Celebrity jews: zach braff, melissa gilbert, richard boone

Zach and cousin Mitt

Zach Braff

Actor Zach Braff (“Scrubs,” “Garden State”), 36, who is Jewish, and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, 63, a devout Mormon, seem worlds apart. Nonetheless, Braff and Romney really are (very distant) blood cousins, and they are both direct descendants of Rebecca Nurse (1621-1692), a devout Puritan Protestant who was falsely accused of practicing witchcraft at the infamous Salem, Mass. witchcraft trials. She was hanged. Nurse is a central character in the play “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller.

A friend of mine found interviews with Braff and his brother, novelist Joshua Braff, 42, in which both said their mother, who was born into an old New England Protestant family, converted to Judaism before marrying their Jewish father. On a hunch, my friend looked far back in Braff’s mother’s family tree and Romney’s family tree and found Rebecca Nurse in both.

Braff is from a town next to Teaneck, N.J., and apparently a hometown friend sent him this column item, which appeared in the Feb. 10 New Jersey Jewish Standard. On Feb. 29, Braff posted a scan of the newspaper page on the social news website Reddit under the following title: “So I guess I’m related to Mitt Romney through a witch. Family reunions just got a little crazier.” Later he added, “Mitt Romney and I have nothing in common.” And then he joked, “Incidentally … buying a broom later today.”

About 1,200 people commented on Braff’s posting. When you combine witchcraft, politics and weird family histories, you can interest almost everyone.


Dancing returns

The 14th season of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” starts at 8 p.m. Monday, March 19. Melissa Gilbert, 47, of “Little House on the Prairie” fame, is the sole Jewish (w/an asterisk) contestant.

Gilbert’s adoptive mother is Jewish, and she grew up celebrating Jewish holidays and wed one of her two (non-Jewish) ex-husbands in a Jewish ceremony. On the other hand, she calls herself “Jew-ISH” in her recent autobiography because she had no religious training, her family also celebrated Christmas, and she discovered as an adult that her mother never had Melissa formally converted to Judaism. (Actress Sara Gilbert, 37, is Melissa’s half-sister. Melissa’s adoptive mother is Sara’s birth mother).

Also dancing is William Levy, a beefcake actor born in Cuba who stars in Spanish-language soap operas. Levy’s paternal grandfather is his sole Jewish grandparent. Levy was raised without religion and formally converted to Catholicism in 2009.


Unsung hero of Israeli cinema

Richard Boone

The Israeli film and TV industry has really come into its own. Israeli feature films now snare Oscar nominations, and Israeli TV shows are being adapted for American TV (like Showtime’s “Homeland”). Stars such as Brad Pitt and Jean Dujardin may make films in Israel.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Richard Boone (1917-’81) traveled to Israel at least eight times to help build up the young Israeli film industry. He also starred in the first film made in Israel that was set in a different location (the American West). In the States, Boone was a stalwart of Israel Bonds campaigns, and in 1979 was honored by Yitzhak Rabin as one of nine Americans who contributed to the rebirth of the Jewish state.

Yes, this was the same actor who starred in the huge 1950s hit Western show “Have Gun — Will Travel.” His character (Paladin) lived in San Francisco. Boone was the son of a non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother. The classically trained actor and decorated World War II veteran was never religious and didn’t talk about his “Jewish side.” But his deeds showed where his heart was.

Columnist  Nate Bloom, an Oaklander, can be reached at [email protected].

Nate Bloom

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