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The Journeys of Six Jewish Americans

For Jewish American Heritage Month, here are highlights from the lives of some incredible people, from journalist Connie Chung to opera singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell

May 13, 2016
Brad Barket/Getty Images for AOL)
Connie Chung in New York City, April 29, 2014. Brad Barket/Getty Images for AOL)
Brad Barket/Getty Images for AOL)
Connie Chung in New York City, April 29, 2014. Brad Barket/Getty Images for AOL)

Since 2006, May has officially been Jewish American Heritage Month, proclaimed, believe it or not, by then President George W. Bush. Much like Black History Month and Women’s History Month, it serves as a dedication to the achievements and contributions of Jewish Americans to their country, with events scheduled across the country.

The theme of the 2016 Jewish American History Month is “An American Journey,” recalls, at least for me, histories of immigration and an appreciation for diversity, both of which are integral to any celebration of American Jewry. And so, here are six Jews of Color with unique American journeys of their own.

Connie Chung
Chung, an American journalist, was born Constance Yu-Hwa Chung in 1946. She has been an anchor and reporter for several news networks, including NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and MSNBC. The daughter of an intelligence officer in the Chinese Nationalist Government, Chung graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, and went on to earn a degree in journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1969.

Known for an interview style punctuated by a rapid-fire barrage of sharp questions, Chung is the only person in history to have served as a substitute anchor for all three networks’ nightly newscasts (NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, and ABC World News Tonight), as well as all three network morning newscasts (Today, CBS This Morning, and Good Morning America).

Chung converted to Judaism in 1984 upon her marriage to talk show host Maury Povich. Together they have a son, Matthew Jay Povich, whom the couple adopted in 1995. A particularly controversial interview of hers is the one where she gently nudges Newt Gingrich’s mother to share her true feelings on then First Lady Hillary Clinton.

Liz Cho
Born in 1970 to a Korean-American surgeon and Jewish American nurse, Cho is the co-anchor of the weekday afternoon editions of Eyewitness News on New York’s ABC affiliate. After earning degrees in journalism and history from Boston University, Cho’s first assignment was as an editor at New England Cable News in Newton, Massachusetts.

Prior to joining the Eyewitness News team in 2003, Cho, according to her bio, was a Chicago-based correspondent for ABC News, covering such stories as President Clinton’s impeachment hearings and the Columbine High School shootings. Following that she was an anchor for World News Now and a correspondent covering stories for Good Morning America, World News Tonight and Nightline. She currently lives in Manhattan with her second husband, CBS News TV journalist Josh Elliott.

Bahar Soomekh
Soomekh, an Iranian-born American actress and environmental activist, was born in 1975 to a devout Persian Jewish family in Tehran, Iran. According to a piece in The Jewish Journal, In 1979, her family escaped the Iranian Revolution by moving to Los Angeles, where Soomekh went to Sinai Akiba Academy, a Jewish private school. In 1997, Soomekh earned her B.A. in environmental studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she also took theater courses.

With minor appearances in television shows like JAG and 24 under her belt, Soomekh’s breakthrough role came as Dorri in the Academy Award-winning movie Crash (2004). Since then, Somekh has played roles in Syriana (2005), Mission Impossible III (2006), and the lead role in Saw III (2006).

An advocate for environmental and children’s causes, Soomekh is also involved with organizations such as the Green Cross and Rainforest Action Network.

In 2001, Soomekh married Clayton Frech, a business manager, who converted to Judaism upon marrying her. Together they launched T.O. Productions to make movies about environmental and social issues. They have three children.

Samson Koletkar
Koletkar, who bills himself as the “world’s only Indian Jewish standup comedian,” was born in Mumbai, India. He is a member of the Bene Israel community. Attending the only Jewish school in Mumbai, Koletkar remained active in the Jewish community even as he became less religious. After earning his master’s degree in computer software, he moved to San Francisco to begin his comedy career.

Driven by personal trials and tribulations, his subtle satire addresses religious and political hypocrisies, and social issues. His standup has been performed in India, Canada, and the US and featured on NBC, CBS5, KRON4, and NPR. Every August, Koletkar co-produces the Desi Comedy Fest, the largest and only South Asian comedy festival in the USA. In 2015, he won the International Society of Humor Studies comedy competition.

Giselle Fernandez
Fernández was born in Mexico City in 1961 and was brought to Wast Los Angeles in the United States at the age of four by her Catholic father, a flamenco dancer, and her American Jewish mother, a student of Mexican folklore.

A five time Emmy Award winner for journalism, Fernandez majored in journalism and government at Sacramento State University and graduated in 1982, landing her first TV gig in Colorado at KRDO the next year. In 1985 she moved back to Los Angeles, working at KTLA from 1985-1989 as a weekend anchor. Fernandez gained her first national news job in 1991 for CBS News, when she moved to New York City and became a correspondent and back-up anchor for the morning, evening, and weekend news broadcasts. She later moved to NBC, where she anchored the weekend edition of The Today Show and filled in for Brian Williams on the weekend edition of NBC’s Nightly News.

In 1996, Fernandez returned to Los Angeles to host Access Hollywood, leaving the show in 1999 to co-host This Week in History on the History Channel. In 2001, she returned to Los Angeles and joined KTLA television news, leaving in 2003 to pursue a variety of special projects. She is the president of Skinny Hippo Productions, her own production company, and co-president of F Squared Productions, where she is a developer of film and television projects. Let this old school demo reel leave no doubt about her talent:

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell
Born in Texas to a military family in 1979, Russell moved to Vallejo, California when he was seven years old. With one grandfather a deacon in Texas, Russell was raised in a Christian family in which Bible literacy was of paramount importance. However, the Hebrew Bible always interested him more than the Christian one. Russell’s exploration of Judaism over the course of several years dovetailed with his attempts to build a career as a professional opera singer in San Francisco and New York. At 18, Russell won his first competition with the Vallejo Chorale Society. In 2007, after having earned an undergraduate degree in music at Holy Names University in Oakland, Russell sang in the San Francisco Opera world premiere of Philip Glass’ “Appomattox.” He would eventually move to New York where he became disenchanted with the opera world. He quit at the age of 32.

Russell met his future husband, Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, currently the Director of Education at Congregation Beth El, in Berkeley, on a blind date in 2009 in Nyack, New York; Russell converted to Judaism in 2011. Going to a local Conservative synagogue and celebrating Jewish holidays, he came into contact with a piece of classical Yiddish folk music from the film A Serious Man (2009) which fascinated him and set him on the path to becoming a professional Yiddish singer. In January 2012, Russell was invited to sing at his first event at the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center in the Bronx. In 2013, he began releasing Convergence, a project that synthesizes and corroborates the Jewish texts with the African-American experience. Russell released a concert length multimedia performance of it in 2014. It combines Negro spirituals with blues music and thematically similar Yiddish folk music. In 2015, Russell and Rothbaum married. (For more information about Russell, read these Noisey and The Times of Israel profiles.)

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.