Jew of the Week: Shelley Berman

Sheldon Leonard Berman (1925-2017) was born in Chicago. After serving in the navy during the Second World War, he went to study drama and theatre. Berman soon moved to New York in search of his big break, and in the mean time made a living as a taxi driver, dance instructor, speech therapist, and drug store worker. Failing to find success, Berman returned to Chicago and joined the Compass Players actors group. This group would transform into The Second City, an improv troupe that became one of the most influential in the world, eventually spawning Saturday Night Live, and many other hit shows and comedy clubs. In 1957, Berman started doing stand-up comedy and was soon signed to a record deal. His first three albums all went gold, and Berman won the first-ever Grammy for a comedy recording. With this, Berman launched an industry, making comedy albums popular and paving the way for countless future comedians. Berman starred on Broadway, and appeared on multiple TV shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Twilight Zone, and MacGyver; as well as Friends, The King of Queens, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Grey’s Anatomy later in his career. Berman also appeared in 11 films, wrote three books, two plays, and numerous poems and TV scripts. For twenty years, he taught humour writing at the University of Southern California. Berman was famous for his clean, innocent jokes; for making the annoyances of everyday life hilarious. Great comedians like Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld followed in his footsteps, and credited him with both being an inspiration, and “changing modern stand-up”. Sadly, Berman passed away last month from complications related to Alzheimer’s. Berman left behind a daughter, and a wife to whom he was happily married for an incredible seventy years. This was the achievement he was most proud of, and said: “The love we have and the way it has grown, that’s what I’d like to be remembered for.”

Words of the Week

Humour uplifts the mind from a state of constricted consciousness to a state of expanded consciousness.
– Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

Jew of the Week: Simone Veil

President of Europe

Simone Annie Liline Jacob (1927-2017) was born and raised in Nice, France. Just after finishing high school, her entire family was rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Jacob’s mother, father, and brother perished in the Holocaust; two sisters survived. After being liberated from the camps, Jacob settled in Paris and studied law and politics. There, she met her soon-to-be husband Antoine Veil, with whom she would be married for 66 years. In 1956, she became a magistrate, and worked for the French Ministry of Justice, heading its penitentiary system. She was hailed for her role in dramatically improving prison conditions, and was known to regularly visit prisons on her days off. By 1964, Veil had become France’s Director of Civil Affairs. She worked tirelessly for women’s rights, and succeeded in finally getting French women full equality in legal matters. In 1970, Veil took over as secretary general of the Supreme Magistracy, then became Minister of Health in 1974, making her the first female minister in French history. Among her most famous laws was opening access to contraceptives, legalizing abortion (still known as “Veil’s Law”, which she intended only as a “last resort, for desperate situations”), and banning smoking in public areas. She also introduced maternity benefits, improved hospital conditions, enhanced the medical school curriculum, and worked to stop the illegal harvesting of organs from the deceased. Meanwhile, Veil worked for the European Economic Community, believing that a unified Europe was the only way to prevent another devastating war. When the EEC was reformed as the European Union, she was elected to its parliament, and shortly after, as its first president. She would serve on the European Parliament until 1993, in its Environment, Health, and Political Affairs Committees. Veil then returned to the French government, serving as Minister of State and Minister of Health until 1995. She continued her work in France and Europe until her last days, and faced a great deal of anti-Semitism throughout, including death threats and swastikas painted on her car and home. Not surprisingly, in recent years her greatest passion was Holocaust education, and she was president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah. Among her many awards are the prestigious Charlemagne Prize, the Truman Award for Peace, the Legion of Honour, and the Order of the British Empire. In 2008, Veil became one of the forty “immortal” members of the illustrious French Academy. She also held 18 honourary degrees, including one from Yale and another from Yeshiva University. Sadly, Simone Veil passed away earlier this year, just shy of her 90th birthday. She was laid to rest with full military honours in the Pantheon, Paris’ famous mausoleum, alongside just 71 of France’s most cherished figures, including Voltaire and Rousseau. She remains among the most revered women in French history.

Words of the Week

I say that we should regard all men as our brothers. What? The Turk my brother? The Chinaman my brother? The Jew? The Siam? Yes, without doubt; are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same God?
– Voltaire