The formal occasion was the congregation’s annual meeting, but this was more than another speaking engagement for the young woman who left a college student and returned a celebrity.
This was a homecoming — part celebration and part confession.
“I was Jewish by birth,” Ginnifer Goodwin, star of such TV shows as HBO’s “Big Love” and ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” told the congregation, which included her parents, grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and dozens of people she knew as a child.
“I was Super Jew, and then I up and left Judaism for a very long time. I flew from Memphis … I flew from Temple Israel … and I flew from my faith. I walked out of Judaism. I had broken my covenant. The only thing Jewish about me was that I felt guilty.”
That last line drew a laugh from just about everyone, including Rabbi Micah Greenstein, Goodwin’s friend and confidant since she was a 12-year-old Sunday school student and he was a 28-year-old rabbinical youth adviser.
Traditionally, when a Jewish girl reaches the age of 12, she becomes a bat mitzvah, a “daughter of commandment.” It’s an emotional, intellectual and spiritual coming-of-age marked by a special religious ceremony also called a bat mitzvah.
“Unlike most seventh-graders who assume you have a bar or bat mitzvah, Ginny knew that you are a bat mitzvah if you are a Jewish girl, you can’t have one,” said Greenstein, now Temple Israel’s senior rabbi.
At the time, Goodwin told the rabbi that she wasn’t ready to become bat mitzvah.
“I did not yet understand the depths of the ceremony; I was too immature,” remembered Goodwin, who turned 35 on Wednesday. “I asked him if it was OK to wait until it meant something to me.”
Goodwin said she spent the next three years studying Torah and other sacred texts, as well as other books about her faith. She got more involved in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and Hebrew School. She paid more attention to the Sabbath and various Jewish holy days and rituals. She asked a lot of questions.
“I immersed myself in it, I learned the history, the heritage, what was behind the traditions and rituals,” Goodwin said. “I fell in love with Judaism. It was not just a theology: It was a way of life. I saw God in the spark between people.”
Goodwin’s family and friends celebrated her bat mitzvah in 1993. A few years later, Goodwin left home and went to college, then to the theater, and ultimately to Hollywood, where she has spent the past 10 years working and living her dream life.
She was cast in roles in a dozen films and a half-dozen TV shows. She played Johnny Cash’s first wife, Vivian, in the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line.” She played a polygamist’s third wife, Margene, in HBO’s “Big Love” from 2006 to 2011. She won a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Breakout Movie Actress in 2010.
For the past three years, she’s been playing Snow White in ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.” Her co-star, Josh Dallas, who plays Prince Charming, also happens to be her boyfriend. But as Goodwin told her prince, her rabbi and others seated at Temple Israel the other evening, her storybook life hasn’t had room for the People of the Book.
“I lost this, and I’ve been trying to find it again,” she told her Memphis family. “For 10 years, there was nothing. No ritual. No tradition. No community. I was this new alone thing, a nomad in the world. I was homeless.”
Homeless and homesick.
“Do I still get to be Jewish?” Goodwin wrote to her rabbi not long ago.
“It takes a lot of patches to make a patchwork quilt,” Greenstein wrote back.
In recent months, Goodwin has been reclaiming old patches of ritual, tradition and community, and receiving new ones. She wants to live in a Jewish home with a mezuza in every doorway. She wants to raise her “completely hypothetical future children” to be Jewish. She hosted a Hanukkah party. She’s made brisket and matzo ball soup. She realized that a lot of her friends are Jewish.
“We’ve been shul shopping,” she said.
During Friday’s Shabbat service, a few days before her 35th birthday, Goodwin stood inside a “bright orangey-red synagogue” and announced that she had come home.
“I am a Jew,” she said, beaming on the bema. “It took me 10 years to come back around to that self-definition. I was a Jew by birth, and now I’m a Jew by choice.”