Jews of the Week: Edith Head & William Wyler

Two Oscar Record Holders

Edith Claire Posener (1897-1981) was born in California to Jewish parents of German heritage. She studied languages at UC Berkeley and Stanford and became a high school language teacher. To make a little more money, she offered to teach art as well, although she had no professional training in the subject. A year after marrying Charles Head, she got a job as a costume sketch artist for Paramount Pictures. Very quickly, she became one of Hollywood’s most popular costume designers. She was the go-to choice for top stars like Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Bette Davis. Nominated for a whopping 35 Academy Awards, Head won 8 times, giving her the record for most Oscars won by a woman to this day. All in all, Head worked for 43 years at Paramount Pictures and another 14 at Universal Pictures, designing costumes until her very last days. She also designed the women’s uniform for the US Coast Guard. Head made cameo appearances in a number of TV shows and films, and was the inspiration for the character of Edna Mode in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Among her other honours is a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a 2003 commemorative stamp from the US Postal Service. Edith Head passed away in the same year that another famous Jewish-German Oscar record holder did:

William Wyler (1902-1981) was born in France, where he grew up very poor, and often skipped school to sneak into movies. His mother eventually called up her wealthy cousin in America—Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures—to ask for help. Laemmle brought young Wyler to New York, where he first served for a year with the National Guard. Wyler then moved to Hollywood and got his first job cleaning stages and moving sets. He then broke off on his own to become a director. Wyler worked round-the-clock, and by the early 1930s made a name for himself as a creative filmmaker. He churned out some of the greatest hits of the era, including Wuthering Heights and Mrs. Miniver, which won 6 Oscars, including the first Best Director for Wyler. During World War II, he focused on making anti-Nazi and pro-British films, but many of them were blocked by the US government, who wanted to maintain a neutral stance at first. Mrs. Miniver changed that, with both Roosevelt and Winston Churchill loving the film, the latter even declaring: “Mrs. Miniver is propaganda worth 100 battleships!” In 1942, Wyler enlisted in the US Army and served as an Air Force major. He continued to make films while literally risking his life flying over battlefields. He got injured, lost hearing in one ear, and returned to America at the end of the war a disabled veteran. He eventually went back to Hollywood and continued to make huge hits. The biggest was 1959’s Ben-Hur, which won a record-breaking 11 Oscars, with Wyler winning his third for Best Director. The film saved MGM from bankruptcy (making $90 million on a $15 million budget). It was also Wyler that brought Barbra Streisand to cinema when he cast her in the 1968 Funny Girl, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar—making her one of 14 people to win the award thanks to Wyler (another record). He retired in 1970, having made 67 films, 13 of which won Best Picture. He was known as “40-take Wyler” because he would retake scenes over and over again to get them perfectly right. He remains the most-nominated director in Oscar history, and was voted one of the top 50 “outstanding Americans”.

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Words of the Week

A word is worth one coin, silence is worth two.
TalmudMegillah 18a

Some of Edith Head’s costume designs for Anne Baxter’s Nefertari character in the 1956 classic ‘The Ten Commandments’.

Jew of the Week: Ted Lerner

Bringing Back the Washington Nationals

Theodore Nathan Lerner (1925-2023) was born in Washington, D.C. to a family of Orthodox Jewish immigrants. He went to public school and his favourite pastime was baseball. He would sell newspapers as a child to get just enough money to afford a bus ride to the local stadium and buy an entrance ticket (a total of 28 cents). After serving in the army during World War II, Lerner returned to the US and enrolled at George Washington University (with a scholarship from the “G.I. Bill” for veterans). He went on to law school but became more interested in real estate. As a young man in 1952, he founded his own real estate development company starting with just $250. Lerner worked tirelessly, often 18 hours a day. He said that he would only take time off for Jewish holidays, and the occasional ball game. He went from developing small homes to larger apartment buildings, and then to massive commercial enterprises. Some of his most famous projects are Chelsea Piers in New York City and Tysons Corner in Washington (the area’s first indoor shopping mall, and still one of the largest in the whole country). All in all, Lerner Enterprises developed more than 20 million square feet of residential and commercial spaces, and Lerner became the richest man in Maryland. In 2002, the Montreal Expos baseball team went up for sale, and Lerner knew he had to bring the team to Washington. He ended up outbidding all the other contenders to resurrect the Washington Nationals. Lerner retired in 2018, and the following year the Nationals won the World Series, fulfilling Lerner’s childhood dream. Lerner was a generous philanthropist, and donated large sums regularly to hospitals and charities, to numerous Jewish schools, as well as to Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute in Israel. Sadly, Lerner passed away last month.

Why President Truman Recognized the State of Israel

Words of the Week

The Jew is not a burden on the charities of the state or of the city; these could cease from their functions without affecting him. When he is well enough, he works; when he is incapacitated, his own people take care of him. And not in a poor and stingy way, but with a fine and large benevolence. His race is entitled to be called the most benevolent of all races of men.
– Mark Twain

Jew of the Week: Chaya Mushka Schneerson

The Rebbetzin

Chaya Mushka “Moussia” Schneerson (1901-1988) was born near Lubavitch, Russia, the granddaughter of the fifth Hasidic rebbe of Chabad. During World War I, the family fled to Rostov, where Chaya Mushka would help to smuggle food and supplies to the city’s underground yeshivas. In 1924, the family was forced to flee again due to antisemitic persecution by the Soviet Communists, this time to Leningrad (St. Petersburg). In 1927, her father Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (who was by then the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe) was imprisoned for spreading Judaism in the USSR. Chaya Mushka herself had played a central role in the “Hasidic underground” of the Soviet Union, making sure that Jews still had access to Jewish services and rituals. Her father even appointed her as his agent, responsible for all matters, while he was imprisoned. She campaigned for his release and helped to get him freed. The family then moved to Riga, Latvia. The following year, Chaya Mushka married her distant cousin Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who would go on to become the seventh and final Lubavitcher Rebbe. After living in Warsaw, Berlin, and Paris, the childless couple fled to New York during World War II. They settled in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which would soon become the “capital” of Chabad. (Her younger sister and brother-in-law were unable to escape and tragically perished in the Holocaust.) While her husband transformed modern-day Judaism in his role as the Rebbe, Chaya Mushka worked behind the scenes to support him in every endeavour. She was affectionately known simply as “the Rebbetzin”, though she never referred to herself this way. The Rebbetzin was famous for her humility, modesty, and deep concern for all of God’s creations. In fact, there was a stray dog near her house on President Street that she always made sure to feed. One winter day in 1972, the Rebbetzin stepped out to get the mail and slipped on ice, breaking both of her wrists in the fall. She was unable to put any pressure on her hands, and could not get up. Incredibly, that same stray dog soon found her and dragged her back into her house, all the way to the phone so that she could call for help! Many other stories are told of her compassion, dedication, and strong resolve. After she passed away, the Rebbe founded a women’s charity in her honour, called Keren HaChomesh (the initials of her name), and there are also many girls’ schools today named after her. The Rebbetzin’s yahrzeit was earlier this week, on the 22nd of Shevat.

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Words of the Week

No matter how engrossed one may be in the loftiest occupation, one must never remain insensitive to the cry of a child.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe (1745-1812)