Influential people come in all shapes and sizes in all generations throughout history. Such people can be grouped together by shared affiliations and backgrounds, for whatever purposes people are drawn to make lists. This list offers some interesting biographical tidbits about 50 people of Jewish heritage whose lives are among the most influential in world history over the past two millennia.
The individuals on this list are arranged in chronological order by birth date, not by any measure of their importance in the historical scheme of things. The early religious leaders (i.e., Abraham, Moses, etc.) of ancient Judaic history are not included unless there are secular records of their existence and deeds outside the holy books, as some scholars suggest many of these well-known figures are more archetype than historical personages. Some were ambivalent toward their traditional faith and either converted or gave up religion entirely later in life, but all display the particular genius and love of intellectual and artistic accomplishment so notable in their heritage.
1. Hillel the Elder
Hillel [~110 b.c.e.-10 c.e.] was one of the most important Jewish religious leaders, credited with development of both the Mishnah and the Talmud, founder of the House of Hillel. According to tradition Hillel was born in Babylon and traveled to Jerusalem at the age of 40 to devote himself to Torah study. He was practical in his approach to the law, issuing decrees that assured the repayment of loans and the sale of real estate despite the Sabbatical year law requiring cancellation of debts. Hillel is credited with formal iteration of the ethic of reciprocity, citing a version of the Golden Rule as "the whole of the Law," and is said to have lived 120 years.
2. Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus of Nazareth [~4 b.c.e. - ~30 c.e.] was the founding figurehead of the Christian religion, and Christianity became the religion that shaped Europe and much of the rest of the world. Christianity is still the largest religion in the modern world despite splintering into hundreds of denominations and sects following the Protestant Reformation. Critical scholars tend to agree on the historicity of the man, the time period in which he lived, and that he was considered a teacher and healer. There is also agreement that he was baptized by John the Baptist and crucified in Jerusalem by Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judaea, on charges of sedition against the Roman Empire.
3. Saul of Tarsus
Saul of Tarsus [died 64-65 c.e.] is often included in lists of the world's most influential Christians for his evangelical missions throughout the Roman Empire following his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus [~33 c.e.] Saul was an enforcer for the Jerusalem Sanhedrin against the followers of Christ in the early years following Jesus' crucifixion. He is revered in Christianity as Saint Paul, who is traditionally considered to have contributed thirteen epistles [books] to the New Testament canon. He described himself as "of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews." He is said to have been a student of Gamaliel and a Pharisee.
4. Flavius Josephus
Flavius Josephus, a.k.a. Yosef Ben Matiyahu [37-100 c.e.] was a first century Jewish historian who recorded the destruction of Jerusalem and the Herodian Temple in 70 c.e., as well as documenting world history from a Jewish perspective in his Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus fought against Rome as a Jewish military leader in Galilee, was captured in 67 and imprisoned, then released and became a citizen of Rome in 71. He became of client of the Flavian dynasty, under whose sponsorship he wrote all of his known works of period history. While his histories are subject to criticisms as Roman propaganda or personal aggrandizement, he was certainly an important apologist in the Greco-Roman world for Judaism and for the Jewish people.
Moses Maimonides, a.k.a. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon or Rambam [1135-1204] was a Spanish philosopher and theologian considered one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time. His philosophy was formulated in the Aristotlean tradition, and influenced Thomas Aquinas. His philosophical approach to philosophy held that it was impossible for truths reached via human reason to contradict those revealed by God. He also held that descriptions of God could not be positive assertions, but exclusively negative - statements about what God is not. Maimonides authored many works on Jewish law and ethics, and produced a 14-volume Mishneh Torah that retains canonical authority in Talmudic law. In his later life he practiced medicine in Egypt, becoming court physician to Sultan Saladin and his family. His writings on the medical conditions he encountered influenced many later generations of physicians.
6. Baruch de Spinoza
Baruch de Spinoza [1632-1677] was a Dutch philosopher and lens grinder whose work went generally unappreciated in his own lifetime, but which contributed greatly to the 18th century Enlightenment. Spinoza's critical position toward religious texts earned him a writ of cherem (excommunication) from the Jewish community and prohibition from the Roman Catholic Church. Spinoza formulated a solution to Descartes' mind-body problem described as neutral monism. He was a staunch determinist whose view that all things occur through the operations of necessity - chance and contingency play no role - and that the concepts of good and evil are entirely relative to point of view.
7. Moses Mendelssohn
Moses Mendelssohn [1729-1786] was a German philosopher whose ideas helped inspire the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment and the renaissance of European Jewry. He was a man of recognized brilliance in his own time, a favorite of European high society and protected by admirers in the ruling class. After his health declined late in life, Mendelssohn dedicated himself to rectifying Jews with the European culture in which they lived, one product of which was a re-translation of the Pentateuch and other portions of the Bible, called the Bi'ur (the explanation). The Bi'ur also contained a commentary on Exodus, all written in elegant High German to help Jews learn the language of their host land. Other works in this period of Mendelssohn's life were devoted to an attempt to further the rights, tolerance and acceptance of Jews living in Germany.
8. Haym Solomon
Haym Solomon [1740-1785] was a Polish financier who immigrated to New York during the American Revolution and became a notable patriot and prime financier of the war against Britain. The son of a rabbi, Solomon arrived in New York City in 1775 and quickly established himself as a financial broker for merchants involved in international trade. He was soon a member of the New York branch of the Sons of liberty, and was arrested in 1776 as a spy. The British pardoned him so they could use his linguistic talents to interpret for their Hessians, and used his position to convince Hessians to desert, and to help prisoners of the British escape. Again arrested in 1778, he escaped to the rebel stronghold of Philadelpha and resumed his financial activities, Solomon negotiated the sale of a majority of war aid from France and Holland. His patriotism caused him to request less-than market interest, and he never demanded repayment.
9. Mayer Amschel Rothschild
Mayer Amschel Rothschild [1744-1812] was a German businessman and financier who founded the Rothschild family international banking dynasty. He was ranked 7th on the Forbes list of "The Twenty Most Influential Businessmen of All Time" in 2005. Rothschild learned banking at the firm of Jakob Wolf Oppenheim in Hamburg, then returned to Frankfurt to become a dealer in raare coins. Patronage of the royal house under Crown Prince Wilhelm gained him the title of "Court Factor." During the French Revolution Rothschild handled British payments to hire Hessian mercenaries, and by the turn of the 19th century began issuing his own international loans with capital borrowed from the Landgrave (Wilhelm IX). Rothschild's sons became partners and expanded the family banking business to London and Paris, cementing the dynasty's position as international financiers.
10. Giacomo Meyerbeer
Jacob Liebmann Beer, a.k.a. Giacomo Meyerbeer [1791-1864] was a German opera composer, the first important exponent of Grand Opera. During the 1830s and '40s he was the most famous and successful composer of opera in all of Europe. Meyerbeer was a child prodigy, making his debut playing a Mozart piano concerto at the age of nine. He moved to Italy to study Italian opera and adopted the name Giacomo. Mayerbeer's first opera premiered in Venice in 1824 and was produced in London and Paris the next year. The notorious enmity between Meyerbeer and Richard Wagner (whom Meyerbeer had supported financially) has cast Wagner in a much dimmer historical light than Meyerbeer. Wagner's jealousy of Meyerbeer's wealth and success are regarded by some as a significant contributor to the growth of German anti-semitism.
11. Benjamin Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield [1804-1881] was the first (and thus far only) Prime Minister of Britain of Jewish heritage. He was baptized Anglican as a teenager on insistence of his father due to his father's falling-out with the local synagogue. His education was in law, but his first successes were in literature as a novelist. During his second term as Prime Minister Disraeli was noted for being a staunch imperialist who sought to expand British influence in Central Asia to check Russian ambitions. Disraeli's novels Alroy and Tancred reveal a 19th century proto-Zionism, which he articulated more concretely in an 1877 article, "The Jewish Question is the Oriental Quest." In that article Disraeli predicted that within 50 years there would be a million Jews living in Palestine under the guidance of the British. This contributed to the climate that later spawned the Balfour Declaration in 1917, establishing Palestine as a Jewish homeland.
12. Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx [1818-1883] was a German philosopher, political economist, historian, sociologist and political theorist who is credited with the founding of Communism. His thought was influenced by Hegel, Engels, Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Feuerbach. In his 1848 book The Communist Manifesto Marx iterated a synthesis of history, sociology, economics into a political theory. He proposed a system of collectives that would eventually produce a classless society which would emerge after a transitional period of dictatorship of the proletariat. To accomplish this, Marx envisioned a revolutionary struggle against the powers of feudalism/capitalism. Marx was unpopular with the ruling status quo in his own lifetime, but his ideas greatly influenced labor organizers worldwide and led to the revolutionary movements of the 20th century in Russia, China and elsewhere.
13. Levi Strauss
Levi Strauss, a.k.a. L_ob Strauss [1829-1902] was a German immigrant to the U.S., a practical-minded clothier who introduced blue jeans to the world. He helped to run a dry goods business in New York City with his mother and siblings, then founded his own dry goods company in 1853 in San Francisco - the same year he became an American citizen. While dealing with Gold Rush miners and prospectors in the booming mining camps he found that there was a great demand for rugged clothing, which he satisfied by having overalls made from brown hemp sailcloth. These overalls came with ore pockets that were double-seamed, thus nearly impossible to rip in the rugged environment and were extremely popular. In 1873 he patented the use of copper rivets to strengthen the pockets of his new line of blue denim general-purpose work pants, and began producing Levi's jeans.
14. Sarah Bernhardt
Sara-Marie-Henriette Rosine Bernardt, a.k.a. Sarah Bernhardt [1844-1923] was a French stage actress immortalized as "the most famous actress in the history of the world." She earned that fame on stages across Europe and in America, becoming to most of her fans simply "The Divine Sarah." A courtesan before her acting career took off, Bernhardt cultivated an eccentric mystique and is said to have often slept in a coffin to better understand some of her tragic roles. In her prime Bernhardt had strong influence on Grand Opera, still evidenced today in the opera Tosca, based on a play written just for The Divine Sarah. Her love life was a series of affairs with various notable artists and writers, and is even said to have had an affair with the future Edward VII of Britain. She starred in ten silent films, two of them biographical.
15. Samuel Gompers
Shamuel Gompersh, a.k.a. Samuel Gompers [1850-1924] was a British-born American labor union leader and a key figure in the American labor movement. He became an apprentice shoemaker and then cigar maker, and joined Local 15 of the Cigarmaker's International Union in 1864. He soon elevated to officer status in the union's Local 144 and remained in the position of first vice-president until his death. When the union neared collapse Gomper and his friend Adolph Strasser used Local 144 as a base of operations to remake it, introducing high dues and implementing out-of-work pay benefits, sick benefits, and death benefits for members in good standing. Gomper's philosophy of labor unions was focused on higher wages, shorter hours and safe working conditions to promote an "American" standard of living for the workers.
16. Paul Ehrlich
Paul Ehrlich [1854-1915] was a German physician and medical scientist whose work in immunology at the Institute for Infectious Disease established serum standardization and led to his formulation of the side-chain theory of immunity. For his demonstrations that antibodies are responsible for immunity he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1908 with Ilya Metchnikoff. He later did seminal work in chemotherapy for finely tuned treatments of diseases caused by protozoan organisms. In his later years Ehrlich did experimental work on cancerous tumors. Ehrlich is credited with developing the first antibacterial drug. His concept of a "magic bullet" against pathogenic organisms anticipated the invention of monoclonal antibodies.
17. Louis Brandeis
Louis D. Brandeis [1856-1941] was an American jurist and a Supreme Court Justice from 1916 to 1939. Brandeis graduated from Harvard Law School at the age of twenty, earning the highest grade average in the school's long history. Brandeis earned a reputation as an adversary of powerful corporations and monopoly industries, powerful banks and money trusts, unbridled consumerism and the corruption of public officials. Brandeis' pro bono cases earned him the title of "The People's Lawyer" and he became greatly admired by the public as a defender of labor laws and advocate for the people against the powerful. Brandeis also pioneered the rules of evidence for expert testimony in legal matters. He was an ardent Zionist all his adult life, seeing a Jewish homeland as a proper solution to antisemitism in Europe and Russia. President Woodrow Wilson's nomination of Brandeis to the Supreme Court was met with bitter opposition due to his crusader status for social justice - a cause always unpopular with the 'Establishment'.
18. Sigmund Freud
Sigismund Schlomo Freud, a.k.a. Sigmund Freud [1856-1939] was an Austrian psychiatrist best known for his theories of the unconscious mind, the defense mechanism of repression, and the interpretation of dreams. He created the clinical practice of psychoanalysis, which despite the fluctuating acceptance of many of his ideas, is still important in the practice of psychotherapy. Though Freud's professed atheism led to conflicts with his contemporaries over the relative importance of spiritual influences on psychological health, he married the daughter of Hamburg's chief Rabbi and apparently maintained a long-term affair with her sister. While his theories fell out of favor toward the end of the 20th century, findings in the field of neurology in recent years have begun to offer physical evidence for many of his ideas.
19. Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler [1860-1911] was an Austrian composer and conductor, considered one of the most important late-Romantic composers of symphonies and songs. While his works were not fully accepted in Vienna during his life, he became the director of the Vienna Opera at the age of 37, the most prestigious musical position in the Empire at the time. This position required that he renounce his Judaism, so he became a Catholic. Yet his music retained evidence of the Jewish spirit of the times, exemplified by the Klezmer-like theme and textures of the third movement of his first symphony. In later life Mahler was contracted as conductor for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, but became ill and died before fully engaging the position. Critics of his day disparaged his tendency to mix themes from differing periods and traditions, even 'high' and 'low' cultures. This style was recognized after his death as an artistic anticipation of the culture clashes of the 20th century.
20. Julius Rosenwald
Julius Rosenwald [1862-1932] was an American clothier, manufacturer, business executive and philanthropist whose best known enterprise was the Sears and Roebuck Company, which he bought into following Alvah Roebuck's sale of his portion in 1895. He is also known for the Rosenwald Fund, which donated millions of dollars toward the education of African-Americans and other causes during the first half of the twentieth century. The Rosenwald Fund was established in 1917, but not designed to fund itself in perpetuity. Rosenwald resigned from his business activities in 1922 to manage the fund, and the money was entirely spent by 1948 after having funded public schools, colleges, universities, Jewish charities and black institutions with more than 70 million dollars over its lifetime.
21. Marcel Proust
Valentin Louis Georges Eugene Marcel Proust [1871-1922] was a French novelist, essayist and literary critic described by Graham Greene as "the greatest novelist of the 20th century." He is best known for his monumental, 7-volume masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu, known in English as In Search of Lost Time, published between 1913 and 1927 - the last three volumes posthumously. A sickly child with strong attachment to his mother and criticized as a dilettante, Proust was one of the first European novelists to treat homosexuality openly and at length in sympathetic characterizations. Proust was greatly influenced by John Ruskin, and historians have determined his other literary influences included George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky among others.
22. Harry Houdini
Erich Weiss, a.k.a. Harry Houdini [1874-1926] was a Hungarian-born American magician, stunt performer, actor, film producer and skeptical investigator of spiritualists. As part of his career in magic magic he became a renowned escape artist on the vaudeville circuit in the U.S. and beginning in 1900, Europe. In Europe Houdini became "The Handcuff King," a sensation in cities where the local police would attempt to restrain him - always unsuccessfully. Despite popular misconceptions, Houdini's great Chinese Water Torture Cell act had nothing to do with his ultimate demise of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. The grandson of his brother announced in 2007 that Houdini's body was to be exhumed to seek evidence that he was poisoned by spiritualists, but it was apparently just a publicity stunt for a book.
23. Martin Buber
Martin Buber [1878-1965] was an Austrian-born philosopher, theologian and social activist best known for his synthetic thesis of dialogical existence, a religious form of existentialism emphasizing the distinction between "I-Thou" and "I-It" as a way of thinking about - in terms of internal dialogue - in approaching relationships. Buber was a supporter of Zionism, but disagreed with the reasoning of some of his contemporaries in not considering specifically Jewish religion or culture to be necessary to the establishment of the nation. Buber's influence on the fields of social psychology, social philosophy and philosophical anarchy as well as religious existentialism is still important. As a scholar, interpretor and translator, Buber presented Hasidic lore as a cultural reference for Judaism that earned ample criticism among those who derided Hasidism for its accumulated mystical baggage.
24. Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein [1879-1955] was a German-born theoretical physicist most famous for his formulations of the theories of relativity, especially the equivalence of matter and energy, and for formulation of the law of photoelectric effect. Einstein published more than 300 scientific works during his lifetime, and another 150 that were non-scientific. His contributions to science are considered so important and so brilliant that his name has become synonymous with the term "genius." During his later years at Princeton he worked almost exclusively on his unified field theory, but apparently could not fully integrate all the forces into a single equation. Many theoretical physicists still consider the unified field theory to be the ultimate goal of their scientific discipline.
25. Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka [1883-1924] was a Bohemian (Czech) writer, considered one of the most important fiction novelists of the 20th century. Though his work received little notice during his lifetime, literary critic Harold Bloom said of Kafka's writing that "Despite all his denials and beautiful evasions, [his writing] is quite simply Jewish writing." Kafka suffered clinical depression his whole life, and never actually completed any of his novels. Critics still argue about how to classify his works, some labels forwarded include modernist, magical realism, existentialism, anarchism and Freudianism. While his writings are colored by an existentialist angst arising from the characters' essential helplessness to alter conditions or events, there is also a wicked, satirical humor evident in some of the absurd situations he crafted. Kafka's life has been memorialized in film, as have his works The Castle, The Trial and a stylized version of Amerika.
26. Louis B. Mayer
Louis Burt Mayer, a.k.a. Lazar Meir [1884-1957] was a Russian-born American film producer active in the very early days of filmmaking , and co-founder of the giant film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Mayer started with renovating the Gem Theater, a run-down burlesque house in Massachusetts, his first movie theater. Within just a few years he owned all five theaters in town and partnered with Nathan Gordon to control the largest theater chain in New England. Mayer moved to LA in 1918 and created the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation. Then in 1924 he partnered with Marcus Loew, Metro Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn's Goldwyn Pictures to form MGM. He effectively controlled the company for the next 27 years. As a studio boss Mayer was immensely successful - with a reputation for ruthless expediency - and MGM was the only studio to pay dividends through the Great Depression. He handled many of the highest-earning stars in those days, including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Judy Garland.
27. Niels Bohr
Niels Henrik David Bohr [1885-1962] was a Danish physicist best known for his important contributions to atomic theory and quantum mechanics, and has been described as one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century. While Bohr's father was a devout Lutheran, his mother was Jewish from a family of wealthy Danish bankers and politicians. For his contributions toward describing the structure of atoms and radiation Bohr received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922. The previous year Bohr had founded the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen and became its director. Bohr escaped from German occupation in 1943, ended up in the U.S., and worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project. He believed nuclear 'secrets' should be shared internationally and was a strong advocate for peaceful uses of atomic energy.
28. David Ben-Gurion
David Ben-Gurion [1886-1973] was an ardent Zionist instrumental in the establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine, and he served as Israel's first Prime Minister. He was a Polish Jew who immigrated to Palestine in 1906, becoming a major leader of Poale Zion, a Marxist Zionist Jewish worker's movement with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Their political activities angered the then-ruling Ottomans, who expelled the two in 1915. Ben-Gurion settled in New York City, then joined the British Army's Jewish Legion in 1918. He returned to Palestine after the war with his family, the region having been captured by the British. He created the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War during Israel's bid for independent nationhood, which Ben-Gurion declared on May 14, 1948.
29. Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall [1887-1985] was a Russian artist who later became a French citizen, associated with several key artistic movements and a pioneer of modernism. He became one of the most successful artists of the twentieth century in mediums as diverse as book illustration, stained glass, ceramics, stage settings, tapestries, paintings and prints. His most memorable works were done just prior to World War I, which reflected Chagall's own style of modern art based on his visions of Eastern European Jewish folk culture. Between the world wars he moved to Paris, where he synthesized the forms known as Cubism, Symbolism and Fauvism to create what became Surrealism.
30. Selman Waksman
Selman Abraham Waksman [1888-1973] was a Ukranian-born American biochemist and microbiologist whose research of various soil microbes led to the discovery of more than twenty immensely valuable antibiotics including streptomycin and neomycin, the first antibiotic proved effective against tuberculosis. Upon receiving his Ph.D. in biochemistry from UC-Berkeley in 1918, Waksman joined the faculty of Rutgers University. It was while at Rutgers that he and his team of graduate students made their seminal discoveries, which Waksman named "antibiotics," for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1952. Waksman created the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology on the Busch campus of Rutgers in 1951 using proceeds from his patent royalties.
31. Boris Pasternak
Boris Leonidovich Pasternak [1890-1960] was a Russian poet and writer born to an artistic family. His father was a painter, his mother a concert pianist, visitors to the home included Sergei Rachmaninoff and Leo Tolstoy. Pasternak received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, apparently on the orders of the CIA and British intelligence as a means to embarrass the Kremlin. His best known work in the West was Doctor Zhivago, which was adapted and produced as an Oscar winning motion picture in 1965. The original book by Pasternak was finally released in the USSR in 1988, just as the nation was falling apart. Pasternak had been targeted during Stalin's notorious purges of the 1930s, but was crossed off an arrest list by Stalin himself who called the novelist/poet a "Holy Fool."
32. Groucho Marx
Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx [1890-1977] was an American comedian and film star along with his brothers. He also had a successful solo career. As teens Julius and his brothers Milton ("Gummo") and Adolph ("Harpo," later Arthur) and another young singer billed themselves as "The Four Nightingales" but soon ran out of fresh material and started cracking jokes onstage. The audiences liked the jokes better than the music, and "The Marx Brothers" became a huge vaudevillian hit. The eldest brother Leonard ("Chico") took Milton's place for their graduation to films. The brothers were featured in 26 Hollywood films, and Julius wrote many books as well as hosting the popular "You Bet Your Life" on radio and television from its inception in 1947.
33. Leo Szilard
Leo Szilard [1898-1964] was a Hungarian-born American physicist who is credited with being first to conceive of the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction, and is also credited with initiating the Manhattan Project to build nuclear weapons during World War II. He assigned his patent on the chain reaction to the British Admiralty in 1936 to ensure it would be kept secret, and also was the co-holder of the patent on the nuclear reactor (with Enrico Fermi). It was Fermi with whom Szilard worked at Columbia University in Manhattan toward the discovery that uranium emitted neutrons and was a likely element to sustain a chain reaction. Szilard also drafted the famous letter to FDR encouraging development of nuclear weapons before the Germans could do it, and convinced his friend Albert Einstein to sign it. He later became discouraged that scientists would lose control over their research to the military, and tried several times to convince General Leslie Groves that possession of the weapon was enough to end the war, it need not actually be deployed.
34. Golda Meir
Golda Mabovitch, a.k.a. Golda Meyerson, a.k.a. Golda Meir [1898-1978] was a Ukrainian-born American who later became fourth Prime Minister of Israel and the third woman to hold such high office in the modern world. David Ben-Gurion called Meir "the best man in government," but she was more popularly known as the "grandmother of the Jewish people." Meir became an ardent Labor Zionist, socialist and activist for women's rights in her teens. At the end of World War II she took part in negotiations with the British that paved the way for Israeli state independence, and in 1948 became Israel's first ambassador to the Soviet Union. She retired from politics in 1965, then was asked back to become Prime Minister following the death of Levi Eshkol in 1969. She presided over the 1973 Yom Kippur War, then left office the next year when the labor coalition disintegrated.
35. George Gershwin
George Gershwin [1898-1937] was an American composer and pianist who enjoyed one of the most remarkable careers in American music. His works spanned both classical and popular genres, and with his brother Ira wrote the music for some of the most popular theatrical musicals of the era. His first major classical work was Rhapsody in Blue, which remains his most popular composition in the classical world. His popular pieces were jazz-influenced, including An American in Paris which quickly became part of the standard orchestral repertoire in both Europe and the U.S. Gershwin's most ambitious theatrical work was the folk opera Porgy and Bess, which included strong black music influences and complicated polytonality. He died at the age of 38 of a brain tumor in Hollywood after unsuccessful surgery.
36. John von Neumann
John von Neumann [1903-1957] was a Hungarian-born American mathematician whose voluminous contributions to a wide range of fields earned him distinction as one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. His work on set theory allowed von Neumann to address the axiomization of quantum mechanics. In 1926 he formalized the approach to a quantum system as a point in Hilbert space in 6 dimensions per particle. Von Neumann also contributed to the theoretical linkage between game theory and economic behavior, which allowed economists to analyze trends and predictions with mathematical precision drawing upon the axioms of game theory. His studies of explosions and shock waves led to his involvement in the Manhattan Project during World War II, and his continued participation in fusion bomb development thereafter.
37. Benny Goodman
Benjamin David Goodman [1909-1986] was an American jazz musician, clarinetist and leader of one of the most popular music bands in the country during the 1930s and '40s. Benny and his two older brothers took music lessons at a Synagogue in Chicago, then he received two years of training on the clarinet from classical clarinetist Franz Shoepp. He was influenced by New Orleans musicians who played in Chicago, and was soon playing clarinet with various bands. Goodman then moved to New York City and became a successful session musician and smart businessman. Chick Webb passed the title "King of Swing" to Goodman in the mid-'30s, and his band's 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall cemented his popularity as described by critic Bruce Elder as "the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history."
38. Jonas Salk
Jonas Salk [1914-1995] was an American medical researcher and virologist best known for his development of the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Salk began his research on a polio vaccine while at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, working on the quest for eight years. His field tests involved 20,000 physicians, 64,000 school personnel and 220,000 volunteers. The vaccine discovery was made public in 1955, the public made him a national hero. Salk then refused to patent the vaccine, putting public health above profits and further endearing himself to populations across the world. A personal rivalry between Salk and Albert Sabin over killed-virus (Salk) versus live-virus (Sabin) percolated for some years before the government endorsed Salk's vaccine exclusively, as the live vaccine endorsed by the AMA occasionally caused polio.
39. Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
Jerome "Jerry" Siegel [1914-1996] was an American comic book writer who along with his friend, cartoon artist Joe Shuster [b. 1914] created Superman, one of the most recognizable fictional superheroes of the 20th century. He and Shuster became friends in high school in Cleveland, Ohio. Their first collaboration toward Superman was a bald, telepathic villain named "The Superman" in 1933 for a science fiction fanzine. Siegel envisioned the more familiar good-guy character in 1934, and the two spent years looking for a publisher. National Allied Publications, precursor to DC Comics, initiated the syndicated Superman comic strip in 1939. Siegel also created The Spectre character during this period. There was a lawsuit with DC in the 1960s over the rights to the character, Siegel and Shuster lost. In 1975 DC's parent company Warner Communications reinstated their byline due to bad public relations and granted the pair a pension of $20,000 for life plus health benefits.
40. Leonard Berstein
Leonard Berstein [1918-1990] was an American conductor, composer, author, music lecturer and pianist, the first famous classical conductor born and educated in the United States, one of the most talented and successful musicians in recent history. Bernstein was best known to the public as the flamboyant musical director of the New York Philharmonic, though he conducted concerts by a good many of the world's leading orchestras. He also wrote the musical scores for West Side Story, three symphonies, two operas and four other musicals. During the 1980s Bernstein appeared regularly as conductor and commentator on a PBS series featuring the music of Beethoven, and in 1982 founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute with Ernest Fleischmann.
41. Jerome Robbins
Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, a.k.a. Jerome Robbins [1918-1998] was an American film director and choreographer whose work spanned everything from classical ballet to contemporary musical theater. Unable to finish an education in chemistry due to financial difficulties, he went on to pursue a career in dance. He mastered with a number of notables the arts of ballet, modern, Spanish and folk dancing, then dance composition with Bessie Schoenberg. He danced on Broadway in a number of popular shows, three which were choreographed by George Balanchine. Robbins choreographed at a resort in the Poconos for several dramatic pieces with controversial themes. As his career on Broadway took off, he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on several successful musicals. Some of his most celebrated efforts were On the Town, Call me Madam, Billion Dollar Baby, The King & I, The Pajama Game, and his masterpiece, West Side Story.
42. Betty Friedan
Betty Naomi Goldstein, a.k.a. Betty Friedan [1921-2006] was an American writer, feminist and activist best known for starting the 'second wave' of the American Women's Movement with her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 with a goal of bringing women into the mainstream of American society on an equal standing with men. On the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment (the right of women to vote) Friedan organized the nationwide Women's Strike for Equality. The march in New York City alone attracted more than 50,000 women. She joined with other feminist leaders to found the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971, and was a strong proponent of both the legalization of abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment.
43. Henry Kissinger
Henry Alfred Kissinger [b. 1923] is a German-born American political scientist, diplomat, National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Richard Nixon. At State Kissinger was instrumental in developing foreign policy between 1969 and 1977, including the policy of détente with the People's Republic of China which resulted in rapproachment with China an a strategic Sino-American alliance against the Soviets. He negotiated a settlement ending the Vietnam war, but the cease-fire fell apart and no lasting peace was achieved. Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his negotiated cease-fire in Vietnam in 1973. Détante as applied to the Soviet Union helped him to negotiate the SALT I arms limitation treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Leonid Brezhnev. While his accomplishments are many, he earned criticism for his Latin American policy which tended to prop unpopular dictatorships via CIA coups and military aid used against populations.
44. Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Joshua Sondheim [b. 1930] is an American composer and lyricist for stage and film whose early interest in musical theater led him into a friendship with Jimmy Hammerstein, son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. The elder Hammerstein had a profound influence on young Sondheim, who became his apprentice in the construction of the musical theater art form. After graduation magna cum laude from Williams College Sondheim spent some lean years on and off Broadway, then got his big break in 1957 writing the lyrics for West Side Story accompanying Leonard Bernstein's musical score. In 1959 he wrote the lyrics for Gypsy, finally getting the chance to write music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. To date Sondheim has written more than 20 major works and numerous minor works for stage, film and television, and has amassed numerous awards and honors.
45. Bob Dylan
Robert Allan Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan [b. 1941] is an American artist - author, poet, painter, singer-songwriter - whose important contributions in popular music have helped to shape the significant ethical and cultural directions of the late industrial age, the modern world. During the American civil rights movement and public opposition to the war in Vietnam in the 1960s, Dylan's gruff anthems captivated a generation's unease and helped to shape political and cultural movements across the world. Inspired by the protest songs and story lines of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Dylan's most influential ballads questioned the sociopolitical status quo and contributed to popular music a stream-of-consciousness lyrical style that brought folk music into the modern age and provided inspiration to new generations in a career that spans five decades.
46. Calvin Klein
Calvin Richard Klein [b. 1942] is an American fashion designer who launched the company that still bears his name in 1968. He was a leader among the several designers raised in the Jewish immigrant community of the Bronx, including Ralph Lauren. He became a fashion sensation after his first major showing, being hailed for the clean lines and no-nonsense approach to design. Klein is most famous for his tight-fitting blue jeans and the racy television advertisements that made them a hit. He was a protege of Baron de Gunzburg, whose sense of understated elegance in design has been a strong influence on Klein's career. The company branched into a line of perfumes, jewelry and watches that bear his name or initials, licensed by other companies.
47. Steven Spielberg
Steven Allen Spielberg [b. 1946] is an American film producer, director and screenwriter whose films have established him as one of the wealthiest, most powerful and influential figures in the industry. Time Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People of the [20th] Century. He began his film career in his early teens making 8mm shorts with his friends. Spielberg's career started when became an unpaid intern in the editing department of Universal studios. There he produced his first short film for theatrical release, which earned him the distinction of becoming the youngest television director ever to sign a long-term contract with a major studio. His first feature film Jaws won three Academy Awards, and films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist and a long string of dramatic masterpieces (including Schindler's List) have earned him worldwide acclaim.
48. Michael Ovitz
Michael S. Ovitz [b. 1946] is an important figure in American entertainment and filmmaking, a talent agent who was head of the Creative Artists Agency until 1995. That year he became president of the Walt Disney Company, but was dismissed by the board of directors 16 months later. He began his career after graduation from UCLA with a degree in theater, film and television with the William Morris Agency, then left to create CAA in 1975 with four other agents. Ovitz pioneered the practice of bundling writers, directors and actors, which gave him serious negotiating clout with the major studios. For this and other practices considered by critics to be a violation of antitrust regulations and business ethics Ovitz has been a controversial figure. He still serves as informal financial advisor to such luminaries as Tom Clancy, Martin Scorsese and David Letterman.
49. Steve Ballmer
Steven Anthony Ballmer [b. 1956] is an American businessman, Chief Executive Officer of the Microsoft Corporation since 2000 when Bill Gates stepped down. He was a Harvard classmate of Bill Gates', and began his Microsoft career as the nascient company's 24th employee, the first business managed hired personally by Gates. Ballmer's compensation at that time was meager, but came with percentage ownership that, by the time of incorporation in 1981, gave him 8 percent of the company's stock. When he assumed the CEO position he sold off half his shares, retaining a 4% stake, and is said to be among the world's 50 wealthiest people. Ballmer is noted for his enthusiastic presentations at Microsoft meetings and conventions, and his fondness for sports. He has bid as part of a Seattle ownership group to purchase the city's NBA franchise, the Seattle SuperSonics.
50. Jon Stewart
Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, a.k.a. Jon Stewart [b. 1962] is An American comedian, political satirist, and actor best known for hosting Comedy Central's The Daily Show. He started out as a stand-up comedian, then became host of Short Attention Span Theater (also for Comedy Central). He went on to his own show on MTV and appeared in several films. Stewart's acerbic satire in delivery of the news has made The Daily Show the most-watched television news program among the younger demographic, and despite making no pretense of being anything but political comedy, the show - and Stewart as its host, writer and producer - has won two Peabody Awards, ten Emmys and a 'Best Comedy Album Award' for the audio edition of America (The Book).
Extra Bonus Jew!
51. Kyle Broflovski
Kyle Broflovski [created 1992] is a fictional character in the animated series South Park based on and voiced by series co-creator Matt Stone. Kyle is described as "the smart one" of the central characters, often a moral juxtaposition to Eric Cartman's blatant anti-semitism and greed. In many episodes of this tremendously popular series, Kyle is the voice of social responsibility and moral outrage, commonly reflecting at the end of an episode about the lessons learned. Kyle's depiction has earned both praise and criticism from the Jewish community, but creator Stone - himself Jewish - has used the fourth grader's voice of conscience to make moral statements wrapped in satirical humor to lend social purpose to the show. South Park is one of the most popular animated series in both television and films and reaches an audience numbered in the tens of millions. For all its irreverence it ranks highly in the modern history of comedy colored by a Jewish sense of the absurd.