Edgar Bronfman (1929-2013) was known, only half-jokingly, as “King of the Jews”. He spent the first part of his adult life expanding and legitimizing the Seagram liquor dynasty built by his father Sam, once called the “King of Whiskey”. He used the second part of his life to turn the World Jewish Congress into a self-anointed monarchy charged with representing the entire Jewish people and lobbying for its cause.
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Bronfman was a tycoon and a titan who hobnobbed with kings and prime ministers. He was a trusted emissary of Israel, in some cases, but its critic and antagonist in others. Together with his brother Charles, he made the Bronfman name synonymous with Jewish philanthropy and generosity. He left a personal stamp on landmarks of 20th century Jewish history, though his legacy was tarnished by tawdry tales of corruption in the organization that he led.
He was, nonetheless, a member of that rare breed for whom the description “larger than life” is truly apt. The same can be said of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013), Torah scholar extraordinaire and political leader par excellence. And if Bronfman was “King of the Jews”, Ovadia can certainly be called “Emperor of Sephardi Jews”.
For secular Israelis who knew nothing of his halakhic sagacity, the venerated rabbi was an intolerant rabble-rouser whose intemperate outbursts fostered his flock’s sense of isolation and victimhood. For many religious Israelis, however, he was a Jewish genius whose incomparable grasp of Jewish chapter and verse veered close to perfection.
His role in the political world, which dominated the latter part of Ovadia’s life, was no less controversial. His efforts to return Sephardic Jews to “past glory” resulted in the 1984 establishment of the Shas party, which has since wielded enormous influence on Israeli politics. In the eyes of its supporters, Shas is an instrument of Sephardic pride and self-assertion; for its detractors the party is a fount of anti-democratic agitation and a cesspool of corruption and cronyism.
Ovadia’s October 7 Jerusalem funeral, the largest in Israeli history, confirmed his elevated standing among some sectors of Israeli society and delineated what will inevitably be seen as the end of an era. The same can be said, mutatis mutandis, of Arik Einstein (1939-2013) whose death less than two months later was met by an equally unprecedented but far more surprising outpouring of grief and reflection from the other, more secular parts of Israeli society.
Einstein’s almost endless parade of personal, iconic hits were the music to which generations of post-Independence Israelis had matured and aged. The emotional eulogies that followed his death functioned both as a heartfelt farewell to a dedicated artist who shied away from wealth and celebrity as well as an expression of remorse and regret by a society in which those two goals now rein supreme.
A similar sense of melancholy and nostalgia was part of the poignant adieu to industrialist Dov Lautman (1936-2013). Much better known among Israelis than Diaspora Jews, Lautman’s successful establishment of the Delta textile conglomerate embodied gung-ho Israeli entrepreneurship in the days before the hi-tech boom and “start-up nation” slogans. But it was Lautman’s unflinching public battle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, accompanied as it was by his tireless philanthropy and efforts on behalf of Israeli education, that turned him into an Israeli hero, a role model that we all aspire to be but seldom are.
Other notable Israeli deaths in 2013 that should be mentioned include scholars and academics such as Israel Gutman (1920-2013), Warsaw Ghetto Uprising survivor, Eichmann trial witness and Holocaust researcher; linguist, author and Israel Prize recipient Ze’ev ben Haim (1907-2013); Zvi Yavetz (1925-2013) historian and Israel Prize winner; Leo Sachs (1924-2013), another Israel Prize winner and an internationally renowned geneticist and cancer researcher; author, publicist and essayist Zvi Yanai (1935-2013) who edited a prestigious IBM intellectual publication Mahshavot (Thoughts); and Ram Karmi, (1931-2013) Israel Prize winner and the architect of Jerusalem’s new Supreme Court building.
There were religious leaders and sages, including the ultra-Orthodox Stretin Rebbe Avraham Brandwein (1945-2013), Avrohom Yaakov Friedman (1928-2013) the fifth Rebbe of Sadigura, Rabbi Yehoshua Neuwirth (1927-1930) a renowned Halacha scholar and Jewish medical law expert, the American-born Rabbi David Hartman (1931-2013), philosopher and founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute; and Rabbi Menachem Froman (1945-2013), an Orthodox settler rabbi who maintained close ties with Palestinian clergymen.
There were legal figures such as Menachem Elon (1923-2013), renowned Jewish Law scholar and Supreme Court judge as well as former attorney general Yosef Harish (1923-2013), who prosecuted Shas leader Arye Deri. And there were figures once prominent in the country’s politics who lapsed into relative obscurity with the passage of time: Rehavam Amir (1917-2013) Haganah commander, Israeli diplomat and Ben Gurion adviser; Yitzhak Berman (1913-2013), a cabinet minister from Israel’s Liberal Party who bravely demanded the 1982 investigation of the Sabra and Shatila massacre; Zina Harman (1914-2013) UK-born Member of Knesset and long time Israeli envoy to UN refugee commission; Sarah Braverman (1917-2013) who parachuted with Hannah Senesh into Nazi-occupied Europe and went on to co-found the Israeli army’s Women’s Corps; and fabled paratrooper and IDF general Danny Matt (1927-2013).
There were entertainers and authors such as actor and comedian Sefi Rivlin(1947-2013) whose humor highlighted children’s shows on educational television and whose antics and impersonations delighted Israeli adults no less; Didi Menosi (1928-2013), journalist, lyricist and poet, who wrote the words to Israeli anthems and whose columns in Yedioth Achronot delighted Hebrew lovers and dedicated linguists; Yoram Kaniuk (1930-2013) best selling Israeli author who wrote novels and biographies on the War of Independence;children’s’ author and Israel Prize winner Dvora Omer (1932-2013); journalist, author and Maariv editor Amnon Dankner (1946-2013) and bad-boy actor, singer and Arik Einstein-collaborator Shmulik Kraus (1935-2013).
Diaspora Jews who had an impact on Jewish life and who passed away in 2013 include Frank Lautenberg (1924-2013) US Senator and staunch Israel supporter; the colorful Ed Koch (1924-2013) mayor of New York and champion of Israel; Leonard Garment (1924-2013) Nixon confidante and discreet Israel lobbyist; Al Chernin (1928-2013) leader of Free Soviet Jewry movement; Rabbi Herschel Schacter (1917-2013) the first rabbi to enter liberated Buchenwald and a former Chairman of Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations;Jacques Torczyner (1914-2013), a Belgian-born American Zionist leader; Jean Kahn (1929-2013) leader of French Jewish roof body CRIF and human rights activist; Beyla Schaechter-Gottesman (1920-2013), a widely-respected Yiddish poet and language reviver; Paul Reichmann (1930-2013), Orthodox steward of Canadian real estate empire that floundered and Lou Reed (1940-2013) maverick guitarist and leader of breakthrough Velvet Underground group, who had only threadbare ties to his own Jewishness but who influenced many thousands of worshipping Jews.
Then there were those Jews who were mired in scandal or controversy at one point or another in their lives. These include Rabbi Philip Berg (1927-2013) controversial rabbi to the stars and founder of the Kaballah Center; Rabbi Abraham Hecht (1922-2013) a widely-esteemed Chabad rabbi who achieved notoriety for seemingly proscribing death to returners of territory, a few months before Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 assassination; the pardoned Marc Rich (1934-2013) talented but tainted friend of US presidents and Israeli prime ministers; Pulitzer prize winning New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis (1927-2013) a frequent critic of Israeli occupation; and, in a scandalous category all his own, porn potentate and smut sultan Al Goldstein (1936-2013), who “made porn dirtier”, as the New York Times wrote.
Mention should also be made of non-Jews Helen Thomas (1920-2013) the legendary AP White House reporter who was forced to resign after telling Israeli Jews to “go back to Poland”; Aharon ben Ab-Chisda ben Yaacob (1927-2013) Samaritan High Priest considered by his followers to be the direct descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron; and the inspirational German industrialist Berthold Beitz, (1913-2013), whose tireless and dangerous efforts during the Holocaust saved no less than 800 Jews from extermination and who was duly recognized in 1973 by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.