Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Jews of the Week: Matvei Blanter and Solomon Mikhoels

Matvei Isaakovich Blanter (1903-1990) was born in the Russian Empire in a small Ukrainian town. He studied music and became a master pianist and violinist. In the 1920s, Blanter became popular for his dance and jazz songs. After the rise of Stalin, he was “recruited” to write propaganda pieces and composed some of the Soviet Union’s greatest hits. In 1938, he wrote the music for the internationally-acclaimed song “Katyusha”, by far the most well-known Russian tune in the world. (Click here to listen.) It was so popular that it lent its name to one of Russia’s most famous military weapons: the Katyusha rocket. A recent poll found that it is still the 13th most listened to song in Russia. Also in 1938, Blanter wrote “The Football March”, which would be played before every Russian soccer game – and still is today! All in all, Blanter composed over 200 songs. He was awarded the Stalin Prize and the People’s Artist of the USSR. In the last days of World War II, Stalin sent Blanter to Berlin to compose a victory symphony. He wound up with the Russian general right when a German delegation came to sue for a peace treaty. Blanter was quickly shoved into a tiny closet while the generals negotiated. Running out of air, he passed out and fell out of the closet, embarrassing everyone in the room. Some say this is the origin of the expression to “come out of the closet”.

Mikhoels with Albert Einstein, during his 1943 fundraising tour

Blanter’s uncle was Shlomo Mikhoels (1890-1948). Born in Latvia to a religious Jewish family, he studied law in St. Petersburg before joining a Jewish theatre group. In 1920, Mikhoels co-founded the first Jewish acting studio in Moscow, putting on plays in Yiddish. Lenin soon turned it into the official State Jewish Theatre. By 1928, Mikhoels had become the theatre’s director, as well as its most famous actor. People came from around the world to see his legendary performances. One New York Times reviewer wrote that Mikhoels had put on “one of the most stirring performances of my theatre-going career.” His 1935 role as King Lear (in Yiddish) drew another critic to write: “I do not recall a performance that stirred me as profoundly, to the core, as Mikhoels’ performance of Lear.” Mikhoels had become one of the world’s best Shakespearean actors. He also played Rabbi Alter in Mazel-Tov, and Tevye in the Russian version of Fiddler on the Roof, among many other roles. In 1942, Mikhoels was made chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and sent around the world to draw support from his fellow Jews for the Soviet war effort against the Nazis. This made him the first official Soviet representative to make such a trip, and he successfully raised millions. However, after the war ended Stalin became increasingly paranoid, and soon began another round of his purges, particularly of Jewish intellectuals. In 1948, he ordered Mikhoels assassinated, and made it look like a car accident. Nonetheless, Mikhoels was given a state funeral. Today, he is recognized as an important artist and pioneer of Russian theatre, and one of Moscow’s main cultural centres is named after him.

Words of the Week

He who has many friends has no friends.
– Aristotle

Jew of the Week: William Shatner

William Shatner as Captain Kirk (1966-1969)

William Shatner as Captain Kirk (1966-1969)

William Shatner (b. 1931) was born in Montreal to a Jewish family with Eastern European ancestry. Despite studying economics at McGill University, Shatner was drawn to acting from a young age and was a member of the Montreal Children’s Theatre. After graduating, he became the manager of a theatre company and soon started acting himself in Ottawa’s Canadian National Repertory Theatre and Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival. Meanwhile, he had a few small roles in Canadian films before starring in The Brothers Karamazov in 1958 – his first significant Hollywood role. Over the following few years, Shatner struggled to find more success, and picked up whatever roles he could, appearing on Broadway, in a number of television shows, and various films. In 1966, Shatner was cast as Captain Kirk on the new show Star Trek. In one historic 1968 episode, Kirk kissed Lt. Uhura – the first kiss between a white man and a black woman on American television. Unfortunately, Star Trek was not yet very popular, and the show was cancelled after just three seasons. Shatner had a tough time finding work afterwards, and ended up broke and living from his truck. He took on many small roles through the 70s, appearing in multiple shows and doing all sorts of commercials, from General Motors to Canada’s Loblaws grocery store. By the end of the 1970s, Star Trek had made a comeback and developed a massive cult following. Paramount decided to make a film and cast the original actors in the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Shatner went on to play Kirk in six more Star Trek films. He soon expanded to directing films, producing music, writing screenplays, and co-writing a series of very popular sci-fi novels. Between 1994 and 2010, Shatner was the CEO of a special effects studio, while also publishing a number of non-fiction books and continuing to play small roles in film and television. All in all, Shatner has appeared in at least 20 films, 30 television shows, and wrote or co-wrote over 40 books. He has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and has a star on both Hollywood’s and Canada’s Walk of Fame. He has played for charitable causes on the World Poker Tour, and is an organizer of the Hollywood Charity Horse Show which raises funds for children’s charities. In 2006, he sold his kidney stone for $25,000 and raised an additional $20,000 to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. Interestingly, Shatner does not like seeing himself on video, and says he has never watched any of his films or Star Trek episodes!

Words of the Week

God is a circle whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.
– Empedocles