Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

Jews in the World of Art & Entertainment

Jew of the Week: Amedeo Modigliani

Greatest Painter of All Time?

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was born to an influential Sephardic Jewish family in Livorno, Italy. As a child, he was often sick and was home-schooled by his mother, his favourite hobby being painting. After nearly dying of typhus, and then tuberculosis, his mother took him on a cross-Italy tour, with an important stop in Florence to see its great artworks. She then signed him up for lessons with master painter Guglielmo Micheli. Modigliani spent several years at Micheli’s school, and proved himself as a creative and original artist. Micheli nicknamed him “superman”, not only for his artistic ability but because Modigliani liked to study and quote the philosophical works of Nietzsche. After some time learning art in Venice, Modigliani settled in Paris in 1906 and lived in the Montmartre commune for poor artists. He was entirely devoted to his art, producing as much as one hundred works per day! Unfortunately, “Modi” (as he was now known) descended into heavy drug and alcohol use, partly to deal with his chronic pains and illnesses. In 1909, he took up sculpting. (In 2010, his Tete carving became the third most expensive sculpture ever sold, going for over $70 million at auction.) He returned to painting in 1914. When World War I broke out, Modi enlisted in the army but was soon kicked out due to poor health. That same year, he had a relationship with renowned British painter Nina Hamnett. He had met her at a café and famously introduced himself simply as “Modigliani, painter and Jew”. He had several other high-profile relationships, including with Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and English writer Beatrice Hastings. He eventually settled down and got married. Modi was famous for being unconventional and uncategorizable as an artist, and for his many rich portraits. His Nu couché nude painting sold for over $170 million in 2015, among the most expensive paintings ever sold, while Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) set a Sotheby’s record in 2018, selling for $157 million. As a result of his illnesses and addictions, Modi died at the young age of 35. The following day, his grieving wife, pregnant with their second child, jumped out a window and committed suicide. Many believe that had Modi lived longer, he would have become the undisputed greatest painter of all time. There are thought to be more fakes of Modigliani’s works today than of any other artist. Two movies have already been made about him, and currently Johnny Depp and Al Pacino are working on a new biopic about his life.

Words of the Week

I only look for the good qualities in every Jew. That way I come to love him.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), the Kotzker Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Billy Joel

Piano Man

William Martin Joel (b. 1949) was born in New York to an immigrant Jewish family with German and English heritage. Both of his parents were music enthusiasts, and compelled little Billy to start piano lessons at age 4. Often picked on as a teen, he decided to take up boxing and soon became an amateur champion. He only retired from boxing after seriously breaking his nose. To support his impoverished family, Joel played piano at a bar most nights. Because of this, he missed many exams and failed to graduate from high school. He decided to pursue a music career instead, inspired by the success of The Beatles. Joel first played for a number of bands, including the Echoes, the Emeralds, the Lost Souls, the Hassles, and Attila. He recorded his first solo album in 1970, but it did not do well. He went on tour and at one point opened for The Beach Boys. In 1972, Joel signed with Columbia Records and moved to LA. The first album was Piano Man, with its eponymous hit song making Joel famous. (“Piano Man” was later ranked among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone.) His 1977 album The Stranger became Columbia Records’ all-time bestseller. In 1987, Joel performed in the Soviet Union, one of the first Americans to do so. All in all, Joel produced 13 albums, winning 5 Grammy Awards (out of 23 nominations) and selling over 160 million records worldwide. He is America’s fourth-best-selling solo artist. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has also been awarded 7 honourary degrees. Aside from music, Joel is passionate about boating and runs the Long Island Boat Company as a side-business. Despite nearing his 73rd birthday, he is still performing.

Purim Begins Tonight! Chag Sameach!

The Purim Code That Prophesied the Nazi Nuremberg Trials

Purim-themed posts from the Jew of the Week archives: Esther, Mordechai, and Daniel

Words of the Week

I have frequently had cause to comment upon the extraordinary generosity and liberality of the American Jews in their charitable contributions. Indeed, their voluntary contributions exceed that of any other American group, and range from the stinted savings of the poorest workman to the full outpouring of those in more fortunate positions.
– President Herbert Hoover

Jews of the Week: Aura Herzog and Tova Berlinski

In Memory of Two Great Israeli Women

Aura Ambache (1924-2022) was born in Egypt to a Jewish family of Russian and Polish heritage, that had been expelled from Yafo by the Turks before World War I. Ambache went to French schools in Egypt before heading to South Africa for university studies in math and physics. The family moved back to Israel in 1946 and Ambache joined the Jewish Agency. The following year, she married Chaim Herzog, who would go on to become Israel’s sixth president. Both husband and wife fought in the War of Independence, with Mrs. Herzog serving as an intelligence officer with Unit 8200. She was seriously injured during an attack on the Jewish Agency building. In 1958, she helped organize the first Chidon Tanach, the International Bible Contest, and between 1959 and 1968 was the head of Israel’s Department of Culture. The following year, she founded the Council for a Beautiful Israel, an NGO which works to preserve the environment of the Holy Land and boost the standard of living in the country. Herzog also wrote a book called Secrets of Hospitality. Between 1983 and 1993, she was Israel’s First Lady. Sadly, Herzog passed away last week. Her son Isaac Herzog is the current President of Israel, while son Michael Herzog is Israel’s ambassador to the US.

Tova Gusta Wolf (1915-2022) was born in Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland to a Hasidic family, the oldest of six children. She was very active in the Beitar Zionist youth movement and during this time met her husband Eliyahu Berlinski. The young couple decided to make aliyah together in 1938, as soon as they married. (They had to sneak in past British authorities who had then restricted Jewish immigration to the Holy Land.) This prescient move saved their lives. Back in Poland, Tova’s entirely family (except for one sister) would perish in the Holocaust. While originally interested in acting and theatre, the loss of her family inspired her to grieve through painting. Berlinski went on to study at the renowned Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem, and spent time learning with the abstract expressionists in Paris. She won the Jerusalem Prize in 1963 and became one of Israel’s most famous painters. She has been described as the artist who “painted the pain of Auschwitz”. In 2000, she received the Mordechai Ish-Shalom Award for Lifetime Achievement. Sadly, Berlinski passed away earlier this week, aged 106. She had been painting until her last days.

Words of the Week

We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity.
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.