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.
Gershom Sizomu (b. 1972) was born in Uganda in a village of the Abayudaya, a group of Ugandans who had converted to Judaism a century ago under the leadership of (former Jew of the Week) Semei Kakungulu. Unfortunately, in recent decades many rabbis, including the Israeli Rabbinate, did not accept their conversion, especially because many Abayudaya were forcibly converted to Christianity, while others went into hiding during the violent regime of Idi Amin. Sizomu invited a group of American Conservative rabbis to do a formal conversion in 2003. Some 300 Abayudaya converted, though many more refused to participate in the ceremony since they considered themselves fully Jewish already. Sizomu affirmed that it was only a formality, stating “We’re already Jewish.” He said in the ceremony “I was born Jewish, and I’d like to stay Jewish.” Following this, Sizomu headed to the US to study at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. After five years, he was ordained a Conservative Rabbi. Upon his return to Africa, Sizomu converted another 250 people from Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. In 2016, Sizomu ran in the Ugandan parliamentary elections and won a seat, beating seven other candidates. This makes him the first rabbi (and the first Jew!) in Uganda’s parliament. He has been working diligently to reduce government waste, alleviate poverty, and improve the country’s water and electrical networks. Sizomu is still the spiritual leader of 2000 Abayudaya Jews, and oversees seven synagogues, two Jewish schools, and a mikveh. Last year, he organized the first Birthright trip for a group of 40 Abayudaya youths. While the Jewish Agency for Israel has officially recognized the Abayudaya, the Israeli Interior Ministry still hasn’t. Sizomu is currently working towards changing that, and is very hopeful. He has said: “We are not Jewish for purposes of immigration. We are Jewish because that is who we are, and we will never change that…” and that “If the Arab world declared war on Israel, we would fight and die to protect it.”
Words of the Week
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. – Friedrich Nietzsche
Yehudit (c. 960 CE) was born in the Jewish-Ethiopian Kingdom of Beta Israel (also known as the Kingdom of Semien), the daughter of King Gideon IV, who traced his lineage back to King Solomon. According to tradition, the Ethiopian Beta Israel Jews are descendants of the Biblical Israelite tribe of Dan – a claim supported by historical texts from the 9th and 10th century that refer to an independent Jewish Danite kingdom in Africa. In the 900s CE, the Christian Ethiopian Kingdom of Axum began an aggressive expansion, and sought to forcibly convert all Jews and pagans. King Gideon was killed in battle, leaving the monarchy to his daughter Yehudit, or Gudit. Gudit formed an alliance with a neighbouring kingdom, and soon raised a massive confederation to defeat Axum. Axum’s capital was destroyed, and its churches and monuments burned down. Gudit saved the Jewish population from forced conversion. The community would survive until modern times, and most have now settled in Israel. Gudit went on to sit on the throne for 40 years, establishing a new dynasty that would last three centuries. Historical records suggest she laid down vast trade networks, and ruled over a wealthy kingdom. In one tradition, she is said to have married a Syrian-Jewish nobleman. The golden age she ushered in lasted until 1270, when a new Christian dynasty got the upper hand. The Jewish Beta Israel Kingdom would survive until 1627, when it was annexed and dissolved.
Words of the Week
Better a bad reputation than a good epitaph.
– Golda Meir
“Judith’s Fields”: an archaeological site in Ethiopia said to contain the remains of Gudit’s pillaging of Axum