Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was born to an influential Sephardic Jewish family in Livorno, Italy. As a child, he was often sick and was home-schooled by his mother, his favourite hobby being painting. After nearly dying of typhus, and then tuberculosis, his mother took him on a cross-Italy tour, with an important stop in Florence to see its great artworks. She then signed him up for lessons with master painter Guglielmo Micheli. Modigliani spent several years at Micheli’s school, and proved himself as a creative and original artist. Micheli nicknamed him “superman”, not only for his artistic ability but because Modigliani liked to study and quote the philosophical works of Nietzsche. After some time learning art in Venice, Modigliani settled in Paris in 1906 and lived in the Montmartre commune for poor artists. He was entirely devoted to his art, producing as much as one hundred works per day! Unfortunately, “Modi” (as he was now known) descended into heavy drug and alcohol use, partly to deal with his chronic pains and illnesses. In 1909, he took up sculpting. (In 2010, his Tete carving became the third most expensive sculpture ever sold, going for over $70 million at auction.) He returned to painting in 1914. When World War I broke out, Modi enlisted in the army but was soon kicked out due to poor health. That same year, he had a relationship with renowned British painter Nina Hamnett. He had met her at a café and famously introduced himself simply as “Modigliani, painter and Jew”. He had several other high-profile relationships, including with Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and English writer Beatrice Hastings. He eventually settled down and got married. Modi was famous for being unconventional and uncategorizable as an artist, and for his many rich portraits. His Nu couché nude painting sold for over $170 million in 2015, among the most expensive paintings ever sold, while Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) set a Sotheby’s record in 2018, selling for $157 million. As a result of his illnesses and addictions, Modi died at the young age of 35. The following day, his grieving wife, pregnant with their second child, jumped out a window and committed suicide. Many believe that had Modi lived longer, he would have become the undisputed greatest painter of all time. There are thought to be more fakes of Modigliani’s works today than of any other artist. Two movies have already been made about him, and currently Johnny Depp and Al Pacino are working on a new biopic about his life.
Words of the Week
I only look for the good qualities in every Jew. That way I come to love him.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), the Kotzker Rebbe
Zecharia Barashi (1900-2017) was born in Kurdistan, the last of ten children in an observant Jewish family. His father was a rabbi who traveled from village to village, serving the needs of small Jewish communities in Iraq. Unfortunately, this job did not come with a salary, and the poor family made a meager living by sowing clothes and selling nuts and dates. Several years of harsh poverty, disease, and the difficulties of the First World War left six of the ten children dead. Barashi himself nearly died when he was 11 years old. He would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a rabbi as well. Inspired by Zionism, Barashi struggled to move the family to Israel. In 1936, he finally got a chance by working as a Hebrew interpreter for the Jewish Agency. After a long and arduous journey, the family settled in Jerusalem. Throughout World War II and Israel’s ensuing War of Independence, Barashi supported the war effort by digging trenches, and paving roads and runways. In 1950, the Jews of Iraq and Kurdistan made a mass aliyah to Israel, and Barashi soon became their spiritual leader. He would go on to earn the esteemed title of Chacham, “Sage”. He also published four important books on Judaism. He was in the midst of writing his fifth book when, at the age of 111, his eyesight became too poor. Deeply respected as one of Israel’s greatest rabbis, Barashi was known for his incredible memory, humility, and great sense of humour. Sadly, he passed away earlier this week. Until that moment, he was the world’s oldest living Jew. He was also Israel’s oldest living resident, having spent over 80 years in Jerusalem. Although he outlived two of his own children and his beloved wife, he is survived by five more children, 29 grandchildren, 72 great-grandchildren, and 24 great-great-grandchildren. His advice for a long life: “Always be happy, never jealous. Stay active. And never overeat, always leave the table a little hungry.”
Naomi Kutin (b. 2001) was born in New Jersey to a Modern Orthodox family. Her father is a former professional weightlifter (with a number of records under his belt), and introduced his daughter to the sport when she was just eight years old after noting her incredible strength. A few months later, Naomi went to her first competition, and broke a national record. At age 10, she set a world record in women’s powerlifting, breaking an earlier record set by a 44-year old woman! Two years later, she squatted over 231 pounds to set a new women’s world record, despite being just 12 years old. She has earned the nickname “supergirl”, and is often described as the world’s strongest young lady. Naomi doesn’t let her weightlifting get in the way of religious observance; she still goes to an Orthodox school and never competes on Shabbat.
Scot Mendelson (courtesy: Powerlifting USA)
Meanwhile, the world’s greatest bench-presser is also Jewish, Brooklyn-born Scot Mendelson (b. 1969). Growing up playing sports, Mendelson progressed from ball games to wrestling, boxing, bodybuilding, and finally powerlifting. In 2003, he set the all-time world record (regardless of weight class) by bench pressing 713 pounds. All in all, he has broken over 60 records in his career, winning four World Championships. He currently resides in California, where he operates a gym, and also runs a wellness centre together with actor Eric Roberts.
Words of the Week
Those who are born are destined to die, and those who die are destined to live again. – Pirkei Avot 4:22