Tag Archives: Presidential Medal of Freedom

Jew of the Week: Natan Sharansky

The Refusenik

Anatoly Borisovich Sharansky (b. 1948) was born in Donetsk, Ukraine. He was a child chess prodigy, and won his city’s chess championship as a teenager. He went on to study math in Moscow and later worked in a secret Soviet research lab. In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel and was refused. Henceforth, he became a vocal activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and became the world’s most famous refusenik. He soon expanded his scope to work for all human rights, and was the spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group, today Russia’s primary human rights organization. In 1977, Sharansky was arrested on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage, and sentenced to 13 years of hard labour. He was tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time. (He would later remark that one of the things that helped him through it was playing chess in his mind.) After ceaseless activism from his wife, mother, and countless international supporters, Sharansky was finally released in 1986. Shortly after, he received a Congressional Gold Medal from the US government. He moved to Israel and started going by his Hebrew name, Natan. A couple of years later, he published a bestselling memoir, Fear No Evil. (This book was passed on by Helen Suzman to Nelson Mandela, then still in prison, and inspired his ongoing struggle.) In 1995, Sharansky co-founded the Yisrael BaAliyah political party to advocate on behalf of hundreds of thousands of new Soviet Jewish immigrants to Israel. They won seven seats in their first election. Sharansky served as Minister of Industry and Trade, then Minister of Internal Affairs, and even Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister. In 2003, as chairman of his party, he merged it with Likud, and became Minister of Jerusalem Affairs. In 2005, Sharansky resigned in protest of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. He is a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements, and co-founded One Jerusalem, an organization that works to keep the Jewish capital from being divided ever again. President Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2006, and he won the Israel Prize in 2018. Last year, he won the prestigious Genesis Prize, and donated all $1 million of it for coronavirus relief. Currently, Sharansky heads the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, and continues to serve on the board of the Jewish Agency.

Sharansky: The Dangerous Rise of the Un-Jews

Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict in 5 Easy Points

Words of the Week

Jews came here 3,000 years ago and this is the cradle of Jewish civilization. Jews are the only people in history who kept their loyalty to their identity and their land throughout the 2,000 years of exile, and no doubt that they have the right to have their place among nations—not only historically but also geographically. As to the Palestinians, who are the descendants of those Arabs who migrated in the last 200 years, they have the right, if they want, to have their own state… but not at the expense of the state of Israel.
– Natan Sharansky

Jew of the Week: Kirk Douglas

In Memory of Hollywood’s Biggest Star

Kirk Douglas

Issur Danielovitch (1916-2020) was born in New York to a traditional Yiddish-speaking family of Jewish-Russian immigrants. Growing up in poverty, young Issur worked hard delivering newspapers and selling snacks to mill workers to help make a living. He studied at the local religious cheder, and was such a good student that everyone wanted him to become a rabbi. This frightened him, so he ended up moving to public school where he first got to act in plays. At this point, he went by the name Izzy Demsky (a last name he adopted from his uncle), and only changed his name to Kirk Douglas when he enlisted in the US Navy in 1941. Not long before that he graduated from St. Lawrence University, having convinced the dean to allow him to study for free since he had no money for tuition. While he tried to make it as an actor, Douglas also worked as a gardener, janitor, and professional wrestler. He eventually made it to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and received a scholarship there, too. Douglas served in the navy for three years working in anti-submarine combat and was honourably discharged after being injured. After the war, he got his first acting job doing commercials and soap operas over the radio. A friend got him his first film role in 1946, after which he was instantly recognized as a “natural film actor”. He got his first Oscar nomination just three years later. Douglas was Hollywood’s biggest star through the 1950s and 60s, and took the lead in classic films like Spartacus (at that point the most expensive film ever made), The Bad and the Beautiful, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Ace in the Hole (ranked among the greatest movies of all time). His portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life was especially praised. (He actually stayed in character throughout the weeks of filming, even when off-set!) He also played Israeli Hershel Vilnofsky in Victory at Entebbe, the first film about the famous rescue operation. All in all, Douglas starred in nearly 100 films, acted on Broadway, and made appearances in numerous TV shows. He also wrote 11 books, had his own film production company, and directed a number of films, too. Outside of Hollywood, Douglas was a noted philanthropist. He was an American goodwill ambassador for decades, donated some $50 million over his life to schools, hospitals, synagogues, and charities, and promised to leave most of his remaining $80 million net worth to charity as well. After a helicopter crash in 1991, he sought new meaning in life and rediscovered Judaism. He would write in his autobiography that while he once “tried to forget” that he was Jewish (though he never broke a Yom Kippur fast), he later realized “that you don’t have to be a rabbi to be a Jew.” Douglas became more observant, and had a second bar mitzvah at the age of 83. He studied Torah weekly with Rabbi David Wolpe. Douglas was also actively engaged with Aish HaTorah of Los Angeles, and helped support the Aish World Center across from the Western Wall in Jerusalem (the building’s Kirk Douglas Theater is named after him, as is Jerusalem’s Douglas Garden). Among his many awards are the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honour, the National Medal of Arts, the King David Award, two Golden Globes and, of course, an Oscar for lifetime achievement. Sadly, Kirk Douglas passed away earlier today, aged 103. He is remembered as a film genius (who memorized not only his own lines, but seemingly every word of the entire script), a dedicated philanthropist, and one of the greatest actors of all time.

Words of the Week

The Torah is the greatest screenplay ever written.
– Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, with Aish founder Rabbi Noah Weinberg on his left.

Jews of the Week: Mathilde and Arthur Krim

A Couple that Transformed the World

Mathilde Krim

Mathilde Galland (1926-2018) was born in Italy to Christian parents of Swiss and Italian heritage. While studying in medical school at the University of Geneva, she met an Israeli and converted to Judaism to marry him. She became passionate about her new faith, and the Zionist dream, working tirelessly to help Israeli fighters (especially the Irgun) acquire weapons and funds. After receiving her PhD in biology in 1953, the young family settled in Israel, and Mathilde became a researcher at the Weizmann Institute. During this time, she made important discoveries about viruses and cancer, and was part of the team that first developed a way to determine the gender of an embryo. Mathilde moved to New York after getting divorced, and joined a research team at Cornell University.

Arthur Krim

During this time, she met Arthur B. Krim (1910-1994), the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Krim graduated from Columbia Law School in 1932 at the top of his class, and worked at a law firm until the outbreak of World War II. He served for the War Department doing critical military work, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, Krim launched a film studio start-up, Eagle-Lion Films. When it tanked, he became a manager at United Artists, and was given three years to turn a profit. He did it in six months, and went on to head United Artists for over two decades (producing hit films like Dr. No, which brought James Bond to America, and West Side Story, which won a record 10 Oscars). Krim and his partners made United Artists the largest movie producer in the world by 1967. Krim would later co-found Orion Pictures (Amadeus, Dances with Wolves). All in all, Krim was a film studio exec for 46 years – possibly the longest in Hollywood history – produced and distributed over 1000 films, and was called “the smartest man ever to work in the movie industry.” Aside from movies, Krim was an important member of the Democratic Party, and served as its finance chairman. He was a personal advisor to three presidents: Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter.

Arthur and Mathilde Krim with President John F. Kennedy

Mathilde and Arthur Krim were famous for their extensive philanthropy and the huge role they played in the civil rights movement, as well as in ending apartheid in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and advancing human rights all over the world. Mathilde continued to work as a researcher throughout her life, and ran the interferon lab at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research between 1981 and 1985. During this time, she was one of the first to identify the grave dangers of HIV-AIDS, and did important research to understand the pathology of the disease. In 1983, she founded the AIDS Medical Foundation, and then co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Aside from her own research work, the Krims donated millions of dollars to the cause. In addition to 16 honourary doctorates, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, the highest civilian honour in America. Her husband had previously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.

When is Mashiach Coming?

Words of the Week

Every Hebrew should look upon his Faith as a temple extending over every land to prove the immutability of God and the unity of His purposes.
– Grace Aguilar