Tag Archives: Polish Jews

Jew of the Week: Jerry Wexler

The King of R&B

Gerald Wexler (1917-2008) was born in The Bronx to an immigrant family of German-Jewish and Polish-Jewish background. He graduated from high school by age 15, but there was little to do in the difficult days of the Great Depression. Wexler spent much of his time with a small circle of friends listening to music and discussing literature. It was only after returning from World War II military service that he finally pursued a career in journalism and music. He got a job as a reporter for Billboard Magazine, and soon became its editor. At the time, the magazine had a separate music chart for “black music”, called “Race Records”. Wexler took a stand against racism and came up with a new title, renaming the chart “Rhythm & Blues”. He thus coined the now popular term “R&B”. In 1953, the president of the start-up Atlantic Records (a fellow Jew named Herb Abramson) was drafted to the US Army. Wexler was offered to take his place. Under Wexler’s leadership, Atlantic Records became one of the world’s most successful music labels, and produced some of the biggest names in music, including Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. For bringing the latter to the world, Wexler was named Record Executive of the Year in 1967. (Franklin had struggled to find success in music until Wexler convinced her to join him at Atlantic, and produced her breakout hit song, “Respect”.) The following year, he signed a young group called Led Zeppelin. Wexler would go on to work with other big stars, including Bob Dylan, the Bee Gees, Richard Pryor, Carlos Santana, and George Michael. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Wexler played a central role in ending the era of “race music” (and stopping the practice of white musicians covering songs of black musicians and raking in all the fame and fortune for themselves). He opened the door for more “black music” to enter the once all-white Billboard charts, and has been credited with bringing “black music to the masses”. Not surprisingly, Wexler has been called “a prophet of roots and rhythm” and “the Jewish king of black music”.

Words of the Week

Music is the pen of the soul.
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadifounder of Chabad

Jews of the Week: Alfred Nakache & Ben Helfgott

The Holocaust Survivors Who Became Olympians

Helfgott at the 1966 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia

Ben Helfgott (b. 1929) was born in Poland and was only a child when the Nazis invaded his country. He was sent with his entire family to Buchenwald concentration camp. Everyone perished except for one sister. After the war, Helfgott was among some 750 Jewish kids under 16 taken to England as refugees. Now safe in England, Helfgott started a Jewish youth club and became a big fan of sports. He was soon introduced to weightlifting and wanted to take it up professionally. Being just 5 foot 4 inches tall, and weighing 154 pounds, Helfgott was told to find another sport. He persisted nonetheless, and at age 26, became England’s champion in the 11-stone division. He went on to win four more English and British Commonwealth weightlifting championships, and represented the UK at the 1956 Olympics in Australia. He returned in the 1960 Olympics in Rome as the coach of the UK weightlifting team. He also participated in the Maccabiah Games, earning weightlifting gold three times. After retiring from sport, Helfgott became a successful businessman. He used his wealth to start The ’45 Aid Society, generously supporting struggling Holocaust survivors. Helfgott was recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He is one of just two Holocaust survivors to become an Olympian.

Alfred Nakache

The other is Alfred Nakache (1915-1983), born in French Algeria to a traditional Sephardic family of eleven children. As a child, Nakache had a crippling fear of water. He made the decision to overcome his phobia, and soon immersed himself in swimming and water sports. He went on to become a five-time French swimming champion, and set five European and World Records. After a silver medal at the 1935 Maccabiah Games, Nakache made the French Olympic team and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When the Nazis invaded France, Nakache escaped to the Free Zone in the south of the country. He wasn’t safe from anti-Semitism, though. Banned from swimming in Toulouse, he moved to Marseilles. Several weeks after setting a new record in the 400 metre butterfly in 1943, he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Surviving the camp’s hellish conditions, Nakache returned to swimming, setting a new French record in 1946. He made the French Olympic team again and participated in the 1948 games in London. In 1993, Nakache was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He was the subject of the 2001 documentary Alfred Nakache, the Swimmer of Auschwitz. Today, many pools across France are named after him.

What’s the Difference Between Ashkenazim and Sephardim?

Words of the Week

According to the pain is the gain.
– Pirkei Avot 5:21

Nakache (far left) with the French relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Helfgott (inset) at a weightlifting competition.