This Day in Jewish History, 1949 |

1949: A Hard Rocker Demon and Good Jewish Boy Is Born

Happy birthday, Chaim Witz! Decked out in makeup and boots that would make Lady Gaga green, Gene Simmons would found the rock group Kiss – and masterfully remain relevant over decades.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Gene Simmons plays to the Marines. A patriot with Republican leanings, Kiss is playing at the Rockin' the Corps concert, Oceanside, California April 1, 2005.Credit: Reuters
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

On this day, August 25, 1949, one Chaim Witz would be born in Haifa, Israel, and, heavily influenced by cartoons, would go on found an enormously successful band, a hard rock vehicle played by "demons" that didn't shy from soppy ballads – Kiss.

There is something incongruous about the innocent-sounding name of the band, the essentially tuneful, if not terribly sophisticated, rock the group produced, and the black-and-white spiky aggression of their makeup and costume. Renamed Gene Simmons, he fronted for the band decked out as a demon - with a habit of wiggling his long tongue – including while crooning sweet ballads, such as such as "Forever".

Beauty tips in the Holocaust

Simmons was born to Flóra Klein, nee Kovács, herself born in 1927 in a Hungarian hamlet named Jand, which as of 2001 – the latest statistic available – had a population of 851.

She and her brother Larry were apparently the only family members to survive the Holocaust: a beauty school graduate, teenage Flora gave tips to the camp commandant's wife, according to "Gene Simmons: A Rock ‘N Roll Journey in the Shadow of the Holocaust" (2011). After the war, Flora emigrated to Israel. Chaim's father, Feri (changed to Yeichel) Witz, was also Hungarian in origin.

Flora reportedly kept her Holocaust experiences to herself, but they would influence her son, Gene, as he built his persona as a breakthrough rock star – and a patriotic Israeli. And American: "In America I could think what I wanted to think, do as I pleased and reach for the stars. In America I've learned you have an inferred fiduciary duty to learn how to speak English."

Yeshiva school

The Witz family broke up when Chaim was small. The father remained in Israel, where he would have a second family. In 1958, when he was eight and a half, Chaim moved with his mother to the United States. They settled in New York, where Flora worked at a button factory. A year later, at age nine, Chaim began studying at a local Jewish school, Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Kensington, though after another year, he would begin attending public school in Jackson Heights.

He would later change his name to Eugene Klein, the first being easy to pronounce and the second, his mother's name. Later he would change his surname again, as a gesture to rockabilly's Jumpin' Gene Simmons.

Meanwhile, young Chaim was showing talent with the guitar. While working at the various menial jobs at which teenagers work, as well as typing, and later going to community college in Sullivan County, New York, he began experimenting with music. It was in the band Wicked Lester where he would have his fateful meeting with Starchild (Paul Stanley) - and, in January 1973, Kiss was born, with drummer Catman (Peter Criscuola) and Space Ace (Paul Frehley. The latter two would leave the band in 1982.)

Tips from a nice Jewish demon?

Gene "the Demon" Simmons has been frank about the premise behind Kiss' extravagant costumes and stagecraft, saying in 1999, "Americana has always been about imagery, often above content."

Kiss would release its first album on February 28, 1974, and, gentle reader, it did not do well at first, though it hit "gold" status after three years with half a million records sold. Meanwhile Simmons, while writing and playing the music, was also involved in marketing, resulting in the formation of the "Kiss army" of diehard fans.

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Still at it! Kiss at present (from left): Tommy Thayer, Paul Stanley, Eric Singer and Gene Simmons. Appearance at the 2015 Comic-Con International Convention in San Diego, July 9, 2015.Credit: Reuters
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Kiss, live, in Mexico City: (from left) Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and Tommy Thayer, Sept. 29, 2012.Credit: AP
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"Ace" Frehley demonstrates the pyrotechnics that helped make Kiss a worldwide sensation.Credit: Casablanca Records, Wikimedia Commons

During an interview that year, presumably playing up to his diabolical persona, Simmons snarled that he was "evil incarnate," provoking Totie Fields to poke, "Wouldn't it be funny if he's just a nice Jewish boy underneath the makeup?"

Sneer not, reader: if anybody's called him a genius, it isn't for the tunes. "Gene Simmonsmay be the shrewdest businessman to have donned face makeup and six-inch heels," Aviva West wrote in 2011. Since its inception, constantly overcoming the inevitable diminishment in popularity, Kiss has sold over 100 million records and Simmons himself has gone on to a rich career in  movies and TV as well.

Simmons has two children, Nick (born 1989), and Sophie (born 1992), with Shannon Tweed, whom he wed in 2011 . He has often spoken out against boycotts of Israel but Kiss has never actually played the Holy Land. Surely it will, one day, and meanwhile, happy birthday, Gene!