Judaism is making headlines around the world in recent days, amid reports that Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow has decided to embrace the Law of Moses. Everyone from The New York Post to the UK Daily Mail to something called Beauty World News has made a fuss over the possibility that the celebrity named “Most Beautiful Woman” last year by People magazine will go from television scripts to Torah study.
Don’t be surprised if we start to see gossip columnists, celebrity news outlets and paparazzi staking out afternoon Mincha prayer services and Daf Yomi Talmud study groups in an effort to catch a glimpse of the beautiful blonde as she connects with her Creator.
Of course, there will surely be those who will cast a cynical glance at this episode, dismissing it as just another odd Hollywood tale. Indeed, barely had the news gone public when mean-spirited tweets making the rounds were already declaring, “Gwyneth Paltrow to convert to Judaism – haven’t the Jews suffered enough?” Nastiness aside, whatever what one may think of Tinseltown or the people who inhabit it, Paltrow’s ostensible decision to become a member of the tribe is a heartening development, one that underlines the great potential that exists to bring descendants of Jews back to the Jewish people. For, at a time of mounting assimilation and intermarriage throughout the Diaspora, reaching out to those with Jewish ancestry will help to strengthen us quantitatively and qualitatively, numerically and spiritually.
As has been widely reported, Paltrow is the daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, which means that she is the classic example of what rabbinical literature refers to as “Zera Yisrael” (“the seed of Israel”).
On April 1, 2011, on the NBC TV genealogy program Who do you think you are?, Paltrow went on a journey of discovery, delving into her roots with the help of researchers and academics. Sitting in the sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side, she glanced at old census records and marriage documents, learning that her great-great grandfather, Simcha Paltrovich, was a rabbi and author of a religious work named “Keter Tzvi.” And his father, Tzvi Hirsh – Paltrow’s great-great-great grandfather – was a prominent rabbi and kabbalist in Novogrod, Poland, who is also said to have been a miracle-worker who saved his community by putting out a fire through mystical means.
A photograph of two of her ancestors, looking like a typical old-world Eastern European Jewish couple, presents a sharp contrast to the star of Shakespeare in Love and the Iron Man series.
But regardless of how she might appear on the surface, there is no doubt that Paltrow has a historical, biological and even spiritual connection with the Jewish people.
Speaking at a London event hosted by British Jewry’s Community Security Trust, she said that she wants to raise her children, Apple, 10, and Moses, 8, in a “Jewish environment.” And in interviews, Paltrow has also stated that she considers herself a “Jewish princess” because of her rabbinical forbears.
Throughout the United States and Europe, there are literally millions of people with Jewish ancestry, many of whom are only one, two or three generations removed from their Jewish roots. And countless others may be just a simple DNA test away from uncovering their own Jewish connection.
As a recent study by the Jewish People Policy Institute noted, “Millions of people around the world may discover they have Jewish roots as a result of direct-to-consumer DNA testing.”
This, says JPPI president Avinoam Bar-Yosef, could serve to expand the “circle of individuals with some Jewish roots who feel an affinity and identification with the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
For over a decade, Shavei Israel, the organization that I founded and chair, has been doing just that, reaching out to lost tribes and far-flung communities of Jewish descent, seeking to strengthen their connection with Israel and the Jewish people.
In recent years, we have started to receive a growing number of inquiries from people across the globe who have taken DNA tests and suddenly realize that they have a “Jewish connection.” This could prove to be a powerful tool, because it will connect people in a very tangible way to the State of Israel and the Jewish people – not only emotionally and spiritually, but biologically too.
Just imagine if world Jewry and the State of Israel were to launch a coordinated outreach effort to descendants of Jews, aimed at cultivating within them a greater sense of kinship with our people. It could have a profound impact on Jewish life in a range of fields, because the moment someone discovers or rediscovers their Jewish roots, it can alter their sense of identity and identification.
Those who choose to return formally to the Jewish people will strengthen us demographically, while those who do not will nonetheless be more likely to sympathize with Israel and Jewish causes. It is simply a “winwin” no matter how one looks at it.
As the great 19th century Hassidic leader Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin wrote in his work Resisei Layla, every “lost Jew” will one day find his or her way back to our people, “for the root of the soul of the seed of Israel can never be upended.”
Gwyneth Paltrow is proof of this, for even in the depths of Hollywood, amid the glamour and glitz, the Jewish spark within her could not be quenched.
So welcome back to the Jewish people, dear Gwyneth, and may your return pave the way for many others as well.
The writer is Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists descendants of Jews seeking to return to the Jewish people.