Five Jewish People Who Have Contributed to the Arts
Judaism — more than a religion, a set of ideas, or a system of ethics — is a People. Here are five famous Jewish people who have contributed to literature and film.
Widely known as the “Jewish Mark Twain,” Sholom Aleichem (1859–1916) is perhaps the best-known Yiddish author. Like Twain, he used a pen name (Sholom Aleichem’s real name was Solomon Rabinowitz; Twain’s was Samuel Clemens), and like Twain he primarily wrote about life in small towns. Sholom Aleichem’s towns were the Ashkenazi shtetls (small towns or villages) of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Russia, and his characters became known to almost every Yiddish-speaking Jew around the world.
Today, many Jews and non-Jews know Sholom Aleichem’s work from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which was based on his stories and characters, including the famous Tevye the Dairyman. (If you haven’t seen this musical, rent it on DVD or stream it immediately.)
Sholom Aleichem and Mark Twain actually did meet once, in New York. Upon meeting Twain, Sholom Aleichem said, “They call me the Jewish Mark Twain,” and Twain replied, “They call me the American Sholom Aleichem.”
Anne Frank (1929–1945) was only 16 when she died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but her diary relating her family’s two years of hiding from the Nazis has made her undisputedly the most famous of the six million Jewish people killed in the Holocaust.
While friendly non-Jewish neighbors hid her family in the back of a house in Amsterdam, Holland, Anne Frank wrote surprisingly profound and insightful diary entries. At the end, her family was betrayed. The Nazis took them, looted the house, but left papers, including the diary. Anne’s father, Otto, was the family’s sole survivor, and he later helped publish his daughter’s recovered diary. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, visit the Anne Frank House — it’s a powerful memorial.
Steven Spielberg (born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1946), one of the most influential and popular filmmakers in history, was perhaps born to entertain — after all, spiel is a Yiddish word that means a drawn-out story or play. His films include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, and Lincoln.
But among many Jews, the filmmaker is best known for Schindler’s List, based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jews during the Holocaust. Spielberg won the Academy Award for Best Director in 1993 for Schindler’s List, and he used the profits from the film to fund the nonprofit Shoah Foundation, which has so far filmed the testimony of over 50,000 Holocaust survivors.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (born in 1937) is one of the most influential and brilliant Talmudic scholars in history. He is also a writer on the Jewish mystical traditions. The author of over 50 books, he is best known for his 6,200-page translation and commentary of the Talmud into modern Hebrew and English, a task that took 45 years.
While Elie Wiesel (born in 1928) has long been best known as a writer, he won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Peace, not Literature, based on his writings and his efforts to educate the world about the Holocaust. Perhaps his best-known work is the book Night, which recreates his experience as a teenager at the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. However, Wiesel has also written and lectured extensively on the plight of the Soviet Jews and many other oppressed groups.