Tag Archives: Music

Jew of the Week: Neil Diamond

“The Jewish Elvis”

Neil Leslie Diamond (b. 1941) was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish family of Russian and Polish heritage. In high school, he sang in the school choir alongside classmate Barbra Streisand. Diamond was inspired by a Pete Seeger performance at his Jewish summer camp, and as soon as he returned home got a guitar and started writing songs. Meanwhile, he was on his high school fencing team and got a fencing scholarship to attend New York University. (He won an NCAA fencing championship in 1960!) Eventually, Diamond dropped out of his pre-med program and went to work for Sunbeam Music writing songs for $50 a week. He then went off on his own and formed a singing duet with a friend. Finding no success, Diamond decided to go solo and got a recording deal with Columbia in 1962. Unfortunately, despite good reviews his first album was a commercial flop. Diamond was dropped by Columbia and lived in poverty for the next several years of his life, at one point barely surviving on just $3 a day. In 1965, Diamond started writing hit songs for The Monkees, including “I’m a Believer”. Soon, Diamond became a popular songwriter and composed for the likes of Elvis Presley and Deep Purple. He had his own first hit in 1966 with “Solitary Man”, followed by “Sweet Caroline” in 1969 (later selected for historical preservation by the Library of Congress). After that, the hits kept coming and his shows sold out night after night. During one San Francisco show in 1979, Diamond suddenly collapsed on stage and couldn’t get up. It turned out that he had a tumour in his spine, and went through a 12-hour surgery to remove it. His 1980 hit “America” became the most recognizable song in the country, and is sometimes likened to a second national anthem. All in all, Diamond had ten Number 1 singles, and 38 reached the Billboard Top 10. He has sold over 100 million records, making him one of the most successful musicians of all time. Diamond has always been open about his Jewish faith, sang “Kol Nidre” in a famous Yom Kippur scene in the film The Jazz Singer, and has been called “the Jewish Elvis”. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2018, Diamond retired after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, though he still spends much of his time writing songs.

Words of the Week

Noah was told, “Make a tzohar for the ark.”  [Genesis 6:16] The word “ark” in Hebrew is teivah, which also means a “word”. A tzohar, meanwhile, is something that shines. So the verse could be read to teach us: “Make each word you say shine.”
– Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760)

Jew of the Week: Giacomo Meyerbeer

Biggest Superstar of the 19th Century

Jacob Liebmann Beer (1791-1864) was born near Berlin, then in the Kingdom of Prussia, to a wealthy, observant Jewish family. His father was the president of Berlin’s Jewish community and ran a large synagogue in his home. His mother received the prestigious Order of Louise from the Prussian queen, and because she was an observant Jew, got a small statue instead of the traditional cross. The Beer children received the best secular education, as well as private tutors in Jewish studies. All three sons became famous: Wilhelm Beer as an astronomer, Michael Beer as writer, and Jacob Beer as a composer. When his beloved grandfather Meyer passed away, Jacob added the name to his own, changing it to Meyerbeer. He also vowed never to abandon the faith of his fathers, while many of his friends “converted” to Christianity to be accepted in society and to take on jobs otherwise barred to them. Meyerbeer was taught music from a young age by some of the best instructors of the time. He performed his first public concert at just age nine. Meyerbeer’s early work involved writing religious music for his father’s synagogue, and his first big production was a ballet-opera called The Fisherman and the Milkman, followed by the musical God and Nature, and the opera Jephtha’s Vow. He wrote beautiful pieces for the piano, clarinet, and full orchestras, and vacillated between composing and playing music himself (which he preferred). Having faced many difficulties in his youth, Meyerbeer founded the Musical Union to support up-and-coming composers. In 1813, he was appointed Court Composer for the Grand Duke of Hesse. Several years later, he felt he had lots more to learn and moved to Italy. There he wrote some of his most renowned operas. By 1824, he had become world-famous, and his 1831 grand opera, Robert le diable, made him the equivalent of a modern-day superstar. The following year, he received the Legion of Honour, the highest award in France. In 1841, he was described as the “German Messiah” who would save the Paris Opera from its death, and shortly after also became director of music for the Prussian royal court. Not surprisingly, his success and wealth drew the ire of his colleagues, and Meyerbeer faced terrible criticism and anti-Semitism (especially from Richard Wagner, once his pupil). Meyerbeer remained graceful nonetheless, and never responded to the attacks on him. He continued to compose popular works until his last day, and has been credited with being “the most frequently performed opera composer” of the 19th century. He inspired the works of later greats like Dvořák, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky. He was also a generous philanthropist, a devoted husband and father to five children, and never broke his vow to die an observant Jew. Meyerbeer remains one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Words of the Week

One who looks for a friend without faults, will have none.
– Hasidic proverb

Jew of the Week: Isaac Rice

Chess Master, Musician, Submarine Tycoon

Isaac Rice

Isaac Leopold Rice (1850-1915) was born in Bavaria to a German-Jewish family, and grew up in Philadelphia. At 19, he went back to Europe and studied music at the National Conservatory of Paris. At the same time, he was a European correspondent for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, and regularly wrote newspaper articles. After three years, Rice briefly moved to England and became a music teacher. He was an avid chess player and won a UK chess championship in Manchester. Rice then moved to New York and wrote his first book, the philosophical “What is Music?” He taught music classes for ten hours a day in order to support his struggling parents and siblings, and spent several more hours composing new music. In 1878 he enrolled in Columbia Law and graduated at the top of his class two years later. Rice worked primarily with railroad companies, and over the next decade became the most famous railroad lawyer in America. Meanwhile, he co-founded Columbia’s school of political science, and taught the subject (along with law and economics) for four years. He also established Forum Magazine, and was a regular contributor for decades. Rice was fascinated by electricity and its potential. In 1892 he bought out the failing Electro-Dynamic Company, producer of motors and generators. He then founded the Electric Vehicle Company, and is thought to be the first person in New York to have a car, bringing another dozen motorized cabs to operate in the city for the first time. In 1897, Rice bought the Electric Storage Battery Company and the Holland Torpedo Boat Company, creating his new Electric Boat Company. Rice secured a contract with the US government to build America’s first submarines (designed by John Philip Holland). He went on to supply the US Navy with 85 submarines and 722 submarine chasers, which were instrumental in World War I, as were his 580 motor boats for the British Royal Navy. Rice sold his Electric Boat Company for $2 million several months before he passed away. His companies later formed General Dynamics, today one of the largest military contractors in the world, employing over 100,000 people, and still the main supplier of the Navy’s submarines. (The company’s most famous creation: the F-16 fighter jet.) Rice continued to play chess and host tournaments until his last days. He is credited with playing a key role in boosting the popularity of chess in America. Rice was president of the Manhattan Chess Club, and discovered a classic opening move of chess that is named after him (the Rice Gambit). His large New York home, which he built in 1903, is an official historical landmark, and currently houses a yeshiva.

Amazing Discovery of Biblical Joseph’s Statue in Egypt

Words of the Week

This is a fight for the homeland – it is either us or the Israelis. There is no middle road. The Jews of Palestine will have to leave. We will facilitate their departure to their former homes. Any of the old Palestine Jewish population who survive may stay, but it is my impression that none of them will survive.
– former PLO chairman Ahmed Shukairy

New York City is famous for its cabs. It all began with a set of motorized cabs, like the Electrobat on the right (designed by Morris and Salom) – first introduced by Isaac Rice.