Gene Wilder’s Religious Beliefs

Hans Peters / Anefo [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl], via Wikimedia Commons

Willy Wonka  star, Gene Wilder has passed away at 83.

The movie world lost yet another beloved face with the demise of celebrated actor Gene Wilder. His family said the actor died on Monday, succumbing to complications of Alzheimer's disease. The actor was aged 83 when he passed away.

The Jewish community has seen many of their celebrated personalities passing away in the past few weeks with Gene Wilder being the latest.

Wilder was most famously known for his role as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, the hero of everyone's childhood in his signature purple suit, taking children on a tour around his chocolate factory. The star is also known for his impeccable acting as the lead in Young Frankenstein and his signature name correction dialogue used often in the movie, “No, it's pronounced Fronkensteen!” Other popular movies include The Producers and Blazing Saddles.

Born into a Jewish family, Wilder has often described himself as a “Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist.” His parents were regular attendees at their local Orthodox Jewish temple and he had even had a bar-mitzvah ceremony. However, when the family shifted to another location, he stopped going to the temple because the Rabbi there once preached very offensive and ignorant things about the Vietnam War which shocked young Wilder. He later grew out of having religious beliefs, and was almost an atheist. However, he was unapologetically proud and grateful about being Jewish and said he carried his Jewish identity with pride.

Wilder has acted in Jewish-themed movies as well. His correction of how his name is pronounced in the movie, Young Frankenstein, is itself very Jewish: it reflects the Jew's attempt at trying to “westernize” his name and get assimilated into Western culture. The Producers is a famous comedy that is completely Jewish, with Jewish characters and Jewish beliefs and ideas creating the core of the comedy movie. In The Frisco Kid we trace the adventures of a Jewish Rabbi who meets a number of hurdles and obstacles in his journey to get his Torah scroll to his new congregation. This movie is popularly shown even now across synagogues and other Jewish gatherings for its comedy, and also for its underlying theme of faithfulness to the community.

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