Tag Archives: Russian Jews

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.

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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: Chaim Arlozorov

The Jew Who Negotiated with the Nazis—and Saved Thousands

Chaim Vitaly Arlozorov (1899-1933) was born in what is today Ukraine to a traditional Russian-Jewish family. His grandfather was a renowned rabbi and Talmud commentator. When Arlozorov was six years old, his town of Romny experienced a terrible pogrom, causing his family to flee to Germany. He went on to study economics at the University of Berlin and became a socialist, though he rejected and opposed both Marxism and Communism. During that time Arlozorov become involved with HaPoel HaTzair, the Zionist-socialist youth organization. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the Zionist movement to re-establish an independent state for the Jewish people. Arlozorov argued such a state should be based on socialism so that all Jews could equally own a piece of the Holy Land, thereby also allowing a return to fulfilling the Sabbatical (shemittah) and Jubilee (yovel) years as mandated by the Torah. While many Ashkenazi Zionists wanted Yiddish to become the official language of the future state, Arlozorov played a key role in ensuring it would be Hebrew. In 1921, he participated in the defence of the Jewish town of Neve Shalom when it was attacked by Arab mobs. This inspired him to work towards establishing a peaceful relationship between Jews and Arabs. In 1933, he organized a conference at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem between Zionist and Arab leaders—possibly the first of what would be many future “peace talks” throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict. Back in 1930, it was Arlozorov who initiated the merger between the two big Zionist-socialist parties, forming Mapai (which later became Israel’s Labour Party). In 1931, he was appointed political director of the Jewish Agency and oversaw Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. When the Nazis came to power and began instituting their anti-Jewish policies, Arlozorov sought to save Germany’s Jews by bringing them Israel. In a deeply controversial move, he started negotiations with the Nazis and eventually prevailed with the Ha’avara Agreement where German Jews could make aliyah provided that they use all of their money to buy only German goods that would be exported to Israel. Over the next several years, the agreement brought 60,000 German Jews to Israel—saving their lives—as well as some $100 million in resources and goods. These resources allowed for countless other Jews to make aliyah as well, and to develop the infrastructure of the future state. Unfortunately, not everyone was thrilled with the Ha’avara Agreement—both in the Jewish world and within the Nazi party. Two days after returning from the negotiations, Arlozorov was assassinated while taking a Shabbat-evening walk on a Tel-Aviv beach with his wife. To this day, it is a mystery who was behind the assassination, some blaming right-wing Zionists, others finding connections to Nazi agents, or to Arab thugs, or even to the Soviets. His funeral was presided by as many as 100,000 people. It is widely agreed that had he been alive, Arlozorov would have become Israel’s first prime minister. Among other honours, nearly every major town in Israel today has an “Arlozorov Street” or neighbourhood named after him.

Who Killed Arlozorov?

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Words of the Week

A return to Jewishness is an absolute condition for a return to the Land of Israel.
Theodor Herzl

Arlozorov (centre, seated) with Weizmann on his right and other political leaders at the 1933 King David Hotel Conference

Jews of the Week: Sergey Brin and Larry Page

Google!

Sergey Mikhaylovich Brin (b. 1973) was born in Moscow to Russian-Jewish parents. After many long months trying to emigrate from the Soviet Union, the family was finally permitted to leave in the spring of 1979, when Brin was six years old. The family lived in Vienna, then Paris, and finally made it to the US with help from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Brin’s father got a job as a math professor at the University of Maryland, and his mother worked as a researcher for NASA. Following in his parents’ footsteps, Brin studied math and computer science at the University of Maryland. He went on to do graduate studies at Stanford, and there met Larry Page.

Lawrence Edward Page (b. 1973) was born in Michigan. His mother is Jewish, and his grandfather lives in Israel. Page’s parents were both computer scientists, and he grew up immersed in technology. He was also passionate about music, and credits music training with helping to shape his analytical mind. Page studied computer engineering at the University of Michigan before heading over to Stanford. Together with Brin, the two co-authored a paper on “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine”. They then developed a new algorithm that would dramatically improve the capabilities of search engines. Brin and Page used their dorm rooms as office and lab, scrapping together whatever money they could for servers and other parts, and slowly building the infrastructure for their new search engine. (There were a number of other people involved, too, who were instrumental in its development.) The new search engine, originally called BackRub, was launched on the Stanford website in 1996. By the following year, Brin and Page understood that the search engine had the potential to transform the world. They renamed it “Google”, and bought the google.com domain on September 15, 1997 (twenty-three years ago, today). The rest is history.

Last year, Brin and Page both stepped down from Google (and its new parent company, Alphabet) though they are still employees and controlling shareholders. Both are big investors in green technology, space exploration, life extension, and Tesla Motors. They are also noted philanthropists. Among their donations are Brin’s $1 million to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and over $160 million to fight Parkinson’s disease (which his mother suffers from); and Page’s $15 million to fight Ebola and over $20 million to find treatments for vocal cord illnesses, which he suffers from. Brin and Page are currently the 13th– and 14th-richest people in the world.

Words of the Week

You always hear the phrase, “money doesn’t buy you happiness”. But I always, in the back of my mind, figured a lot of money will buy you a little bit of happiness. But it’s not really true.
– Sergey Brin

Google’s first logo, as it appeared on September 15, 1997 when the website was launched.