The Eulogizer: ‘Mad Libs’ creator Leonard Stern, Jerusalem Book Fair head Ziv Birg

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Leonard Stern, 88, wrote TV shows, co-created ‘Mad Libs’

Writer Leonard Stern, whose TV resume included “The Honeymooners,” “Get Smart” and other classic shows, and who also was a co-creator of the “Mad Libs” series of books and games, died June 7 at 88.

Stern’s early TV work for Jackie Gleason and others in the 1950s led to his central role in several 1960s-era classic sitcoms. Buck Henry, co-creator of "Get Smart," said Stern "invented what I have always thought and said was the best opening and closing pieces that define the show and that people always remember." The opening shows special agent Maxwell Smart walking down a long corridor toward the secret offices of his agency, CONTROL, passing through a series of automatically opening and closing doors, entering a phone booth, dialing a number and dropping out of sight.

"Mad Libs," small workbooks in which people fill in blank spaces with specific word types — such as nouns, adjectives, body parts or numbers — to form weird narratives have had enduring popularity since the series was launched in the 1950s. Stern published "Mad Libs" privately after they were rejected by mainstream book publishers, even though he was able to promote them from his slot as a writer on "The Steve Allen Show.” More than 100 million copies have been printed; new titles are still being released.

The Eulogizer notes that several writers felt compelled to work “Mad Libs” into their obituaries of Stern, including this opening paragraph from the Washington Post: “As a writer, director and producer, Leonard Stern was a legendary (noun) in show business. He had an (adjective) career that took him to (geographic place) with (celebrity name). Fond of (article of clothing), standing (a number) feet tall with a gray (body part), he (verb) more than a share of (noun), including (liquid).”

Stern published "A Martian Wouldn’t Say That," a “hilarious expose of the absurdities inflicted upon Hollywood’s creative community by meddling film and TV executives,” in 1994. The title came from a studio executive’s note about a line of dialogue from the ‘60s sitcom "My Favorite Martian."

Stern was born in New York, wrote jokes for Milton Berle as a teenager, majored in journalism at New York University and was a Women’s Army Corps recruiter during World War II. He was married to actress Gloria Stroock.

Zev Birger, 86, Jerusalem Book Fair official, Shoah survivor

Zev Birger, a Shoah survivor who became a major figure in Israeli public life, and spent many years as director of the biannual Jerusalem International Book Fair, died June 6 at 86.

Birger was “of that caliber of Holocaust survivors who turned each day of their lives into a celebration, not only for themselves but for the people around them and particularly for the less fortunate.”

Birger died several days after being struck by a motorcycle on his way out of a concert at the Jerusalem Theater. He was considered “part of a fading generation of European Jews who overcame personal calamities in the Holocaust and went on to fight for and help build the state of Israel.” Recent deaths of leading figures from that generation in Israel include Al Schwimmer, founder of Israel Aircraft Industries, and radio personality Netiva Ben Yehuda, among others.

Birger had served as the director of light industries at the Ministry for Industry and Trade, deputy director of the ministry and then executive director of the Economic Council on Printing and Publishing. He ran the Israel Film Center and the country’s office of International Creative Management and Film Marketing in Paris before taking over the book fair at the request of Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek in 1983.

Birger developed an editorial fellowship program, agent’s fellowship and Jerusalem Prize for work that best promotes the freedom of the individual in society, which has been awarded to an array of internationally prominent authors, including British author Ian McEwan earlier this year.

Born in Kovno, Lithuania, Birger “grew up in a cultured Zionist home” where Yiddish, Russian and German were spoken. He and his family were put in the Kovno Ghetto after World War II began and he was sent to Dachau in 1944. He was the only survivor in his family.

He made it to Mandate Palestine in 1947 with his wife, Trudi, who died in 2002. She had been in the Kovno Ghetto and Stutthof death camp. She founded the Dental Volunteers for Israel Clinic in Jerusalem, where children are treated free. As a child in a concentration camp, she had been beaten by a Nazi guard who knocked out her teeth.

In 1999, Birger published “No Time for Patience: My Road from Kaunas to Jerusalem: A Memoir of a Holocaust Survivor,” 50 years after the events he recollected. He had “persuaded himself that he needed to write his autobiography so that his children and grandchildren could understand the magnitude of the sacrifices endured by Holocaust victims and survivors.”

A reviewer wrote  that “this moving autobiography is an eloquent evocation of his ability to maintain optimism in the face of incredible suffering."
 

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