(JTA) — Every year brings the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of well-known Jewish icons in every field and to mourn those we have lost.
Here are 18 Jews who died in 2022 and who leave outsized legacies on politics, the arts, sports and everything in between.
The “first woman secretary of state in the United States” label will always follow Madeleine Albright, especially because of her success in such a male-dominated field of policy. But regardless of her gender, Albright’s moves as a part of Bill Clinton’s administration left a lasting mark on U.S. peacekeeping efforts around the world. Crucial to her worldview was her refugee story, which she did not fully grasp until after her time in the limelight. Her parents were Czech immigrants who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism and then Episcopalianism to avoid persecution before fleeing Europe. Albright did not like to talk about her parents’ choice to keep her in the dark, but when she did, it was in the voice of a blunt-edged diplomat who understood how the 20th century robbed some people of agency, and how they did what they had to do to reclaim it. “I can’t question their motivation. I can’t,” she told The Washington Post in 1997. Albright died March 23 in Washington, D.C., at 84.
Melissa Bank published just two books in her career, but both sets of short stories were bestsellers that explored the lives of Jewish women and still resonate with young readers decades later. Her 1999 debut, “The Girls’ Guide To Hunting And Fishing,” held a spot on The New York Times’ bestseller list for months. The comic misadventures of her two books’ Jewish protagonists often intersected with Jewish life: In “Wonder Spot,” Sophie Applebaum plays hooky from Hebrew class, considers taking a job with a Jewish newspaper, and contends with a cousin’s bat mitzvah and a sister-in-law’s passive-aggressive attempts to impose kosher rules on her home. Bank died of lung cancer at 61 in August.
Setting Moses and the Maccabees aside, it’s not a stretch to call Isaac Berger one of the strongest Jews ever. Known as “Ike,” Berger won three Olympic medals, two World Championships and eight U.S. national championships in weightlifting during a dominant stretch in the 1950s and 60s. At the 1957 Maccabiah Games, Berger was the first athlete to break a world record in any sport in Israel. His gold medal was presented by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who called Berger the “gibor Yehudi,” or “mighty Jew.” Berger was inducted into the U.S. Weightlifting Hall of Fame in 1965 and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1980. Berger died in June at 85.
Peter Bogdanovich was an Oscar-nominated movie director and actor whose films, ego and off-camera exploits encapsulated the personality-driven excesses of 1970s Hollywood filmmaking. He got his start making low-budget fare for shlock pioneer Roger Corman, then broke into the big leagues in 1971 with “The Last Picture Show,” a coming-of-age drama set in small-town Texas starring Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd (who became the director’s partner after he began an affair with her during filming). “The Last Picture Show” became a critical and commercial smash, scoring Bogdanovich Oscar nominations for best director and best adapted screenplay, and turned its 32-year-old director into a wunderkind whom the press frequently compared to his idol, Orson Welles. Bogdanovich’s 1972 follow-up “What’s Up, Doc?” was also a hit, and as a bonus, the screwball comedy helped make a Jewish sex symbol out of star Barbra Streisand. Though Bogdanovich rarely discussed his religious background in interviews, he was proud of his father’s role in rescuing his Jewish mother from Europe. “He was a really great painter and very highly praised in the former Yugoslavia,” Bogdanovich said of his father Borislav in a 2019 interview with New York magazine, “but he gave all that up to save my mother and her family because they were Jewish. He wasn’t, but they were.” Bogdanovich died Jan. 6 in Los Angeles at 82.
One of the leading movie stars of the 1970s, James Caan once said he was twice honored as New York City’s “Italian of the Year.” It made sense, in a way: his fans were used to seeing him in tough guy roles, including one in arguably the most famous Italian gangster flick of all time, “The Godfather.” But Caan was born to German-Jewish immigrants in Queens, where his father was a kosher butcher, before starring in movies such as “Brian’s Song,” “The Gambler,” and, later in his career, Will Ferrell’s hit comedy “Elf.” His onscreen (and offscreen) persona did much to break stereotypes about weak, wimpy Jewish men. “He’s in his own lane, Jew-wise,” Seth Rogen wrote in a 2021 memoir, calling Caan an unusually “scary Jew.” Caan died July 6 in Los Angeles at 82.
Despite never earning mainstream commercial success, Elana Dykewomon was a pioneer in the world of lesbian-themed fiction. “Beyond the Pale,” her award-winning 1997 novel, traced the intertwined stories of Jewish lesbians from Kishinev, Moldova, to the Lower East Side, in a saga that included both Russian pogroms and the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. “It can’t be that we are the first generation of Jewish lesbian activists on the planet,” Dykewoman said at the time. “So part of what the novel is about is searching for our ancestors and ancestral community as Jewish lesbians.” Born Elana Nachman in New York City in 1949, Dykewomon changed her name after the publication of her first novel, “Riverfinger Women,” in 1974. She wanted to distance herself from the Nachman line of rabbis from whom she descended, she told J. The Jewish News of Northern California, in 1997. She adopted Dykewoman, then Dykewomon, to demonstrate her allegiance to the lesbian community — but later regretted not using her name to assert her Jewish identity, too. “If I had to do it all over again, I might have chosen Dykestein or Dykeberg,” she said at the time. Though she rejected religion after becoming a radical feminist, she said, she studied Yiddish, Torah and Talmud while writing “Beyond the Pale”; often wrote on Jewish themes; and frequently included Jewish characters in her work. The 2009 novel “Risk,” for example, featured a Jewish lesbian who lives in Oakland and makes a living tutoring high school students. Dykewomon died in August at 72 from cancer.
Hannah Pick-Goslar appears multiple times in Anne Frank’s iconic diary — as both a close friend and a premonition of the Holocaust horrors to come for Frank’s family. As Anne wrote after having a nightmare about her friend: “[Her] eyes were very big and she looked so sadly and reproachfully at me that I could read in her eyes, ‘Oh, Anne, why have you deserted me? Help, oh, help me, rescue me from this hell!’” Their final meeting would be at a fence in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After recuperating from her liberation from the camp in the Netherlands and then later in Switzerland with her aunt and uncle, Pick-Goslar emigrated in 1947 to Israel, where she became a pediatric nurse and Holocaust speaker. Her friendship with Frank was the subject of a book, “Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Childhood Friend,” and a Dutch film, “My Best Friend Anne Frank” (2021). Pick-Goslar died in Jerusalem on Oct. 28 at 93.
For a comic known for his grating, nasally voice and extremely R-rated jokes, Gilbert Gottfried was a surprisingly sweet and loving Jewish dad who grew more in touch with his Jewishness after marrying his wife in 2007. The man known as the Aflac duck voice got himself nearly canceled more than once: In 1991, Fox apologized after Gottfried, hosting the Emmy awards, kept joking about fellow comic Pee-wee Herman’s arrest for masturbating in an adult movie theater. He continued to score gigs in movies, on talk radio (frequently with Howard Stern), on sketch shows and sitcoms, and as a voice on cartoons. He was the funny animal sidekick, Iago the parrot, in Disney’s “Aladdin.” Then he famously told perhaps the first joke about the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, just a few days after terrorists piloted airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “I’ve always said tragedy and comedy are roommates,” Gottfried told Vulture in 2019. Gottfried died Feb. 28 at 67 in New York from complications related to myotonic dystrophy, a rare condition.
Born Estelle, immortalized on TV as Estelle — Estelle Costanza, to be exact, the always shrill and frequently apoplectic mother to George Costanza, on the sitcom “Seinfeld” from 1992 until the show’s finale in 1998. According to Deadline, it was kismet: the character was named Estelle before Harris landed the part. Harris was born in New York City in 1928 where her parents, Jews of Polish descent, owned a candy store in Manhattan. When Harris was 7 years old, the family moved to Tarentum, Pennsylvania, where Harris suffered from antisemitic bullying at school. She quickly to turning to the theater, aided by elocution lessons, and found her calling. Though Harris went on to a prolific career recording voiceovers for commercials and playing minor characters in movies and TV shows, she became so identified with her “Seinfeld” role that fans frequently stopped her on the street to tell her her she reminded them of their own mothers. Jason Alexander, who played her character’s son George on “Seinfeld,” remembered his “tv mama” in a tweet after her death. “One of my favorite people has passed – my tv mama, Estelle Harris. The joy of playing with her and relishing her glorious laughter was a treat. I adore you, Estelle,” he wrote. Harris died in April at 93.
For one of the most revered Torah scholars on Earth, at least for many haredi Orthodox Jews, Chaim Kanievsky had surprisingly small handwriting. People would write to him from around the world with questions on postcards, and he would usually give “quite short answers,” a professor told JTA. “But from all his answers there are many books,” she added. After the 2017 death of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, Kanievsky became the preeminent leader of Israel’s non-Hasidic haredi Orthodox community, an authority on matters of Jewish law. He was an isolated figure who kept to himself and studied Jewish texts in the city Bnei Brak, but he became more vocal on political topics late in life. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kanievsky first lobbied for yeshivas to stay open, but once vaccines became available, he bucked the opinions of many in his community and pushed Jews to get vaccinated — earning some death threats in the process. Kanievsky died at 94 in Bnei Brak in March.
Aline Kominsky Crumb
In one of her autobiographical comics, Aline Kominsky Crumb wrote about seeing one Jewish girl after another coming into high school on Long Island after plastic surgery. “Me ‘n’ my friends developed a ‘big nose pride,’” she wrote, and one of the characters says, “I could not stand to look like a carbon copy!” Working with her husband Robert Crumb, also a leading underground comics artist, and then on her own, Kominsky-Crumb brought raw self-lacerating accountability to the genre, subverting stereotypes about Jewish women along the way. Seen by many in the 1970s and 80s as overly crude or controversial, she’s now an icon for many feminist artists. Roz Chast said her influence is seen in “every woman who creates her own cartoon voice.” Kominsky-Crumb died of pancreatic cancer at 74 in November.
Sam Massell was Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor, serving from 1970-1974, and the city’s last white mayor. But he was remembered as more than a single-term bookend: Massell was the first mayor to prove that the city’s Blacks had clout enough to elevate their chosen candidate to office, and he embedded Black leaders in government and built its mass transport system, forever changing the city. During his term as mayor, the number of Blacks in leadership positions doubled, to 40%. “Being black means you are always different,” he would say. “But being Jewish means I am always different, too.” Massell died March 13 at 94.
Miriam Naor served on the Israeli Supreme Court for 14 years and became the second woman to helm the court as chief justice. Her tenure presided over a period when the court made several significant rulings around religious pluralism in Israel. One of the most important came in 2016, when the court ruled that Israel must recognize conversions to Judaism performed in Israel outside of the rabbinate, which controls all religious matters in Israel, for the purposes of citizenship under the country’s Law of Return. During her tenure, the court also ruled that mikvehs, or ritual baths, in Israel had to be made available for the use of non-Orthodox converts to Judaism. Speaking at her swearing-in ceremony in 2015, Naor spoke about the need to preserve Israel’s character as a “Jewish and democratic state that upholds the principle of equality” as well as to “protect human rights and the rule of law.” Naor died in Jerusalem on Jan. 24 at 74.
Few openly designate themselves as “character actors,” but Nehemiah Persoff didn’t shy away from the term. From the years following Israel’s independence through the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond, Persoff had 200 stage and screen roles, working with directors such as Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Barbra Streisand and Martin Scorsese (playing a rabbi for the latter in “The Last Temptation of Christ”). He often played gangsters, including in the Marilyn Monroe classic “Some Like it Hot.” Born in Jerusalem, Persoff followed his family to the United States in 1929, and after World War II reconnected with his Israeli roots by performing onstage in the country. Though Persoff was not religious, he remained a devout Zionist his entire life and expressed regret for forgoing fighting in the 1948-49 War of Independence in order to further his acting career back in the United States. Persoff died in April at 102.
One of the most famous figures in Israeli cultural history, musician Svika Pick was a pioneer in his adopted country in many senses. He lightened up Israel’s pop music with simple chords and lyrics; he borrowed sounds from Mizrahi music and employed Black backup singers at a time when his government was trying to deport many would-be immigrants; and he set fashion trends with a feminine, Bowie-like aesthetic. In 1998, he wrote Israel’s third Eurovision winner, “Diva,” for Dana International, the first transgender person to win the contest. In his later years, Pick became a judge on reality shows and his daughter Daniella became paparazzi fodder when she married American director Quentin Tarantino, who moved to Tel Aviv to join the family. Pick died Aug. 14 in Ramat Hasharon, Israel, at 72.
A wholesome dad on network TV, and one of the raunchiest standup comedians in the business — few could boast a resume like Bob Saget’s. Before he got to Hollywood, Saget honed his comedy as a misbehaving Hebrew school student at Temple Israel in Norfolk, Virginia. “I go back and forth with my belief system, by the way. I’m not the best, most observant Jewish person you’ve ever met or talked to, and yet I’m Jewish and proud to be,” he once said. After a short stint contributing to CBS’ “The Morning Program,” Saget was cast to play a morning show host on TV. As Danny Tanner on “Full House,” Saget played a widowed dad and TV host raising three daughters in San Francisco with the help of his brother-in-law and his best friend. Saget was also known for hosting “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” The respected standup died in January at 65 from complications after a blunt head trauma.
Gerda Weissman Klein
Gerda Weissmann Klein’s liberation from concentration camps came after a brutal 350-mile death march to avoid the advance of the Allied forces. Of the 4,000 women who started the march, fewer than 120 survived. After moving to the United States, Weissman Klein became a bestselling author of 10 books, including her 1957 autobiography, “All But My Life,” which is frequently used as a text by Holocaust educators, and “The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in War’s Aftermath,” a chronicle of her and her husband’s correspondence in the years between liberation and their marriage. Decades later, Weissmann Klein’s story became the basis of the 1995 HBO short documentary “One Survivor Remembers,” which won both an Emmy and an Oscar (and is currently available for streaming on HBO Max). At the Oscars, she was almost played off before she could deliver an acceptance speech; but she stood her ground, and delivered a memorable message, concluding with, “Each of you who know the joy of freedom are winners.” Klein died April 3 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Many of Israel’s leading writers take aim at the country’s moral and political dilemmas. But few attacked the subjects with such blatant intensity as A.B. Yehoshua, who authored 11 novels, three collections of short stories and four plays, in addition to other essays. His fiction centered on the on-the-ground lived experiences of Israelis, but there were always larger societal themes and critique. He experimented with format, too, leading critic Harold Bloom to compare him to William Faulkner in 1984. But he was arguably as well known for his sharp public statements on his homeland, politics and Diaspora Jews. A firm believer in a two-state solution who critiqued both the Israeli occupation and Palestinian leaders, Yehoshua also infuriated U.S. groups by saying “Only those living in Israel and taking part in the daily decisions of the Jewish state have a significant Jewish identity.” He died on June 14 in Tel Aviv at 85.
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