by Alan D. Abbey
The JTA Archive’s obituaries of prominent and interesting people runs into the thousands, and cannot be represented adequately in an article brief enough for you to read before you might become the subject of an obituary yourself, but even a sampling provides a sense of the breadth, depth, drama, tragedy, and richness of the lives of Jews – and non-Jews who affected Jews worldwide – in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
The Archive includes obituaries of virtually every Jew of note who died in the 20th century, including Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Hank Greenberg, Isaac Bashevis Singer (and dozens more Jewish Nobel prizewinners), Teddy Kollek (and scores of political figures), as well as hundreds who lived remarkable lives but whom you may not know. Have you heard of Demax, a French actor so famous in the 1920s he needed
The oldest obituary in the Archive, from June 5, 1923, is of Simon Wolf, a onetime US ambassador to Egypt, described as “the personal friend of every President, from Lincoln to Harding.” Whether or not that made Wolf a 20th century “court Jew,” other friends to presidents in the Archive, included journalist Gus J. Karger; industrialist Max Fisher; advice columnist Ann Landers; Dr. Indrich Kohn, a friend of Czech President Tomas Masaryk, and Leah Brown, a friend of Golda Meir.
Of course, presidents’, premiers’ and prime ministers’ obituaries can be found in the Archive, including those of Leon Blum (France’s first Jewish premier), David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol and many others.
The Archive contains a panoply of people listed as the first or the oldest, including Levi Feld, the “oldest Polish Jew,” who died in 1928 at 125, leaving a wife aged only 119; Joseph Joffre, the world’s oldest Jew when he died at 113 in 1988; Meir Dickstein, the oldest Jew in Palestine when he died at 117 in 1938, and Sarah Silverman (no, not that Sarah Silverman), who died at 105 in 1931 in Minneapolis and was described archaically as one of oldest American “Jewesses.”
Among those who were notable for being first at something were Joseph Levi, the “first Jew to settle in Cork, Ireland”; Moses Alexander, the first Jewish immigrant to be elected an American governor (Idaho, of all places), and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, the first bat mitzvah, who died at 86 in 1996.
The Archive is an international repository of obituaries, more perhaps in the pre-War years than since. Obits of top Jewish leaders from the 1920s include Dr. Paul Nathan of Germany; Maxim Vinaver of Russia, who died in exile in Paris: Luigi Luzzatti, a former Italian prime minister; Sir Arthur Myers of New Zealand; Dr. Zevi Perez Chajes, chief rabbi of Vienna, and Moses Sitruk, chief rabbi of Tunis.
Pre-state Palestine and later, Israel, have always figured in JTA’s news coverage, and the Archive’s obituaries catalogue deaths there, too. Among early deaths in the Archive are Menashe Meyerowtiz, the last surviving Bilu pioneer, who arrived in Palestine in 1882, and Alexandra Belkind, the first woman doctor in Palestine, in 1943. In later years, figures of note included Eliahu Elath, Israel’s first ambassador to the United States, and Gen. Yaakov Dori, first Chief of Staff of Israel’s Armed Forces.
A straight line showing the emergence of American Jewry can be drawn from the obituary of MGM studios founder Marcus Loew in 1927, through to that of late 20th century film mogul Lew Wasserman in 2002.
Articles about Americans range from obituaries of pioneering astronaut Judith Resnik to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Jewish cultural influence can be seen in the obituaries of Harpo Marx, George Gershwin, playwright Clifford Odets, and many, many others.
Go through the Archive yourself to discover the hundreds of names of rabbis, scientists, business leaders, politicians, actors, musicians, poets, astronauts, and many others not mentioned here.
(Alan Abbey was the author of The Eulogizer, a JTA daily appreciation column of those who recently passed away.)
Other Obituaries of Interest
1930 Lord Balfour (author of Balfour Declaration)
1932 Julius Rosenwald (philanthropist)
1965 Helena Rubinstein (entrepreneur and businesswoman)
1985 Marc Chagall
1988 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell (author of Bakke affirmative action decision)
2001 Mordecai Richler (author)
1926 Meyer London (Socialist member of U.S. Congress)
1932 Moses Alexander (Governor of Idaho)
1932 Chaia Scheiner (grandmother of 200)
1946 Maurice Falk (steel executive)
1953 Abraham Riesen (Yiddish author and poet)
1959 Gershon Agron (Mayor of Jerusalem)
1960 Benno Elkan (sculptor of the menorah outside the Knesset)
1966 Lady Rebecca Sieff (a founder of Weizmann Institute)
1974 Ervin Kaldor (Bnai Brith leader in New Zealand)
1977 Shabtai Karakushansky (oldest Jewish journalist in Brazil)
1978 Zivia Lubetkin Zuckerman (leader of Warsaw Ghetto uprising)
1985 Moshe Rachmilewitz (important Israeli medical leader)
1990 Dina Abramowicz (YIVO librarian)
1993 Rabbi Marshall Meyer (rabbi of Buenos Aires and Manhattan)
1994 Abraham Bayer (communal leader and Soviet Jewry pioneer)
1995 Sister Ann Gillen (nun who worked for Soviet Jewry cause)
1996 Maurice (Mickey) Weiss (philanthropist)
1996 Judith Kaplan Eisenstein (first Bat Mitzvah)
2002 David Asseo (Turkish chief rabbi)
2004 Murray Zuckoff (longtime editor of JTA)