They left their mark

A look at 18 Jewish luminaries who died during the past year, leaving behind a strong legacy.

Vidal Sassoon 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Vidal Sassoon 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While there are dozens of Jewish voices who hold the public’s attention today, each year we lose many of those who left a lasting impact during their lives. Here are some of those strong, influential and unique personalities lost over the past 12 months, and how they left their mark on the world as we know it.
■ Vidal Sassoon, who died May 9 at age 84, achieved international fame and fortune as a celebrity hairstylist and defended his Jewish homeland as a fighter during the 1948 War of Independence. Sassoon, who was born in London and moved to Los Angeles, began work as a hairstylist as a young man, and eventually operated more than 20 salons worldwide and created a famed line of hair products. He also founded the The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
■ Maurice Sendak, who died on May 8 at age 83, was widely considered the most influential children’s book author of the 20th century. His most famous work, Where the Wild Things Are, which was published in 1963, has played a crucial role in the imaginary worlds of children ever since, and was made into a feature film in 2009. In his recent obituary, The New York Times credited him as having “wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.”
■ Adam Yauch, who died on May 4 at 47 of cancer, succeeded in doing something few thought possible: Turning a bunch of Jewish boys from Brooklyn, New York, into a cool hip-hop group. Yauch, who founded the Beastie Boys in 1979, became known by his rapping persona, MCA, and steered the group through its 30+ years producing music. The band’s most famous songs include “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” and “Ch-Check It Out.” Yauch was too ill to attend the induction of the Beastie Boys into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month.
■ Benzion Netanyahu, who died on April 30 at 102, is known for his influence both on worldwide Zionism and on his children, most notably Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He served as a close aide to Revisionist Zionism founder Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and continued his activities in New York after his mentor’s death. After his return to Israel in 1948, Netanyahu served as chief editor of the Encyclopedia Hebraica. His most famous work as a historian, Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, challenged the accepted view that Jews who converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition did so because of coercion.
■ Mike Wallace, who died April 7 at age 93, became one of America’s best-known broadcast journalists over the course of his storied career. Born in Massachusetts to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Wallace began his career with stints on various TV news programs and game shows, before he became the co-host of the groundbreaking CBS news program, 60 Minutes, in 1968.
During his almost 40 years on the show, Wallace’s interviews with figures such as Ayatollah Khomeini, Louis Farrakhan, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Henry Kissinger, Ayn Rand and Malcolm X cemented him as a respected and skilled reporter.
■ Elan Steinberg, who died on April 6 at 59, brought international recognition to the World Jewish Congress and reclaimed more than $1 billion for Holocaust survivors from Swiss banks. The Israeli-born Steinberg grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and became the executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress in 1978, a position he held until his resignation in 2004. In 1985 he launched an ultimately unsuccessful bid to prevent former UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim from becoming president of Austria after details emerged of his Nazi past.
■ Adrienne Rich, who died on March 27 at age 82, was a pioneering and prolific feminist poet who won many accolades for her writing on Jewish identity and social hierarchies, though famously refused the National Medal for the Arts in 1997, writing in her letter to president Bill Clinton: “The racial disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A president cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.” Rich, who was raised in Baltimore, won the National Book Award for her 1973 militant feminist work Diving into the Wreck. –Rachel Marder ■ Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager, who died on March 13 at age 95, led the second largest hassidic sect in Israel. Born in Romania, Hager was smuggled out of the country in the midst of the Holocaust and came to Israel. In Bnei Brak, he began to rebuild the Vizhnitzer community that was almost destroyed during World War II, and led it for 40 years. Today, there are more than 5,000 families in the Israeli Vizhnitzer community.
Hager also served as the president of the Council of Great Torah Sages, the decisionmaking body of Agudath Yisrael.
■ Andrew Breitbart, who died on March 1 at 43, was one of the early political bloggers who played muckraking roles in several government scandals over the past decade. Breitbart, who was raised Jewish in Los Angeles by his adoptive parents, was instrumental in the political downfall of former US Representative Anthony Weiner, posted an edited speech by US Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod that led to her firing and subsequent rehiring, and collaborated with a young conservative activist to perform a hidden camera investigation into the liberal NGO ACORN.
■Yaffa Yarkoni, who died January 1 at 86, became known as the “War Singer” and Israel’s unofficial national performer. The Tel Aviv native joined an army entertainment unit during the War of Independence and, as her career took off, she continued to regularly perform for IDF soldiers.
Among her most famous and beloved nationalistic themed songs are “Bab el Wad,” “Hen Efshar,” “Hayu Zmanim,” and “Ha’amini Yom Yavo.” Later in life she vocally criticized the IDF’s activities and struck out against her sobriquet.
“They call me the singer of wars,” she said.
“I don’t like this name. I want to be the singer of Israel.”
■ Christopher Hitchens, who died December 15 at age 62, made his strongest waves with the publication of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in 2007. The UK-born writer and thinker wandered the globe for years before settling in the US in 1981. Though he was raised nominally Christian, Hitchens discovered his Jewish roots later in life, but remained an avowed atheist and critic of the State of Israel. He famously said, “I am an anti-Zionist. I’m one of those people of Jewish descent who believes that Zionism would be a mistake even if there were no Palestinians.”
■ Eli Hurvitz, who died November 21 at age 79, built up the Teva pharmaceutical company to its current status as the largest generic drug manufacturer in the world.
The Jerusalem native began work at Assia Ltd. in 1953, washing laboratory equipment.
After the company merged and became Teva, he worked his way up to become CEO, a position he held for 20 years.
■ Evelyn Lauder, who died November 12 at 75, championed breast cancer research and raised millions to fight the disease, founding the internationally recognized Pink Ribbon campaign. Lauder, who was born in Vienna, fled from the Nazis and eventually settled in New York City. She married Leonard Lauder – of the famous cosmetics family – in 1959, and began work at Estee Lauder, ultimately becoming senior corporate vice president and launching its Clinique line. After her own diagnosis of breast cancer in 1989, she became a public advocate against the disease and founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
■ Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who died on November 8 at 68, oversaw the growth of the legendary Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem from fewer than 1,000 students to more than 6,000, making it the largest yeshiva in the country, and potentially the world.
Though he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease before he took the reins of the yeshiva in 1990, he devoted himself to expanding the yeshiva and opened four new sites for students during his leadership.
■ Daniel Rogov, who died September 7 in his 70s, was widely credited with bringing Israeli wines to international attention. Rogov began his career in Paris writing about food and wine for American magazines and newspapers. He moved to Israel in 1978 and began writing for The Jerusalem Post, before he became the food and wine critic at Haaretz. He published The Rogov Guide to Israeli Wine annually since 2005, cementing himself as an expert on Israeli and kosher vintages.
■ Noach Flug, who died August 11 at age 86, was a tireless advocate for Holocaust survivors in Israel and abroad. Flug, who was born in Lodz, became a member of the underground in the city’s ghetto, and was imprisoned at Auschwitz and two other concentration camps before being liberated. Flug immigrated to Israel in 1958, and became a founding member and later chairman of the Center for Organizations of Holocaust Survivors. He also served on the boards of the Claims Conference, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the International Auschwitz Committee and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, fighting for compensation and fiscal benefits for Holocaust survivors.
■Amy Winehouse, who died on July 23 at 27, left a strong legacy for such a short and troubled life. The British soul singer, known for her deep, powerful voice and mix of R&B, soul and jazz, burst onto the music scene at age 20, and won five Grammy Awards for her 2006 album, Back to Black, which included her most famous single, “Rehab.” Her shining star was dimmed in the last years of her life by her drug abuse and alcoholism, and she was found dead of alcohol poisoning in a London apartment.
■ E.M. Broner, who died June 21 at age 83, brought Jewish feminist thought to the forefront. Broner, who was born in Detroit, taught English for decades and became most famous for her book The Women’s Haggadah, which was first published in Ms. magazine in 1977 before being printed in 1994. She also wrote fiction that touched on Jewish and feminist themes, her most famous being the novel A Weave of Women.