From Aharon Steinman to Zsa Zsa Gabor

10 inspiring Jews who died in 2017

Remembering those members of the tribe who accomplished great things in the arts, comedy, politics and leadership

(JTA collage)
(JTA collage)

JTA — It’s always difficult to whittle down the list of influential Jews who died in a given year, but this year the task seemed to be especially tough. From a pioneering LGBTQ activist to a pair of legendary comedians to a 104-year-old Haredi Orthodox rabbi, here are some of the Jews we lost in 2017 who left deep marks on their fields.

Sara Ehrman, 98

Sara Ehrman, 2016 (Screenshot: The New York Times via JTA)

The longtime Democratic Party activist, adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and friend of the Clintons, described herself as “first a Jew, second a Democrat and above all a feminist.” Sara Ehrman may be most famous for advising Hillary Clinton not to move to Arkansas to marry Bill — though she also worked on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign and later advised President Clinton on Israel-Arab peacemaking. In addition, she helped organize Bill Clinton’s first trip as president to Israel, served as AIPAC’s political director and later worked with Americans for Peace Now. She died in June, more than 50 years after her entree into politics.

Zsa Zsa Gabor, 99

Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor lounges on a sofa in a ruched evening gown, 1952. (Nixon/Express/Getty Images/JTA)

Though this legendary Hollywood socialite and sex symbol was buried in a Catholic cemetery, she had deep Jewish roots. Born to Hungarian Jewish parents in Budapest, Sari Gabor (her real name) was married nine times and appeared in films such “Moulin Rouge” and “Lovely to Look At.”

Her love life was a tumultuous public affair, and she has been called the first celebrity to be famous for being famous. Zsa Zsa Gabor died in February, less than two months from her 100th birthday.

Monty Hall, 96

Monty Hall, 1977 (Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via JTA)

This TV icon, born Monte Halparin to Orthodox parents in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, cocreated the game show “Let’s Make a Deal” and hosted it for nearly 25 years, starting in the 60s. Before becoming a radio producer in the 50s, Hall wanted to become a doctor — but he could not get in to medical schools due to the Jewish quotas common at the time, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He had a heart attack when his wife died in June and passed away in October.

Vera Katz, 84

Vera Katz (Screenshot: YouTube via JTA)

Over the course of the 90s and the 00s, Portland, Oregon, transformed from a boring port town into a dynamic symbol of hipster liberalism (or, to some sketch comedy fans, “Portlandia”). During that time, specifically from 1993 to 2005, the Pacific Northwest city had a three-term Jewish mayor: Vera Katz, who grew up in New York City as a poor Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Before leading the city’s eco-friendly revamp, Katz, born Vera Pistrak in Dusseldorf, was a trailblazing politician in her adopted state: She was the first female speaker of the Oregon House, created the state legislature’s first women’s caucus and oversaw a reform of the state’s education system. Katz succumbed to leukemia, her third bout with cancer since 2000, in December.

Jerry Lewis, 91

Jerry Lewis, 1971 (Evening Standard/Getty Images/JTA)

Don’t let the funnyman’s stage name fool you: Jerry Lewis was born Joseph Levitch to parents who performed on the Borscht Belt hotel circuit. Lewis, who died of cardiac disease in August, rose to prominence as part of a duo with Dean Martin, with whom he made over a dozen wacky comedy films from 1949 to 1956. He would go on to star in dozens of other films, including “The Nutty Professor” (yes, the original one, well before Eddie Murphy’s 1996 remake) and Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”

Don Rickles, 90

Comedian Don Rickles at Book Soup in West Hollywood, May 31, 2007. (Mark Mainz/Getty Images/JTA)

The well-known comic nicknamed “Mr. Warmth,” who loved to hurl insults at his audience members, was also a serious actor trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He appeared in countless TV shows, performed standup into his 80s and acted alongside legends such as Clark Gable and Clint Eastwood on the silver screen.

Younger audiences know him as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” series. He died in April from kidney failure.

Aharon Leib Shteinman, 104

Prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, November 14, 2012 (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Rabbi Shteinman’s stature in the Haredi (but non-Hasidic) world is legendary: witness the hundreds of thousands of mourners who came to his funeral in Israel earlier this month. The rabbi, who held few public positions, wrote dozens of books and lived modestly in the heavily Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, was considered the “gadol hador,” or great sage of his generation, among the Haredi Lithuanian-rooted community. “With the death of Rabbi Shteinman, the Jewish people lost a central beacon of spirit, heritage and morality,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement following the announcement of his death.

Simone Veil, 89

French lawyer and politician Simone Veil outside the Elysee Palace in Paris, November 13, 1974 (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/JTA)

Fewer than 70 people have been awarded France’s Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor — Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor who became a pillar of French politics, was one of them.

After making it out of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, Veil became a lawyer and served as France’s minister of health and later as president of the European Parliament. She also was one of the few female members of the prestigious French Academie Francaise and spearheaded the legalization of abortion in France in the 1970s. Veil died in June, less than a month from her 90th birthday.

Otto Warmbier, 22

Otto Warmbier arriving at a court for his trial in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2015. (Xinhua/Lu Rui via Getty Images/JTA)

After being held in North Korea for more than 17 months for allegedly tearing down a propaganda poster during a student tour, Otto Warmbier was released, comatose, in June. He did not survive the injuries — Warmbier died a week after being returned to the United States.

JTA reported that he was an active member at the University of Virginia Hillel, but North Korea’s narrative said that Warmbier stole the poster for an American church. So his Jewish identity was kept under wraps so as not to embarrass North Korea during negotiations for the release of the student — “if that’s what their story is, there’s no point fighting it if your objective is to get him out,” the family spokesperson explained — who had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

Edith Windsor, 88

Edith Windsor speaks during The Trevor Project TrevorLIVE in New York City, June 19, 2017. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for The Trevor Project via JTA)

In 2009, Edith Windsor was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, even though her marriage was recognized as legal by the state of New York, where they lived. She took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2013 that the federal government must abide by states’ rules in dealing with same-sex couples. That case paved the way for the court ruling, two years later, that removed all barriers to equal marriage rights nationwide. Windsor had already been an LGBTQ activist for decades and she was a prominent supporter of the Israeli advocacy group A Wider Bridge. Windsor was very active in Jewish circles, and was a longtime member of New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which was founded to serve the LGBTQ community. She died in September.

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