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April 17, 2012 2:03 pm

The Top 10 Toughest Living Jews

avatar by Ronn Torossian

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Actor Liev Schreiber at 2010 Comic-Con International. Photo: wiki commons.

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.

IDF Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gant in the Golan Heights with the Python battalion during part of a Paratrooper's Brigade's exercise. Photo: wiki commons.

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.”

Tough man.

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.

President Ronald Reagan meets with Soviet prisoner Natan Sharansky in the Oval Office. Photo: wiki commons

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.

Defense attorney Benjamin Brafman (right) with NFL wide receiver Plaxico Burress. Photo: Business Insider.

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.

Honorable mentions:

  • 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.

Ronn Torossian is the CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR Agency and a Jewish philanthropist who formerly served as President of Betar, founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

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  • Steven Riess

    The list is incomplete and misleading. No mention of heroes in the Bible. What about the partisans in WW II like the Bielski brothers in Belarus. What about prize fighters like Barney Ross?
    And, of course, Jewish mobsters like Bugsy Siegel.

  • Drepants

    Ron Mix: Number 74 Hall Of Fame Offensive Tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers. 9 out of the 11 years in Pro Football he was on the AFL All-Star Team mostly passively pass-blocking for the all out aerial attack of his Coach Coryell. He was also an early practitioner of weightlifting as part of his football training.

  • stephen

    Yes – definitely need tough jews to murder women and children in gaza!

    • Michael Wayne Jones

      Try to pay attention to the facts if you want to participate at the grown-up table.

  • Richard Rehd

    Tough Jews are needed for all of the people of the world. Decent strong tough Jews to do the right thing. Am Israel Chai. Great article yasher koach.

  • Chaim Silbers

    Wonderful list by Ronn Torossian we appreciate and enjoy this. Shabbat Shalom.

  • Richie Ak

    Arik Sharon ? Dershowitz ? Tough jews for sure.

  • M Weibon

    I thought Salita should be mentioned here. I remember reading about him 10 years age. He is the first religions boxer ever! He spoke at my sons Yeshivah several years ago. His story was very inspiring and the kids loved him.
    He lost to Khan but did so walking into the arena full of arabs with an Israeli flag. That’s a hero in my book.

  • Eric

    How could you omit:

    Menachem Begin – He survived the Polish anti-semitism, the Nazis, the Gulag, the British price on his head and the hate of the left in Israel. He made peace with Egypt, destroyed Saddam’s nuclear reactor, walked to Sadat’s funeral in Egypt’s heat on Shabbos and invaded Lebanon.

    Edward Teller – He had to leave Hungary because of the increase in anti-Semitism after the short-lived communist coup under Bela Kun and Germany after the rise of the Nazis. He contributed to the development of the first atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project and invented the hydrogen bomb. The US may have lost the Cold War if the Soviets had developed the H-bomb first.

    • Rich A.

      Begin and Teller are dead. This is a list of living tough jews by Ronn Torossian – Ze’ev Jabotinsky Irving Moskowitz – right wing jews.

  • Richard A.

    Where is Ariel Sharon – wow. How can Kirk Douglas not be here ? Ronn Torossian: Why these missing people on the list of tough Jews. Great list tho.

  • Josh Burgman

    Surprised you left out Dmitriy Salita, I saw his movie and have been following him for a long time. He has been representing Jewish values proudly and powerfully for a long time.

  • Buddy Macy


    Re: Sandy Koufax, my early childhood idol: You neglected to mention Sandy’s courageous, vocal stand – along with Hall of Fame pitcher, Don Drysdale – against Major League Baseball’s monopolistic abuse of its talented labor.

    Re: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: I am sure that Bibi is facing extreme pressure from the Obama Administration regarding the suicidal two-state “solution” and about destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. However, I do not associate “toughness” with the act of caving in to one’s fantasy-based Defense Minister (Ehud Barak) in agreeing to the destruction of an entire community and to the expulsion of all of its 300 Jewish residents. The destruction of Migron is scheduled for August 1, 2012.) (Please copy and paste this link into your browser and sign the petition! - Thank you! Buddy

  • PJ Beane

    I would add Kirk Douglas to your list. Formerly known as Issur Danielovitch, this man is not just an actor but, at 95 years young, he served in the US Navy shortly afer the US entered WWII, overcame a stroke in his former years leaving him a battle to regain his speech and is a philanthropist, nationally and internationally.

  • Braham Finestone

    Why do all Jews criticise each other so much… were all warriors men and women… in different ways. As for all emissaries from Chabad – that is a wide over generalisation – so subjective it deems unworthy of further comment. Anyway if you could afford $150 for a Ramada- why expect a freebie@chabad.
    In my experience Chabad heps and helps people who are prepared to be true to Torah and want to learn or relearn.. as well as take hospitality guests participate and then make offerings or do what is fair…… Again i cant be more objective…
    As for the list – it is very durable… the list is never ending.. why complain.

  • ruth cohen

    now on the next list of jews who live in israel lets list those here today who are doing huge efforts to save this land from our useless leadership

    nadia matar of women in green, daniella weiss – the celery lady from gush katif, shifra hoffman – victims of arab terror

    that is just to begin with. we dont want politicians listed on a list of great jews. thanks but no thanks. bibi is destroying homes of jews using his battering rod the almighty barak to do his bidding.

    no this is not acceptable. the true fighters the true heros who live here despite all the corruption and keep on building the land.

    hilltop youth, our brave young boys and girls these are our heros.the families thrown out of their homes in hebron, settlements, and many more places are going to be jew free if this lousy leadership gets its way, to give the land to the arab enemy.

    rewrite your list actually,make it relevant to us. not to what you think – we are not dazzled and razzled by politicians,rich guys and famous people. its the simple jew who lives in this land who keeps this land holy.

  • Richard Glicks

    Irving Moskowitz absolutely should be number 1 on this list but how come the Jews of Hebron arent here.

  • enubus

    Elie Wiesel is a leftist Jew and that takes away heroic mantle. Leftist Jews are the enemy of Israel. You list Jonathan Pollard and he is is nothing but a money grubbing traitor to the American people not a heroic Jew. Shame on you!

    • Jewish cowboy

      I agree that Johnathan Pollard should not be on the list. As a former federal law enforcement agent he disgraced all jews and fed the anti-semites what they wanted; proof that jews are traitors.

      Leftist/liberal jews are the concentration camp capos of this generation.

      We as American jews better wake up and vote for the GOP & Romney,they are are only hope to save Israel! The Mormans are the most pro-israel pro-zionist group around today!

      Romney as president & a Morman elder could not, & would not allow Israel’s destruction!

      • Edward The Sarcastic Liberal

        What is a Morman Mr.cowboy? Are all cowboys Moremen or Moremanly?

        The Pres is half Irish so I don’t blame you for your fear that he will allow Israel to be destroyed. You can’t trust the Irish. They drink more beer than you do.

        Would Mitt like you to spell his religious affiliation correctly? I have no idea.

        Liberal Jews have no understanding of cowboy mentality. They never wear 1800’s style clothes and have little interest in line dancing or Bud-Light. They have small belt buckles, if you know what I mean. They have no appreciation for NASCAR or the A-Rab gasoline company bumper stickers that true Americans love so much.

        Nuff said!

  • Boris

    How does Israel’s current PM rate honorable mention? For the ethnic cleansing of Jews in Yesha or for plain just persecuting Jews and violating their human rights? Treason? Corruption? He is many things,but none are “honorable”?

  • hate to adulterate the wonderful celebration of our nation’s heroes and heroism, but gotta say this: with all respect to Chabad(and many of my best friends are its members), my experience with their emissaries has been far from always being invited to a house of benevolent stranger’. actually, exactly 10 yrs ago during Pesach, one self-proclaimed ‘shliyach’ in Seattle first promised me a shelter there in his house, then when i arrived, told me it ‘wouldn’t be prudent’, offered 40 bucks on condition of me repaying it later, and cause me to go seeking overnight stays first at a Hillel, then at a couple Christian missions(don’t worry, one of then provided for me, though Catholics came pretty close; in the end i simply stayed at a Ramada, for about 150$ a night, and then headed to Chicago on an Amtrak train)
    Such is ‘Chabad hospitality’, at least in some of its manifestations

    • ruth cohen

      that was pathetic and low. chabad does wonderful work worldwide. its terrible that you take your own experience and bash them with such a story. like what happened – did you suffer poor baby.get over yourself.

      dont critise those who do so much for jews all over the world. its disgusting. i am not chabad but i hate lies and if you need to whine, go ahead but dont blame them for you being a whiner

  • Greg

    I can’t comment on many of these as I’m completely unfamiliar with most, however, I did want to comment on a couple.

    1st I think even the IDF would snicker and being called the holiest… marketing is one thing, but truth in advertising is another.

    2nd, though Elie Wiesel is revered among many, I find nothing heroic about someone who blames God. If a man like Job, perhaps. But a long way from that.

    • Dr. Sheila Frank

      Where on earth do you get it that Elie Wiesel blames God. He questions but does not blame. We all question why over and over again, Jews suffer persecution and threats of annihilation. I think Wiesel comes out on the side of those of us who believe we will never give up. We will persevere and now that we have a Jewish homeland after 2000 years in the Diaspora we can and will defend ourselves.

    • Greg

      You know when you’re talking with someone and their tone betrays their words? When I read his books, “The Trial of God” and “Night” that’s what happened. His tone was that of being ‘holier than thou’ (God)… the ‘righteous martyr’ and it just put me off.

      I’m sure the Jews in their homeland, all those centuries ago thought the same thing as you…

  • Miriam A.

    Wonderful Jews on this list and yes Am Israel Chai !