Celebrity jews

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Black shines

One of the nice things about editing a Web site about famous Jewish people is that you sometimes get clued into a Jewish performer before he or she breaks big and you can kvell a bit as your landsman becomes a bigger and bigger success. A few years ago, I got a very credible letter from a friend of Jack Black, who told me Black was Jewish. Like most people, I had just become aware of Black via his scene-stealing supporting performance in the hit 2000 film “High Fidelity.” He blew me away with a really dynamite rendition of the Marvin Gaye classic “Let’s Get It On,” at the close of the film.

My faith in my correspondent was validated when actress Sascha Knopf, who had a co-starring role in the clever 2001 comedy “Shallow Hal,” mentioned in an interview that she and Black got caught on the set when filming extended over into Passover and these two Jews entertained themselves by singing Passover songs. Frankly, however, I never expected Black to be more than a middle-rung performer. Not many box office stars are 5 feet 6 inches tall and somewhat overweight, as Black is. I’m glad to say I was wrong.

Black’s latest film, “School of Rock,” opened Oct. 5 to great reviews, and has been the biggest-grossing film in America for weeks. In the words of The New York Times review, “The movie … is a very funny for-kids-of-all-ages delight that should catapult Mr. Black straight to the top of the A-list of Hollywood funnymen. Not since Jim Carrey twitched, mugged and leered his way to the head of the class has a comic actor stirred up such a gleeful furor on the screen. And not since John Belushi has one used the anarchic roar of rock as a conceptual platform.”

“School of Rock” follows Black as he manages to wangle a job as a substitute teacher at a fancy private school and he turns a group of nerdy kids into talented rock performers. Jewish actress/comedian Sarah Silverman has a supporting role as the “evil” school principal.

Black was born in Santa Monica in 1965. He recently told an interviewer with the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain that he wasn’t much of a student. The only thing that got him “revved up” as a child was acting, including some improv games after the family’s Passover seders. His interest in music was inspired in part by his older half-brother, Howard Siegel, who has engineered albums for many leading bands. Black went to UCLA and was part of actor Tim Robbins’ acting troupe there. His first movie role was in Robbins’ 1992 film, “Bob Roberts.” Other bit parts followed, culminating in his breakthrough role in “High Fidelity.” Meanwhile, Black’s two-man musical duo, Tenacious D, put out its debut CD two years ago and has acquired quite a cult following. Like that of Adam Sandler, Black’s music combines comedy and rock (but be warned: the lyrics are extremely explicit. Not for the kiddies!)

another funny guy

William Steig, the famous illustrator, children’s author and cartoonist, died Oct. 5 at the age of 95. Most obituaries omitted the fact that he was Jewish, but Yiddish speakers had a pretty good clue since every obituary mentioned that he was the author of the 1990 book “Shrek,” which was turned into an enormous hit animated film in 2002. It won the Oscar for best animated film. Shrek means “fear” or “loathing” in Yiddish.

Steig’s parents were immigrants from Galicia, the section of Poland owned by Austria before World War I. They settled in Brooklyn, where Steig was born. His parents were socialists and they encouraged him and his three brothers to go into the arts so they would neither be exploited as workers nor exploit others, as bosses. Steig studied art at college, but he might not have become a full-time cartoonist but for the fact that The New Yorker magazine bought his very first cartoon in 1930. His family was suffering with the onset of the Great Depression and the then-large sum of $4,000 he earned during his first year with the magazine supported his whole family.

Steig became and remained one of the top New Yorker cartoonists. He began a second career as a children’s book author in the mid-1960s. Some of his best-known children’s books include the Caldecott Medal winners “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” and “The Amazing Bone.”

Jewish author-illustrator Maurice Sendak, famous for “Where the Wild Things Are” and many children’s books, said after Steig’s death: “There is no school of Bill Steig. There is only Bill Steig.”

Nate Bloom is the Oakland-based editor of www.Jewhoo.com.

Nate Bloom

Nate Bloom writes the "Celebrity Jews" column for J.