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JewishJournal.com

November 20, 2006

Michael Richards: still not a Jew

http://www.jewishjournal.com/television/article/michael_richards_still_not_a_jew_20061121

Michael Richards is not a Jew.

As Cosmo Kramer in "Seinfeld," Richards played one on TV. But he himself is not Jewish -- not that there's anything wrong with that.

Richards lashed out a heckler at the Laugh Factory last Friday, spitting out the "N" word without humor and with abandon. Audience members booed, several walked out, then Richards himself walked off stage.

The incident was caught on a cellphone camera and posted at the TMZ.com Web site, where it ignited a firestorm of criticism against Richards. Richards apologized on "The Late Show With David Letterman" Monday night. "I was at a comedy club trying to do my act, and I got heckled, and I took it badly and went into a rage," he said. "For me to be in a comedy club and flip out and say this crap, I'm deeply, deeply sorry. I'm not a racist. That's what's so insane about this."

Fellow comedians and fans have been quick to criticize Richards -- and misrepresent his religious background. Comedian Paul Rodriquez held a press conference at the Laugh Factory, saying that Richards should know better, because the Hollywood community defended Jews against actor Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirades.

The implication was that Richards, a Jew, should not be launching racist attacks. He shouldn't, but he also isn't Jewish.

"Someone needs to tell Rodriquez that Michael isn't a Jew," said a television director who has known Richards for years. The two worked together in 1980 on ABC's "Fridays" television show and have remained in touch ever since.

According to sources familiar with Richards, the actor was raised I no specific religious tradition. "He does not have Jewish blood," said New York publicist Howard Rubenstein, who Richards retained to help manage his PR nightmare.

Rubenstein created some confusion over Richards' heritage when he told the press that the actor is indeed Jewish. "He's Jewish," Rubenstein is quoted as saying to Yahoo news.

In a telephone interview with The Jewish Journal, Rubenstein clarified that Richards was not born Jewish and never converted to Judaism. "He believes in Judaism, and that's what he's adopted for himself," said Rubenstein

According to traditional Jewish law, a Jew is any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism. Liberal streams of Judaism also recognize as Jewish a person born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. By any of these definitions, Richards is not technically Jewish, as Rubenstein acknowledged. "He identifies strongly with [Judaism]," the publicist said.

A biography of Richards on the Wikipedia web site lists no religion, but does say Richards is very involved in the Masons. Masonry is not a religion but Masons do subscribe to a set of ethical precepts.

"Seinfeld" was Richards' first big break after a long and unlikely rise to stardom.

According to Wikipedia, Richards was born in Culver City to Phyllis (nee Nardozzi), a medical records librarian. He was raised by Nardozzi and William Richards, an electrical engineer. "Richards attended California Institute of the Arts but received a bachelor's degree in drama from Evergreen State College in 1975.

He was drafted during the Vietnam War and stationed in Germany, as one of the co-directors of the V Corps Training Road Show. He produced and directed shows dealing with race relations and drug abuse. He then spent two years in the Army developing educational skits and a couple more years 'finding himself' at a commune in the Santa Clara Mountains. He drove a bus and developed a stand-up comedy act in 1979," according to the Web site.

In "Seinfeld," which aired from 1989-1998, Richards played Kramer, a character based on show co-creator Larry David's former across-the-hall neighbor, Kenny Kramer. The real Kramer is indeed of Jewish heritage -- not that there's anything wrong with that.

Richards did appear Sep. 14 at the Laugh Factory's evening of Jewish comics, called, "The King Davids of Comedy." However, the management made it clear at the time that Richards and the other major comic at the event, Louis CK, were not part of that evening's themed show, and that no photography would be permitted during their sets.

Following Richard's racist remarks, Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada posted this message on the company's Web site: "We do not support or condone the inappropriate, hurtful and offensive comments that Mr. Richards made on Friday night at the Laugh Factory.

"Mr. Richards was scheduled to appear on Saturday night and had informed management of his intention to apologize for his hurtful and unprofessional outburst from the previous night. He failed to do so and disappointed us.

"We have made it clear that Mr. Richards is no longer welcomed here. The Laugh Factory is a comedy club not a forum for personal attacks."

Laugh Factory owner Masada is Jewish.

Confusion over Richards' heritage grew after the Anti-Defamation League issued a press release Monday denouncing the actor's tirade.

"Richards' repeated use of the 'n-word' and apparent reference to lynching is offensive in any context. There is no excuse for such insensitive and bigoted language. It has no place in a comedy club and no place in America and must be clearly repudiated," the release said.

"We hope Mr. Richards will now take a public stand against appeals to racism and bigotry and publicly apologize for his poor judgment in shouting them from the stage."

The release did not address Richard's own religion. In the past, the ADL has regularly taken public stances against instances of racism unrelated to anti-Semitism.

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