Tag Archives: Fiddler on the Roof

Jews of the Week: Matvei Blanter and Solomon Mikhoels

Matvei Isaakovich Blanter (1903-1990) was born in the Russian Empire in a small Ukrainian town. He studied music and became a master pianist and violinist. In the 1920s, Blanter became popular for his dance and jazz songs. After the rise of Stalin, he was “recruited” to write propaganda pieces and composed some of the Soviet Union’s greatest hits. In 1938, he wrote the music for the internationally-acclaimed song “Katyusha”, by far the most well-known Russian tune in the world. (Click here to listen.) It was so popular that it lent its name to one of Russia’s most famous military weapons: the Katyusha rocket. A recent poll found that it is still the 13th most listened to song in Russia. Also in 1938, Blanter wrote “The Football March”, which would be played before every Russian soccer game – and still is today! All in all, Blanter composed over 200 songs. He was awarded the Stalin Prize and the People’s Artist of the USSR. In the last days of World War II, Stalin sent Blanter to Berlin to compose a victory symphony. He wound up with the Russian general right when a German delegation came to sue for a peace treaty. Blanter was quickly shoved into a tiny closet while the generals negotiated. Running out of air, he passed out and fell out of the closet, embarrassing everyone in the room. Some say this is the origin of the expression to “come out of the closet”.

Mikhoels with Albert Einstein, during his 1943 fundraising tour

Blanter’s uncle was Shlomo Mikhoels (1890-1948). Born in Latvia to a religious Jewish family, he studied law in St. Petersburg before joining a Jewish theatre group. In 1920, Mikhoels co-founded the first Jewish acting studio in Moscow, putting on plays in Yiddish. Lenin soon turned it into the official State Jewish Theatre. By 1928, Mikhoels had become the theatre’s director, as well as its most famous actor. People came from around the world to see his legendary performances. One New York Times reviewer wrote that Mikhoels had put on “one of the most stirring performances of my theatre-going career.” His 1935 role as King Lear (in Yiddish) drew another critic to write: “I do not recall a performance that stirred me as profoundly, to the core, as Mikhoels’ performance of Lear.” Mikhoels had become one of the world’s best Shakespearean actors. He also played Rabbi Alter in Mazel-Tov, and Tevye in the Russian version of Fiddler on the Roof, among many other roles. In 1942, Mikhoels was made chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and sent around the world to draw support from his fellow Jews for the Soviet war effort against the Nazis. This made him the first official Soviet representative to make such a trip, and he successfully raised millions. However, after the war ended Stalin became increasingly paranoid, and soon began another round of his purges, particularly of Jewish intellectuals. In 1948, he ordered Mikhoels assassinated, and made it look like a car accident. Nonetheless, Mikhoels was given a state funeral. Today, he is recognized as an important artist and pioneer of Russian theatre, and one of Moscow’s main cultural centres is named after him.

Words of the Week

He who has many friends has no friends.
– Aristotle

Jew of the Week: Leonard Nimoy

The World’s Most Popular Alien

Nimoy Demonstrating the Kohanic Blessing Sign/Vulcan Salute

Nimoy Demonstrating the Kohanic Blessing Sign/Vulcan Salute

Leonard Simon Nimoy (1931-2015) was born in Boston to Orthodox Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants. He began performing in the Yiddish theatre when he was eight years old, and was encouraged to pursue a career in acting by his grandfather, against his parents’ wishes. He got his first role at 17, acting in a play about a Jewish family’s struggles during the Great Depression. Following this, he studied at Boston College, and made a living by selling vacuums, working in an ice cream shop, and at the National Yiddish Book Center. He then served for a year and a half in the US Army Reserve and earned the rank of sergeant. Nimoy continued to pursue his passion, though with very little success. He played tiny roles in over fifty movies, and had to deliver newspapers and drive a taxi at the same time just to get by. Finally, Nimoy got his big break when he was cast as Spock in Star Trek, which premiered in 1966. Spock quickly became one of “the most popular alien characters ever portrayed on television”. He played the TV role until 1969, for which he received three Emmy nominations. Nimoy improvised the famous Vulcan salute from his experiences at the synagogue as a child, where he watched the Kohanim bless the congregation. Nimoy adopted the Kohanic hand gesture, and adapted the Hebrew wording of the blessing to the Vulcan “live long and prosper”. He also invented the famous “nerve pinch” (to make a person unconscious), which has been both spoofed and adopted countless times in literature, television, and film. Nimoy played Spock again in eight Star Trek movies, including the most recent in 2013, and he directed two of them himself. Aside from this, Nimoy played in the original Mission: Impossible TV series (from which the Tom Cruise films were adapted), as well as many other movies and TV roles, together with a number of highly acclaimed stage performances (including Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof). Nimoy was also a photographer, producer, pilot, poet, writer (publishing two autobiographies), and musician, releasing five albums! All in all, Nimoy starred in 53 films, appeared in over 45 TV shows, 5 video games, and 3 music videos. Throughout his life, he was very active in the Jewish community, voicing a documentary about Hasidic Jews, leading a project to record Yiddish children’s stories, and preserving the Yiddish language, as well as dedicating much of his time to Holocaust remembrance. Nimoy passed away last week, aged 83. His former co-star George Takei said of him: “The word extraordinary is often overused, but I think it’s really appropriate for Leonard. He was an extraordinarily talented man, but he was also a very decent human being.”

Purim Begins Tonight!

Words of the Week

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”
“When you let me take, I’m grateful. When you let me give, I’m blessed.”
“The miracle is this: the more we share, the more we have.”
– Leonard Nimoy