Author Archives: Jew of the Week

Jew of the Week: Yitzhak Shamir

In Memory of a Great Israeli Prime Minister

Yitzhak Yezernitsky (1915-2012) was born in what is now Belarus and spent his youth in Poland. As a young man, he joined Betar, the Zionist organization founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. After a short time studying law at the University of Warsaw, he made aliyah and changed his last name to “Shamir”, after King Solomon’s Biblical stone-cutting tool used to construct Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. Tragically, his entire family that remained back in Europe was killed in the Holocaust. Before his father was murdered by villagers, he reportedly said: “I have a son in the Land of Israel, and he will exact my revenge.” Shamir joined the paramilitary Irgun force to fight off British rule, and later was part of the more aggressive Lehi, or “Stern Gang”. For his activities, he was imprisoned a number of times. (During one imprisonment, he met his future wife Shulamit, who had been arrested by the British for “illegal” immigration, having escaped Nazi-allied Bulgaria by boat.) In 1946, Shamir was arrested again and this time exiled to Eritrea in Africa. He managed to escape by digging a 200-foot tunnel, and found asylum in France. Shamir moved back to Israel immediately after the Declaration of Independence in 1948. He participated in the War of Independence, and later joined the Mossad. One of his main missions was Operation Damocles, to assassinate former Nazi rocket scientists helping Egypt develop missiles. He later resigned from the Mossad due to controversy over that operation. In 1973, he was first elected to the Knesset as a member of Likud. He became Foreign Minister in 1980, and Prime Minister of Israel in 1983. A hard-liner, Shamir opposed the peace treaty with Egypt, blocked a planned 1987 “regional peace conference”, and opposed the 1991 Madrid peace talks. When the Soviet Union began to fall apart in 1989, many Soviet Jews were fleeing to the United States. Shamir stepped in to stop the “insult to Israel” (as he called it) and said Soviet Jews were not refugees, since they had a home in Israel. The US changed its refugee policy and henceforth most Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel. Similarly, when the Ethiopian government collapsed in 1991, Shamir ordered Operation Solomon to airlift 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Shamir steered the country through the difficult years of the First Intifada and the First Gulf War. During his premiership, Israel established formal relations with over a dozen countries. He stepped down as Likud leader in 1993, but continued to sit in the Knesset until 1996. It was Shamir who launched Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career by appointing him to his first post (Israel’s ambassador to the UN). He would later leave Likud due to disputes with his young protégé, and only returned to the party in 2001 to support Ariel Sharon. That year, he also received the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement. Shamir left politics entirely in 2004 due to declining health. He wrote two books, including an autobiography. He has been described as one of Israel’s bravest warriors and most influential leaders. His yahrzeit is this Sunday.

Words of the Week

In their war against Israel’s existence, the Arab governments took advantage of the Cold War. They enlisted the military, economic, and political support of the communist world against Israel, and they turned a local, regional conflict into an international powder keg.
– Yitzhak Shamir

Jew of the Week: Chuck Schumer

America’s Top Senator

Charles Ellis Schumer (b. 1950) was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish family with Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish ancestry. He scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT and went to Harvard, where he first studied chemistry before switching to law. He passed the bar in 1975, but went right into politics, having once been inspired when volunteering on a presidential campaign. Schumer was elected to the New York State Assembly straight out of law school. After three terms, he won a seat on the US House of Representatives. He served on the House for nine terms until 1998, when he ran for a Senate seat instead and won again. He has since been re-elected to the Senate three times, with consistently high approval ratings. In 2016, he was voted head of the Senate Democrats, making him the minority leader. Earlier this year, when the Democrats took control of the Senate, he became the majority leader. In both cases, Schumer became the first Jew (and first New Yorker) to hold the Senate leader title. Impressively, Schumer visits every single one of New York’s 62 counties every year to meet with his constituents. He has been praised for helping average New Yorkers deal with even minor issues that are not the role of a senator to address. Over the years, Schumer has worked hard to keep jobs and factories in America, and has been fiercely critical of China. In 2017, he tried unsuccessfully to get Trump to impose a ban on Chinese buyouts of American companies. (This week, he finally pushed through a massive $250 billion “China competition bill”.) Schumer has also been praised for his assistance to veterans and for lowering healthcare costs. In 2001, together with John McCain, he introduced a bill to open the prescription drug market to more generic, cheaper versions, resulting in savings of billions of dollars. Schumer has fought for net neutrality, and criticized Republicans for allowing the FCC to pass new internet restrictions in 2018. While Schumer is pro-choice, he has also supported Efrat, an Israeli anti-abortion organization. He is currently trying to push legislation to ban BPA, cadmium, and other toxins. Over the years, Schumer has fought for tougher sanctions on Iran, Russia, and North Korea, and is one of the few Democrats that continues to oppose a nuclear deal with Iran. He is a huge supporter of Israel, defending both its blockade of Gaza, and its settlements. Schumer cosponsored a 2017 bill making it illegal to boycott Israel. He praised Trump for finally moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Schumer has voted for more gun control and more college tuition credits, as well as stricter regulation of Wall Street. He has developed a “Marshall Plan for Teachers” to revamp education in America. Schumer is an avid cyclist. He has never lost an election in his life, and has always sought to be a balanced voice of reason in Congress.

Words of the Week

You can be a Jew and care about Israel and it does not make you any less American. You can be a Jew and lobby for Israel and it does not make you any less American. You can be, all at once, completely Jewish, completely pro-Israel and completely American.
– Chuck Schumer

Jews of the Week: Yaphet Kotto & Jim Steinman

In Memory of Two Great Artists

Yaphet Frederick Samuel Kotto (1939-2021) was born in New York City. His mother came from a family with Caribbean roots, and converted to Judaism in order to marry his father, an observant Jewish immigrant from Cameroon. Kotto was raised religious, and would later describe how walking to the synagogue with a kippah on his head led to some “heavy fistfights” with anti-Semites. He went to acting school at 16, and three years later appeared in his first play, Othello. Kotto acted in a number of Broadway productions before moving to Hollywood. After a decade of small film roles, Kotto was cast as the Bond villain Mr. Big in Live and Let Die. In 1977, he played Idi Amin in Raid on Entebbe about the daring Israeli mission to save hostages in Uganda, for which he was nominated Outstanding Supporting Actor at the Emmy Awards. Kotto also starred in Alien, The Running Man (alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger), and Midnight Run (with Robert De Niro). All in all, he appeared in over 60 movies and over a dozen TV shows. He once said in an interview that had he not become an actor, he would have become a rabbi. Sadly, Kotto passed away earlier this year.

A fellow artist from New York who sadly passed away this year is James Richard Steinman (1947-2021). While studying at Amherst College, Steinman began writing music and lyrics for a number of school plays. In 1972, he wrote the music for the musical Rhinegold. The following year his first song was released commercially on Yvonne Elliman’s album. For much of the rest of the decade, he worked with the band Meat Loaf and wrote some of their greatest hits, along with one of the bestselling music albums of all time, Bat Out of Hell. In 1983, Steinman produced Bonnie Tyler’s album Faster Than the Speed of Night, and wrote its hit song “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. That year, it was the top song on the Billboard charts, followed by Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”—which was also written by Steinman! All in all, Steinman wrote popular theme songs for television shows, soundtracks for movies, as well as music and lyrics for a number of stage productions. He wrote hit songs for Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion (“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”), and even Hulk Hogan. He has been called “the greatest ever composer of symphonic rock” and the “father of the power ballad”.

Words of the Week

If a word is worth one coin, silence is worth two.

Talmud (Megillah 18a)