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.
Yosef Meir Cohen (b. 1961) was born in Jerusalem to a religious-Zionist family with deep roots in the ancient city. He is a 9th-generation Israeli, and his ancestors were among the founders of the Mea Shearim neighbourhood, one of the first outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Cohen grew up studying in yeshivas and was a member of the Bnei Akiva religious-Zionist youth movement. After completing his military service in the IDF as a paratrooper, he spent some time studying in London. Returning to Israel in 1982, he joined the Mossad and quickly made a name for himself. He was the only religious officer in the Mossad at the time, and originally worked as a spy recruiter and handler. Over the years, he also led a number of daring spy missions which are, of course, all classified. Cohen was awarded the Israel Defense Prize, given to those distinguished individuals who are recognized for playing an instrumental role in keeping the Jewish State safe. By 2011, Cohen had risen to deputy director of the Mossad. Two years later, he was appointed Netanyahu’s national security advisor. In 2016, he took over Israel’s top spy job, becoming Mossad’s director. His task was to clean up the organization, restore its prestige (after some high-profile failures) and, most importantly, end the threat from Iran. It was Cohen who oversaw the stunning 2018 operation to raid Tehran’s nuclear archives. And it was Cohen who oversaw last week’s devastating assassination of Iran’s nuclear chief. Back in 2016, he similarly took out Hamas’ terror chief in a complex operation in Tunisia. Over the past four years, Cohen has transformed the Mossad into, by some counts, the world’s second-largest intelligence agency (after the CIA). He presides over a network of an estimated 7000 agents. Meanwhile, thanks to Cohen’s diplomatic wisdom and his fluency in English, French, and Arabic, he has also served as Netanyahu’s chief negotiator, and was behind the Abraham Accords that brought peace between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain. He is working to bring more peace agreements with neighbouring countries, including Oman and Saudi Arabia. Last year, The Jerusalem Post ranked Cohen as the most influential Jew in the world. Netanyahu has said that he believes Cohen alone to be capable of leading the nation in the future. Despite being a grandfather, Cohen still runs marathons. All of this, combined with his gracefulness and charm, is the reason he has been described as Israel’s James Bond.
Words of the Week
The thing about smart people is that they seem like crazy people to dumb people. – Stephen Hawking
Secret Agent Krystyna Skarbek – the inspiration for James Bond’s Vesper Lynd
Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek (1908-1952) was born in Poland to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother from a wealthy family. From a young age, Maria enjoyed horse-back riding, skiing, and extreme physical activities. At 22, her father died and her mother’s family wealth ran out. Skarbek got a job in a Fiat dealership but fell ill from the fumes. To regain her health, she returned to the slopes and spent the majority of her time skiing and hiking. With the outbreak of World War II, Skarbek fled to London and enlisted in the British Army. She found her way into the Secret Intelligence Service and was sent to Hungary for “espionage, reconnaissance and sabotage”. From there she re-entered Poland by hiking across the mountainous border. Skarbek first attempted to save her mother from the Nazis, but her mother refused to leave and was killed in a camp. Skarbek’s main work was to organize the transfer of vital intelligence reports out of Warsaw to the SIS. (One of these correctly revealed Germany’s planned invasion of the USSR, of critical importance to the Allied victory). She also assisted in smuggling weapons and exfiltrating key military personnel. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, Skarbek bit her own tongue until it bled, then pretended to have virulent tuberculosis and used the cover to escape her captivity. She made her way through the Balkans to Turkey, then to the SIS headquarters in Egypt. Upon arrival, she was suspected of being a counter-spy secretly working for the Germans! Thankfully, she cleared her name and returned to work. In 1944 she was posted in France under the name ‘Madame Pauline’. Here were some of her most infamous missions, including demolishing bridges and infiltrating a Nazi prison to save her commanding officer. After the war she was awarded with an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and France’s Croix de Guerre. However, she was dismissed from service with only a month’s salary and left alone in Cairo. She slowly rebuilt her life as Christine Granville. Sadly, in 1952 she was assassinated in a hotel room. Skarbek’s story inspired Vesper Lynd, the original ‘Bond Girl’ in Ian Fleming’s first 007 story Casino Royale. Many consider her Britain’s first female secret agent.
Words of the Week
God transforms spirituality into physicality; the Jew makes physical things spiritual. – Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov