Jews we lost in 2017
A last goodbye to some unforgettable figures
Perhaps it’s only fitting, given what a rough year 2017 was, that Jewish humor took a hit in the year gone by. Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Shelley Berman, and Professor Irwin Korey — four comic giants whose manic, Borscht Belty, angsty, and intellectual routines came spilling out of the Jewish experience — all died in 2017. We could have used them for a little while longer.
Below, a roundup of the notable deaths in the past 12 months. As the old blues lyric goes (one that Jewish comics know better than most), “When you see me laughin’/ I’m laughin’ just to keep from cryin’.” A tear and a smile, then, in remembrance of those we lost last year.
Simone Weil, 89
Fewer than 70 people have been awarded France’s Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor — Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor who became a pillar of French politics, was one of them. After making it out of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, Veil became a lawyer and served as France’s minister of health and later as president of the European Parliament. She also was one of the few female members of the prestigious French Academie Francaise and spearheaded the legalization of abortion in France in the 1970s. Veil died in June, less than a month from her 90th birthday.
Jerry Lewis, 91
Don’t let the funnyman’s stage name fool you: Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch to parents who performed on the Borscht Belt hotel circuit. Lewis, who died of cardiac disease in August, rose to prominence as part of a duo with Dean Martin, with whom he made over a dozen wacky comedy films from 1949 to 1956. He would go on to star in dozens of other films, including “The Nutty Professor” (yes, the original one, well before Eddie Murphy’s 1996 remake) and Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”
Don Rickles, 90
The well-known comic nicknamed “Mr. Warmth,” who loved to hurl insults at his audience members, was also a serious actor trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He appeared in countless TV shows, performed standup into his 80s, and acted alongside legends such as Clark Gable and Clint Eastwood on the silver screen. Younger audiences know him as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” series. He passed away in April from kidney failure.
Sara Ehrman, 98
This longtime Democratic Party activist, adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and friend of the Clintons described herself as “first a Jew, second a Democrat, and above all a feminist.” Sara Ehrman may be most famous for advising Hillary Clinton not to move to Arkansas to marry Bill, though she worked on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign and later advised President Clinton on Israel-Arab peacemaking. She also helped organize Bill Clinton’s first trip as president to Israel, served as AIPAC’s political director, and later worked with J Street. She died in June, more than 50 years after her entree into politics.
Aharon Leib Shteinman, 104
Rabbi Shteinman’s stature in the charedi (but non-chasidic) world is legendary: witness the hundreds of thousands of mourners who came to his funeral in Israel (he died in December). The rabbi, who held few public positions, wrote dozens of books and lived modestly in the heavily Orthodox suburb of Bnei Brak, was considered the “gadol hador,” or great sage of his generation among the charedi Lithuanian-rooted community. “With the death of Rabbi Shteinman, the Jewish people lost a central beacon of spirit, heritage and morality,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement following the announcement of his death.
Edith Windsor, 88
In 2009, Edith Windsor was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, even though her marriage was recognized as legal by the state of New York, where they lived. She took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2013 that the federal government must abide by states’ rules in dealing with same-sex couples. That case paved the way for the court ruling, two years later, that removed all barriers to equal marriage rights nationwide. Windsor was very active in Jewish circles, and was a longtime member of New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which was founded to serve the LGBTQ community. She died in September.
Jonathan Woocher, 70
Educational theorist Jonathan Woocher, who died in July, helped shaped American Jewish educational priorities as the longtime head of the Jewish Educational Service of North America and later as founding president and senior fellow of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. Woocher, who lived in South Orange and worked closely with the federation world, was instrumental in creating the Renaissance and Renewal pillar, or department, of the former United Jewish Communities — now known as the Jewish Federations of North America — in 2000. He described his efforts as creating “a far more vibrant, engaging, content-full Jewish life for large numbers of Jews here and around the globe than we ever could have imagined just a few decades ago.”
Ann Birstein, 89
The novelist, memoirist, essayist, and teacher was, together with her husband, the late literary critic Alfred Kazin, at the center of a group known as the “New York intellectuals,” “a world of parties, publishing and talk of things literary, political and cultural,” Jewish Week culture editor Sandee Brawarsky wrote in a May appreciation. Birstein was the author of 10 books, she published fiction and nonfiction, and in memoirs wrote about growing up as the daughter of the founding rabbi of the Actor’s Temple (“The Rabbi on Forty-Seventh Street”) and her 30-year marriage to and divorce from Kazin (“What I Saw at the Fair”).
Shelley Berman, 92
At the start of the emergence of stand-up comics in this country, Berman was a leader of the pack. He was known as our favorite “sit-down” comedian, situated on a stool, picking up an imaginary phone, talking in his distinctive scratchy voice. Berman, who died in September, specialized in observational humor, railing against any aspect of life that annoyed him, famously “Ma Bell,” the gigantic phone network of his time. His career took a hit when his temper was displayed during a 1963 documentary, “Comedian Backstage,” but he went on to a prolific acting career in TV and movies, including the role of Larry David’s father in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Irwin Korey, 102
For people of several generations, he was “the World’s Foremost Authority,” a slovenly dressed, wild-haired putative intellectual who, his rambling social commentary hidden in a non-sequitur jumble of 10-letter words, would rail against what he saw as injustice and inequality. Korey, who died in February, was the national antidote to pomposity. Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum, he was a lifelong leftist, blacklisted in the 1950s. In his later years he would panhandle on the streets of Manhattan, giving the proceeds, tens of thousands of dollars, to charity — including one that benefited children in Cuba.
Nat Hentoff, 91
Best known for his decades as a columnist for the Village Voice, Hentoff, who died in January, was a journalist, author, social critic, jazz critic, and passionate defender of First Amendment rights. Though a liberal on most issues, he also opposed abortion. “I used to consider myself a liberal,” he told The Jewish Week in 1997, “but in an area that means a lot to me, liberals were just as much censors as conservatives. They wanted to kill free speech.” The subject of a 2013 documentary, “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step: Notes on the Life of Nat Hentoff,” he would do his writing at home on an electric typewriter. The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, he grew up in Roxbury, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Boston, and described himself as a member of “The Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists.”
Margaret Lambert, 103
Growing up as Gretel Bergmann in Germany, Lambert was a Nazi pawn during the Third Reich, a world-class high-jumper who was unceremoniously barred, as a Jew, from competing for the German team at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Known as “The Great Jewish Hope,” she moved to the United States in 1937 with less than $10 in her pocket, and married fellow refugee Dr. Bruno Lambert, living in New York City. She continued here to train and compete, winning the U.S. titles in high jump and shot put. She vowed to never return to Germany, but went back in 1999 when a local stadium in her hometown was renamed after her. She died in July.