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20 Jewish celebrities who died in 2023


(JTA) — Jewish communal mourning was defined in large part this year by Oct. 7. But other notable losses occurred throughout the year, of people who have left outsized legacies on politics, the arts, sports and everything in between.

(Getty Images; Collage by Grace Yagel)

In chronological order, here is a selection of obituaries of 20 of the most famous Jews who died in 2023.

Dick Savitt

Savitt became the first Jewish tennis player to win both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, in 1951. He also became the first Jewish athlete to appear on the cover of Time magazine, at a time when his Jewishness was looked down on by many in the blue blood sport. He died on Jan. 6 at 95.

Burt Bacharach

The legendary singer and songwriter — behind hits as big as “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” — came from a secular New York family and didn’t talk much about his Jewish identity. But Bacharach was seen as a Jewish icon by many in the industry. In the words of avant-garde pioneer John Zorn, he was “one of the great geniuses of American popular music — and he’s a Jew.” He died on Feb. 9 at 94.

Richard Belzer

The comic actor’s career didn’t hit its stride until he was about 50, when he started his long-running role as detective John Munch — a character thought to be Jewish who became one of the most well-known on TV, in both “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993–1999) and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (1999-2013). Obituaries largely omitted the fact that he was Jewish — and Jewish fans took notice. He died on Feb. 20 at 78.

Judy Heumann

The “mother of the disability rights movement” spent decades fighting discrimination and bias from the local to the federal level, eventually advising the State Department. Much of her activism, Heumann said, was inspired by her parents’ experiences fleeing Nazi Germany and her drive to pursue tikkun olam. She died on March 4 at age 75.

Chaim Topol

What are the most iconic Jewish film performances of the 20th century? Topol’s star turn as Tevye in the film adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof” ranks among the top of that list. The Israeli first played the role on stage in London after fighting for his country in the 1967 Six-Day War, giving the character a Zionist-tinged masculinity that remains the story’s best-known performance. He died on March 9 at age 87.

Margot Strom Stern

While growing up in 1950s Tennessee, Margot Strom Stern recalled that “bad history” — including racism, antisemitism, parts of the Civil War and the Holocaust — was left out of schools. Her pioneering Facing History & Ourselves curriculum helped bring Holocaust history into classrooms for the first time in a structured, comprehensive way, in all 50 states and 100 countries around the world. She died on March 28 at 81.

Hedda Kleinfeld Schachter

Before the popular TLC series “Say Yes to the Dress” brought the Kleinfeld Bridal brand to the attention of more than 1.5 million households across the United States every week, a Holocaust survivor named Hedda Kleinfeld revolutionized the bridal industry, bringing it to life with European designer gowns. She died on March 29 at 99.

Seymour Stein

The Talking Heads, Madonna, The Cure, Aphex Twin, Ice-T — those are just a few of the pioneering acts that the record executive Seymour Stein helped propel to fame. The Sire Records founder frequently mentioned his Jewish Brooklyn roots, writing in his memoir that he found camaraderie with fellow Jews in the industry, like Lou Reed. He died on April 2 at 80.

Mimi Sheraton

The first woman to serve as The New York Times’ chief food critic wrote over a dozen books, including a classic history of an iconic Jewish food: “The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World.” She also wrote about her own Jewish upbringing and her observations on the evolution of Jewish cuisines over the second half of the 20th century. She died on April 6 at 97.

Jerry Springer

Before hosting the most popular tabloid-inspired talk show in the country, Jerry Springer had a promising political career, serving as mayor of Cincinnati in 1977. Much of his family did not survive the Holocaust, but his German parents escaped to London, where he was born in a tube station in 1944. He died on April 27 at 79.

Sheldon Harnick

While Topol was the public face of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Sheldon Harnick was the lyricist behind the scenes of the show’s legendary songs. “We hoped with any luck that it might run a year,” Harnick said in 1981. “We were totally unprepared for the impact the show would have literally around the world.” He died on June 23 at 99.

Alan Arkin

The son of Ukrainian and German Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn knew he would be a movie star at age 5. Over a nearly seven-decade career, Alan Arkin imbued comic roles with pathos and serious roles with a touch of sardonic humor. He died on June 29 at 89.

Paul Reubens

The man behind Pee-wee Herman, one of the most bizarre and iconic on-screen characters of the 20th century, had a father who flew key missions as a pilot in Israel’s war of independence. At the height of his fame in 1987, Paul Reubens acknowledged that his act built on the Jewish comedians who came before him, including vaudevillian Eddie Cantor. He died on July 31 at 70.

Nechama Tec

As a member of one of only three Jewish families from Lublin, Poland, to survive the Holocaust intact from a prewar population of some 40,000, Nehama Tec became a historian whose book about a group of partisan Jews in Belarus who successfully defied the Nazis was made into the 2008 blockbuster film “Defiance.” She died on Aug. 3 at 92.

Phil Sherman

Cantor Philip Sherman’s biggest audience might have been for his part as a judge on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” But his most prominent role was as one of New York’s most in-demand mohels, performing, by his own estimate, more than 26,000 circumcisions during his 45-year career. He died on Aug. 9 at 67.

Dianne Feinstein

For decades before she was scrutinized for remaining in the Senate despite clearly diminished health, Dianne Feinstein was a Jewish trailblazer. She championed gun control as mayor of San Francisco in the wake of Harvey Milk’s murder and later became a women’s rights leader as the longest-serving Jewish senator from California. She died on Sept. 23 at 90.

Louise Glück

The acclaimed poet won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2020 for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” Louise Glück didn’t talk much about her Jewish roots, but she turned to the Bible for occasional inspiration; one critic wrote that her Jewishness was “bound up with how she interprets canons both secular and sacred.” She died on Oct. 13 at 80.

Ady Barkan

Ady Barkan, an Israeli-American lawyer and child of two Jewish academics in Boston, became one of the country’s most visible progressive activists for single-payer health care shortly after being diagnosed with ALS in 2016. His name was invoked in a Democratic presidential debate in 2019, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren cited his personal story as an example of the shortfalls of private insurance. He died on Nov. 1 at 39.

Henry Kissinger

One of the most prominent secretaries of state of all time was reviled by just as many who worshiped his influential policy legacy. Henry Kissinger once said his Jewishness had “no significance” for him, but that part of his identity would play a part in his relationships with leaders ranging from Richard Nixon to Golda Meir. He died on Nov. 29 at age 100.

Norman Lear

The sitcom king — whose shows included “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Sons” and “The Jeffersons” — had as decorated a resume as any TV producer. But Norman Lear’s work is now also remembered as pioneering social commentary, inspired in part by the antisemitism he experienced as a child. He died on Dec. 5 at 101.

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