A few months ago, a publicist friend asked me if I knew anything about the upcoming Christina Milian reality show. I did not and I shrugged it off as something I would have no interest in. Don't get me wrong: Christina Milian is a beautiful Cuban-American singer who has many adoring fans, but I... well, I have eclectic musical tastes.I do however tune in to The Wendy Williams Show frequently enough and Wendy is a fan of Christina's. In her "hot topics," the talk show host has discussed the singer, her divorce and the adorable child she now raises, but what piqued my interest one morning, when Christina herself was Wendy's guest, was something that the host asked. "Your sister is converting to Judaism?" Suddenly, I looked up from whatever work I was doing at the time and determined that I had to find out more. I was intrigued to say the least. Liz Milian, Christina's sister and a popular chef in Los Angeles, was now going completely kosher and is in the midst of an Orthodox Jewish conversion. I watched the clips online where she visits a very Charedi (super religious orthodox Jewish) community and the one where Rabbi Block of Congregation Toras Hashem comes to kasher Christina's house where she is temporarily residing. Like a Pavlovian dog, I was panting for this particular story. I immediately began scouring the Internet for a way to get in touch with Liz and when I finally did and got a response -- well, as Liz would say when we first spoke -- Baruch Hashem! (which means "Thank God" and was her response to my "How are you?") I was thrilled.
It is not often that orthodox Judaism is showcased on television in a positive light. Having grown up with two parents who became frum and having gone to orthodox Jewish schools myself, I am really intrigued by those who are able to show a love for this type of religious observance. It doesn't matter where I sit on the continuum of religiosity myself at present; I find it inspiring when in documentaries like Brave Miss World (which can be found on Netflix), the newly observant are able to articulate how beautiful they find the religion to be. I may have a tendency towards skepticism these days personally, but I will admit that there is nothing alluring to me about an angry atheist on a reality show (I haven't seen one yet except maybe Penn Jillette on The Celebrity Apprentice, but in that particular venue, he didn't really showcase his staunch atheism). I have heard a few podcasts about atheism and they didn't make me warm and fuzzy inside, but when a famous Israeli embraced her Jewish roots and took on full observance after years of investigating the rape she was victim to (in Brave Miss World), I understood her choice and I was touched by her convictions. While doubters exist, you don't have to be a major believer to root for the believer. Liz Milian, who dated a boy and fell in love with his religion, really sees the beauty in a religion that its own adherents sometimes question. To see that zeal on display is - as Andy Cohen of Bravo TV would say - "good for the Jews." Liz stars alongside her sister Danielle and the famous Christina each Sunday on E! (10 PM EST) in the reality series Christina Milian Turned Up. Following is my interview with Liz whose conversion process is a new scenario for the E! channel:
SW: I am always really interested in WHY people choose this religion, especially in full observance form! I heard you mention that you fell in love with religion through an ex- boyfriend. Can you explain that to us?
LM: As a child, I actually came to my mom and told her I wanted to be Jewish. She said 'no you just like Hanukkah' and suggested maybe I take a while to figure it out. My boyfriend post high school was part of a Jewish family - His father was Israeli and they were reform Jews who used to have me over for holidays. The interesting thing was that his mom had gone through an orthodox conversion. He ate traif (non-kosher foods) and had his version of Shabbos, but he spoke so passionately about being Jewish and it made me question...I literally knew nothing from the Christian bible and religion is about how your main route is God. It wasn't until I started dating a more recent ex boyfriend, Joshua, who was from a modern orthodox Jewish Persian family, that I became seriously interested in Judaism. He would have to leave suddenly and it was "good Shabbos I have to leave now." I knew it was the challenge of challenges, but Judaism is something I wanted to explore. The message I got was "that's all very interesting but if you want to do anything about being Jewish, it has to all come from you on your own." I went with Joshua to a party of Persian friends and one girl there was talking about conversion - orthodox conversion, which I know is "the only way to go" - and she was saying how hard it was. Listening to this, I talked to another girl who was sitting there and she said "You wouldn't make it, it's way too challenging. You can't eat this and you can't wear or do that...." I wasn't dissuaded though and I got Rabbi Block's number. I got nervous and I didn't call him for a week or two, but then I did and I got very involved in the whole process.
SW: We see Rabbi Block on the show. On the first episode, he came to check out the contents of Christina's refrigerator and chucked most of the meat. Who is he, does he have a shul?
LM: He is at Congregation Toras Hashem. In the valley or anywhere in LA, people know him. It's crazy! One time, I was at the doctor being examined and he asked me where I was converting - oh Rabbi Block, we all know Rabbi Block!
SW: So how did the Kashrut rules work out in Christina's house? We see that her daughter is vehemently opposed to ridding the house of bacon!
LM: They abide by it in the house and I have had some situations where Christina thought that the blue labels were for meat and mixed things up.
SW: Your family talks about your conversion as if it is a phase. Language about you "finding yourself" is used, but you seem committed:
LM: I started the process and my family assumed it was going to be a phase, and when I really had to take the holidays off around my mother and sister's birthdays, my family realized how serious I was (not to mention that one of those holidays was Yom Kippur which consists of fasting and praying all day long). My mom saw a lot of changes in my lifestyle. She can clearly see that I dress very differently and have given up certain clothing. As a chef, I also decide not to take certain jobs because I will only cook kosher.
SW: Are you single? Any hopes of reconciling with the ex-boyfriend that introduced you to Judaism or is that totally separate?
LM: (Laughs) During my conversion process I turned to the rabbi and wondered where Josh had been, but ultimately, we decided not to be together because he knew that religiously he could not go any further. Rabbi Block has asked me what kind of guy I would want. I definitely need someone who is cool and understanding of my background. I think that the show really took a perspective that certain people are going to judge you by where you come from and I found that in the community initially, it was in one ear and out the other (about who my sister was and where I come from). Now, people are realizing that I'm going to be on TV - Like I was at a family for Shabbos and during lunch someone mentioned they loved watching the Housewives and had seen the commercial for our show during an episode of Housewives. I thought that was really funny for a Shabbos meal!
SW: On the show, you are in the process of converting. Have you converted yet?
LM: I am far into the process - with meeting with the beit din (the religious courts) - but my rabbi had 2 weddings in his family, Baruch Hashem, and is now in Israel. When he returns, I go to the mikvah, (where one immerses in the waters and says the blessings) and convert. So God willing, as soon as Rabbi Block comes back from Israel!
SW: What were the major challenges of filming this reality show, which showcases your relationship with mom and sisters, while radically changing your lifestyle?
LM: I created some guidelines. In an upcoming episode, we take a trip out-of-town that has no kosher food and the only orthodox guy in the neighborhood ended up making the food for me. I obviously avoided nudity. I was very careful to avoid being touched by men to the best of my ability. When you're getting miked up, that is a very difficult thing to explain: 'Sorry, you can't touch me. I'm shomeret negiah. I can't be touched or touch men.' Everyone on the crew was very careful and respectful. I feel that there are Shomeret negiah issues constantly. People are trying to walk up to you and hug you. What do I do? It's a very complicated predicament. I also find now that on social media, people can write crazy things. I've found that even people you thought you knew can be anti-Semitic and I just attempt to set the record straight on what's not true. Some of my Jewish friends have called me crazy, jumping to the extreme. It's also interesting that my sister Danielle has converted to Catholicism, like to be opposite me almost, although her husband has a Catholic family. Another challenge was not being able to attend Danielle's daughter's baptism because it took place inside of a church which I am not allowed to enter. However, my family knows that during my conversion I am under intense scrutiny to show and prove my commitment to the religion I love and that I am not going to compromise my beliefs or waiver in my commitment. As children, we went to Christian camps but we were definitely not that religious...yet we were spiritual. So Danielle may have found an opposing side to my Jewish side.
SW: Were you hesitant about participating in this project at all or were you "all in" from the beginning?
LM: I was definitely, without a doubt, hesitant that it might affect me and that everything I do is a representation of my family and faith. I decided to go ahead and show the solid commitment and the love for this religion as well as all that is involved in my decision. Interestingly, when we were walking in a Jewish, highly religious neighborhood, Christina was heightened to this very sensitivity of mine. She turned to me to ask and make sure that this footage was not going to harm the Jewish community in any way. I thought that was so interesting and Christina has been very supportive. Danielle, who has been more skeptical at times and has challenged me, is also showing support. I came out with my sisters to a club and she said "would you go up to a guy who is wearing a kippah in this club?" Of course I thought it was hilarious because there are no guys wearing kippahs in the club!
SW: You are a professional chef. Can you tell me a little about your work? And I assume everything is Kosher certified?
LM: I do private work and depending on who I am working with, there will be certain shylas (questions that one has to bring to a rabbi). I cooked for Christina when she was on Dancing with the Stars and that's the way it was. No traif. People are amazingly pretty understanding of the situation. For instance, Tamar Braxton hired me and I told her about kosher and she said "that's fine." She considered it to be healthy as many consider it to be, as sort of a diet plan for themselves. I tell them that it's better for you and explain that it's detailed in the Noahide laws ("not to eat the flesh with the life").
SW: And some say that it's better for digestion to separate milk and meat... who knows? The show has been likened to the Kardashians because it is all about your famous sister's relationship with her family. What would you like the takeaway to be from the show, about your family and about you personally?
LM: The show portrays us as strong, independent women and I want other women to learn from this that it is possible for anybody. Families need to stay strong. You will go through all different types of situations with your family and family members will take different paths that you never anticipated. Nevertheless, families need to stay strong and remember, God is your constant. You'll always come together and come back to each other if you trust in God. Another takeaway: Family is crazy! If I am able personally to benefit the Jewish community in some way (due to this show), bring a check to my shul or to a Jewish organization (for those greatly in need, etc), I will be tremendously grateful! It would be amazing if I could help the Jewish community in some way.