The Arty Semite

Growing Up Orthodox With Robin Williams

By Tova Ross

School was out on that wintry day around Thanksgiving of 1993, and my mother was charged with taking care of me, my siblings, and my best friend of that particular week. It was too cold to play outdoors, so my mother, car-less for the day, schlepped all of us on the B44 city bus to the Sheepshead Bay movie theatre to see some animated film. Only when we got to the theatre, it was sold out. The only other appropriate movie for the range of children my mother had assembled was something called “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

“PG-13?” my mother said doubtfully, and then sighed. “Oh well, we’re here already.”

You can guess what happened next. For those two hours I sat riveted with my eyes glued to the screen as a crazy, hysterical and frenetic man-child — Robin Williams — took nary a pause in a string of Victor-Victoria antics that left the entire audience in breathless laughter. Even when I wasn’t in on the joke — and I frequently wasn’t, at only 7.5 years old — I knew this actor was hilarious as sure as I knew the sky was blue. He also sounded vaguely familiar. “He sounds like the Genie from ‘Aladdin,’” my brother whispered suspiciously to me.

Whoever he was, I fell instantly in love with him. A budding young cinephile who had to use subterfuge to get my fix in a household where television and movies were strictly regulated, I had never seen someone onscreen come so vibrantly, wonderfully alive, or display such hyper-kinetic and fast-paced energy. That the film also offered me my first taste of more salacious jokes and themes that were absent in my diet of Disney and black-and-white classic films was an added bonus.

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Szymon Szurmiej, Jewish Actor and Polish Leader, Dies at 91

By JTA

Wikipedia

(JTA) — The Jewish actor and director Szymon Szurmiej, the longtime head of Poland’s State Jewish Theatre, has died.

Szurmiej, a leading Jewish figure for years during the post-Holocaust communist era, died Wednesday in Warsaw. He was 91.

He survived the widespread anti-Semitic purges of 1968 and, in addition to heading the theater since 1970, served as the longtime president of the Social and Cultural Association of Polish Jews, or TSKZ, a secular, state-allied body that was one of the few Jewish organizations permitted to operate under communism.

Szurmiej also served as a member of Poland’s Parliament in the 1980s and represented Polish Jewry in international Jewish organizations.

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Tommy Ramone, Jewish Punk Icon, Dies at 65

By Michael Kaminer

Getty Images

As Thomas Erdelyi, he was the Budapest-born son of Holocaust survivors who settled in Forest Hills, Queens.

But as Tommy Ramone, he became the leather-jacketed, rhythm-slashing backbone of The Ramones, arguably one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century.

Ramone, the last surviving original member of the band, died July 11 of bile duct cancer at his home in Ridgewood Queens. He was 65.

The Ramones first came together in 1974, at the height of California-rock flab and music-business excess.

Erdelyi, who had worked as a record producer beginning in his teens, was going to be the band’s manager and was helping audition drummers when the group was forming in 1974, according to the Washington Post.

When none of them could follow the Ramones’ style, he picked up the sticks himself, learned to play drums on the job, and became Tommy Ramone. He was also widely credited with creating the band’s signature look — leather jackets, huge mops of hair, and, for himself, omnipresent sunglasses.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman's Jewish Role

By Renee Ghert-Zand

I’ve been reading the many pieces remembering actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead at the age of 46 of an apparent drug overdose on Sunday morning. Everyone is praising him for his memorable performances in movies such as “Capote” (for which he won an Oscar in 2006), “Moneyball,” “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights,” and “The Master.” Some writers are even pointing out that many of his best performances were in really bad movies, like “Patch Adams” and “Along Came Polly.”

But no one seems to be recalling his title role in the award-winning 2009 Australian clay animation film, “Mary & Max.” Hoffman voiced Max (full name: Max Jerry Horowitz), a lonely, obese middle-aged Jewish man with Asperger Syndrome living in 1970s New York. He was raised Orthodox, but is now an atheist. He continues to wear his yarmulke, but only because it keeps his brain warm. Max has a penchant for chocolate hotdogs (his own recipe), playing the lottery and the Noblets, characters in an animated television show.

Max becomes pen pals with a little girl in Australia named Mary, who has troubles of her own. She, too, loves the Noblets and chocolate. The film, expertly done in all respects, chronicles the ups and downs of Mary and Max’s relationship over the years, as Mary grows older and Max grows fatter. It’s a brutally honest film, and it makes me cry every time I watch it.

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Pete Seeger and Me

By David Bromberg

To state the obvious, Pete was an iconic figure in the folk music movement in the United States. As were many, many of my colleagues, I was profoundly influenced by Pete’s music just as I started to really enjoy music. I first found him through the recording of The Weavers reunion concert at Carnegie Hall. It was a great record, and for me, Pete’s performance of “Wimoweh” was the highlight.

Pete inspired me to try to learn to play the banjo. Fortunately for the world, that didn’t take, but I did learn a lot of what I know about certain styles of guitar playing from a book on playing the guitar that bore Pete’s name, before it was revised and published with Jerry Silverman’s name in place of Pete’s. The first time that I saw Bob Dylan was at one of Pete’s concerts. Pete brought him out to sing, and gave him a great introduction. I don’t think that many people in the audience had heard of Bob Dylan before that moment.

Pete was also an iconic figure in American politics. He was an inspirational activist for many ideas that seemed somewhat successful, until just recently. I’m speaking of the cause of unions, and the cause of ending minority repression. Of course neither cause was ever totally successful, but we were doing a lot better a few years ago. Now there is no Pete Seeger to lead us.

I didn’t agree with all of Pete’s political convictions, but I found it incredible that people who swore to uphold our constitution tried to silence him. To say he was brave, strong, and a great musician is understatement in every respect. Pete built the house that he lived in, and he led (forgive me for bringing this in) a moral life. He was true to his convictions in every part of his life, as far as I, or anyone I know, could see. I believe that we may have just lost a just man.

Proverbs 20:7 The just man walketh in his integrity: his children are blessed after him.

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Poet Amiri Baraka Dies — Feuded With Jews

By JTA

Amiri Baraka, the New Jersey poet laureate whose works were celebrated by blacks but often condemned by Jews, has died.

Baraka’s writings, lectures and poetry brought him national renown beginning in the 1960s, and the one-time black nationalist was celebrated by many African Americans as a voice of the disenfranchised. He was a winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award. But Baraka, who died Thursday at age 79, also could be hateful.

Getty Images

In September 2002, not long after he was named the poet laureate of New Jersey, Baraka penned a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America” that suggested Israel knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks. He wrote, “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?”

The poem prompted called for Baraka’s dismissal as New Jersey’s poet laureate, including by then-governor James McGreevey. Baraka refused. After it became clear that there was no way to force him to resign, New Jersey’s legislature voted in 2003 to eliminate the position entirely.

Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, N.J., in 1934. He later attended Howard University, but was expelled from the historically black college he derided as “an employment agency” where “they teach you to pretend to be white,” according to The New York Times. After spending several years in the Air Force, Baraka moved to New York, joined the beatniks and began writing, publishing his first major book, “Blues People,” in 1963. He won acclaim the following year for his play “Dutchman,” about a white woman who stabs a black man to death aboard a subway train while the passengers sit idly by.

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Israel, and the World, Pays Tribute to Arik Einstein

By Renee Ghert-Zand

News of iconic Israeli singer-songwriter Arik Einstein’s sudden death November 26 at age 74 spread quickly throughout Israel and around the globe. Israelis and Jews the world over, including political leaders and famous artists, poured out their shock and grief, many saying that the iconic entertainer’s passing signaled the end of an era.

While he had not performed live for quite some time, Einstein maintained a special status in Israeli popular culture. Many believe that had he not come on the scene when and as he did, Israeli music would not have developed as it had. “Einstein was the harbinger of Hebrew rock n’ roll, the man who, with a small group of talented friends, absorbed the sounds of the Sixties and translated them into Israeli,” wrote Liel Leibovitz in Tablet.

“A part of Israel passed away on Tuesday night. A slice of its soul has departed. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, possibly millions, have lost a close personal friend, an intimate lifelong companion. A voice of Israel — the voice of Israel, for many – will sing no more,” wrote Chemi Shalev in Haaretz.

As preparations for Einstein’s funeral Wednesday afternoon at Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor cemetery were being made, news of his passing continued to lead Israeli news websites. Social media feeds were clogged with posts of personal reminiscences about the singer, as well as videos of his performances.

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Cheb i Sabbah, Algerian Jewish DJ, Dies at 66

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Cheb i Sabbah, a DJ, producer and composer known for combining Asian, Middle Eastern and African influences into his global electronica music, died November 6 at age of 66. The San Francisco-based Sabbah was born Haim Serge El Baz in Constantine, Algeria to a working-class Jewish family with some Berber ancestry.

Major music publications have published articles mourning Sabbah’s passing from stomach cancer and celebrating his artistic contributions. Billboard referred to him as “the Godfather of global house” in its memorial piece. The San Francisco Chronicle called him “a master of music and life.”

Sabbah, recognizable by his long hair and round Ghandi-style glasses, got his start in 1960s Paris, where he would spin American soul records. From there, he went on to New York, and finally on to San Francisco, settling there in 1984. In 1989, he assumed the “Cheb I Sabbah” moniker, which means “young of the morning” in North African Arabic. Friends called him Chebiji, adding the Hindu honorific to the first part of his name.

His debut album in 1994, “The Majoon Traveler” consisted of cut-up remixes of pieces by jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, jazz musician Ornette Coleman, and Velvet Underground drummer Angus Maclise with the poetry of Ira Cohen. (He had met Cherry in New York and was greatly influenced by him.)

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Chana Mlotek, Yiddish Folksong Scholar, Dies at 91

By Itzik Gottesman

Yiddish folksong expert, researcher and anthologist Chana Mlotek died on November 4 at age 91. Mlotek maintained a decades-long association with the Forverts and with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, where she was the institute’s music archivist.

Courtesy of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music

When I worked with Mlotek at YIVO, people would come to the archives and say, “I only remember one Yiddish song from my mother, and of that song I only remember one line. And, unfortunately, from that one line I only remember two or three words.” When visitors told her the two or three words, you couldn’t even be sure they were speaking Yiddish. But Mlotek, who was once dubbed the “Sherlock Holmes of Yiddish song,” always took the matter seriously, and almost always found what the person was looking for.

On many occasions I was also one of those inquirers, searching for obscure songs. And Mlotek often found copies of them, not in printed books, but in collections she had cultivated over many years.

Mlotek, together with Ruth Rubin, reestablished the field of Yiddish folksong research in America after the Holocaust. Before the war the field had been in bloom — the YIVO Ethnographic Commission collected more material than any other YIVO commission or department. The idea of collecting folklore inspired dozens of folklore circles and hundreds of collectors in cities and towns across Eastern Europe, starting from the founding of YIVO in 1925, until 1939.

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Mourning Lou Reed — the Man Who Taught Me To Be

By Sarah Seltzer

getty images

I first heard those eerie xylophone notes that open the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” when I was 14, sitting on the rug of my friend Mollie’s bedroom. A moment later, I heard Lou Reed’s voice for the first time, and everything changed.

That day, we were two Upper West Side Jewish girls who showed up to Hebrew school each week; only two years beforehand we’d been playing with paper dolls on the same rug. But at that moment we were self-styled rebels. The album gave us the chills and fit in perfectly with our other nascent explorations: the still-seedy shops on St. Marks Place, smoking cigarettes and eventually pot, and also, more crucially, the cruelty of adolescent and adult life — a darkness that I heard emitting from every note of that album. In its melancholy and relentless tracks, we heard the sonic reflection of a disordered world indifferent to our pain.

That deep identification explains why Reed’s death, at 71, feels so personal to so many. For me, embracing the Velvets was the beginning of giving up on the idea of fitting in (it’s a lifelong process, still ongoing). So I grabbed on to his music that day and never let go, because he demonstrated that being on the margins of acceptability was not only okay, but actually cool. I bought a baby tee emblazoned with his face and wore it regularly to school, so I could sneer at the kids who sneered at me — or more accurately, when I felt the urge to cower, I could let Lou’s mug do the sneering for me.

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Jewish Folklorist Dov Noy Dies at 92

By Itzik Gottesman

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

Courtesy of Elena Comens

When Dov Noy would lecture, often without notes, he would look upwards and seemingly draw his inspiration from the upper spheres. But Noy, who was expert in the folklore of numerous Jewish “tribes,” including Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Middle Eastern Jews, developed his profound knowledge from earthbound ethnography and research.

Noy contributed most significantly to the collection and analysis of Jewish folk literature, both written and oral. The Hebrew terms ba’al peh (oral) and biksav (written) are usually applied to the modes of transmission of the Torah. Noy’s extensive and successful efforts to record the oral folktales of the Jews resulted in a folk Torah, if you will, one that revealed the inner heart and soul of diasporic communities throughout the world.

Dov Noy (Neuman) was born in Kolomyia, Poland, in 1920 and died on September 29, less than a month short of his 93rd birthday. He immigrated to Palestine in 1939, studied at Hebrew University, and began teaching Jewish folk literature in 1955. For his dissertation, which he received from Indiana University, he created a motif-index of talmudic-midrashic tales which was soon incorporated into Stith Thompson’s six-volume motif-index of the world’s folk literature, greatly raising the status of Jewish folklore in the field.

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'Music Man Murray' Gershenz Dies at 91

By Renee Ghert-Zand

If you saw Richard Parks’ 2011 documentary short, “Music Man Murray,” then you’ll know that Murray Gershenz was looking for a long time to sell his famous used record business (also called Music Man Murray) and its collection of more than 300,000 records.

Gershenz, who opened his landmark store on Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Boulevard in 1962, did finally manage to find a buyer. This past June, four tractor-trailers showed up and hauled away the records to New York, where Gershenz was born in 1922.

Believing that his beloved collection was in good hands and would be kept together, Gershenz passed away just a couple of months later. The New York Times reported that he died at the age of 91 on August 28, leaving behind two sons, a daughter, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren — and, of course, countless customers who appreciated his vast knowledge and extreme love of music of all genres. His wife Bobette Cohen Gershenz, who encouraged him to open the store and worked in it alongside her husband, died in 1999.

Those who did not turn to Gershenz in search of some rare vinyl might have instead seen him on television or in a movie. In addition to being a music maven, Gershenz was also a sought-after character actor. His credits included “Will & Grace,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Sarah Silverman Show” and “The Hangover.”

Apparently, acting came as naturally to him as his lifelong love of music. “He was just saying the lines as if it was him. Murray was the character. He didn’t have to act,” said Corey Allen Kotler, his manager.

Just watch “Music Man Murray” to see for yourself:

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Beatles Promoter Sid Bernstein Dies at 95

By Reuters

Getty Images

Music promoter Sid Bernstein, who worked with legends from Judy Garland to Jimi Hendrix and orchestrated the Beatles’ historic concert in New York’s Shea Stadium in 1965, died on Wednesday aged 95.

Bernstein, an agent and manager who according to his friend, publicist Merle Frimark, died in New York, worked with some of the biggest names in show business, including Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones and Ray Charles.

But it was through his concept of staging concerts at stadiums, and his help launching the so-called British invasion by first bringing the Beatles to the United States, that he made his biggest mark.

Bernstein once said of managing the Beatles that he had to convince Carnegie Hall and his financial backers to take a chance on “this then-unknown group” after he became “fascinated with the hysteria that surrounded them.”

Other top acts Bernstein worked with over the years included Tito Puente, Fats Domino and Tony Bennett.

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Remembering Gary David Goldberg

By Curt Schleier

Gary David Goldberg died June 23 after a long battle with brain cancer. Now the world is short a talented television writer, and also a mensch.

I met Goldberg in the fall of 1996, at a rehearsal for his new TV show, “Spin City.” I was a reporter and he was a legend. The deal with the ABC PR person was that I could watch the rehearsal from the studio seats, and I might be able to meet Goldberg — briefly — if there was a break. The interview was scheduled to take place on the phone the following day.

There was a break in the rehearsal, and a nervous publicist took me to meet him. She clearly wanted to get me away and back into my seat as quickly as possible. But Goldberg had a different idea. We chatted for 10 or 15 minutes. He took me over to meet the show’s star, Michael J. Fox, who, as I recall, was having a cigarette under a No Smoking sign.

Fox joined the conversation, spending most of that time praising his boss. In fact, he said, he wouldn’t have returned to the grind of series television for anyone else.

When they had to get back to work, Goldberg said “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

See me? We were supposed to do a telephone interview. They told me in-person was impossible.

They’re just being overprotective, Goldberg said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

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James Gandolfini's Israeli Ad

By Forward Staff

In the outpouring of obituaries and appreciations of actor James Gandolfini, who died yesterday at age 51, there’s been a tendency to confuse the man with his most famous character, Tony Soprano. That’s a pretty obvious mistake — an actor isn’t the same as the role he plays — but it’s also kind of understandable. When Jason Alexander eventually goes (not that it should happen anytime soon), I’m pretty sure we’ll all be talking about George Costanza.

And, truth be told, Gandolfini didn’t seem to mind putting on the Soprano act, even in a not-strictly “Sopranos” context. Here, for example, he appears basically as Tony Soprano, in an ad for the Israeli satellite channel YES. So here’s to you, James Gandolfini.

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Israeli Author Yoram Kaniuk Dies at 83

By Haaretz

Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk died after a long battle with cancer yesterday at Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv. The renowned writer was 83.

Daniel Tchetchik

Kaniuk was born in Tel Aviv on May 2, 1930. The list of people associated with his early childhood reads like a who’s who of the early days of Tel Aviv’s cultural life and society. His father, Moshe Kaniuk, was the personal secretary of Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and became the first curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. His godfather was the poet Haim Nahman Bialik; his kindergarten teacher was the wife of pioneer and poet Joseph Haim Brenner; his school doctor was the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky.

In his youth, he was a member of the prestate Jewish underground Palmach, and was part of the Palyam − the Palmach’s naval force. He fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, a time of his life that provided much inspiration for his later work.

Read more at Haaretz.com

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Forverts Columnist Tsirl Steingart Dies at 97

By Itzik Gottesman

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here. Translated by Ezra Glinter.

On May 18 writer, activist and longtime Forverts columnist Tsirl Steingart died in a car accident in Palm Beach, Florida. She was 97 years old.

Steingart was born March 11, 1916 in Bialystok, where she was an active participant in the Bundist children’s organization Sotsyalistishe Kinder Farband, or S.K.I.F.

In 1938 Steingart emigrated to France, where she helped found a local S.K.I.F. branch. During the Second World War she was a member of the French Resistance, helping to rescue children from Vichy and German authorities.

Following the War, in 1951, Steingart left Europe for Montreal. There she served as principal of the Avrom Reisen School before moving to New York in 1960.

Steingart began writing for the Forverts in 1964, and became a regular contributor in 1967. She edited a section titled “Eat in Good Health” under the pen name Nina Blum, and for many years authored a column about fashion.

Steingart also wrote widely about social issues, and was a pioneering journalist in the Yiddish press on subjects affecting women.

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Artist Channa Horwitz Dies at 80

By Ann McCoy

Courtesy Francois Ghebaly

In 1969 artist Channa Horwitz got an insulting review titled “Valley Housewife Makes Pretty Drawings” for a complex show that would make history today. She was the only woman in the Art and Technology Exhibition at the Los Angles County Museum in 1971, but was confined to the catalog and not allowed to realize her piece in the exhibition. This set off a furor in the feminist community that helped fuel the movement in Los Angeles.

Horwitz died April 29 at age 80, and is going out with laurels. Her work is being featured in this summer’s Venice Biennale. She just won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she has a show up at the Francois Ghebaly Gallery, in Los Angeles. For a woman who worked in relative isolation with no support from the art world until she was in her 70s, it is a considerable achievement.

Over her long career, Horwitz worked primarily with drawings, creating a complex body of works on paper, including her iconic “Sonakinatography” (1968-2004) series. Using a system based on eight numbers associated with eight colors, the works reinterpret the traditional minimalist grid with a sensual twist, featuring meticulous hand drawings of complex geometric patterns with alternating colors and symbols on graph-ruled Mylar.

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Children's Author E.L. Konigsberg Dies at 83

By Renee Ghert-Zand

E.L. Konigsburg, the author of more than 20 beloved children’s books, died April 19 at 83. She was a two-time winner of the Newberry Medal, and the only author to receive the Newberry Medal and the Newberry Honor in the same year.

Her best-known book, “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,”published in 1967, has become a classic. School Library Journal named it one of the “Top 100 Chapter Books” of all time. It tells the fictional story of 12-year-old Claudia Kincaid (many of Konigsburg’s protagonists are 12-years-old, “Because it is at that age that the serious question of childhood is asking for an answer,” she once said), who runs away from home with her younger brother in tow. The two set up housekeeping at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and engage in a mystery having to do with an angel sculpture, possibly made by Michelangelo, purchased at auction from one reclusive Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Among Konigsburg’s other works is “About the B’nai Bagels” published in 1969, and like “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” illustrated by the author. The protagonist of this book is Mark Setzer, a boy preparing for his bar mitzvah whose life is complicated by his mother’s becoming his Little League baseball team’s manager.

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Actress Bonnie Franklin Dies at 69

By Reuters

Actress Bonnie Franklin, best known as a single working mother in the hit CBS comedy “One Day at a Time” in an era when U.S. television was redefining families in pop culture, died March 1 at age 69.

Getty Images

She died at her Los Angeles home of complications from pancreatic cancer, surrounded by relatives and friends, according to a statement issued by the CBS network on behalf of her family.

Franklin, a petite redhead, had acted on Broadway before being cast as the harried divorcee Ann Romano in “One Day at a Time,” which debuted in December 1975 and ran for nine seasons on CBS. It co-starred Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips as her two head-strong daughters.

Franklin’s performance on the series garnered her an Emmy nomination in 1982. She previously earned a Theatre World Award and a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut work in the 1970 musical “Applause,” in which she sang the title song.

During a career spanning six decades, she starred in more than 30 television series and made-for-TV movies while continuing her work in live theater. But she was best remembered for her work on the Norman Lear-produced sitcom “One Day at a Time.”

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