Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

Jews in the World of Art & Entertainment

Jew of the Week: Larry King

King of Interviews

Lawrence Harvey Zeiger (1933-2021) was born in Brooklyn to Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Belarus. His father died when he was just a child, leaving the family impoverished. Young Larry was fascinated by radio and always wished to become a broadcaster. In Miami, he found a job cleaning at a radio station and, when the station’s broadcaster suddenly left the show, Larry was given a chance to take his place. The manager said “Zeiger” was not a good stage name, so Larry quickly chose “King” (based on an ad he had just seen for King’s Wholesale Liquor store). He got the job to radio DJ for three hours every morning, earning $50 a week. King soon started doing interviews, too, and would occasionally have a celebrity who was in town to do a show. He was then hired as a commentator for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. It was in 1978 when The Larry King Show aired its first episode (on radio). It would be broadcast live every weekday at midnight, starting with a one-hour interview and followed by several hours of discussion. By 1985, King was a household name and was hired by CNN to star in a television version of his interview show. CNN’s Larry King Live went on to set a Guinness World Record as the “longest-running TV show hosted by the same person on the same network”. Many iconic moments took place in his studio, including the Perot-Gore debate of 1993 (which became CNN’s most-watched segment ever), and the joint interview of Rabin and Arafat in 1995. Famous people loved to come on his show because he asked simple questions and made his interviewees feel at ease. He famously avoided reading up on his guests, preferring not to know much about them. King retired in 2010 after 25 years and a whopping 6000 episodes. Over that same time period, he was a regular columnist for USA Today. King went on to do several more popular shows on other networks, including Larry King Now and Politicking with Larry King. Over the years, he made countless appearances in sit-coms, commercials, movies, cartoons, and even the WWE. All in all, King conducted some 60,000 interviews over his career. He won two Peabody Awards for excellence in broadcasting and was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. After suffering a heart attack in 1987, King started the Larry King Cardiac Foundation which has donated millions to pay for life-saving heart surgeries for people who cannot afford them. He also helped raise millions for Israel and for Chabad. He generally identified as a “Jewish agnostic” and said several years ago: “I love being Jewish, am proud of my Jewishness, and I love Israel.” Sadly, Larry King passed away earlier this year.

Words of the Week

Everyone loves the truth, but not everyone tells the truth.
– Yiddish proverb

Jew of the Week: Harriet Cohen

The Piano Sensation Who Saved Refugees

Harriet Pearl Alice Cohen (1901-1967) was born in London, England to a Jewish family with Russian heritage. She started playing piano in early childhood, and by age 13 won the Ada Lewis Scholarship and the Sterndale Bennett Prize from the Royal Academy of Music. A year later, she made her professional debut and soon became one of the most popular musicians in England. She was noted for resurrecting old English compositions that had been forgotten, as well as opening up Spanish and Russian music to the wider world. In fact, she was permitted to visit the Soviet Union (and perform there) in 1935, bringing back great compositions by contemporary Russians that she then performed around the world. While visiting Vienna in 1933, Cohen first recognized the plight of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. She decided to devote herself to their cause. Cohen went on to raise large sums of money to support the refugees, and worked with several organizations to bring them to safety. In 1934, she performed a special benefit concert, with Albert Einstein on the violin (!), to raise money. Einstein was only one of Cohen’s many admirers. Charming and witty, Cohen’s close circle of friends included H.G. Wells, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, and Chaim Weizmann. The latter won her over to the Zionist cause. Cohen made her first trip to the Holy Land in 1939, and quickly gained a reputation as a passionate Zionist. She fought so passionately, in fact, that it led to two assassination attempts on her life! Both for her musical contributions, and for her work with refugees, Cohen was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (one step below being knighted) in 1938. Unfortunately, she would later severely damage her right hand on broken glass, and could no longer use it. Undeterred, she continued to play and perform with her left hand only, and renowned composer Sir Arnold Bax (another admirer) wrote for her the Concertino for Left Hand. Bax would credit her with inspiring most of his compositions, while Albert Einstein referred to her as “the beloved piano-witch”. Cohen was also credited with bringing Bach back into the spotlight (listen to her play Bach here). She recorded music for films, too, and published two books. In 1954, she was awarded the key to the City of London. Many see Harriet Cohen as one of the first modern music superstars.

Words of the Week

Better to talk to a woman and think of God, than to talk to God and think of a woman.
– Yiddish Proverb  

Jew of the Week: Neil Diamond

“The Jewish Elvis”

Neil Leslie Diamond (b. 1941) was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish family of Russian and Polish heritage. In high school, he sang in the school choir alongside classmate Barbra Streisand. Diamond was inspired by a Pete Seeger performance at his Jewish summer camp, and as soon as he returned home got a guitar and started writing songs. Meanwhile, he was on his high school fencing team and got a fencing scholarship to attend New York University. (He won an NCAA fencing championship in 1960!) Eventually, Diamond dropped out of his pre-med program and went to work for Sunbeam Music writing songs for $50 a week. He then went off on his own and formed a singing duet with a friend. Finding no success, Diamond decided to go solo and got a recording deal with Columbia in 1962. Unfortunately, despite good reviews his first album was a commercial flop. Diamond was dropped by Columbia and lived in poverty for the next several years of his life, at one point barely surviving on just $3 a day. In 1965, Diamond started writing hit songs for The Monkees, including “I’m a Believer”. Soon, Diamond became a popular songwriter and composed for the likes of Elvis Presley and Deep Purple. He had his own first hit in 1966 with “Solitary Man”, followed by “Sweet Caroline” in 1969 (later selected for historical preservation by the Library of Congress). After that, the hits kept coming and his shows sold out night after night. During one San Francisco show in 1979, Diamond suddenly collapsed on stage and couldn’t get up. It turned out that he had a tumour in his spine, and went through a 12-hour surgery to remove it. His 1980 hit “America” became the most recognizable song in the country, and is sometimes likened to a second national anthem. All in all, Diamond had ten Number 1 singles, and 38 reached the Billboard Top 10. He has sold over 100 million records, making him one of the most successful musicians of all time. Diamond has always been open about his Jewish faith, sang “Kol Nidre” in a famous Yom Kippur scene in the film The Jazz Singer, and has been called “the Jewish Elvis”. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2018, Diamond retired after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, though he still spends much of his time writing songs.

Words of the Week

Noah was told, “Make a tzohar for the ark.”  [Genesis 6:16] The word “ark” in Hebrew is teivah, which also means a “word”. A tzohar, meanwhile, is something that shines. So the verse could be read to teach us: “Make each word you say shine.”
– Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760)