Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

Jews in the World of Art & Entertainment

Jew of the Week: Brian Epstein

The Fifth Beatle

Brian Samuel Epstein (1934-1967) was born in Liverpool, England to a Jewish family of Russian and Lithuanian heritage. His father had expanded the family furniture store to sell musical instruments, and it was here that Paul McCartney’s father bought a piano for his son. Brian Epstein was expected to go into the family business, too, but convinced his parents to allow him to go to acting school in London. He didn’t like it, and returned to Liverpool to run the family’s new NEMS music store. Epstein worked hard to make it the most successful music store in Northern England. He soon became familiar with a new local band, The Beatles (all of whom bought music at his store), and for his 21st birthday booked a party at The Cavern Club where they played. He immediately fell in love with the group, and considered managing them, even though his assistant thought they were “absolutely awful”. Nonetheless, Epstein returned regularly to the club over the next three weeks to watch the band, before proposing to become their manager. He drew up a five-year contract—technically for their parents since The Beatles were all under 21 and needed consent. Epstein got to work right away, transforming their image from a “scruffy crowd in leather” who cursed, drank, and smoked on stage, to wearing suits and presenting a “fresh” vibe. (John Lennon didn’t want to wear a suit but then said he would “wear a bloody balloon if somebody’s going to pay me.”) For nearly a year, the band made no money and Epstein paid for all of their expenses. Over that time, Epstein met with executives from Columbia Records, EMI, and several other big labels, all of whom rejected The Beatles. Eventually, Epstein threatened to stop selling EMI records at his stores, so EMI agreed to a cheap, “nothing to lose” recording contract through their smaller Parlophone label. The Beatles began recording in June of 1962, and the rest is history. Epstein guided the group and took care of them, kept them focused, set up the branding that launched “Beatlemania”, and ultimately made the Beatles the best-selling and most influential music band in history. In turn, the band loved and trusted their manager, and never even read the contracts he brought them to sign. (“We had complete faith in him when he was running us,” said Lennon.) Epstein was the best man at both Lennon’s and Ringo Starr’s weddings. (Contrary to popular belief, the latter is not Jewish.) Epstein worked round-the-clock, and soon became dependent on both stimulants and sedatives. In 1967, days after sitting shiva for his father, he took a large dose of sedatives which, though normal for him, mixed fatally with the large amount of alcohol he had drunk. His death was officially ruled an accident, and biographers have since refuted rumours of suicide. Whatever the case, The Beatles were devastated by the loss of their manager, and never recovered. The band soon fell apart. Paul McCartney would later describe Epstein as “The Fifth Beatle”. The Bee Gees wrote the song ‘In the Summer of His Years’ as a tribute to Epstein, who played a small but critical role in their success as well.

Words of the Week

If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.
– Jean-Paul Sartre

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