Actress Mare Winningham Sings a "Convert's Jig"
March 16, 2007Comments (10)
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Actress/Singer Mare Winningham.
(PHOTO: Jason Trucco)
By Suzanne Kurtz
On her new album, Mare Winningham, the Academy Award-nominated, Emmy Award-winning, former “Brat Packer,” sings a folksy bluegrass tune entitled, “A Convert’s Jig.” In her clear, soulful voice, the words “I will be a Jew like all of you and dance a convert’s jig” resonate a telling proclamation -- for the last five years, Winningham, 47, has been dancing the jig.
Growing up outside of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, Winningham always knew she wanted to act. Since graduating from Chatsworth High School in 1977, a school known for its outstanding drama department and famous alumni -- Winningham played Maria to Kevin Spacey’s Captain Von Trapp in a production of “The Sound of Music”-- she has starred in dozens of television movies and the coming-of-age classic “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Winningham was also nominated for an Academy Award in 1995 for her role as a folk singer in “Georgia” opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh.
But in her early 40s, Winningham took on another role, one that would change her life. She became a Jew.
Raised a Roman Catholic, she professes to being devoutly secular and agnostic as she married and raised her own five children.
“I came to [Judaism] as an exploration of atheism,” Winningham explains while on break from shooting a four-episode arc for the hit ABC television show, “Grey’s Anatomy.” She says, “I was toying with 'Am I an atheist, maybe?' But I had very powerful thoughts and dreams that also said ‘Hey, if you’re going to reject something outright, find out first what it is, so that you’re making the rejection from a place of wisdom and knowledge.’”
Encouraged by friends, Winningham took her powerful religious questioning to the Conservative movement’s University of Judaism where she enrolled in an “Introduction to Judaism” class. She met with the rabbi for three and a half hours a day for 18 sessions over the course of a year. “I took it very seriously,” Winningham says of the class’s rigorous courseload. “And I enjoyed being a good student.”
Judaism’s appeal, she says “was a slow and ever-building… a real admiration. I was really drawn to everything about the religion that came week by week, class by class.”
When the classes ended, Winningham decide to live for a year immersed in a Conservative Jewish lifestyle, complete with all the holidays, customs and rituals.
“When I began to keep Shabbat,” she says. “I liked it and I felt better.”
Winningham’s conversion was deeply personal, but she converted alone. Her children, all teenagers at the time, did not join her in the conversion.
“They indulged me. They knew it was something I was fascinated by and was sharing with them,” she says. “And five years later I see a deep respect in them for what I did.”
Even so, Winningham admits that the changes to their home also brought many difficult conversations with her children. They questioned if her conversion meant that their childhood had been lacking.
She says it “was a valid [question] and we talked about it,” often at the Shabbat dinner table over her homemade challah.
“It came at a time when kids don’t normally want to talk to a parent, but we talked about what was bothering them. And who would have thought that teenagers would want to hang out with their mom? They came [for Shabbat] and they brought their friends. We had a funny house there for a while -- the non-Jew was having Shabbat and the Jewish kids from Beverly Hills High were coming over!” she says laughing.
Not long after, in 2003, Winningham met with a beit din (religious court) and visited the mikvah (ritual bath), completing the conversion process.
“By then, I was very sure and it felt natural,” she says.
The new album, “Refuge Rock Sublime,” seamlessly combines Winningham's interest in bluegrass and folk music with her Judaism. There are original songs like “What Would David Do” and “A Convert’s Jig” as well as bluegrass variations of “Hatikvah” and Naomi Shemer’s classic, “Al Kol Eileh.” She has performed the songs in synagogues and at a Jewish World Watch benefit concert, “Let My People Sing.”
When taping for “Grey’s Anatomy” wraps in a few weeks, Winningham will head to New York to begin rehearsals for the off-Broadway play “10 Million Miles” based on the music and lyrics of Patty Griffin.
The new job has uprooted her Passover plans in Los Angeles, Winningham says. However, she is fairly certain she’ll join some extended family and friends for a seder in New York.
“I have found that Jews are welcoming and encouraging and helpful,” she muses thoughtfully. “My experience as a ger (a convert) has been quite a testament to the community’s welcoming of a fellow Jew.”
Perhaps, then, there is no need for Mare Winningham to dance a convert’s jig; she already is a Jew.
Suzanne Kurtz is the editor of Hillel Campus Report, a monthly e-newsletter available at www.hillel.org.