Ferenc Hoffman (1924-2005) was born in Budapest, Hungary to a secular Jewish family. He loved to write from a young age, and won a prize for a novel he wrote while still in high school. He was also an avid chess player. During World War II, he was first expelled from university before being imprisoned at a number of concentration camps, ending up in the Sobibor death camp. One of the ways he survived is by challenging the guards to chess matches. Another is by maintaining his sense of humour. After the Holocaust, he went by the name Franz Kishunt, studying sculpting and art history while also writing satire. In 1949, he escaped communist Hungary and made aliyah, becoming “Ephraim Kishon”. He was a passionate Zionist and would staunchly defend the State of Israel for the rest of his life—often being disparaged by the media for his hardline views. Within two years of settling in the Holy Land, Kishon was fluent in Hebrew (he literally hand-copied an entire dictionary) and began writing satire for a number of papers. His most famous column was Had Gadya in the Ma’ariv newspaper, which he wrote almost daily for over 30 years. Kishon soon became Israel’s greatest and most famous humourist. He also wrote popular plays, an opera, and books that have been translated into some 40 languages, including So Sorry We Won! about the Six-Day War. In the 1960s, Kishon entered the world of film. He wrote, directed, and produced five movies, the first being the critically-acclaimed Sallah Shabbati, highlighting the struggle of Mizrachi Jewish refugees to Israel. The film won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, making Kishon the first Israeli with that distinction. (The film also launched the international career of Israeli actor Chaim Topol, most famous for portraying Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.) Kishon’s fourth film, The Policeman, also won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. Not surprisingly, Kishon has been credited with opening up Israeli cinema to the world, and paving the path to Hollywood for Israelis. He won a long list of awards, including the Bialik Prize and the Israel Prize. He was a billiards champ, a pioneer in the field of computer chess, and even created a board game (“Havila Higiya”) once popular in Israel. Kishon has been called the “father of Israeli satire”, and inspired an entire generation of Israeli humourists.
Words of the Week
The State of Israel wasn’t founded so that anti-Semitism would end. It was founded so that we could tell the anti-Semites to shove it. – Ephraim Kishon
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.
Eric Michael Garcetti (b. 1971) was born in Los Angeles to a Russian-Jewish mother and a Mexican-Italian father. He was always interested in civics and politics, and was a member of Junior State of America, an organization for high school students aiming to cultivate America’s future leaders. Garcetti studied political science at Columbia, then earned his Master’s there in international affairs. He was also a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and worked on his doctorate at the London School of Economics. After returning to the States, Garcetti taught at several colleges and sat on the board of California’s Human Rights Watch. In 2001, he ran for a seat on Los Angeles’ City Council, and won. Between 2006 and 2012, he was president of the council, and implemented important changes including a policy that all constituents must be answered within 24 hours. He led the way in passing new laws to clean up Los Angeles’ waterways, and to make all new buildings environmentally-friendly. During his tenure, graffiti in his district was reduced by 78%, housing got an injection of $100 million in funds, and the Hollywood neighbourhood was revitalized. In 2013, Garcetti won the race for mayor of Los Angeles, making him the city’s first elected Jewish mayor and its youngest mayor ever. He has become one of LA’s most popular figures, and won re-election in 2017 with a whopping 81% of the vote. He has been hailed for improving the city’s budgets, urban development, and immigration policies, as well as for increasing minimum wage and raising more funds for the LAPD and fire department. He has also secured LA as the host city for the 2028 Summer Olympics. Meanwhile, Garcetti is a devoted member of LA’s IKAR Jewish community. He and his wife have one adopted daughter, and have fostered seven other children. Garcetti was also a lieutenant in the US Navy Reserves until 2013, once lived in Thailand, and—together with relatives from his mother’s side of the family—oversees the Roth Family Foundation, which has given out over $6 million in grants and donations. He won the Green Cross Millennium Award for environmental leadership, and was NAACP’s “Person of the Year” in 2014. That same year, Bill Clinton said that Garcetti may be America’s president one day. There were rumours that he would run this year, but he decided to stick with his job as mayor for now. He is currently listed among potential candidates to be Joe Biden’s running mate.
Words of the Week
Woe to him whom nobody likes, but beware of him whom everybody likes. – Hasidic proverb
Mayor Garcetti lighting Chanukah candles and putting on tefillin. (Credit: COLlive)