have been absolutely accurate, but it would infer that he was starting to shy away from the religion even at that time.

The family privately celebrated Christmas, and Joan recalls (in "Sunday Nights at Seven") having her own Christmas tree and getting Handel's "Messiah" as a gift one year. Then again, I know of other Jewish families who celebrated Christmas because it's "everywhere" at that time of year, not because they were trying not to be Jewish.

Jack's letters occasionally comment on whether someone was an anti-Semite, and he helped various Jewish and secular charities over the years.

So...was Jack a pracicing Jew? Even Jews don't agree on what makes one a "practicing Jew." So it depends on your view. Did he keep kosher? No. Did he belong to a synagogue? Yes, but they didn't attend. Did he observe Pesach and the High Holidays? Not that I'm aware of in adult life; there's a story about them doing a show on one of the High Holidays, and his concern over people thinking badly of him. Did he have a Jewish funeral? Yes, and he's buried in a Jewish cemetery. Did he identify himself as a Jew? Privately, yes. Publicly, he didn't seem to make a big deal of it. Probably the best general label I could assign, based on what I've seen, is that he was a "secular Jew."

--Laura Leff
President, IJBFC

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