By Harriet P. Gross
It used to be that I’d have to go to the library, or pick up the phone, or at least consult my encyclopedia, to find out something I wanted to know. Today, I just sit at the keyboard and Google.
And when I’m not Googling myself, people are sending me things that they’ve found. Some are bits of trivia. Some are whole compilations. I enjoy reading them, uncoupling and recombining them, and passing on the good parts. Here’s a collection with Jewish connections. Some of these I already knew to be fact; others need to be checked out — perhaps with the help of Google. So, let’s play some true-or-false today. If you don’t know: your guesses are at least as good as mine.
Joseph Stalin’s original name was Joseph David Djugashvili, a last name translating to “son of a Jew.” All of his wives were Jewish (he had three of them).
Lillian Friedman’s husband was Cruz Rivera. Their son is Geraldo Miguel Rivera. (Back in Chicago a long time ago, we called him Gerry Rivers!)
More famous folk than you’re probably aware of are at least religiously, technically Jewish, since their mothers are at least supposed to have been Jewish themselves. Among them: Fiorello LaGuardia, Winston Churchill, Peter Sellers, Robert DeNiro, David Bowie, Shari Belafonte, Harrison Ford and Cary Grant. Quite an array, yes?
Let’s take a look at medicine. We all should know that Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed the first polio vaccines, and that Sigmund Freud is the father of psychiatry. But Dr. Abraham Waksman came up with the word “antibiotics”; another Dr. Abraham, this one surnamed Jacobi, is considered the founder of pediatrics as a medical specialty; Dr.Simon Baruch was the first to successfully remove an appendix; Dr. Paul Ehrlich won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for discovering a cure for syphilis; and biochemist Casimir Funk did pioneering research on vitamins. These last all check out as Jews. Also purported to be Jewish is one Dr. Sicarry, who debunked a once-pervasive myth by proving that the tomato is not poisonous. I’ve been unable to find his first name anywhere, but I say a thank-you to him anyway every time I have a Caprese salad.
How about the worlds of art and entertainment? It’s common knowledge that Emma Lazarus penned the poem gracing the base of the Statue of Liberty, that Irving Berlin contributed the ever-popular “White Christmas” to our country’s religious majority, that Florenz (“Flo”) Ziegfeld fathered American burlesque, and that the most successful filmmaker in filmmaking history is the Jew whose mother is quoted as saying, “You have a son. You do the best you can raising him. And then he turns out to be Steven Spielberg…”). But did you know that movie mogul Louis B. Mayer originated the Oscar?
A bit more obscure: In 1918 in Detroit, Max Goldberg opened the first commercial parking lot. Eight years earlier, Louis Blaustein and his son had opened the first gas station. I don’t know what happened to Goldberg, but the Blausteins went on to found Amoco and make a true fortune in motor fuel.
And here’s something fun to think about: Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the phonograph, but the Jewish Emile Berliner patented the gramophone — a recording device that uses a disc rather than Edison’s cylinder. That famous dog listening to “his master’s voice” as the trademark of Victor Talking Machine Company (now RCA) was actually looking at Berliner’s creation, not Edison’s.
What about business? The Altmans, Gimbels, Kaufmanns, Lazaruses, Magnins and Mays — to say nothing of the Neimans and the Marcuses — were department store giants and geniuses. The Strauses, Isidor and Nathan, built a retailing empire as Abraham and Straus, later becoming Macy’s; Isidor lost his life on the Titanic after deciding not to accompany his brother to Palestine following a European trip. Some say God was involved in that. Some joke that a poor Jewish needleworker went into partnership with God to form the top fashion firm known as Lord and Taylor. But this has yet to be proved.
And some also say that the early discount chain success, E.J. Korvette (or Korvetts), founded in New York in 1948, was actually named not for any single person, but for “Eight Jewish Korean (War) Veterans.” Google this one with a question about its truth, and you’ll get this definitive answer: “There is no answer.”
Isn’t it fun to be part of that slim one-quarter of 1 percent of the world’s population that’s Jewish?
By Harriet P. Gross