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Houdini, J.D. Salinger and Elvis: Your ideas for our list of Jews who made history


Harry Houdini and Bette Midler. Harvey Milk and Samuel Gompers. Isaac Mizrahi and Rosalyn Yalow. Those are just a few of the names readers said should have been on our list of American Jews who’ve made headlines and history since the Forward launched in 1897. 

When we set out to create the Forward 125 list, we knew it was something of a hopeless task: How to pick a single American Jew across religion, politics, culture and media to define each year of our history? We were already wrenched by the greats we knew we were leaving on the cutting-room floor, and we knew we’d also likely missed some who weren’t even on our radar.

So we invited you to tell us who we left out. Your suggestions have poured in by the dozen: entertainers and economists, activists and scientists, politicians and prize-winners — including lots and lots of love for author Saul Bellow, the Nobel laureate. 

You told us whom we should have canceled (Henry Kissinger [1971] was a “shanda,” said reader Jeremy Gerard), and you chided us for overlooking Julius Rosenwald, who turned Sears into the Amazon of its day and funded schools for Black communities in the Jim Crow era. Twitter user @NFWeinstein described Col. Alexander Vindman, as asignificant omission,” noting that his “courageous congressional testimony is sealed in my head and heart.” A Facebook user, meanwhile, would have liked to see Jon Stewart, Albert Sabin and Paul Newman. (Director Otto Preminger reportedly cast Newman as a Zionist rebel in Exodus because he wanted a star of Jewish descent “who didn’t look Jewish.”)

To those who wrote to criticize the omission of Golda Meir, Jonas Salk, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Ron Lauder — look again (years 1974, 1954, 1963, 1995). (For the record, Lauder is mentioned alongside his mother, Estée; after all, she’s the source of his wealth and influence.) To the readers who proposed including Meyer Lansky, Bernie Madoff, Michael Milken and Jeffrey Epstein, we agree they were influential, but decided for this list to generally avoid the notorious.

And Volodymyr Zelenskyy? Ineligible: This was a list of American Jews. Asser Levy, Isaac Touro and Judah Benjamin, also ineligible: They made their marks before our 1897 start.

But how about Elvis Presley, suggested by reader Amy Rosenbaum? His maternal great-great-grandma was a Jewish immigrant; he even put a Star of David on his mother’s tombstone. Of course we love The King as much as you do … but the reason we love him has nothing to do with his being a member of the tribe.

And finally, to Jonathan Schwartz, who proposed J.D. Salinger for inclusion, thanks for reminding us that the author of The Catcher in the Rye was a bar mitzvah boy and grandson of a Lithuanian rabbi.

Here is a selection of your responses, edited for brevity and clarity: 

Economists, inventors and an astronaut

Hedy Lamarr. She was not only a famous (and beautiful) actress but a WWII heroine who invented an electronic technique to fool the Nazis! She saved countless lives and her invention was developed further to create the cell phone technology we have today! 

—Ken Sponagle

I loved reading your list of influential American Jews, but you left out virtually the entire cadre of Jewish economists who defined current economic thinking and policymaking. Yes, you did mention Alan Greenspan. But there’s a long list of others, many from a single family, many of them Nobel Prize winners. Paul Samuelson literally wrote the book everyone else learned from. The current star of the family is his nephew Larry Summers. 

—Nancy Kimelman 

You missed a living person who is Jewish and has had an enormous impact on the modern world. His name is Martin Cooper. After receiving degrees in electrical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, he went to work for Motorola. Long story short, he is generally given the credit for the invention of the cellphone. 

—Ed Poncin

It would be great to see Judy Resnik, America’s first Jewish astronaut highlighted in either 1984 (her first mission, STS-41), or 1986 (unfortunately, she perished in the Challenger accident). My mother, who was Jewish, Judy Resnik, and I all grew up in Akron, Ohio; she’s still very much an icon in my hometown. 

—Patrick Costigan 

Sorry for the health scare … 

Well, I’m recovering from a heart attack and this nearly caused a recurrence. Kissinger is a shanda. Tony Kushner but not Saul Bellow? Abe Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb. Izzy Stone. Barney Frank? Or Rabbi Mike Robinson, who co-wrote “Why We Went” a letter signed by 16 rabbis after their arrest in 1964, explaining why they had joined arms with Martin Luther King Jr. Alfred Uhry, Pulitzer Prize-winner for Driving Miss Daisy. Eugene Borowitz, the outstanding philosopher of Reform Judaism and founder of the influential publication Sh’ma

—Jeremy Gerard

You missed Admiral Hyman Rickover, who came to the U.S. at age 5 in 1900. In spite of antisemitism in the Navy and the Naval Academy, he persisted, with the support of Congress and a few brave Naval officers, in producing his vision of the world’s first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus in 1956. We now have over 200 nuclear submarines patrolling the seas. Jimmy Carter described Rickover as the greatest engineer ever in this country

—Margaret Lurie

I find it extraordinary that Salo W. Baron of Columbia University is not on your list. Indeed it appears the academic study of Jewish life in higher education never happened, according to your list!

—Steven Kaplan

Excellent list, which included many who hadn’t occurred to me. Ones I would have considered include Walter Lippmann, Carl Bernstein, Norman Lear, Ben Hecht and Saul Bellow. I’ll keep thinking.

—Norman Pilche

Can’t we just make it the Forward 126?

Enjoyed the column tremendously. I’d make it the Forward 126 by adding Larry David.

—Steven Zweifler

If you’re including someone representing bagels, a far better choice than Lender is the Jewish inventor Daniel Thompson, who invented the first automated bagel-making machine. 

—Leslie O’Connell

Any list of greatest Americans of the last 125 years, let alone Jewish Americans, should include Sidney Hillman. A man who changed an industry and was one of the biggest supporters of the New Deal and was instrumental in the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Of all papers, how could the Forward omit him? 

—Louis Agre

Samuel Gompers transformed America. Abe Saperstein was probably the first to look for athletic talent in the Black community, even if what he created was a minstrel show. Rosalyn Yalow shared her Nobel Prize. While she worked in obscurity at a Veterans Administration lab, her work established radioimmunoassay as the means of measuring bodily chemicals that circulate in very small amounts but have major biological effects.

—Rich Plotzker

Let them entertain you … 

Elizabeth TaylorScarlett Johansson, Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman, Justice Arthur Goldberg, Henry Winkler all come to mind as those who should be added to the list.

—Susan B. Shulman 

Calvin Klein but no Isaac Mizrahi? A missed opportunity as your list skews incredibly Ashkenazi and not very Sephardic or Mizrahi. You did get Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo and Daniel Pearl, but missed out on Hank Azaria, Eydie Gorme, Murray Perahia and Neil Sedaka, just to name a few. 

—Sheila Pressman

Abba Hillel Silver: American rabbi who gave the address to the U.N. before the count to make Israel a state. Joel Grey, singer, actor, performer; Mickey Katz, klezmer jazz performer, band leader and singer of Yiddish songs and parodies; Milton Berle, beloved comic and host of the ‘50s.

—Nancy Levy

The American songbook writers beyond Gershwin and Berlin (Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, Arlen, Kern); Alexander Liberman, Conde Nast; Irving Penn; Commentary Magazine: Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz; David Dubinsky; Joseph Lieberman; Milton Friedman and Janet Yellen.

—Stephen E. Miron

Entertainers: Eddie Cantor, Sid Caesar, Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Al Jolson. Jolson, called “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” revolutionized the film industry with The Jazz Singer and pioneered the rights of African-American performers in the industry.

—Richard S. Marten

Fanny Brice and Barbra Streisand are included, but Bette Midler and Fran Drescher are not. Harumph!

—Andy Powell 

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