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
Shimon ibn Lavi (1486-1585) was born in Spain and exiled with his family during the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Fez, Morocco, where Lavi studied to become a rabbi. He then sought to make aliyah to the Holy Land, but was kidnapped along the way near Tripoli by Arab brigands. After being ransomed, he found the Tripoli Jewish community in need of a rabbi so he stayed there. It was Lavi who opened the city’s first yeshivas, established a beit din, and went on to make the city one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa. He is often credited with being the “father of Tripoli Jews”. Rabbi Lavi was the community’s official representative to the government, and served as the Ottoman governor’s personal physician. He was also a major Kabbalist, alchemist, and mystic. In fact, he wrote the popular song “Bar Yochai”, in honour of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai whose teachings would become the Zohar (the primary “textbook” of Kabbalah) and who is celebrated on Lag b’Omer. Lavi wrote a commentary on the Zohar called Ketem Paz, as well as a dictionary translating some of the Zohar’s most cryptic words. He was widely known as a miracle worker, and was revered by Jews and Muslims alike (the latter refer to him as “Ibn Limam”), with his tomb serving as a major pilgrimage site in Libya.
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
– Carl Sagan
Gamliel Jamil Cohen (1922-2002) was born in Damascus to a religious Syrian-Jewish family, and grew up in the city’s Jewish Quarter. Yearning to live in the Holy Land and inspired by the Zionist vision, he left Damascus at the age of 21 and literally walked to Israel. He joined a kibbutz started by Ashkenazi immigrants. Despite being the odd one who was darker-skinned and spoke no Yiddish, Cohen quickly fell in love with the sense of unity and brotherhood, as well as the important pioneering work of developing the Jewish ancestral homeland. His uniqueness caught the attention of the Palmach, the commando unit of the pre-IDF defence force, the Haganah. The Palmach sought to launch an intelligence unit that could infiltrate Arab governments, and were looking for talented and dedicated Arab Jews. In 1944, Cohen became their first recruit. Together with Iraqi Jew Shimon Somech, they created the first unit of Mista’arvim (recently popularized by the show Fauda). The term itself came from the name of the ancient Mizrachi Jewish communities living in Arab lands that were distinct from, and pre-dated, the Sephardic Jews that joined them after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492. After several years of training, Cohen moved to Beirut in 1948 and set up Israel’s first official intelligence outpost, living undercover as Yussef el-Hamed, a textile shop owner. By this point, his operation was overseen by the newly-formed Mossad. Cohen’s trailblazing work and espionage innovations paved the way for more famous later spies like Shula Cohen and Eli Cohen. In 1954, Cohen married a fellow Syrian Jew who also worked for the Mossad. Together, they moved to Paris undercover as Arabic journalists. Cohen managed to get hired by the Syrian Embassy in Paris, from which he sent critical intelligence to the Israeli government. In 1958, the Cohens moved to Vienna to continue their work as “journalists”. In addition to infiltrating the embassies of Arab states, they also found information on neo-Nazi groups and exposed war criminals in hiding. Cohen retired from active duty in 1964 and went on to train the next generation of Israeli spies. In his last years, he wrote the book Undercover: The Untold Story of the Palmach’s Clandestine Arab Unit. Almost all of Cohen’s work remains classified. He has been called the “father of Israeli espionage”.
The U.N. did not create Israel. The Jewish state came into being because the Jewish community in what was Mandatory Palestine rebelled against foreign imperialist rule. We did not conquer a foreign land.
– Yitzhak Shamir