Nehemiah Persoff: 1919 to 2022

On April 5th prolific character actor Nehemiah Persoff passed away at the age of 102. Given his lengthy career and his long life, I wanted to share a few highlights about the man and his work.

Persoff, who was Jewish, was born on August 2, 1919 in Jerusalem, in what was then known as the British Mandate of Palestine. When he was 10 years old Persoff immigrated to the United States with the rest of his family.

Persoff initially trained as an electrician at the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York City, from which he graduated in 1937. However he was possessed of a love of acting, and when drafted into the United States Army during World War II he was part of an acting company that entertained soldiers overseas.  In 1947 Persoff was accepted into the Actors Studio in Manhattan, and a year later he began his professional career.

Nehemiah Persoff in The Twilight Zone episode “Judgment Night” (1959)

As with many foreign-born actors in the American movie and television industry in the mid 20th Century, Persoff was cast as a wide variety of ethnicities & nationalities, and frequently portrayed villainous roles.  Most notably, between 1959 and 1962 Persoff guest starred in six episodes of the Prohibition era crime drama The Untouchables, three of those featuring him as Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, financial advisor and bagman to Chicago mob boss Al Capone.

Another of Persoff’s memorable television appearances was The Twilight Zone episode “Judgment Night” written by Rod Serling and broadcast in December 1959. He played Carl Lanser, a ruthless Nazi U-boat captain who is now doomed to spend all of eternity trapped on the British cargo liner he ordered destroyed in 1942.

Among the other genre roles Persoff was cast in were brilliant South American scientist Professor Moreno in the Wonder Woman episode “Formula 407” (1977), the supreme leader of the totalitarian Eastern Alliance in the Battlestar Galactica episode “Experiment in Terra” (1979) and Palor Toff, a very odd-looking alien merchant & collector of rare items in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Most Toys” (1990).

Nehemiah Persoff in the Wonder Woman episode “Formula 407” (1977)

As he grew older, Persoff was afforded more opportunities to portray sympathetic roles, and was often cast as characters who shared his own real-life Jewish heritage, something that was of great personal importance to him. He played a Jewish refugee fleeing from Nazi oppression in the 1976 historical drama Voyage of the Damned and portrayed Rebbe Mendel, the father to Barbara Streisand’s character in the 1983 musical Yentl. Persoff later gave voice to another Jewish patriarch, Papa Mousekewitz, in the 1986 animated movie An American Tail and its three sequels.

Persoff’s acting career lasted thru 1999. After suffering from a stroke he retired, but he then took up watercolor painting, on which he spent the next two decades. He also wrote an autobiography, The Many Faces of Nehemiah, which was published in 2021.

Persoff met his future wife Thia during a visit to Israel in 1951. They married later that year and remained together until her own passing in 2021.

Interviewed in 2008 by James Rosin for Films of the Golden Age, Persoff reflected on his lengthy acting career and his continued creative endeavors as a painter:

“It was a wonderful sixty years, but at this time in my life, I love solving problems on the canvas; trying to find the beauty and essence of a subject. It’s a fascinating, challenging, yet calming and most fulfilling process, finding colors that like each other, not only the basic colors, but the infiinite variations, starting with a fresh canvas and suddenly seeing it come alive. That gives one a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. I feel very fortunate in being able to continue my creative life; but this time without the tension, frustration and conflicts of an acting career.”

It Came From the 1990s: Masada of Youngblood

Masada is one of the dozens of characters created by Rob Liefeld who populated the various comic books put out by his Extreme Studios imprint of Image Comics in the 1990s. If you were not someone who followed Youngblood and the other Extreme titles regularly, you can be forgiven for not knowing offhand who Masada was. However, the character always stood out for me because she was Jewish.

Masada’s first published appearance was a pin-up drawn by penciler Chap Yaep and inker Norm Rapmund in Supreme #4 (July 1993). Her first actual in-story appearance came just a few months later in Team Youngblood #1 (Sept 1993) which was plotted by Liefeld, penciled by Yaep, inked by Rapmund, scripted by Eric Stephenson, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Bryan Talman. The terrorist Geiger and his cyborg army invade the space station Liberty II, giving them control over the Earth’s satellite network. Israeli crimefighter Masada is recruited to join the government-run super-team Youngblood to help them liberate the orbiting facility.

In his text piece for Team Youngblood #1 Liefeld explained how the latest addition to Youngblood came about:

“Masada was a character that had been collecting dust in my files for years until she was pulled out for new assignment alongside the Away Team. For the record, Masada means ‘fortress’ and is the name of the historic site in Israel where the Israelites found refuge from the Roman empire before electing to commit suicide rather than die at the hands of the Romans, an event which plays a large part in Masada’s origin.”

Historians are divided over whether or not the Siege of Masada in 74 AD, and the mass suicide of the 960 Jewish Zealots who fought the Roman army at Masada, actually occurred. Nevertheless, the story of a band of freedom fighters who chose death over slavery is often revered by modern Israelis as “a symbol of Jewish heroism.”

Deborah Konigsberg’s power is to grow to giant size. The source of her fantastic abilities is elaborated upon in Team Youngblood #2 (Oct 1993):

“Masada — Israeli super-woman empowered by the souls of her countrymen who died in the battle from which she took her name!”

Masada and her new Youngblood teammates eventually succeed in defeating Geiger’s forces. Returning to Earth and a heroes’ welcome, issue #4 (Dec 1993) is a “day in the life” issue following the various team members in the aftermath of the battle. Masada is moving into her new apartment in the Washington DC area when we first learn that her powers are as much a curse as they are a blessing. Overwhelmed by countless disembodied voices calling her name, Masada reflects on her difficult charge:

“Oy gevalt! All those voices… all that pain. I can never forget the burden I carry… the souls of all those who gave their lives in the name of Judaism…

“…but sometimes I wish… just for the slightest moment… I wish I could be alone.”

I found Yaep & Rapmund to be an effective art team, and this sequence demonstrates the more subtle side of their work. Their art, as well as the coloring by Byron Talman & Karen Jaikowski, in that bottom panel really brings across Deborah’s anguish.

All things considered, I think Liefeld & Stephenson did a fairly decent job developing Masada within the crowded confines of the Team Youngblood series. One of the subplots they set up was the friendship that developed between Deborah and the Away Team’s other female member, the water-manipulating Riptide, real name Leanna Creel. It was an interesting idea to pair up the reserved, conservative Masada with the wild, outgoing Riptide.

Riptide is fired from Youngblood after she poses for a nude pictorial in Pussycat Magazine. Despite disagreeing with Riptide’s decision, Masada nevertheless remains her close friend. Later on, when Riptode is framed for murder, Masada is one of the people to stand by her, ultimately helping her friend to clear her name.

As with many of the characters that Liefeld created for his Extreme titles, Masada unfortunately often ends up getting lost in the crowd. However, she did finally get the spotlight in Youngblood Strikefile #6 (Aug 1994). That series was conceived to spotlight the solo adventures of the numerous members of Youngblood, and it often featured writers & artists of a high caliber. That was certainly the case with “From the Same Cloth” which was written by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by John Beatty, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Linda Medley.

Deborah is approached by Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency. She is informed that her old colleague Rimon Sibechai has set out to assassinate the African American militant Hassim, who in his fiery sermons denounces Jews as the enemy of the black community. Sibechai believes Hassan is dangerous, telling Deborah “We will not be led meekly to the slaughter by racist demagogues. And if you’re still a Jew, you won’t try to stop me.”  Masada finds herself reluctantly having to stop her old friend, for as much as she dislikes Hassan and what he stands for, she cannot allow a cold-blooded murder to take place.  Masada’s dilemma is made all the more torturous by the voices of the spirits who empower her, as they are violently split between letting Hassan die and saving him.

Tom & Mary Bierbaum’s story was undoubtedly inspired by the rhetoric of controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has frequently made anti-Semitic comments throughout the years. Farrakhan and his anti-Jewish sentiments were very much in the spotlight in the early to mid 1990s.

The artwork on “From the Same Cloth” is definitely well-rendered by the team of Chris Sprouse & John Beatty. Sprouse had previously worked on Legion of Super-Heroes with the Bierbaums, and a few years later would do stunning work on Alan Moore’s Tom Strong series. Beatty previously provided effective inking for Mike Zeck and Kelley Jones.

I thought Youngblood Strikefile was a good idea, as it presented some good, interesting stories such as this one. It’s unfortunate that it only ran for 11 issues.

“Slow Emotion Replay” in Team Youngblood #16 (Dec 1994) is written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by John Stinsman, inked by Jaime Mendoza, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Laura Rhoade.  The story is told from the perspective of Youngblood Away Team field leader Sentinel, aka Marcus Langston, after he is “kicked upstairs” to an administrative position. Sentinel reflects on the recent events that led to his unwanted promotion, as well as on his colleagues & teammates, among them Masada, who he regards in a very positive light.

Masada also plasd a role in the bizarre gender-bending crossover “Babewatch” that ran through the Extreme titles in late 1995. Masada joins up with Riptide, Vogue and Glory to fight against the members of Youngblood who had been transformed into women by the evil sorceress Diabolique.

One other occasion when Masada had some time in the spotlight was in the Youngblood Super Special (Winter 1997) published by Maximum Press. “Good Enough” was written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by Al Gordon & Danny Miki, lettered by Kurt Hathaway & Steve Dutro and colored by Laura Penton & Christian Lichtmer.

Borrowing from one of Star Trek’s favorite tropes, “Good Enough” sees a group of godlike alien beings putting humanity on trial by testing the members of Youngblood’s worthiness to possess their powers & abilities. In Masada’s case she is subjected to a vision of the souls of Judaism accusing her of squandering her power to “play superhero” rather than defending her religion. Masada overcomes her doubts, arguing that she is indeed worthy of the gifts the spirits have endowed her with:

“You gave me this power to further the cause of good over evil! How can I restrict my deeds to simply upholding the Jewish faith?”

One highlight of the Super Special was seeing Masada penciled again by Chris Sprouse. He definitely did a good rendition of the character. Sprouse also penciled Masada’s profile pic in Youngblood Battlezone #2 (July 1994) making him, along with Yaep, the definitive artist of the character.

Since the late 1990s Youngblood has only been published sporadically. As a result the majority of the characters, Masada among them, have been limited to a handful of cameos & crowd scenes over the past two decades. Still, despite Masada’s absence from the spotlight, I look back fondly on the character’s appearances.

So why exactly did Masada become significant to me as a reader? Back in the early 1990s there were relatively few Jewish characters in mainstream comic books. Offhand I think the only noteworthy ones were Shadowcat, Doc Samson, Sabra and Vance Astrovik. At that point in time Magneto had been retconned to be a gypsy (a change not explicitly undone until 2009), Moon Knight’s Jewish heritage was something that no one talked about, The Thing / Ben Grimm,  Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Harley Quinn had all yet to be revealed to be Jewish, Wiccan and the Kate Kane version of Batwoman were both over a decade away from being introduced, and I hadn’t yet discovered American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: representation matters. It was important for me as a teenage Jewish reader to see characters who had similar backgrounds to me, to whom I could identify. Masada helped fulfill that crucial role.

And that is why I will always argue in favor of representation, because I know full well how much it meant to me as a young fan when there where characters with whom I could identify.

It’s the Jewish holiday of Chanukah this week, so I felt this was a good time to look back on Masada, and to explain her personal significance.

Celebrating Chanukah with The Thing

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is coming up, which makes this a good time to look at one of the most famous Jewish heroes in comic books: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, the orange super-strong rock-like Thing from the Fantastic Four.

The Fantastic Four, who made their debut in August 1961, were created by two Jews, writer/editor Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and co-plotter/penciler Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). The Thing was never identified as any particular religion by Lee & Kirby.  However, the personality & background of Ben Grimm, a gruff-taking, street-smart, working-class Joe who grew up on the rough & tumble streets of the Lower East Side during the Great Depression, was similar to Kirby.  It was often suggested that Ben Grimm was a semi-autobiographical creation.  Interviewed in 1987, Kirby acknowledged the similarities…

“Yes, everybody I’ve talked to has compared me to Ben Grimm and perhaps I’ve got his temperament, I’ve got his stubbornness, probably, and I suppose if I had his strength, I’d be conservative with it. Ben Grimm is that way… If he uses his strength, he’ll use it in a justifiable manner– to save somebody, or to help somebody, or to see that fairness grows and evolves and helps people.”

In a 1976 Chanukah card Kirby drew the Thing as Jewish. It’s unknown if this meant that Kirby actually saw Ben Grimm as Jewish, or if it was just a humorous bit he did for a card he was sending to his family & friends.  Nonetheless, for years this fueled speculation among both comic book fans and creators that the Thing could be Jewish.

ben-grimm-the-thing-chanukah-by-jack-kirby

The Thing’s faith was finally identified in Fantastic Four volume 3 #56 (August 2002). “Remembrance of Things Past” was written by Karl Kesel and drawn by Stuart Immonen & Scott Koblish.  A brooding Thing finds himself back on Yancy Street, where he grew up decades earlier.  He runs into Hiram Sheckerberg, a curmudgeonly pawn shop owner who knows Ben Grimm from way back when.  The still-cranky Sheckerberg at first mistakenly believes the Thing is part of an extortion racket that is threatening him.  However the true culprit soon turns up at the pawn shop: Powderkeg, aka “the man with the explosive aura,” a super-powered thug whose shtick is that he literally sweats nitroglycerine.

The Thing defeats Powderkeg, but during the fight Sheckerberg is knocked out. Believing the old man is dead or dying, the Thing begins say the Mourner’s Kaddish.  It turns out Sheckerberg was only stunned.  After getting to his feet, the crabby pawn shop owner addresses the Thing…

Sheckerberg: It’s good, too, to see you haven’t forgotten what you learned at Temple, Benjamin. All these years in the news, they never mentioned you’re Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little?

The Thing: Nah, that ain’t it. Anyone on the internet can find out, if they want. It’s just… I don’t talk it up, is all. Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ Jews are all monsters like me.

Sheckerberg disagrees with the Thing’s assessment that he is a monster, reminding him of the legend of the Golem…

“He was a being made of clay — but he wasn’t a monster. He was a protector.”

fantastic-four-vol-3-56-pg-19

The police and paramedics soon arrive. The Thing, having wrapped up Powderkeg in a lamppost, is ready to hand over the thug to the authorities.  But first we get this little exchange…

Powderkeg: And you’re really Jewish?

The Thing: There a problem with that?

Powderkeg: No! No, it’s just… you don’t look Jewish.

In the decade and a half since that story, the Thing’s faith has been addressed by subsequent writers, usually in passing. I feel this is the best way to handle it, showing him as a super-hero who happens to be Jewish, rather than making his faith the central, defining aspect of his character.

Nevertheless, on occasion Ben Grimm’s religion has been addressed head-on, such as in the story “Last Hand” written by Dan Slott and drawn by Kieron Dwyer, in The Thing #8 (August 2006).

Sheckerberg and Rabbi Lowenthal approach Grimm about having a Bar Mitzvah. The Thing is confused, pointing out that he is much older than 13.  Sheckerberg observes that it has been 13 years since Grimm was reborn as the Thing.  A reluctant Grimm agrees, spending the next month studying with Sheckerberg and Lowenthal.  Finally the big day comes.

It’s worth nothing that Ben’s Haftorah is from the Book of Job, which is not part of the Jewish Old Testament. However this nevertheless in an appropriate choice on Slott’s part, given the struggles that Ben has been forced to endure since his transformation.

the-thing-8-pg-18-bar-mitzvah

The Thing’s faith has also been mentioned in a few Holiday Specials, with Ben being shown observing Chanukah instead of Christmas.

Truthfully, Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday, not like Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, Chanukah typically falls in the month of December, around the time of Christmas.  The exact dates vary from year to year, since the Jewish faith is based around a lunar calendar rather than a solar one.  (Yeah, that’s Jews for you; we just have to be different!)  Because of its close proximity to Christmas, often Jews will exchange gifts.

“Chinese Food for Christmas” written by Jamie S. Rich and drawn by Paco Diaz appeared in the Marvel Holiday Special 2011. Playing on the idea that Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas, the Thing is planning to attend a big Chinese buffet organized by Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat of the X-Men, Marvel’s other significant Jewish hero.

En route to dinner, the Thing encounters an odd creature that has been stealing Christmas decorations.  It turns out the creature was trying to put together a Christmas party for the orphans at the Yancy Street Children’s Home, which ran out of money.  Ben Grimm invites the kids and their odd benefactor to the buffet dinner, where we see Shadowcat, as well as several other Jewish heroes, namely Moon Knight, Songbird, Sasquatch and Wiccan.

marvel-holiday-special-2011-pg-40

Casting my mind back to 2002, I recall that I was genuinely thrilled to find out that the Thing was Jewish. When I was a kid, I was definitely shy & insecure.  In general I didn’t feel like I fit in.  The fact that I was Jewish added to that, giving me one more thing about which to feel different.  This was especially true in December, when everywhere you turned it was Christmas all the time.

It’s worth noting that I felt this way even though I lived in New York, which has a significant Jewish population.  I can only imagine how much more of an outsider I would have felt if I had grown up in a different part of the country.

My experiences when I was younger definitely led me to appreciate the importance of representation in pop culture. When I was a kid there were very few Jewish characters in movies, television or comic books.  This left me with almost no one to identify with, which exacerbated my feelings of being different.  I was already in my mid-twenties when the Thing was revealed to be Jewish, but it nevertheless felt really significant to me that one of the most iconic Marvel Comics characters was revealed to be Jewish.

There was an excellent piece written last year by Mordechai Luchins, “That Time My Four Year-Old Schooled Me on Representation.” I definitely agree with the sentiments expressed by the author.  It is crucial to have diversity in pop culture.  Just as I really wanted, and needed, for there to be Jewish heroes in the stories I read and watched, so too do women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, the LGBT community and other groups want and need the same thing.

fantastic-four-vol-3-56-pg-22

I think it is very easy for some white Christian males to take for granted that the majority of the characters in movies and television and comic books and other media look & sound like them. I really hope that these people will eventually come to understand the importance of diversity, and to realize that pop culture is big enough for all of us.

Whoever you are, whatever you celebrate, I hope that you all have a very happy holiday season.