Harriet Pearl Alice Cohen (1901-1967) was born in London, England to a Jewish family with Russian heritage. She started playing piano in early childhood, and by age 13 won the Ada Lewis Scholarship and the Sterndale Bennett Prize from the Royal Academy of Music. A year later, she made her professional debut and soon became one of the most popular musicians in England. She was noted for resurrecting old English compositions that had been forgotten, as well as opening up Spanish and Russian music to the wider world. In fact, she was permitted to visit the Soviet Union (and perform there) in 1935, bringing back great compositions by contemporary Russians that she then performed around the world. While visiting Vienna in 1933, Cohen first recognized the plight of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. She decided to devote herself to their cause. Cohen went on to raise large sums of money to support the refugees, and worked with several organizations to bring them to safety. In 1934, she performed a special benefit concert, with Albert Einstein on the violin (!), to raise money. Einstein was only one of Cohen’s many admirers. Charming and witty, Cohen’s close circle of friends included H.G. Wells, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, and Chaim Weizmann. The latter won her over to the Zionist cause. Cohen made her first trip to the Holy Land in 1939, and quickly gained a reputation as a passionate Zionist. She fought so passionately, in fact, that it led to two assassination attempts on her life! Both for her musical contributions, and for her work with refugees, Cohen was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (one step below being knighted) in 1938. Unfortunately, she would later severely damage her right hand on broken glass, and could no longer use it. Undeterred, she continued to play and perform with her left hand only, and renowned composer Sir Arnold Bax (another admirer) wrote for her the Concertino for Left Hand. Bax would credit her with inspiring most of his compositions, while Albert Einstein referred to her as “the beloved piano-witch”. Cohen was also credited with bringing Bach back into the spotlight (listen to her play Bach here). She recorded music for films, too, and published two books. In 1954, she was awarded the key to the City of London. Many see Harriet Cohen as one of the first modern music superstars.
Words of the Week
Better to talk to a woman and think of God, than to talk to God and think of a woman. – Yiddish Proverb
Fania Nisanov (1924-2015) was born to an observant Bukharian-Jewish family in Kokand, Uzbekistan. Her father was the last in a long line of fabric dyers and merchants from the Emirate of Bukhara, the old Silk Road trading centre (and a UNESCO World Heritage site). One of eight surviving children, as a child she rose early each Friday morning to bake loaves of bread with her mother and sisters, which they then distributed to the poor in their community for the Sabbath. Unfortunately, the wealthy family was a target for criminals, and were robbed of all their possessions on multiple occasions. Despite these tough times, and the opposition from her family at a time when women were expected to stay at home, Nisanov pursued higher education and medical studies, becoming one of the first female doctors in the region. This made her part of an indispensable team that took care of the many ailing World War II veterans. Among those veterans was her future husband, David Polvanov, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party and a war hero that served in both European and Pacific battle zones. Ultimately, Nisanov became a pediatrician and worked diligently for some 40 years, treating children around the clock, never refusing a patient even when they arrived at her doorstep in the middle of the night. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nisanov immigrated to Israel with her family. There, she took care of her grandchildren and worked from home to help support the family. Among her many jobs was tying and knotting tzitzit (Jewish ritual fringes).The family would move once more to Canada, where Nisanov was a communal leader and elder in Toronto’s Bukharian community. She was frequently visited by travelers from Israel, Uzbekistan, and the US, who came in gratitude for her life-saving role in their lives. Famous for her wisdom, modesty, and sense of humour, she was never slowed down by a life-long disability, a battle with colon cancer, arthritis, and chronic pain. Even in her last days she would be seen with a smile on her face and a “Baruch Hashem” on her lips. Sadly, Fania Nisanov, our dear grandmother, passed away early yesterday morning.
Words of the Week
G-d transforms spirituality into physicality; the Jew must transform physical things into spiritual ones. – Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov
Benjamin David Goodman (1909-1986) was born in Chicago, the son of a Polish-Jewish father and Lithuanian-Jewish mother, immigrants who met in the U.S. Goodman took his first music lessons when he was 10 years old at the local synagogue. By 12, he made his professional debut (playing the clarinet) at Chicago’s Central Park Theater. At 16 he made his first recordings with the Ben Pollack Orchestra. He would go on to play alongside some of the most popular bands and most famous artists of the day. His own band would appear in a number of films, and on national radio. Despite the open racism and segregation of the time, Goodman began working with African-Americans, and is considered the first major American musician to have an interracial band (which meant he had to avoid playing concerts in the Southern states, where interracial bands were illegal). This was a key step in opening the door for more African-Americans to enter the mainstream music industry. By 1935, Goodman was one of the central forces that ushered in the “swing” era. In fact, he would be crowned the “King of Swing” (in addition to the “Rajah of Rhythm” and the “Patriarch of the Clarinet”). He is often credited with inspiring the start of the “dance craze”, and some consider him “America’s first rock star”. In 1962, Benny Goodman made history when he was sent to the USSR – the first American band on Soviet soil. The tour was designed to ease Cold War tensions, and was hailed a great success on both sides after 32 concerts, including for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It was a symbolic start of the process of reconciliation between the US and the USSR. Goodman was voted the best clarinetist multiple times, was inducted in the Jazz Hall of Fame, and awarded a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. His fascinating story was immortalized in a major motion picture, The Benny Goodman Story.
Words of the Week
God would not have preserved our people for so long if we did not have another role to play in the history of mankind. – Theodor Herzl