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From Brat Packer to Jewish Cowgirl

It’s rare that you hear about a celebrity’s foray into Judaism that doesn’t involve Philip Berg and the Kabbalah Centre. Madonna changed her name to Esther, but we haven’t yet seen an album bearing that nom de plume. Like Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher, many celebrities dabble in Judaism for a few months, get a Hebrew tattoo, and then move on to the next big thing. (It would be an interesting study to see how many Scientologists once tried davening.)
When I first heard that the actress and musician Mare Winningham recently recorded a CD of Jewish country music following her recent conversion, I looked to see if Berg was thanked in the liner notes. Not only was his name missing, but it was obvious that Winningham’s conversion didn’t begin with a course on Jewish numerology. Unlike many other Hollywood searchers who find Judaism as a way of making sense of the world, she isn’t a dilettanteshe’s a ger tzedek.

On her album Refuge Rock Sublime, released this year, Winningham transposes traditional Jewish songs such as “Etz Chaim” and “Al Kol Ele” onto a country template. The result is an almost uncomfortably passionate expression of being a Jew. Winningham says she has a hard time talking about religion, but she lays herself bare on these songs, investing them with something that you don’t ordinarily hear in Jewish music: raw emotionalism.

Winningham is often remembered for her role in the quintessential ‘80s film St. Elmo’s Fire. But this was the least of her long and prolific acting career, which has spanned the last twenty years and includes her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1995 film Georgia, in which she played a country star. Recently, Winningham has been performing in a Broadway musical based on the songs of Patty Griffin called Ten Million Miles. I spoke with her a few days before the show closed.

Even today, in 2007, you still represent for so many an icon of the '80s. What was that like?

Truthfully, I don't feel a part of that at all, and I didn't feel a part of it then. I had a career in television, and the rest of the St. Elmo’s Fire cast were movie stars. I was a little bit older and I was a mother. And, frankly, when they did all the publicity for the movie, I wasn't really asked to do it. I don't want to say I was excluded, but I just wasn't included.

Did that cause tension, or did you not care because you already had this life for yourself in television?

Well, I was probably a little bit of a snoot. At the time, I remember kind of thinking that I wasn't really a big fan of those movies, so I was pretty snobby about it.

So you didn't feel a part of some cultural force that was going on?

I didn't at all. When people say that era defines a generation, I am shocked. For me those were years of bad music and bad hair.

Well, I've been spending a lot of time with your new CD and I’m curious about your religious life, even before your conversion. Did you always feel like you had a religious sensibility or was there something particular about Judaism that led you to be religious?

The second. I've been secular my whole adult life. At some points I guess I would call myself anti-religious.

You grew up Roman Catholic, though.

No. My mother is Catholic and churchgoing, and we were all catechized. We went through our First Communion when we were little and then we went to catechism school on Saturdays, but all of this is before you're a young adult. When it was up to me I stopped going, which was right after Confirmation, around 16 years old.

Did you have support from your father or other family members?

My father was never involved because my mother married a non-Catholic, which was probably an unusual move for her, having gone to Catholic school all her life and being very religious. My mother is just a really unusual religious person in that she's just so comfortable with her own faith. She doesn't feel a need to talk about it or pass it off on other people.

So she wasn't disappointed?

I'm sure she must have been very disappointed. I think she was disappointed when each of her kids stopped going.

But was she worried about your mortal soul?

No, no, that's what I mean. I think she must be an unusual Catholic in that while religion is a beautiful thing for her, she doesn't turn it into a reason to worry or condemn or judge anybody else.

So then not going to church for you wasn't some kind of spiritual crisis.

Well, I really wanted to be honest about it. I could not continue to participate in something that just didn't seem true to me. It just wasn't right.

In my adolescence I explored Buddhism and alternative religions and wanted to learn about them. Did you have that kind of search?

The best class I ever took in high school, which was the extent of my formal education, was this comparative religions class. It convinced me that all religions were structures for an idea of God, and I didn't think I needed structure. The idea of a God was implanted in me and I was fine with that.

So you believed in God?

I did, for a long time. And then I started to wonder if I believed in God. I felt like an extremist all of a sudden. And then, as soon as I was on the precipice and I didn’t really think I believed in God, I got hit by a powerful wave—it's okay to reject something, but you better be real clear about what it is.

That's the great religious moment, staring into the abyss.

Yes. It was a big moment. And I was forty or so. And it came with the requisite powerful dream. So I signed up for school right away at the University of Judaism.

Why Judaism, though?

Well, my reasoning was they were the first monotheistic religion.

You weren't signing up because you wanted to become Jewish.

No, I feel like I wanted to confirm my atheism. Also, though, I really think that the Jewish people that I've been close with throughout my life have had a profound effect on me. I had a lot of close Jewish friends in the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up, so I attended some Shabbat dinners when I was younger and I went to many Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs of friends.

What happened to you at UJ?

Well, it was a slow, gradual sort of love affair with all things Jewish. It started on a beautiful note. I think maybe the first class or the second class, my teacher, Rabbi Weinberg, said that Judaism is concerned with our behavior here and how we treat one another. And I was like, “Yeah, I'm good with that.” A lot of my problem with religion was the focus on salvation and resurrection. And I just really loved the emphasis on how you treat your fellow man.

But finding a sense of a connection to a moral idea is still different from saying you believe in God.

Well, I was telling you where it started. In that first class the rabbi mentioned Israel. His name was Jacob and became Israel.

It was a fight. A wrestling match.

Yes. You can define Israel as a struggle with God. In this tremendous struggle checking out the Jews, I came upon that definition and it just made me laugh. But I hadn't really read the Torah. My Catholic education emphasized the New Testament. I honestly do not remember if I got those stories when I was young, and I definitely didn't get them when I was older. I couldn't tell you the story of Sarah and Abraham. I couldn't tell you the story of Hagar and Ishmael. I couldn't tell you about Jacob and Leah and Rachael.

And if you got them at all, they were probably conceptualized within a Christian view.

I'm not sure about that. But I didn't have anything. This was a revelation to me, no pun intended. These narratives and these stories really just swept me, and I got so excited and I kept reading. I did all the homework that they assigned, and then some. I was a very good student. And I began having a really strong desire to build a relationship with God.

At what point did I accept that there was a God? Early on, I felt pretty strongly that this book was not written by man. Perhaps it was written by man physically, but I felt the narrator—well, I felt there was too much going on. I would rather not make that simple a statement, but having made it, I would say that of course it's more important to elaborate about what I mean by that, but it would take up the whole interview.

Of course. We're talking about a tradition that is about interpretation. It's about wrestling with the text as much as it's about wrestling with a God.

Well, as I started to look at the Hebrew and be aware of the number of writings that accompanied the text, like the Talmud and Midrash, and when I started to see what was going on and what was available to mankind, why this was given, I really felt that it was the hand of God. And I felt sorry for myself and for everyone who is just running around like chickens with our heads cut off wondering why there's not a manual for life. But it was a slow, gradual, ever-blooming thing. I didn’t develop a relationship with God overnight. It took a leap of understanding, and then it took a lot of prayer and time spent studying.

Why did you stop there? Why convert to Judaism instead going straight ahead and saying, I've done this, I understand the foundation, now I can be a Christian? What was it about Judaism that you said, no, there's nowhere else to go?

I really don't understand the question. I feel like I have gone in a straight line. I feel like I am continuing to go in a straight line. I am plunging forward. It feels to me like you're asking me why then I didn't go to the natural progression towards Catholicism, and that makes no sense to me because that is not a progression to me.

That's an answer—a Jewish answer.

It is? Oh, good.

You were a musician before your conversion, so it makes sense that you would use music to express some of this stuff.

Exactly. Meeting people in the Jewish community that were involved in Jewish music, I was being given records from Israeli folk records to Theodore Bikel records to traditional cantorial stuff. I thought right away that I've got to write some songs.

But you still have a very unique sound. How did you come to that? If you took it out of context or you didn't have the lyrics, it sounds like American music that is traditionally Christian.

That was what I wanted to address. I love country music and I wanted to stop the presumption that country religious music has to be gospel. It's not gospel Jewish, but I wanted to be a Jewish cowgirl and do traditional country Jewish content songs.

Part of what makes the song so powerful is you can feel that tension inside of it.

In Judaism, there's tension in everything, right?

Jewish music certainly has moments of great passion, there are musical extremes of joy and melancholy, but I don't think about Judaism as an emotional religion in the way Christianity can be. In Christian church services you have people falling to their knees, weeping. Judaism often tends to be more stoic, even in its passionate moments. And yet your music is painfully emotional at times. It's an incredibly candid expression of your spiritual life, which is not common, I don't think, in Jewish music or even in Jewish religious expression. Did you intend it to be this open and this personal?

As much as I think about intent, well, I suppose, yes. I'm an emotional creature on anyone's scale, Jewish or not. From the time I was a little girl my family has always joked that Mare loves a good cry. And I know that's true. I don't like speaking in public very much because I usually end up crying, sometimes for no reason. I'm not very proud of that. I wouldn't fly that flag, but I'm not surprised that you noted it because it's true.

You are a convert to Judaism. That makes you a special kind of Jew. Do you think that you brought some of that to your music?

Well, they always say the convert is very enthusiastic, and that's got to be true. But I was also dealing with Judaism's approach to relations with our fellow man, and those include grief and obligation and responsibility and love—all very emotional issues. I like Judaism's approach to emotional issues, even though I understand what you're saying, that it may not be an emotional approach.

It's impossible not to think, “I'm sitting here speaking to Mare Winningham who is a celebrity and who is an actress.” You’re providing a different example for people of what Judaism can mean for a celebrity. It's not just coming out of some fashionable moment.

It’s a little tricky talking about religion. It feels so private. It's hard to look at interviews and read them and see what I said. If there's something to promote, that's different; I've been doing that my whole life. I can talk about a project, but I have a hard time talking about myself. And I think a Jewish person's most beautiful gift is the ability to transform, like Jacob into Israel. I just have to realize I made the CD, I put it out there, I'm being asked to talk about it, and I better stand up.

You didn't have to be as explicit as you were in your lyrics.

Yeah. I made my bed. I've got to lie in it.

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