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Actor Louis Gossett Jr. Gives Shabbat Sermon


Aaron Leibel, The Canadian Jewish News, August 26, 2008


When this reporter spelled his last name for Louis Gossett Jr.'s publicist last week, she began laughing. "Leibele is his Yiddish name," she said.

Lou Gossett Jr. has a Yiddish name?

It's true, confirmed the African American actor, who couldn't recall the origins of his nickname.
"Maybe it's because I used to take off Jewish holidays" from school, quipped Gossett, who delivered the Shabbat morning sermon in late August at Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., discussing his connection to Jews and Judaism and his nonprofit, The Eracism Foundation (www.eracismfoundation.org).

Gossett, 72, grew up in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, N.Y., where many of his neighbours were Jews.

His warm relations with them and the sense of community they shared were "a beautiful thing," he said in a phone interview from Kenya, where he was slated to go on Safari the following day. (He began the interview by saying, "Boker tov," Hebrew for good morning, and ended it with "Erev tov," good evening.)

"If my parents were late, I had the choice of [eating] gefilte fish or sauerbraten" at a neighbour's house, he said.

Gossett said his experiences as a youngster in Brooklyn provided the "nurturing" that helped him succeed. And with his foundation, which he began in 2006 to fight racism through education, programs that foster cultural diversity and anti-violence initiatives, he hopes to initiate programs for kids that will re-create the values he learned.

He wants to help young people in the most distressed areas combat racism, sexism and violence. "I want to protect them against the evil of the streets," he said.

He wants them to learn "self-respect, so they know where they come from and what is expected of them, respect for the opposite sex, respect for their elders."

Gossett was enthusiastic about his appearance at Ohev Sholom and about the shul's spiritual leader. "Rabbi Shmuel [Herzfeld] has adopted me," he said. "I love him."

Rabbi Herzfeld shares those warm feelings. He heard Gossett speak at the Conference on Race and Reconciliation at the National Press Club in Washington in July.

"I was very impressed by how he spoke and how his relationship with Jews has inspired him to want to make a difference in the lives of inner city youth," Rabbi Herzfeld said.

After hosting the award-winning actor for Shabbat, the rabbi invited him to speak. Gossett is not the first African American to speak at the synagogue, but may be the first to deliver the Saturday morning sermon.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to see a person who was given a gift to be a good actor, but is utilizing his gift to better the world," Rabbi Herzfeld said.

President of his senior class at Abraham Lincoln High School, Gossett got his start in acting when a Jewish English teacher, Gustave Blum, who had been a Broadway director, encouraged him to try out for the Broadway production of Take a Giant Step. He got the part at age 17.

Gossett's acting career has included dozens of roles in movies, TV and onstage, most notable of which were his Emmy-winning portrayal of Fiddler in the TV series Roots; the sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman, for which he received an Academy Award; and his Golden Globe-winning work in the TV film, The Josephine Baker Story.

Currently, he is starring in Stargate SG-1, a series on the Sci-Fi cable channel. At the end of August, he also appeared in the HBO documentary The Black List, which will present portraits of 20 influential African Americans.

The actor's Jewish links extend into adulthood. He became interested in the role that black American soldiers had played in freeing Jews from concentration camps during the Holocaust, hosting reunions between survivors and rescuers in New York City in the 1990s. He also narrated, with Denzel Washington, The Liberators, a documentary on the subject.

(Tags: Black, Jewish, Entertainment, Leader)