The secret Jewish history of Rita Moreno who just might be a descendant

Published on Jun 17, 2021
At age 89, Rita Moreno is still going strong, with a role in the upcoming remake of “West Side Story” by Steven Spielberg (she starred as Anita in the original film) and a leading role in the rebooted TV sitcom “One Day at a Time,” which was an ongoing venture until filming was shut down due to COVID. Moreno, whose remarkable, barrier-breaking career includes being one of the very first actors to pull off an EGOT — winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award — is being celebrated in a new PBS American Masters documentary, “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” which goes into theatrical release this Friday, June 18, and chronicles Moreno’s early life and her storied career. Perhaps the film will also settle a longstanding rumor about Moreno once and for all. One of the first entertainers from Puerto Rico to break into the American mainstream, Moreno reportedly believes that she is descended from crypto-Jews from 15th century Spain. According to a story published in the Detroit Jewish News in December 1964, Moreno told attendees at the annual Hanukkah luncheon of the American Jewish Congress National Women’s Division about how “she developed an uncanny feeling of identification with Jewish folkways, folklore and history.” Upon learning that some Jews publicly converted to Christianity while privately clinging to Jewish worship and customs under pressure of the Spanish Inquisition, Moreno entertained the notion that she may indeed be the progeny of Marranos. Regardless of her ancestry, Rita Moreno has lived a rich life in the entertainment world and one that has often found her living and working in a Jewish context. After having well-known affairs with Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, Moreno settled down in 1965 and married Dr. Leonard Cohen, a cardiologist and internist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. The two remained married for 40 years, until 2005, when Cohen died. In “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” Moreno paid loving tribute to Cohen and his Jewish family. “When I inherited a family, these dear Jewish people who were so sweet and welcoming, it was marvelous. They were wonderful to me, always,” she wrote. On their first Christmas together, the Cohens came to visit. “As a ‘gift’ to Lenny,” writes Moreno, “I cooked a traditional Jewish meal. And Lenny’s aunt, Tanta Shirley, looked at the spread on the table and asked, ‘Vat, no toikey?’” Cohen had flown Moreno’s family in from Puerto Rico. “For the first time since my childhood in Puerto Rico, I felt I had a family,” she wrote. “The room was filled with the sound of klezmer music from the hi-fi…. No few bottles of Manischewitz later, we all danced a tipsy salsa!”Moreno and Cohen first met on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend. Moreno told Cohen to meet her outside the theater after a Broadway show, leaving him to wonder if he was date No. 2 of her evening.

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