Jew of the Week: Mort Sahl

Father of Stand-Up Comedy

Morton Lyon Sahl (1927-2021) was born in Montreal to an immigrant Jewish family, and grew up in Los Angeles where his father unsuccessfully sought to become a Hollywood writer. As a 15-year old during World War II, Sahl dropped out of high school and joined the US Army by lying about his age. Though the trick didn’t work, Sahl did eventually join the US Air Force. After leaving the military, he earned a degree in urban planning but dropped out of his Master’s program to become an actor and writer. For several years, he struggled to find a gig as a comedian (NBC told him he would never be one!) In the meantime, he worked various odd jobs to make a living, including selling used cars. Eventually, he managed to get hired at the hungry i club in San Francisco for $75 a week. His stand-up show was an instant hit and by the end of the year, he was performing for packed audiences and making $3000 a week. Sahl then travelled extensively to play at various major venues, introducing the art of stand-up (then still new and relatively unknown) to audiences across the country. Instead of being formal and in a suit, reading out a rehearsed performance, Sahl would go on stage in casual dress and a cool attitude, improvising much of the material. He was the first to poke fun at real issues instead of just “reciting punch lines”. For these reasons, Sahl is often called the “father of stand-up comedy”. In 1960, he was featured on the cover of TIME and described as “the best of the New Comedians”. One of Sahl’s biggest fans was President Kennedy, who had Sahl write jokes for him. This was despite the fact that Sahl was primarily a political satirist, and regularly roasted the government (he was once described as “the only real political philosopher” in comedy). He attacked the mainstream media as “spoon-feeding” the public and creating an “ignorance that may sink this country”. After his friend Kennedy’s assassination, Sahl obsessed over finding the perpetrators, and his “dangerous” political messages led to him being blacklisted by nightclubs. Because of this, he was soon mostly forgotten. Sahl was noted for his clean, profanity-free comedy, and his sober image, staying away from cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol. He appeared in over a dozen films and TV shows, and was also the first comedian to record an album, opening the door for countless others to do the same. He was the first comedian to win a Grammy, too. Sahl has been ranked among the greatest comedians of all time by Comedy Central. He inspired an entire generation of future comedians, including Woody Allen, George Carlin, Jon Stewart, Bill Cosby, and Robin Williams. Sadly, Mort Sahl passed away last month.

Chanukah Begins This Sunday Night – Chag Sameach!

Chanukah: From Oppression to Freedom (Video)

Death of Hellenism, Then and Now

Words of the Week

…This generation [of Jews] is making up for it by assimilating and becoming nothing. You know, vanilla ice cream. What I’m trying to say is, if I’m Jewish, then they are a fraud. And if they are Jewish, I don’t want to be that.
– Mort Sahl

Jew of the Week: Moshe Safdie

Visionary Architect

Moshe Safdie (b. 1938) was born in Haifa to a Mizrachi Jewish family originally from Syria. He grew up on a kibbutz where he was a beekeeper and goatherd. When he was 15, the family moved to Montreal, Canada. Safdie went on to study architecture at McGill University. For his thesis, he came up with the idea of 3D, prefabricated modular units. Safdie quickly made a name for himself as a young architect and, at just 23, was invited to design Habitat 67 during Montreal’s World Expo. In 1970, Safdie opened a branch of his firm in Jerusalem to focus on restoring the Old City and building up the new city post-reunification. He designed the famous Porat Yosef Yeshiva (originally the vision of the great Ben Ish Chai), the beautiful Mamilla Center, as well as Yad Vashem, and Ben Gurion International Airport. Safdie achieved international renown, and went on to design some of the most iconic buildings in the world (see below). This includes the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, the National Gallery of Canada, and the world’s longest “horizontal skyscraper” in China. Meanwhile, Safdie has taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and directed it for a number of years. He has also published a dozen books, and has been featured in six films. Today, Safdie Architects has offices in Boston, Jerusalem, Toronto, Shanghai, and Singapore. Safdie is still deeply involved, and maintains a research fellowship at his firm to develop new architectural ideas and futuristic projects. He has won countless awards, including the Order of Canada, the Wolf Prize in Architecture, and multiple honorary doctorates. The Moshe Safdie Archive at McGill University is among the largest architectural collections in the world, with over 140,000 drawings, 100,000 photos, and over 2000 sketches.

*November is Mizrachi Heritage Month.*

Moshe Safdie at TED: How to Reinvent the Apartment Building

Words of the Week

Woe to mankind! For they see, but do not know what they see; they stand, but do not know upon what they stand.
Rabbi Yose (Talmud, Chagigah 12b)

Some of Moshe Safdie’s best-known projects, clockwise from top left: Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City, Kauffman Center in Kansas City, National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Habitat 67 in Montreal, Jewel Changqi Airport in Singapore, and Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh

“The Angel”

HaRav Yitzchak Ginsburgh

Yitzchak Feivish Ginsburgh (b. 1944) was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He was recognized as a math prodigy when still a child. While spending a year in Israel as a teenager, Ginsburgh began learning Torah and becoming more religiously observant. He went on to study philosophy and mathematics, and got a Master’s degree in the latter. He left his Ph.D studies to go yeshiva in Jerusalem instead, becoming a rabbi. After the Six-Day War, he was one of the first people to move into the newly-liberated Jewish Quarter. Around this time, he met the Lubavitcher Rebbe for the first time and became his disciple, eventually resettling in Kfar Chabad. During the Yom Kippur War, he served as the Rebbe’s emissary to the IDF, and even delivered a lulav and etrog to Ariel Sharon on the front line for Sukkot. After this, Ginsburgh founded the first Chabad House in the Sinai, which was later destroyed when Israel gave up the area in its peace treaty with Egypt. The rabbi went on to head the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva near Joseph’s Tomb. He has written over 120 books on a variety of subjects, in both Hebrew and English. He is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on Hasidism and Kabbalah, as well as gematria (Jewish numerology), Torah and science, Jewish psychology, and meditation. He is a pioneer of “Hasidic psychotherapy” and is the dean of the Torat Hanefesh School of Hasidic Psychology. Rabbi Ginsburgh is also an avid musician and has composed dozens of popular songs. He has met some controversy in the past for his passionate support of Jewish settlement across all of Israel’s ancestral lands, and for his opposition to government concessions to Israel’s enemies. Despite some of the negative press he has received from the mainstream media, Rabbi Ginsburgh is well-known for his humility, righteousness, profound wisdom, and gentle demeanour. Many refer to him as HaMalakh, “the angel”. Rabbi Ginsburgh has thousands of devoted students around the world, and still presides over a network of Jewish schools in Israel. He is undoubtedly among the greatest contemporary Jewish scholars and religious leaders. Today is his 77th birthday.

Words of the Week

Ours is the first generation in modern times to understand the truly universal human condition and to seek to bring all peoples of the earth together in peace and harmony.
– Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh