Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

Jews in the World of Art & Entertainment

Jew of the Week: Beate Sirota Gordon

The Woman Who Wrote Japan’s Constitution

Beate Sirota Gordon helped draft the Japanese constitution, and transformed Japanese society, when she was just 22 years old.

Beate Sirota (1923-2012) was born in Vienna, the daughter of Russian-Ukrainian Jewish immigrants. When she was five years old, her father, a popular musician, accepted a position to teach music at what is now the Tokyo University of the Arts. The family moved to Japan, where Sirota studied in German and American schools. At 16, she went to college in California and got a degree in languages, speaking English, German, French, Russian, and Japanese fluently. When World War II broke out, Sirota was one of just a handful of (non-Japanese) people in America who could speak Japanese, and went to work for the Office of War Information. Her main job was to monitor Japanese radio signals and translate their broadcasts. During this time, she had no contact with her parents who were still living in Japan. As soon as the war ended she volunteered to go to Japan as a US Army translator, hoping to find her parents (she did). She would become the first civilian woman admitted to the country. In 1946, the Americans started working on a new constitution for Japan and Sirota (the only woman on the committee) was tasked with writing the section on civil rights. She made it a priority to ensure that Japanese society would finally allow equality for all, especially better conditions for women who still had no rights in the country. Sirota personally drafted Article 14 (“All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin…”) and Article 24 (“Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife…”) Despite reservations from both the Japanese and American negotiators (who felt she was giving Japanese women more rights than even American woman had), Sirota eventually convinced her counterparts to include the clauses. She is therefore credited with being the central force for bringing social equality and women’s rights to Japan.

During her time working on the constitution, Sirota met her future husband, Lt. Joseph Gordon. They returned to the US and settled in New York. After briefly working for TIME magazine, Sirota pursed her passion for art, music, and dance. Meanwhile, she worked at the Japan Society helping Japanese students and immigrants (one of whom was Yoko Ono). Sirota played a large role in introducing Japanese (and Asian) music and art to the West. By 1970, she was Director of Performing Arts for the Asia Society, and began to travel all over Asia to remote communities in search of traditional art forms. She would then invite these artists on tours to the West. All in all, Sirota organized 39 tours in 16 countries. In the US alone, her shows were seen by 1.5 million people in 400 cities. She also made five films and multiple television programs about Asian art, and recorded 8 albums of music. For all of her tremendous work, Sirota received dozens of awards, including the prestigious Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Japanese government. In Japan, two films have been made about her life. In 1995, Sirota published a memoir in Japanese, followed by an English version in 1998, titled The Only Woman in the Room. Today, she is one of Japanese greatest feminist icons.

In Memory of Lori Kaye, 60, “Who Thought of Others Before Herself”

A Mystical Map of Your Soul

Words of the Week

Until now you have focused on what you need from God; it’s about time you asked, “What is needed of me?”
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813)

Jew of the Week: Jack Kirby

The King of Comics

Jack Kirby (Credit: Susan Skaar)

Jacob Kurtzberg (1917-1994) was born in Manhattan to poor Jewish immigrants from Austria. He loved to draw as a child, and taught himself art techniques by studying comic strips and political cartoons in newspapers. He was rejected by the Alliance Art School (a branch of the Educational Alliance in Manhattan that was created by wealthy Jews to assist and integrate poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants), and quit Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute after a week. At 19, he started working on newspaper comic strips, first under the pseudonym Jack Curtiss. For a time he worked on Popeye cartoons, then switched to comic books. He worked on many productions over the next few years, and published under a variety of pen names, finally settling on Jack Kirby. Soon, Kirby teamed up with Joe Simon, and the two were hired by Timely Comics, later renamed Marvel Comics. Simon and Kirby’s first creation was Captain America. The comic was a huge success, but Marvel didn’t pay a good wage so they moved over to DC Comics. There, they produced a number of hits, selling over a million copies each month. During World War II, Kirby was drafted to the army and fought in Normandy. In the winter, he had severe frostbite and military doctors nearly amputated both of his legs. He was able to recover, and was awarded a number of medals, including the Bronze Star. Returning to America after the war, Kirby reunited with Simon and the two worked on a number of projects, including a stretch making popular romance comics that sold several million copies a month. At one point, they ran their own comics company. Eventually, the partnership soured and the two parted ways. Kirby eventually returned to Marvel. Partnering with Stan Lee, the two went on to revolutionize comics and usher in its “Silver Age”. Their first creation was the Fantastic Four, followed by more famous figures like the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Galactus, Silver Surfer, Black Panther, and the X-Men. In 1963, they combined some of these heroes to create The Avengers. Many of these characters have since been adapted to the big screen, making the Marvel Cinematic Universe the highest-grossing film franchise of all time. (The latest – and for now, final – installment of The Avengers, Endgame, opens this week and is expected to break nearly all movie records.) Kirby has been credited with being “the single most influential figure in the turnaround in Marvel’s fortunes from the time he rejoined the company.” He helped make comic book characters and their stories deeper and richer, more vibrant and alive, and more meaningful for readers young and old. Kirby also pioneered a number of new art techniques, including his famous “Kirby Krackle” energy fields. In 1970, he moved back to work for DC Comics, then came back to Marvel in 1976. During this time, he created The Eternals (rumoured to be the next big Marvel film series). Through the 1980s and until his last days, Kirby continued to create characters and draw comics. He was involved in a number of cartoons and film animations, too. Kirby felt like he never got the credit he deserved, and spent a great deal of time fighting for the rights to his own work. At the end, he only got about 2000 pages of the 13,000 pages he drew for Marvel alone. Nonetheless, the impact he had on the comic books industry, and on the world of art and film in general is immeasurable. Many artists, writers, and filmmakers point to him as their main inspiration. Kirby has been called “the King of Comics” and “one of the chief architects of the American imagination.”

How the “Splitting of the Sea” Can Change Your Life

Words of the Week

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
– Gandhi

The first issue of The Avengers (September 1963); cover of Fantastic Four #72 (March 1968), showing characteristic “Kirby Krackles” in the background; a page from Fantastic Four #61 (June 1966) illustrated by Jack Kirby.