Newfound Judaism is Winninghams muse

It’s a busy month for Mare Winningham.

Her new play, “10 Million Miles,” just opened in New York. Alternately moving and funny, its road-trip story is set to the music of singer/songwriter Patty Griffin. The play gives Winningham an opportunity to stretch her vocal muscles as she plays several characters.

Winningham sing? She is, of course, best known as an actress, probably most notably for her role as quiet virgin Wendy Beamish in the defining Brat Pack hit “St. Elmo’s Fire.” But singing has been an integral part of her career, which brings us to the second part of her busy month.

People surprised that Winningham sings will likely be even more surprised by her songs. Her new recording is “Refuge Rock Sublime,” a country-western album.

Of Jewish songs.

And therein lies a story.

Winningham, 48, converted to Judaism five years ago, and it is that experience and its aftermath that she sings about. “Converts can be annoying sometimes,” she says with a laugh. “We can be too enthusiastic and passionate, if there’s such a thing.”

Winningham was raised in Northridge, Calif. Her mother was an observant Catholic; her father agnostic. She was raised Catholic, but shortly after her confirmation there was a disconnect. She became “irreligious and secular and never developed an affinity for any religion.”

She was interested in show business, though, and by 1980, she’d won an Emmy for best supporting actress in “Amber Waves,” an ABC Movie of the Week. “St. Elmo’s Fire” came five years later. To set the record straight, yes, she was in the movie, but, no, she wasn’t in the Brat Pack.

Winningham continued on with a solid career. She was a 1996 Academy Award nominee for her role as a country western singer in “Georgia.” She won another Emmy for her role as the title character’s wife in the TV film “George Wallace.” But something was missing.

Winningham was working in Toronto on a television movie and spent her evenings in a hotel room watching television. At the time, Bill Moyers’ multi-part interview with Joseph Campbell was airing. “Campbell was talking about God and God-like figures and the spiritual,’ she says. “I kind of made a pronouncement to myself at that time that I think I’m an atheist. And almost at the time I said that to myself I had a powerful [epiphany] that said if you’re going to reject something you should know what you’re rejecting first.”

So she decided to study the different religions and began with a class in Judaism at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in Los Angeles. This wasn’t a creampuff course. It ran three-and-a-half hours every Monday, and you had to make up classes that you missed.

Her instructor was Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who said some things during the first session that resonated with Winningham:

“He spoke about Jacob wrestling with an angel and getting the name Israel, which means struggle with God. And that was just an exclamation point to what I was doing, having this struggle with God.”

Every week she did a little more — lighting candles, adding a prayer.

She changed, and her children — she has five — noticed. “My daughter said, you’re really starting to love it, and she was right,’ Winningham says.

“It was a beautiful, beautiful year. Methodical and slow, but I was growing. Finished the class in 2002 and spent a year observing all the holidays and keeping Shabbat. I wanted to be sure that I was really committed to this..”

Now whenever they’re together, the entire clan gathers for Shabbat, and one of her sons attended Torah classes.

Winningham’s mother understood her decision to convert. “My mother’s reaction was more important to me, since she is the most devoted to her faith.,’ she says.

“I always found her very approachable, and when I started getting serious about Judaism and let her know, she said, ‘You know, Mare, they were the first.'”

Like her interest in Judaism, “Refuge Rock Sublime” is the result of some downtime while making a movie. She was in Arkansas filming “War Eagle,” a still unreleased feature, and was exposed to gospel and bluegrass music. That’s where she decided to write gospel songs herself — but from a Jewish perspective.

Her original plan was to take the songs on tour to synagogues and Jewish community centers around the country. But that was delayed when she was approached about “10 Million Miles.”

Right now, she’s happy to see the sights of Jewish New York. She’s currently conducting a mini-tour of Big Apple synagogues. Every Shabbat she attends a different one.

“My eyes are so wide open, coming to New York at this point in my life.”


Winningham’s CD not so winning

Curt Schleier
Curt Schleier

Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author who covers business and the arts for a variety of publications. Follow him on Twitter at @tvsoundoff.