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Why Would Bethenny Frankel Deny Being Jewish?

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Jennifer Ginsberg: I admit it: I am a huge fan of "The Real Housewives of New York City."

bethenny Frankel

While I love the entire "Real Housewives" series, the New York City one is my favorite because I lived in Manhattan and it holds a special place in my heart. I find the women of the show to be an intoxicating combination of vapid and intriguing, which makes for incredible reality television! Also, being a Jewish woman, I am happy to watch successful Jewish women on the show.

Jill Zarin recently coauthored the book "Secrets of a Jewish Mother," and I was thrilled to see a famous woman not only acknowledging, but embracing, her Judaism. I also assumed that Bethenny Frankel was proudly Jewish, but when I recently watched her on the "Real Housewives" after-show hosted by Andy Cohen, I was confused by how she responded to a viewer question. Andy had received an e-mail asking Bethenny if she was Jewish (which I found odd because she is so obviously a Jew). Bethenny responded, "No, I don't consider myself Jewish. My dad was Jewish and my mom converted ... but I don't think of myself as Jewish."

I was stunned. Here is a woman who is as "Jewishy" as they come: She looks Jewish, she sounds Jewish, she has a Jewish name and Yiddish words are peppered throughout her lexicon. Not to mention the fact that she is 100 percent Jewish, given that both of her parents are Jewish (Judaism recognizes converts to be as Jewish as if they had been born Jews). Why would she deny her ethnicity?

Bethenny quickly changed the subject to her new book and talked about all of her successes as an author and celebrity chef. Here is a beautiful, accomplished woman who is riding a hard-earned wave of success, yet she flat-out denied her heritage with no explanation. Had she said, "I was Jewish, but I found Jesus and converted," I would have understood. But her only reason for not affiliating with her religion was, "I'm just spiritual." But how, I wondered, does being Jewish conflict with being "spiritual"?

I found myself feeling a bit like I did when I used to watch "Seinfeld." Here were these characters who were so clearly Jewish, but there were rarely any direct references made to their Judaism. While I thought the show was brilliantly funny, I had a hard time jumping on the "Seinfeld bandwagon" because of the Jewish elephant in the living room. There was something vaguely unsettling and self-hating about the whole thing. I could only speculate that the producers believed that if the characters openly discussed their Judaism, they would have lost a large part of their audience because of anti-Semitism. Perhaps they were right.

I wonder if Bethenny feels the same way. I've always been a fan of hers on the show; she naturally takes on the role of Greek chorus as her sharp wit and moments of vulnerability showcase her magnetic personality. But now I'm not so sure. I'm disappointed that she missed the opportunity to proudly acknowledge her Judaism in front of a mass audience, especially during a time when Jews and the State of Israel need all the support they can get! While people of all creeds and cultures -- from Muslims to African-Americans -- get major kudos for embracing their heritage, it seems as if Jews are all too often reticent to acknowledge theirs.

It has been a long-standing debate as to whether Judaism is a religion or ethnicity. I'm with most American Jews who tend to think of their Jewishness as a matter of culture. There are certain cultural traits that that are shared by many Jews, just as there are distinguishing characteristics shared by Mexican-Americans or Italian-Americans. Jews in many parts of the world share many of those cultural aspects, which only leads to the fact that Judaism is indeed a culture. So while Bethenny may not be a practicing religious Jew, she is still culturally a Jew, just as an Italian-American who doesn't practice Catholicism is still Italian.

I can only imagine the uproar if one of the African-American women from "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" denied being black. Can you imagine Nene saying, "Both of my parents were African-American, but I don't consider myself black"? Not only would it be terribly insulting to the African-American community, it would be ridiculous as well. But it seems to be socially acceptable for Jews to assimilate to the point of denial.

In our society, we celebrate racial and religious diversity, and this is a wonderful thing
-- except, maybe, if you are Jewish. I'm now even more proud of Jill Zarin for valuing her heritage enough to write a book that celebrates everything that Judaism, her rich and beautiful faith, has taught her. And I wish Bethenny had had the chutzpah to at least answer "yes" when asked about hers.

next: Will Facebook Kill the High School Reunion?
112 comments so far | Post a comment now
Pask May 19, 2010, 12:25 PM

Well if you really watched this season, you would understand the nature of her relationship with her father, which was virtually non-existent. Her father was Jewish, and her mother converted, but when her parents split and her father more or less made no attempts to be in her life, his influence - religious or otherwise - were unfounded. How is she supposed to embrace something that’s had nothing to do with the person that she is?

Megan May 19, 2010, 6:39 PM

Wow, I’m really stunned by the ignorance a lot of you commenters are showing. Sure, someone may deny practicing the Jewish religion, but that doesn’t change the fact of whether or not they are ethnically Jewish. Obviously, there is no one Jewish ethnic group, but the majority of Jews in the world (over 80%) belong to one ethnic group: Ashkenazi. In the United States, over 90% of Jews are Ashkenazi. It is an ethnic group, and it’s a Jewish ethnic group. Ashkenazi Jews do not belong to a specific country, but they have a shared ancestry, a shared language (Yiddish), and a shared culture. It’s ignorant to claim otherwise and also insulting. Just because my people did not have a country of their own for hundreds of years does not change the fact that they belong to a distinct ethnic group. It’s sad that because of anti-semitism and anti-Jewish sentiment that some Jews feel they have to hide their heritage.

Gerri May 19, 2010, 7:09 PM

Are you serious? Following your logic, it would appear that as long as one professes to be Jewish, no matter what the character, than all is well. Kinda kills the assumption that because of Jill’s really bad behavior that we viewers have witnessed this season, she can’t fall into the category of “bad for the Jews” because she owns up to being one and that gives her a free pass. Give me a break! She is no testament to the virtues of the Jewish woman (or any other race/religion/ethnicity!)You sound just like some misguided friend of Jill’s who was coerced into attempting to throwing Bethenny under the bus in order to try to take some of the tremendous (well-deserved) heat off of Jill.

And have you even read that book or at least readers’ reviews? Being published does not make one an author or the book an interesting read. And from overwhelming opinions, the book is not worth the time or money.

Bethenny has the right to decide her religion or to denounce her ethnicity if she chooses. It is a very personal decision who we view ourselves as. Not knowing this woman personally, I’ve gotten enough information just from the show that assures me that there is a lot of negative history in that family. Perhaps no longer identifying as Jewish is her healing and her saving grace.

We don’t have the right to judge her for her self-described identity.

jffPOF May 20, 2010, 2:04 AM


Ava May 20, 2010, 4:34 AM

Well Said Megan!!

To all posters - please stop saying her only her father is Jewish. Her mother converted and by Jewish culture a convert is equivalent to being born Jewish so her mother is indeed Jewish.

I get the distinct feeling that all these people applauding Bethenny’s denial of her Jewish ethnicity would be appalled if she used to be a Christian who no longer believed in Jesus.

John May 20, 2010, 5:25 PM

GOOD FOR HER! That’s great.

Good for her for choosing her own identity.

You are all rather wretched.

Cindy May 21, 2010, 8:57 PM

I appreciate the fact that many Jews value their religion, however for some of us, it’s frustrating to be classified as something we were never raised in or feel a connection to. Although I’m technically Jewish, I wasn’t raised Jewish..We didn’t celebrate any holidays and actually did Christmas! I happened to marry a Christian and we will raise our children Christian. So, from my perspective, let Bethenny decide what she wants to be. The “laws’ may dicate she’s Jewish or not etc but honestly, let people practice or not practice what they want…why is there so much focus on the parents religion (or mother’s) when it should really be about what you believe and how you choose to live your life.

Get It Right  May 21, 2010, 9:38 PM

SEMITIC is NOT a RACE, but is a LANGUAGE Family spoken by 467 million people across much of the Middle East and North Africa This family includes the ancient and modern forms of Akkadian, Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Ge’ez, Hebrew, Maltese, Phoenician, Tigre and Tigrinya among others.

JEWISH is NOT a RACE!It is/was a TRIBE

Kate May 25, 2010, 4:58 PM

Why do you care what Bethenny believes? She said she’s not affiliated with religion. Part of the reason she might have chosen that path could be because of the relationship she had with her father. Who knows, but I don’t know why it’s so “stunning” that she isn’t practicing Judaism. I was raised Catholic but I do not believe in any religion. Being Jewish doesn’t make it any different. Some people just choose different paths.

Kate May 25, 2010, 4:58 PM

Why do you care what Bethenny believes? She said she’s not affiliated with religion. Part of the reason she might have chosen that path could be because of the relationship she had with her father. Who knows, but I don’t know why it’s so “stunning” that she isn’t practicing Judaism. I was raised Catholic but I do not believe in any religion. Being Jewish doesn’t make it any different. Some people just choose different paths.

SJ June 2, 2010, 7:32 AM

I have to agree with those above who are slightly offended by your linear thinking of Judaism. There is a big difference between using Yiddish words in your lexicon (especially when you live in New York) and considering yourself a Jewish woman. And exactly what does “she acts Jewish” mean? I actually find THAT a little unnerving. It is Bethenny’s choice to define herself anyway she likes, and I think her answer was completely appropriate. Not that it is ANY of our business. In fact, religion is a very personal matter that she could have totally ignored if she wanted to. I too was born to Jewish parents and while I do consider myself to have Jewish roots, and to be proud of those roots, spiritually, I do not define myself as Jewish. I don’t quite see how that is an insult to “my people.” What IS insulting is someone using their religious background to increase their fame (not naming names), or being deliberately deceptive. It seems like you’re really just picking on this issue to be controversial, and frankly, that’s the problem with religious discussion today. We can’t be grownups about it, can we? Someone will always be on the offensive.

Anonymous June 3, 2010, 4:54 AM

What IS insulting is someone using their religious background to increase their fame

Um, people you are all missing the point. Jewish is MORE than just religious. It’s like being born to Irish parents and denying you’re Irish because you just don’t feel so Irish.

CJ June 6, 2010, 1:08 PM

Bethenny’s mother took her away from her father at age 4. I’m not sure that her mother practiced Judiasm after that as it sounds like there was little to no structure or stability in her childhood. I believe she may have even went to Catholic school for some period of time. She has said she is half Welsh also. The answer she gave on WWHL was that is was complicated. Yes, her father was Jewish, but she was not raised with him and I don’t think was raised in the Jewish faith, though she seems to have been around many who do. So I don’t think she is denying anything - she just said it’s complicated. Which it is.

Melanie June 14, 2010, 10:05 AM

Bethenny’s father was Jewish and made her mother convert to Judaism when they married. We don’t know if the conversion was “kosher”, but it doesn’t much matter, since her mother left her father when she was very young, and did not pratice Judaism at all after she left.

Her mother then remarried multiple times, and there is no indication that ahe considered herself a Jew after leaving. There is no indication that Bethenny ever had any Jewish upbringing at all, and never lived with her father.

Bethenny claims she had a horrible childhood, according to her. She says that she had no relationship with her parents, especially her father, who she makes out to be a monster, but never explains why. So since she hated her father, she obviously rejects his religion.

Heather June 15, 2010, 3:25 PM

Whatever the internal truth is about Bethenny’s personal religious affiliation, the author’s broader point is well-taken, and Bethenny’s response to the question is a useful vehicle for discussing it. I think the defensive, angry tone of some of the comments here supports the point that there is something about being proudly Jewish that unsettles some people. Why do I doubt that if someone from another ethnic minority objected to a public figure’s denial of that identity (if someone denied being Italian-American, or being Irish-American), there would be such a defensive reaction toward a writer pointing it out? No, I think there is something about being Jewish that provokes a strong response. I give tremendous credit to this writer for standing up for the Jewish people’s identity—and for the State of Israel—at a time when doing so is not chic or trendy. That takes character and guts - too bad it appears Bethenny couldn’t quite muster enough of these qualities to say, “Yeah, I’m Jewish and proud!”

btd June 26, 2010, 6:18 AM

What a ridiculous article. You can’t ascribe cultural or religious characteristics to people and then be angry if they don’t embrace them. Bethenny answered (presumably) honestly and said she does not consider herself Jewish. It’s not your business to be ashamed of her for feeling that way. She was not raised Jewish, does not practice Judaism. She is under no obligation to say she is Jewish just because she has some Jewish heritage. She didn’t say anything bad about Jews; she just said she does not consider herself to be Jewish. Much of NYC is a Jewish cultural milieu, and being part of that doesn’t make you Jewish. And, as others have said, if you are looking to Jill Zarin as a paragon of Jewish womanhood, then you’ve really got a problem. (I am Jewish, by the way.)

carlyn June 29, 2010, 2:54 PM

i think is a personal decision whether to embrace the parents’ religion or not. what should someone just proudly announce their judaism? just because? there’s nothing wrong with not being jewish even tough “you look jew and speak yiddish”. and by the way, what does israel has to do with this?? not that american jews have any relationship whatsoever whit what’s happening in the middle east (just being jewish). and by the way, judaism is a religion NOT an ethnicity.

Ciaobionda July 6, 2010, 9:11 PM

That is quite the debate- whether Jewish is an ethnicity/race or religion.

Regardless I hate it when people say they are Catholic. You say “Which church do you attend?” and then they respond with “Oh I haven’t been to church since 1970.” And I just want to ask; “Why in God’s name would you say you are Catholic??” Clearly you are not a good one. You just make a mockery of the religion by claiming it and then not abiding by it.

My guess is Bethenny feels the same way. “I can’t claim what I don’t own” if she is not a practicing Jew. I personally think she was being sensitive to the fact that to Real Practicing Jews consider it their religion (and bloodline if so- if converted then not). the very fact that you can convert to Judaism tells us it is truly a religion more than all else.
I think part of the debate is in part created by the fact that Judaism is one of the few religions in the world that does not proselytize and so over time these religious people were indeed racially homogenous until inter-marrying and migrating over time has brought other races into their gene pool. So originally a race formed a religion which formed a race of people who practiced it (just like Islam or say Christianity) and it continued until the present day when many Jewish people have married into other races and religions. I do believe it is anti-semitic to say someone is Jewish if they don’t practice the religion. They can say they are whatever they want, but it is wrong for you to label other people for themselves. It is none of our business if Bethenny is Jewish or not. That’s her business. She is what she is and we will never know her heart.

Michele July 7, 2010, 2:43 PM

Not everyone is a practicing Jew, or any type of religion. I’m Catholic to the bone, went to Catholic schools etc, but I don’t consider myself Catholic!!!

Tony July 16, 2010, 12:20 PM

First of all……..Judiasm is a RELIGION. It is NOT a nationality. If you think it is, tell me where the nation JEW is!!! You are the religion that you chose to be. Their nationality/religion would be Isreali/Jew, Russian/Jew, etc…
Bethanny’s denial of judiasm is based more on the resentment toward her jewish father than the actual religion.

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