2023 has been a year of grief. Or at least it’s felt like it. By the time the ball drops in Times Square and celebrations take place around the world, it will have been less than three months since October 7, but time has felt different since then. Every day is weighed down and heavy. We’ve lost too many souls we shouldn’t have lost this year.
Looking back at the lives of the admirable and complex Jewish culture and change-makers who have died this year, we can find hope and light, their legacies of art a source of comfort, their complicated political stances something to ponder at a time so fraught.
May their memories be for a blessing.
Ady Barkan, the human rights activist, co-founder of Be A Hero Pac and father of two passed away this year at just 39 years old from complications of ALS. His devotion for the fight for access to healthcare, and his ability to have difficult political conversations by creating a kind of intimacy with people, by bearing his life and letting others bare theirs, can be a beacon of light for us all. May his memory be a revolution.
1200 people were killed on October 7. Among them was Vivian Silver, a peace activist who founded Women Wage Peace, sat on the board of the controversial organization BeTselem, and who helped found an organization that helps Bedouin women in the Negev. She is hardly representative of all of Israelis, or of a majority of Israeli’s aspirations, but her dogged determination to keep fighting for peace may be something to aspire to for now. May her dream of peace and coexistence for a world in which we value the sanctity of all lives come to fruition.
We remember Richard Belzer, the actor who played John Munch in “Homicide: Life on the Street,” and “Law & Order: SVU.” There’s something so enjoyable and bingeable about his presence in these shows. We also have to commend him for his incredible impression of Bob Dylan’s bar mitzvah, and of the Bard as an old Jewish man, too:
Rewatching “Fiddler on the Roof” is one of the purest and most Jewish sources of comfort, and Israeli actor Chaim Topol was, for many, the perfect Tevye. The talented singer and actor played Tevye in the show’s West End production before he played him in the movie. He reprised the role in the 1994 revival of the musical on the British stage, along with his daughter who played Chava.
Topol stayed youthful by spending time with his nine grandchildren, even going to Tel Aviv night clubs with them.
“I watch over them, laugh with them, it’s fun. At 1 a.m., Galia [his wife] and I say goodbye,” he recounted in one interview. He was also a philanthropist, helping start the Israeli branch of Variety and founding Jordan River Village, which he called his life’s greatest achievement.
Alan Arkin was a TV and film father, and a real life father of three actors, all of whom he’d collaborated with during his career. In one “Chicago Hope” scene with his son, Adam Arkin, he sent a loving message: “I am proud of you,” he said to his on- and off-screen son. “You’re a good son… Don’t look for all the answers, this is it.”
Arkin also wrote some enchanting children’s books, and was the son of a leftist Jewish activist who lost his job due to McCarthyism.
Actress Abigail Breslin, who played Arkin’s onscreen granddaughter in “Little Miss Sunshine,” a role he won an Emmy for, recalled that he once stopped a scene because he was worried she’d gotten too upset. “I’m acting!” she told him, and he started laughing. “I love that story because that’s who Alan was. He cared deeply about his work, but above all and most importantly, he was a genuinely kind and thoughtful man,” she wrote.
The gift of Paul Reubens’ “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” is one that keeps giving. A children’s show like no other, the series which ran from 1986-1990 was delightfully unhinged, very funny, so full of color and a total flight of imagination. Aside from being a groundbreaking comedian, Reubens was a devoted son to his Jewish parents, and was also the master of elaborate happy birthday messages.
“Pee-wee is one of the greatest inventions in the history of comedy. I just wanted to say that while we have you,” Phil Rosenthal told the comedian back in 2022 in a delightful episode of “Somebody Feeds Phil.” I know many would agree.
The senator from California who passed away this year was a Jewish woman of many firsts. She paved the way for women in politics, and even for Jewish women in her private Catholic school. She was raised in an interfaith home, but chose to identify as Jewish.
“She chose to be Jewish,” her colleague Senator Barbara Boxer said in 2023. “That, to me, is extremely admirable. To go in that direction when you know … you’re going to face some prejudice for it.”
Feinstein was also deeply shaped by witnessing the death of her former colleague, city comptroller Harvey Milk. She was there during his shooting, and even recalled holding him, trying to stop the bleeding from the fatal bullet wound.
While her legacy remains complicated, especially that of her last moments in the senate, her historic achievements are irrefutable.
Jerry Springer, who passed away this year at age 79, was an example of someone with a complex legacy, full of good intention. Best known for pitting people against each other in his often heated talk show, he once admitted that he “ruined culture.” And yet he was also an inspiring, gifted politician, and someone who cared deeply for other people.
Springer was born in England as the child of Jewish refugees during WWII. At age 5, he came with his family to America. “Most of my family had been killed in the Holocaust in the camps in Germany and Austria during World War II,” he once recounted. Before he became the host of the “Jerry Springer Show,” he was the mayor of Cincinnati.
While many argue his show brought out the ugliness of everyday people, he made it clear that he never disrespected the subjects. “There’s never been a moment in the 25 years of doing this show that I ever thought I was better than the people who appear on our stage. I’m not better, only luckier,” Springer said on his show seven years before his passing. He was also extremely loved by his only daughter, Katie, and revealed that he went on “Dancing With the Stars” partly to be able to dance at her wedding.
“He’s great,” she said in their only TV interview together. “Anyone who judges him only based on his TV show… they shouldn’t. That’s not who he is.”
Norman Lear cared about showing the stories of anyone who was hated simply for being born a certain way. It was something he got passionate about at a young age, when he first heard an antisemitic pastor on the radio. A WWII veteran, he was best known for bringing us amazing shows that often centered strong women, like “Maude,” starring Bea Arthur. He was partly raised by an amazing Jewish woman, his Bubbe Lizzy, who taught him the beauty of Yiddish, humor, laughter and love.
He died surrounded by his loving family. His last Instagram post was about a musical collaboration he did with his grandson.
“One of the easiest, happiest, and most treasured decisions I ever made was to participate in this song with my glorious grandson Noah LaPook as he wrestles to make the right decisions in life. And he will, I know,” he wrote.