Raising Moses and Apple (and a little Awareness)

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...full text also available at TransMissions

Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow recently announced her decision to raise her children, seven-year-old Moses and five-year-old Apple, Jewish. For some this doesn't qualify as news in a world full of heinous acts committed in the name of religion. For others, Paltrow's decision is part of a larger story about Jewish identity and how it intersects with religion, ethnicity, nation and culture in the news.

The story broke first in the U.K. on the Jewish Chronicle, which reported that Paltrow, whose late father was Jewish film producer Bruce Paltrow, rediscovered her Jewish background on NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" show earlier this year. As it happens her father descends from a long line of eastern European rabbis. The story was picked up stateside one week later by the San Diego Jewish Journal in a report that raised some important questions about what it means to be, or to be raised, Jewish. Among other things this report suggested that Paltrow may be making a statement that's more about spiritual and cultural uplift and less about religious commitment or intensity.

Genealogy experts-turned-pundits then questioned Paltrow's authenticity. Many argued that although Paltrow was raised with a Jewish sensitivity and intends to share similar values with her family, neither she nor her children qualify as Jewish according to Jewish law. They explain that Judaism itself is passed down via the matriarchal line, and Paltrow's mother (actress Blythe Danner) is Christian.

Translation: Paltrow et al. aren't real Jews and she should be content to keep practicing Kabbalah. At best the family can keep a kosher kitchen, observe the Sabbath, celebrate Jewish holidays, learn Hebrew and associate with "real" Jewish friends and family in order to maintain a connection. Condescending as that may sound, Paltrow seems to be taking this advice, and it's turning into big business. On her Martha Stewart-esque website and e-newsletter GOOP, she recently announced the release of her new cookbook entitled My Father's Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family and Togetherness.

Paltrow's decision created another stir that was picked up by ABC News, which reported that the star's announcement conflicts with earlier comments she made regarding her religious background. She reportedly remarked that a mixed Christian-Jewish upbringing is "a nice way to grow up" and went on to add an important caveat: "I don't believe in religion. I believe in spirituality. Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world." That prompted stern words from a Post Chronicle op-ed writer, who remarked, "Last time we checked, Jewish [is] a religion! And religious, hypocritical attitudes are a major problem when they do not involve love for your fellow human being--but do they really cause 'all' the problems the world has?"

Additional commentary ranged from indignant (the Christian Post sniffed that Paltrow's husband, "Coldplay's frontman Chris Martin, is known as a devout Christian, and there has been no news or comments from the singer on how he feels about this radical change in faith for his children") to laudatory (Hollywood.com told readers, "Gwyneth Paltrow does what she wants, which means you can too!").

Despite this diversity of opinion, coverage of Paltrow's announcement generally shares one important quality: confusion over what Jewish identity is and means. Is it a matter of ancestry or a religion? Is it an ethnicity or nationality? Is it a culture or a parenting-decision? Is it a physical phenomenon like circumcision? Or is it an aura that can be manufactured and sold in popular culture?

While a glamorous Hollywood star's religiosity may seem like soft news, these questions get at the heart of some of the most important issues of our time. Rather than seeing religion in this instance as something disconnected from more serious, worldly matters, reporters would be wise to see how religion threads through stories both above and below the fold.