Keeping the Faith

Michele Bachmann, David Letterman, and More Notables Mistaken for Jewish (Photos)

See honorary Chosen People like Michele Bachmann, David Letterman, Joy Behar, and—Abraham Lincoln? By Michael Solomon.

Michele Bachmann is getting campaign funds because some donors mistakenly think she’s Jewish. See other honorary Chosen People like David Letterman, Joy Behar, and—Abraham Lincoln? By Michael Solomon.

Rick Wilson / AP Photo

Michele Bachmann

According to the New York Post, Mitt Romney is having trouble raising campaign funds from Jewish donors who mistakenly believe Michele Bachmann to be a member of the tribe. While the Minnesota congresswoman has long been a supporter of Israel, she is actually an evangelical Christian. Voters may have been confused, however, after Bachmann talked with a Jewish blogger last year about the time she spent on a kibbutz: “I spent a summer working on Kibbutz Be’eri near Beer Sheva in 1974. I’ve been four times in Israel—three times as a member of Congress. I loved Israel—from the moment I first landed.” But she still doesn’t know how to pronounce “chutzpah.”

Charles Sykes / AP Photo

Joy Behar

She’s got that classic New York accent and frequently shpritzes a little Yiddish on The View, so how is it possible that Joy Behar is actually Italian? People have mistakenly believed the Brooklyn-born comedian (née Josephina Occhiuto) was Jewish for so long that she actually worked the shtick into her standup act years ago. “Everyone thinks I'm Jewish,” Behar says. “I'm not. Last year I got a call: ‘Happy Hanukkah.’ I said, 'Ma, I'm not Jewish.'"

Roger Kisby / Getty Images

Bruce Springsteen

One fan’s Springsteen is another fan’s Springstein. The Boss’s Jewish-sounding surname has caused such religious confusion that it even earned him a mention in Adam Sandler’s iconic “Chanukah Song.” ("So many Jews are in the showbiz/Bruce Springsteen isn't Jewish/But my mother thinks he is.") The 61-year-old rock legend is in fact half-Italian and was raised Roman Catholic, but Jewish E Street Band groupies can still take pride in longtime drummer Max Weinberg.

Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images

David Letterman

Just because a man’s a comedian doesn’t make him Jewish. But that didn’t stop a terrorist connected with al Qaeda from ordering a fatwa on David Letterman after the late-night host joked about Osama bin Laden. “I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears one of the scum of the Jews, one of their pigs, mocking the leaders of mujahedeen,” jihadist Umar al-Basrawi wrote in a Web forum last month. “We pray to Allah to paralyze his tongue, and that the righteous believers will break his neck. Isn’t there among you [a man like] Sayyid Nosair, the Egyptian, who can cut off the tongue of this lousy Jew and silence him forever, just like his fellow Jew, Kahane?” Letterman, who is actually Presbyterian, showed no fear. “Tonight,” he said in his first monologue since the fatwa, “you people are more, to me, honestly, than an audience—you’re more like a human shield.”

AP Photo

Ethel Merman

Here’s another classic case of ethnic stereotyping: Ethel Merman was born in Queens, had a loud, brassy voice, and played one of the most overbearing mothers in Broadway history (Gypsy’s Mama Rose). Further confusing the issue, she changed her name from Zimmermann. But in fact her father was a German Lutheran, her mother was a Scottish Presbyterian, and little Ethel was baptized Episcopalian. Ironically, because she frequently vehemently denied being Jewish, Merman was also viewed as anti-Semitic. Again, the evidence doesn’t support the theory—her second husband and father of her two children, Robert Levitt, was Jewish. 

Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

Jason Biggs

Jason Biggs has portrayed so many Jewish characters on screen (American Pie, Saving Silverman) that even Woody Allen believed him to be a nice Jewish boy, casting him as the young Woody type in Anything Else. But at one point during the shoot, Biggs (who is Catholic) was overcome by non-Jewish guilt. “Rosh Hashanah was approaching,” Biggs explained to The Times of London, “[and Allen] asked if I was doing anything for the holiday. I had to think about whether or not I should tell him. I was like, how far into filming are we? If he learns I’m not Jewish, can he fire me and reshoot this stuff, or is that too expensive? … And, of course, I wanted to be honest with him. I was like ‘Woody, I’m actually not Jewish.’ He couldn’t believe it, but he took it much better than I expected.”

Jim Mone / AP Photo

Rod Carew

Partial blame for the misconception about Rod Carew’s religious heritage dates back to a 1977 Time magazine cover on which the Minnesota Twins slugger posed wearing a gold necklace with the Hebrew letters for chai (life). But no doubt most people consider Carew Jewish because of Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” which mistakenly lists him in the roster. (“O. J. Simpson … not a Jew!/But guess who is: Hall of Famer Rod Carew—he converted.") In fact, he did not. Carew did, however, marry a Jewish woman, Marilynn Levy, and raised his three daughters in the faith.

Jason DeCrow / AP Photo

Whoopi Goldberg

Joy Behar isn’t the only View cast member who is mistakenly viewed as Jewish. Then again, when you have a traditionally Jewish last name like Goldberg, you’re pretty much inviting the confusion. But for the Oscar-winning star, born Caryn Johnson, “Whoopi Goldberg” is simply an outrageous stage name (dreamed up by her mother), a comedic twist on the countless Jewish comics who Anglicized their names in order to “pass.” Still, the woman who once played a nun in Sister Act has said of her heritage: “My family is Jewish, Buddhist, Baptist, and Catholic. I don't believe in man-made religions.”

Reed Saxon / AP Photo

Norman Jewison

If the word “Jew” is in your surname and you once directed Fiddler on the Roof, confusion about your religious background is certainly understandable. Indeed, in Norman Jewison's autobiography, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, the Canadian-born director confessed: “For as long as I can remember I've always wanted to be a Jew. For many years I believed, hopefully, that I was Jewish, that my parents were lying when they denied it. When I was six, I started going to the Kenilworth synagogue, in the beach area of Toronto, with my friend Stanley Zann. I wore my yarmulke proudly and carried on being Jewish until Stanley’s mother found me out.”

Dave Hogan / Getty Images

Madonna

Though she was born Madonna Louise Ciccone and raised Roman Catholic, the Material Girl is undoubtedly the most famous advocate of Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish mystical sect she was introduced to in 1997 by comedian Sandra Bernhard. Her beliefs grew so strong that Madonna even announced she had taken the name Esther, meaning (what else?) “star” in Persian. But her love of Kabbalah also angered many Jews who felt her faith was just another celebrity fad. She defended her beliefs in a 2005 New York Daily News interview: "'What do you mean you study the Torah if you're not Jewish?' 'What do you mean you pray to God and wear sexy clothes? We don't understand this,'” Madonna quoted her detractors. “It would be less controversial if I joined the Nazi Party.”

David Silverman / Getty Images

Superman

He was born Kal-El (incorporating the Hebrew word el for God), and his arrival on Earth mirrored the story of Moses. In Smallville he was raised Methodist, assumed the quintessential gentile identity of Clark Kent, but then flew off to fight Nazis. Is it any wonder that Jewish scholars have long debated whether the Man of Steel is secretly Jewish? Created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster (both of whom were Jewish), Superman has a story that “mirrors the situation that many real-life Jews back in the late '30s had when [the comic] first came out,” says Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of Up, Up, and Oy Vey! “The life of Jews in the old country in Germany was imploding. Many Jewish children were sent away on the kindertransports to grow up with families in England. I think they shaped their superhero with a particularly Jewish worldview.”

Alex Hessler / AP Photo

Abraham Lincoln

While there is little evidence, some historians (and many conspiracy theorists) believe America’s 16th president was Jewish. Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, speaking after Lincoln's 1865 assassination, claimed: “Abraham Lincoln believed himself to be bone from our bone and flesh from our flesh. He supposed himself to be a descendant of Hebrew parentage. He said so in my presence.” In other words, Honest Abe was a real mensch.