Actress-singer Mare Winningham an unlikely Jewish soul

“I want to be the first Jewish country singer,” Mare Winningham says. “Actually, Kinky Friedman was the first. But I want to be the next.”

It’s the kind of easy banter the actress-singer proffers between nightclub sets of her country-tinged folk music. But the setting on this Thursday afternoon is the chapel at the University of Judaism, where Winningham sits at an upright piano after completing her three-hour Hebrew class.

In her pure, open voice, she launches into her “Convert Jig,” a country-ish ditty she wrote to honor her Introduction to Judaism teacher before her conversion last year. “He has organized the notes for life and given me the tools to turn my tiny insignificance into something big,” she croons, as her eyes crinkle into a smile. “I will be a Jew like all of you … and never eat a pig.”

If the levity is unexpected, the actress thinks she is, too. “Look, my last name is Winningham, and that in itself is funny,” she says. “I joke sometimes that I’ll open ‘Winningham’s Kosher Bakery’ and throw everyone for a loop.”

Indeed, the 45-year-old actress is better known for the decidedly American (read: non-Jewish) roles she’s portrayed in 70 films and TV movies than, say, for the challah she bakes on Friday afternoons. She won a 1980 Emmy for playing a farmer’s daughter in “Amber Waves,” received a 1996 Oscar nomination for her role as a country music star in “Georgia” and starred as Kevin Costner’s common-law wife in “Wyatt Earp.”

Winningham will appear as a Catholic single mom in the upcoming CBS series, “Clubhouse,” (though she’s perhaps best known as the virginal Wendy from the Brat Pack flick, “St. Elmo’s Fire.”)

As she leaves the piano to munch some kosher almonds, she says she’s happy to be back at the university after a four-week shoot last spring in Canada. “We were in the middle of nowhere, so I knew I was going to miss Shavuot,” she says, ruefully.

“I’ve been known to light Shabbat candles in a Honeywagon trailer,” she says of her experience on various sets.

The actress was raised Catholic, but by age 14, she says, she’d developed problems with religion in general and “the idea of someone dying for your sins.” A 12th-grade comparative religion class fueled her budding agnosticism; after high school graduation, she began “a resolutely secular existence.”

In 1982, she married her now ex-husband in a nondenominational ceremony, and raised their five children (today ages 15 to 22).

Several years ago, however, Winningham began reading works by Jung, Joseph Campbell and others in an attempt to sort out nagging religious and psychological questions.

In summer 2001, she visited a “creation of the world” exhibit at a science museum and decided, “I don’t think I believe in God.”

“But that night, I had the most remarkable dream, which told me, ‘If you’re going to reject something, at least find out what it is you are rejecting.'”

When a friend told her about the Introduction to Judaism class, Winningham thought, “OK, I’ll begin by studying the Jews, since they started the one-God thing.”

While she intended to approach the class from a historical, intellectual perspective, the epiphanies began the day she stepped into Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s class in November 2001.

“There I was, struggling with God, and one of the first things he said was, ‘Israel means struggle with God,'” she recalls.

The actress began celebrating Shabbat and fell in love with an observance that included “ritualizing, literally, the breaking of bread.” Shabbat “fed me literally and figuratively, and I found myself finding my way to God through this very earthly endeavor of feeding my family.”

Although her children are not Jewish, they helped her rate brisket recipes, participated in Torah discussions and invited their Jewish friends to her Shabbat table.

Winningham’s attraction to Judaism deepened as she read the Bible: “Everything one needs to know about behavior here on earth is manifest in these stories,” she says. “Anything one could find confusing or morally challenging is answerable. When the most important thing about a religion is how you behave here, and not about what happens after you die — these are the things I believe my soul was longing for and rejecting in other religions.”

After Winningham observed her first Yom Kippur that year, she knew she had to convert, and did so March 3, 2003, accompanied by an entourage of friends and relatives.

Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal