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Celebrity Surprise

June 12, 2008 By:
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I am generally opposed on principle to books like Mazel Tov, which is subtitled Celebrities' Bar and Bat Mitzvah Memories. Its bare-bones premise, expressed by the title and its accompaniment, makes it seem like a pure product of the celebrity culture, which will simply pander to the gossipy, People-magazine-loving side of our personalities. These lowest-common-denominator kind of works get my dander up, and have me automatically reaching for phrases like "dumbing down" and "cultural pollution." When such celebrity pandering is then mixed with a serious subject -- either Judaism, per se, as in the regrettable collection of interviews gathered in Abigail Pogrebin's Stars of David, or with a serious rite of passage, as is done here -- I usually find the result not only regrettable and embarrassing for the Jews, but often distasteful for all of America.

But I have to say that this is far from the case with Mazel Tov, which was recently published by Simon & Schuster, and is the work of writer Jill Rappaport and photographer Linda Solomon. The overall effect of these interviews, and old and new photos, is rather sweet, with just the right quotient of nostalgia mixed in. This is hardly a work of substance, but there's nothing toxic about it either (the "bark mitzvah" photos, though, do push things in a regrettable direction; but still, there will be lots of people who'll kvell over those, too). Indisputably, no one got hurt in the creation of this slim volume, and few will be injured while perusing it.

I must say that I was most taken by the older pictures on display, the snapshots and Polaroids of these TV and movie stars and other power brokers who were caught for posterity long before they got anywhere near the zenith of their careers. It's quite amazing to see how much of the mature Charles Grodin and the older Ed Koch can be seen in their younger incarnations. As with any old photos, it's also lots of fun to check out the hairdos and clothing styles, and gaze in wonder at some of the glimpses of New York and other major cities that are caught by the camera's lens.

Especially sweet are the pictures of fashion designer Michael Kors, which may stem from the fact that his mature face is not all that well-known to the world at large. It may also be a product of his blond, surfer-type good looks -- though he was born in New York and raised on Long Island; in addition, there's a wonderful picture of him dancing with his mother at the party afterwards, which shows conclusively where he got all his youthful golden locks.

It's also fun to learn a little about the background of an actor I particularly admire, the wildly inventive Jeremy Piven, who makes HBO's "Entourage" such a hoot. His parents, Bryne and Joyce Hiller Piven, are acting teachers. Their son (there's a daughter as well) was born in 1965 and grew up in the Chicago area, where his parents founded the Piven Theatre Workshop.

"At 8," the introductory material states, "Jeremy had his first acting job in his parents' theater, doing Chekhov. He graduated from Evanston Township High School, where he played football, and attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

"At the age of 9, he befriended John Cusack, who, with his sister, Joan, was a student at the Piven Theatre Workshop. Years later, Piven and Cusack founded New Crime Productions, which can take credit for Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity."

As for his Bar Mitzvah, Piven said that it took place in Evanston, "in a church because we were a very liberal congregation of Reform Jews, called Reconstructionists. My father used to joke that we prayed to To Whom It May Concern."

But the younger Piven had to admit that the ceremony meant a great deal to his father. "[A]t the time it may have been even more about him than me, and what a beautiful thing for him to pass on to me. My father was very religious and incredibly active in his community. He was a singer and probably would have been a cantor or a rabbi had he not been an actor. He was very connected to his Judaism."

There's lots more of this kind of unpretentious testimony in Mazel Tov, and readers with lap it up with sincere enjoyment, as well they should. The book will also make a fine gift for some young man or woman who has at last been accepted into the tribe.

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