From Samson to Judah Maccabee, Ze’ev Jabotinsky to Hanna Senesh, there is a valiant history of tough and brave Jews who have had their impact on the world. While the perception of Jews has not always been that of a “tough” people, it is important that the world sees tough Jews. I help build brands and create personas for a living and as a proud Jew and Zionist, as we approach two important Jewish holidays – Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom HaZikaron, (Israel’s Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers) – I offer this list in tribute.
The Top 10 Living Tough Jews list is not only about brute physical strength, it is about a people who are smart, strong, resilient, rugged, bold and fearless. This is a reflection of good, tough Jews who are positive representations of the Jewish people (no gangsters here). Don’t let a yarmulke fool you.
In no particular order here’s my List of the Top 10 Living Tough Jews.
Israel Defense Forces: The Jewish army composes some of the toughest (and holiest) Jews one can imagine. They protect the people of Israel against tremendous odds, and with Israel’s survival threatened daily, these Jews are consummate warriors, fighting not only for a country but for an ideal.
Elie Wiesel & all of the Holocaust survivors: Elie Wiesel and all of the Holocaust survivors who survived the tremendous inhumanity of the Nazis are tough beyond comprehension. Wiesel said: “I have tried to keep memory alive. I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are all accomplices.” The Holocaust survivors all lost so much and fight on every single day in life. Few can imagine how much toughness and inner strength that takes.
Yitzchak Shamir: Israel’s founding father, Shamir served as Prime Minister of Israel in 1983–84 and 1986–92. Before Israel became a state he served in the heroic underground, and then in the Mossad (Israel’s secret service). Shamir is a man with an amazing legacy – elegant, strong and determined, this tough man devoted his whole life to building the land and people of Israel. Shamir, whose name means “hard stone,” always said “I would like to be remembered as a person who loved Eretz Israel and never ever gave up an inch.”
Liev Schreiber: Defiance is one of the greatest Jewish movies ever and has the ability to make any tough guy cry. Schreiber’s character in the movie, Zus Bielski, is a real life tough Jew. (Bielski is one of three Jewish warrior brothers who fought the Nazis). As Schreiber says, “this was a remarkable story — a triumphant story. It sets out to redefine the Jewish image — that of fighter. We all know tough Jews like that. My own grandfather was incredibly tough and athletic and was the main male role model in my life.” For his portrayal and his own pride in his heritage Schreiber makes the list.
Sandy Koufax: Perhaps the greatest known Jewish athlete ever, Koufax was a legendary pitcher – the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 at the age of 36. Skilled and determined on the mound, he had tremendous inner strength to sit out Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. As legendary Dodgers scout Al Campanis said, “There are two times in my life the hair on my arms has stood up: The first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the first time I saw Sandy Koufax throw a fastball.”
Sam Zell: This business magnate may be the most hated man in the newspaper business and he’s one damn tough Jew. “I’m an immigrant’s kid. I have a very different perspective on the world than somebody who grew up in Chicago and led what I would call a normal life,” he said. Zell was raised in an Orthodox household and is a supporter of Israel, and says no matter where he travels: “In no way, shape, or form do I hide the fact that I believe in Israel—open kimono!” he declared. “There’s this Yiddish term, derech ertez, and it means respect. My father and mother, particularly my father, brought us up with the premise that respect was non-negotiable. Love was optional. I’m not saying this in a bad way. It was: ‘I want you to love me, but you have to respect me;” A great lesson for all of the Jewish people.
Natan Sharansky, Avital Sharansky, Ida Nudel and the former Russian Prisoners of Zion: The first political prisoner released under the old Soviet regime was Natan Sharansky, who was jailed for 13 years on false charges of treason. When he was sentenced he showed great courage, saying: “One would think I would be sorry, but I am not. I am happy because I have lived at peace with my conscience… I am happy that I helped people… I am happy to have witnessed the process of liberating Soviet Jewry. For more than 2,000 years, my people have been dispersed. Wherever Jews were, they would repeat every year, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ At present. I am as far as ever from my people … and many hard years … are in store for me. To my wife and my people, I can only say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem’.” This resiliency stayed with him throughout his many hard years in Soviet prisons while his wife tirelessly campaigned worldwide for him. These unstoppable dissidents were active and determined to free the Jews of Russia. Ida Nudel is a brave tough Jewish activist who was called the “Guardian Angel” for her efforts to help the “Prisoners of Zion”, many of whom called her “Mama” and “angel of mercy”. Today, these Jews who weren’t allowed to leave the Soviet Union are the crème de-la crème of the Jewish people worldwide.
Sheldon Adelson: Among the richest Jews in the world, Adelson is famously resilient, stubborn and focused on winning. The son of Jewish immigrants, Adelson grew up lower-class, dropped out of the City College of New York and has since built one of the largest casino empires in the world. As a Jewish man he is the quintessential tough Jew who says his primary personal driving force is the survival of the United States and Israel in the face of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Benjamin (Ben) Brafman: The legendary criminal defense attorney whose grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz is the very epitome of a tough Jew. A proud Orthodox Jew, Brafman grew up on the mean streets of Crown Heights, and he came home with bruised knuckles almost every day. “Trouble would find you without you looking for it,” he has said. Brafman is the man you want in your corner during a street fight or battle of any sort – “a tough son of a bitch.” The man put himself through Brooklyn College night school and then Ohio Northern University Law School and is now the most well respected criminal defense attorney in the world. He also happens to be tremendously passionate about Jewish causes.
All of the Jews of Israel (especially Judea & Samaria): Living in Israel, a tough country in a tough neighborhood, makes one a tough and resilient person. Building the center of Jewish life in the center of the Jewish world has been the greatest challenge facing the Jewish people throughout history; Israelis are some of the toughest Jews.
- Chabad Emissaries worldwide (can you imagine giving everyone who comes calling an invite to your home?
- Jonathan Pollard (25 years in jail)
- Dr. Irving Moskowitz (ensures a united, undivided Jerusalem despite worldwide pressure)
- Jewish athletes like Yuri Foreman, Mark Spitz and Omri Caspi
- Rabbi Avi Weiss (has protested anti-Semites worldwide to great physical danger)
- Prime Minister Netanyahu (former elite Israeli soldier)
- The mothers and fathers who raise families (including my mother Penny Waga) and individuals to channel their skills into making life better for others.
In the Torah, as Moses hands over the mantle to his successor he says two short yet inspiring words to this future leader, in Hebrew Chazak Ve-ematz – Be strong and have Courage.
“Be strong” and “have courage” are the best words for any Jew to hear.
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