The Oscars Jewish Round-Up
As expected, the biggest Jewish Oscar haul came in the musical categories. JUSTIN HURWITZ, 32, won for best score (“La La Land”) and for his music for the best song (“City of Stars”). The lyricists of “City,” BENJ PASEK, 31, and Justin Paul, shared the best song Oscar with Hurwitz. From the Oscars stage, Pasek thanked his mom for letting him quit “JCC soccer” to concentrate on his music. Just below you’ll find highlights of an interview I did with Justin’s mom not long before the Oscars ceremony.
KENNETH LONERGAN, 54, won the best original screenplay Oscar for “Manchester-By-The-Sea." He was profusely thanked by "Manchester" star Casey Affleck, the best actor winner.
Congrats to Oscar-recipient JEREMY KLEINER, 40, a producer of “Moonlight,” the best pic winner.
Finally, I somehow forgot to previously note EZRA EDELMAN, 42, in my pre-awards coverage and, “of course”, he won for directing the best feature length documentary (“O.J.: Made in America”). He’s the son of PETER EDELMAN, a (Jewish) law professor and Marian Wright Edelman, an African American attorney famous for her work defending children’s rights. A 1992 NY Times profile of the Edelman family says their two sons were raised in both parents’ religious traditions and that their older son, JONAH, now 47, had a bar mitzvah (whether Ezra did, too, isn’t mentioned).
Justin Hurwitz’s proud mother speaks
Aided by an interview I did with Justin’s mother, GAIL HALABE HURWITZ, I learned much about Hurwitz’s family since he won two Golden Globes (score for “La La Land” and best song, “City of Stars”). Here’s what Ms. Hurwitz, a registered nurse, told me about her family and Justin. Gail comes from a Sephardi family and Justin’s father, KEN, a writer, comes from a Russian/Polish Jewish family with ties to the Milwaukee area. Gail’s father was born in 1903 in Damascus, Syria, and her mother was born in 1915 in Beirut, Lebanon. Her parents settled in Los Angeles after coming to came to the States... Ken and Gail were wed in 1983 in a Los Angeles Sephardic synagogue, and Justin was born in 1985. She says that “Justin started piano lessons at age 6 and it was clear very early that he had an aptitude for this instrument… a devoted student [who] progressed rapidly…a piano teacher introduced him to composition and [we] bought him a synthesizer and at age 10 he composed his first tune.”
The family lived in southern California before moving to a Milwaukee suburb in 1998. In Wisconsin, Justin went to a top conservatory. His only sibling, HANNA HURWITZ, 31, is a very accomplished classical violinist. Gail told me that although Justin never had a chance to take a Birthright Israel trip, Hanna did, “with much joy.” Gail added: “We have a very large family on my mother’s side living in Israel, because all of her family moved there from Lebanon and remained there throughout their lives. I would say that both my children are very proud of their Middle Eastern heritage and culture.”
Gail said that Justin was very close to both his grandmothers — Gail’s mother died in 2015, at about 100, and his paternal grandma, who lives in Wisconsin, is alive and 100! (Gail and Ken now live in the San Francisco Bay area.)
Gail says this about Justin’s college years: “Justin went to Harvard in 2003 to study music. There he met Chazelle. Both played in Chester French [a successful rock band] for one year, dropped out, and began rooming together and collaborating on what would become their first full length film (“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”). It got a distributor and was released. Near the end of his time at Harvard, Justin was part of Harvard Lampoon. After college, both Justin and Damien moved to LA with the intention of making films. But it was a slow start, and to make a living in LA Justin got jobs writing comedy.” ( He wrote for “The League,” wrote a “Simpsons” episode, etc.).
Gail then related the path to “La La Land” — “Guy and Madeline” was well-enough liked that Chazelle got funding to do a short version of “Whiplash.” It was a hit at Sundance, and a full-length version of the film was funded and it was a surprise big-market hit. “Whiplash” led to funding for “La La Land.”
Post-Script: As you just read, Justin Hurwitz is of part-Sephardi background. Curious, I checked, and he appears to be the second Jew of Sephardi ancestry to win an Oscar. The first being French director/screenwriter CLAUDE LELOUCH, 79, whose father was an Algerian Jew. He won for his screenplay for “A Man and a Woman” (1966).Lelouch's mother was a Frenchwoman from Normandy who converted to Judaism.