Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

Jews in the World of Art & Entertainment

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)

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