Marlena Schoenberg Fejzo, Michela Watkins and Rick Schoenberg

Nate Bloom blogs on this week’s Jews in the News


Paint, a Movie; and the Amazing Schoenberg Family

“Paint” opens in theaters on April 7. The film centers on Carl Nargle (Owen Wilson) who has hosted Vermont’s #1 painting (TV) show for about 30 years. (The Nargle character is clearly inspired by the late Bob Ross of PBS fame. But Carl is not nearly as famous as Ross was).

Things change when Carl’s TV station hires a young woman to do a similar show. It’s clear that she’s a better painter than Carl.  She proceeds to  “steal” everything (and everyone) that Carl loves and he goes into quite a funk.

MICHELA WATKINS, 51, who has worked regularly on TV, has second billing in the credits as “Katherine”. The trailer implies that she has some romantic connection to Carl.

On March 15, the NY Times ran a very long profile of Dr. MARLENA SCHOENBERG FEJZO, 55, a UCLA geneticist.  It focused on her decades-long quest to find the cause of what physicians call hyperemesis gravidarum [“HG”]. The Times says: “ It is a condition whose hallmark symptoms include nausea and vomiting so severe and relentless that it can cause dehydration, weight loss, electrolyte imbalances and hospitalization.”

2% of all pregnant women suffer from HG and some actually die from it. It can ravage the physical and mental state of those with the condition. Dr. Fejzo had HG during her two pregnancies. During her first pregnancy the symptoms were mild enough that she carried her son to term. But she suffered greatly during her second pregnancy and miscarried.

For decades, the Times article said, women suffering from HG were maltreated by many physicians—they were told that the symptoms were imaginary and/or they were just looking for attention. Dr. Fejzo said that her doctor “pretty much thought it was all in my head.”

Dr. Fejko did research in many fields, including ovarian cancer, and worked on HG largely in her “spare time”.  Research money was tight, even though HG costs patients and hospitals about $3 billion a year.

She did some small-scale surveys of HG patents, aided by her brother, RICK SCHOENBERG, 51, a UCLA statistician. She learned that HG ran in families.  Then she asked 23 and Me if they would include a few questions about nausea and vomiting in pregnancy on their customer survey, and they agreed. Women who said they had these symptoms had their DNA studied (with their permission).

About the results found in the large “23 and Me” group, the Times article says: ... the most striking gene mutation was for one that makes a protein called growth differentiation factor 15, or GDF15. [It] acts in a part of the brainstem that suppresses appetite and sets off vomiting, and it had already been shown to cause appetite and weight loss in cancer patients. Blood levels of the protein are naturally increased in pregnancy and have since been found to be even higher in those with severe nausea and vomiting…GDF15 may have evolved to help pregnant women detect and avoid unsafe foods that might harm fetal development early in gestation. But in HG, this normally protective mechanism seems to run in overdrive…In a study published in 2022, Dr. Fejzo and her colleagues confirmed the link between hyperemesis and GDF15 in the [studied] patients.


Drug companies have begun testing GDF15 drugs to reduce nausea and improve appetite in cancer patients, with, Fejko says,” promising early results”. A smaller number of drug companies are working on similar drugs for HG.


Here’s the cool side story: I wondered if Dr. Marlena Schoenberg Fejko was related to the famous Austrian Jewish composer ARNOLD SCHOENBERG (1874-1951). I checked in other sources, and she is the granddaughter of Arnold Schoenberg. The Times article mentioned her brother, Rick, and her sister, MELANIE SCHOENBERG, 45, a public defender, but it didn’t mention Arnold, or Marlena’s brother, E. RANDOL SCHOENBERG, 56, a famous attorney.


I’m quite sure that most of you have seen “The Woman in Gold” (2015), a critical and box-office hit. The film follows Randol’s legal representation of MARIA ALTMAN, the niece of GUSTAV and ADELE BLOCH-BAUER. The title refers to a famous Gustav Klimt portrait of Adele that came to be called “The Woman in Gold”.


The Austrian government refused to return five Klimt paintings to Altman, the “main” surviving member of her family. The paintings, including the “Woman in Gold”, were stolen by the Nazis.  When Randol took the case, most said that Altman had little chance of getting the paintings back. But she, and Randol, persevered, and won the case.

The paintings were sold and Randol’s contingency fee was $120M. He gave a portion to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. He is very active in Jewish ancestry organizations and is a board member of JewishGen.


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