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Jewish Journal

Journey to Judaism

by Naomi Pfefferman

June 24, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Mare Winningham intends to read the entire Torah in Hebrew. Photo by CliffLipson/CBS

Mare Winningham intends to read the entire Torah in Hebrew. Photo by CliffLipson/CBS

"I want to be the first Jewish country singer," Mare Winningham says. "Actually, Kinky Friedman was the first. But I want to be the next."

It's the kind of easy banter the actress-singer proffers between nightclub sets of her country-tinged folk music. But the setting on this Thursday afternoon is the chapel at the University of Judaism (UJ), where Winningham sits at an upright piano after completing her three-hour Hebrew class. In her pure, open voice, she launches into her "Convert Jig," a country-ish ditty she wrote to honor her "Introduction to Judaism"teacher before her conversion last year.

"He has organized the notes for life and given me the tools to turn my tiny insignificance into something big," she croons, as her eyes crinkle into a smile. "I will be a Jew like all of you ... and never eat a pig."

If the levity is unexpected, the actress thinks she is, too.

"Look, my last name is Winningham, and that in itself is funny," she says. "I joke sometimes that I'll open 'Winningham's Kosher Bakery' and throw everyone for a loop."

Indeed, the 45-year-old actress is better known for the decidedly American (read: non-Jewish) roles she's portrayed in 70 films and TV movies than, say, for the challah she bakes on Friday afternoons.

She won a 1980 Emmy for playing a farmer's daughter in "Amber Waves"; received a 1996 Oscar nomination for her role as a country music star in "Georgia"; and starred as Kevin Costner's common-law wife in "Wyatt Earp." Winningham will also appear as a Catholic single mom in the upcoming CBS series, "Clubhouse," and a stalwart prairie resident in the Hallmark TV movie, "The Magic of Ordinary Days." (She's perhaps best known as the virginal Wendy from the Brat Pack flick, "St. Elmo's Fire.")

As she leaves the piano to munch some kosher almonds, she says she's happy to be back at the UJ after the four-week "Magic" shoot near Calgary, Canada.

"We were in the middle of nowhere, so I knew I was going to miss Shavuot," she says, ruefully.

Shavuot, which celebrates converts, is Winningham's favorite holiday, because it's the first she observed after converting in March 2003. For that Shavuot, she stayed up all night studying at Temple Beth Am; in Calgary, she improvised by studying Jewish books such as "The Midrash Says," a five-volume set she's vowed to complete this year. Also in her suitcase was her trusty Shabbat travel kit, which includes candlesticks, a prayer book, a Havdalah candle and spice box.

"I've been known to light Shabbat candles in a Honeywagon trailer," she says of her experience on various sets.

Her observance has been "a real conversation starter," especially among fellow Jews. Larry Miller, her co-star from CBS' short-lived "Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.," recalls his surprise upon learning that Winningham rushed home to bake challah one Friday afternoon.

"It was like having Grace Kelly say, 'By the way, what time is Mincha?'" he says, referring to afternoon prayers.

Winningham wouldn't forget the time.

"She takes her Jewish studies very seriously," Beth Am's Rabbi Perry Netter told The Journal. "It's part of her incredible desire to be part of the Jewish world, not for any other motive than she feels so deeply and passionately Jewish."

The actress traces her spiritual journey to her Catholic childhood in Granada Hills. Her great-uncle, "Father Dave" Maloney, was bishop of Wichita, Kan.; her devout mother, Marilyn, sent Mare and her four siblings to catechism at the cathedral across the street.

"My mom influenced me greatly with her beautiful devotion to her faith," Winningham says. But that came later. By age 14, Mare says, she had developed problems with religion in general and "the idea of someone dying for your sins."

A 12th-grade comparative religion course fueled her budding agnosticism; after graduating from Chatsworth High -- where an agent discovered her in a production of "The Sound of Music" -- Winningham began "a resolutely secular existence."

In 1982, she married her now ex-husband in a non-denominational ceremony; she raised their five children (today ages 15-22) in a household where holidays were celebrated in an irreligious, if flamboyant fashion.

"I cooked for days," she says about Christmases past.

It wasn't until her children were nearly grown that Winningham found herself reading works by Jung, Joseph Campbell and others in an attempt to sort out nagging religious and psychological questions. In summer 2001, she visited a "creation of the world" exhibit at a science museum and made an announcement to herself: "I don't think I believe in God."

"But that night, I had the most remarkable dream, which told me, 'If you're going to reject something, at least find out what it is you are rejecting,'" she says. When a friend told her about the UJ's Introduction to Judaism class, Winningham thought, "OK, I'll begin by studying the Jews, since they started the one-God thing."

While she intended to approach the class from a historical, intellectual perspective, the epiphanies began the day she stepped into Rabbi Neal Weinberg's UJ class in November 2001.

"There I was, struggling with God, and one of the first things he said was, 'Israel means struggle with God,'" she says.

"When Mare started, she seemed to be checking Judaism out," Weinberg recalls. "But before long, she enthusiastically embraced the values of Judaism and Jewish family life."

The actress says she began celebrating Shabbat and fell in love with an observance that included "ritualizing, literally, the breaking of bread.... Shabbat fed me literally and figuratively, and I found myself finding my way to God through this very earthly endeavor of feeding my family."

Although her children are not Jewish, they helped her rate brisket recipes, participated in Torah discussions and invited their Jewish friends to her Shabbat table.

Winningham's attraction to Judaism deepened as she read the Bible: "Everything one needs to know about behavior here on earth is manifest in these stories," she says. "Anything one could find confusing or morally challenging is answerable. When the most important thing about a religion is how you behave here, and not about what happens after you die -- these are the things I believe my soul was longing for and rejecting in other religions."

By December 2001, she was regularly attending Netter's Bait Tefillah minyan at Temple Beth Am.

"Mare drank everything in," Netter recalls. "There was a certain intensity in the way that she concentrated, both on the siddur and on the Torah discussion that would take place."

After Winningham observed her first Yom Kippur that year, she knew she had to convert.

"There was something about petitioning God, as a community, for forgiveness," she says. "I knew then that Judaism was something I couldn't live without."

On March 3, 2003, an entourage of friends and relatives accompanied Winningham to the official ceremony at the UJ.

"Sitting in on her beit din [rabbinical court] was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had of conversion," Netter said. "It was apparent to me and to the other rabbis that this was a woman who was born a Jewish soul, in terms of the depth of her feelings and the rawness of her emotion."

Cori Drasin, a former Beth Am vice president, says she was especially touched by the ritual immersion part of the ceremony.

"I stood behind the curtain as Mare chanted the blessing in the mikvah, and the walls just resonated with her beautiful voice," Drasin says.

A friend placed a Star of David around Winningham's neck (she's still wearing it) and "I cried a lot," she says. She was moved not only to become Jewish, but because her family has been so supportive.

"When I told my mother I was going to become Jewish, she said, 'You know Mary, they were the first,'" Winningham recalls.

The actress' children have also been accepting, which, Winningham says, "is lucky, considering that it must be weird for your mom to embrace a new religion when you're a young adult."

The performer also feels lucky to have been embraced by the Beth Am community, where she recently chanted from the Torah for the first time.

"Everyone in the minyan rejoiced," Netter says. "It was as if one of our children had become bat mitzvah."

Winningham isn't content to stop there. A self-prescribed "cheerleader for the Torah," she intends to read the entire Bible in its original language, which is why she's taking that Thursday Hebrew class at the UJ.

"I don't care if it takes decades, I'll finish it eventually, I really will," she says. "I may be 80 when I finish, but that would be a beautiful thing."

Winningham sounds more like a scholar than the world's second Jewish country singer when she adds, "Judaism for me is like a mystery novel. I just can't stop reading; that's what it's like for me."

Winningham will perform in concert July 24, 10:30 p.m. and Aug 21, 10:30 p.m. at Genghis Cohen restaurant, 740 N Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. For information, call (323) 653-0640.



"A Convert Jig"

(Mare Winningham wrote this to honor her "Introduction to Judaism" teacher, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, and she performed it during a tribute to him at the University of Judaism.)

Guard your tongue, love your neighbor

Help someone to help themselves

It's required -- it's not a favor

That is what my teacher tells us

Don't be late -- you'll miss the prayer aerobics

Ancient melodies you need to know

How to sing the holy songs -- to add your voice where it belongs

And how and when to lift up on your toes

That is what my teacher tells us

That is what I've come to learn

He has organized the notes for life

And given me the tools to turn

My tiny insignificance into something big

I will be a Jew like all of you

and dance a convert jig

Take the time to learn the Hebrew

Memorize your holidays

Keep kashrut -- and study on the Torah

You'll reap rewards forever and always

Cut your flowers, set your table

Light your candles and say your prayer

Then you'll know how you are able

To feel you're Jewish, anywhere

That is what my teacher tells us

That is what I've come to learn

He has organized the notes for life

And given me the tools to turn

My tiny insignificance into something big

I will be a Jew like all of you -- your tree has grown a twig

I will be a Jew like all of you -- and never eat a pig

I will be a Jew like all of you -- and dance a convert jig!

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