"People are shocked to discover I'm Jewish," Nikki Schieler Ziering said.
In her red, white and blue string bikini on the cover of July's Playboy, the blonde model-actress looks like a sexier version of the all-American girl. She is better known for playing bombshells in films such as "Serving Sara" than, say, making a brisket.
But on radio's "Loveline" recently, Ziering -- who plays a campy dominatrix stripper in "American Wedding" -- revealed that she cooks brisket and practices Judaism. When co-host Adam Corolla countered, "You're not a real Jew," she said she converted before her 1997 wedding to actor Ian Ziering and that she's continued practicing since they separated in 2001.
"People always ask me, 'Are you still Jewish?' and I say, 'Of course,'" she told The Journal over breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I fell in love with Judaism because it's all about family values and having good morals. It's something I made a commitment to and that I take seriously."
So seriously that she easily beat Corolla at an impromptu "Jew off" game featuring questions such as, "How many candles are there on a menorah?"
"I had you at 'Shalom,'" she said.
Ziering, 31, didn't know many Jews growing up in a mostly Christian area of Brea, but her own household wasn't religious. Her Norwegian American mother, who had rebelled against her own strict, Protestant upbringing, didn't baptize Nikki or require her to attend church.
During a period of adolescent soul-searching, Ziering, then 15, had herself baptized and started frequenting a hip, Orange County church.
"It was a phase," she said.
By the time she graduated from high school, she was more focused on jump-starting her career -- which began when a modeling scout discovered her while she was working as a dental assistant around 1993. Ziering went on to model for companies such as Frederick's of Hollywood, to pose nude in Playboy and to be one of "Barker's Beauties" on CBS' "The Price is Right."
In 1994, she met her future husband while playing a bit part on his series, "Beverly Hills, 90210." "I had never had anyone close in my life who was Jewish," she said.
As she fell in love with Ian Ziering, she also fell in love with his religion.
"The family aspects appealed to me, because my parents divorced and I didn't have that," she said. "Initially, I worried that his parents would reject me as 'the shiksa,' but they were totally accepting."
Although there was no pressure to become Jewish, Ziering decided to enroll in the 22-week conversion class led by Rabbi Jonathan Aaron at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. "I think it's important to raise your children with something, so I just went in with an open mind, not specifically to convert," she said.
Studying Judaism changed her mind. "I loved that on Yom Kippur, you are not only supposed to ask for forgiveness, but also to forgive," she said. "I love how you cover the challah when you say the blessing over the wine because you don't want to 'hurt its feelings.' That's such a great way to teach children compassion; it's just such a sweet thing."
On the morning of her conversion, Ziering felt nervous. "It was that residue of what you're taught as a Christian -- that everyone else is going to hell," she said. She relaxed while answering questions in front of the bet din (the rabbinical court): "I just felt so accepted, I started crying and I knew I was doing the right thing."
Ziering then immersed in the mikvah; in the temple that evening, she carried the Torah, "which was quite an honor," she said.
When she got married under a chuppah at the Beverly Hills Hotel in July 1997, she said it was the first Jewish wedding she had ever attended.
Over the next few years, observing rituals such as lighting Shabbat candles proved easier for Ziering than mastering some cultural aspects of Judaism.
For example, she said, "I learned how to not use the word, schmuck."
Then there was the Rosh Hashana dinner for 20 guests she prepared as her mother-in-law guided her by phone from New Jersey. "I hung up before she told me what to do with the gefilte fish, but as I'd been cooking for two days, I was feeling all confident, and I figured, I'll just pop them in the oven for 20 minutes,'" she recalled. "My guests laughed hysterically that I not only cooked the gefilte fish, I burned them."
Ziering has continued to observe the holidays since separating from her husband -- and to field questions about being Jewish. When people ask why a nice Jewish girl is appearing topless in films such as "American Wedding," (her Officer Krystal dominates the outrageous bachelor party sequence) she says, "I have no problems being naked because the human body is beautiful."
When they ask if she's really Jewish, she tries to maintain her sense of humor. As she told Corolla: "I used to be a 'shiksa,' but now I'm a Jew."
"American Wedding" opens today in Los Angeles.
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