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Winners of The Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing

Jewish American Heritage award
    

2018

Lesley Gore, Expressing her Voice
By Sarah Nachimson, Yula Girls High School, Los Angeles

Sometimes, I’m afraid of voicing my own opinion. Scared my voice won’t make an impact, that nobody will listen to the musings I have to offer. When adults at the Shabbat table debate their viewpoints on feminism or gun control, I sit silently and meekly, while holding all of my thoughts inside. But one singer, Lesley Gore, proved to me that it is indeed possible to make an impact, big or small, no matter your age.

When Gore was only sixteen years old, she recorded the vocals to the chart-topping single “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry if I Want To)”. The song proved an instant success, telling the story of teen drama with a playful melody. Still, despite its lightheartedness, the lyrics and tune have paved a threshold for a multitude of modern American music and are sampled by modern pop stars such as Rihanna, Drake, Eminem, Icona Pop, and Robin Thicke. Although becoming number one on the top charts before Gore graduated is extraordinarily impressive, this accomplishment isn’t one of Gore’s most incredible musical endeavors. At seventeen, she recorded another hit entitled “You Don’t Own Me.” The song has been cited as a factor of the second wave feminist movement. Recently, the melody has also served as a political manifesto opposing presidential candidates and sampled in numerous other singles, most notably by rap artist Eminem and on the Suicide Squad soundtrack by artists Grace and G-Eazy.

In addition to her musical legacy, Gore was also an advocate to many social rights movements. When she came out as a lesbian towards her musical career’s end, she began to become a figure in the LGBT community. Although she didn’t disclose her sexuality until later in her career, she has stated that she was always herself and never falsified her personality. In past years, she has hosted multiple episode of In The Life, the longest LGBT-focused TV program in history.

One component of Lelsey Gore’s career which particularly resonates with me is how courageous she was when speaking out about previously ignored topics. In the early 1960s, when she released her second number one track, the feminist movement was just reviving itself after decades of women staying silent. Gore broke the mold in “You Don’t Own Me” unexpectedly, especially for a girl as young as herself. In Lesley’s words “When I first heard that song, I have to say I didn’t immediately think of feminism, but I did think of humanism.” Her sentiment pertaining to the song is something which I find particularly meaningful. Now more than ever, with the epitome of contrasting political views throughout the country and in my own Jewish community, there are times when it is crucial that we put our opinions aside and look at the situation from humanity’s perspective. Lesley Gore’s songs and influence are significant to me, because they exhibit how a high schooler, like me, can express his or her voice and be heard.

2017

Hedy Lamarr, Beauty and the Brain

By Sonya Kest, Yula Girls High School, Los Angeles

After a long day in school, my favorite thing to do is come home, unplug and relax. My guilty pleasure involves connecting to Wi-Fi, logging into Netflix and watching “Friends”, my favorite show. It just so happens that if it weren't for Hedy Lamarr, my guilty pleasure probably wouldn’t exist. What I have come to learn is that there isn’t a TV show as intriguing as the real life story of Hedy Lamarr. Most people don't know that in addition to her astonishing beauty, Hedy Lamarr’s head was also chock full of brains. She was more than just a top WWII pin-up-girl and a manifestation of Hollywood glamour. Hedy’s intelligence far surpassed her pin-up poster image. She experienced more drama, pain, and trouble than anyone can ever pack into a trumped up Hollywood film.

At the young age of eighteen, Hedy, a successful screen actress in Germany, married an Austrian military industrialist fifteen years her senior. Hedy’s husband quickly put the kibosh on her acting career. He was a military arms dealer with direct ties to Hitler, Mussolini and their respective fascist governments. German leaders routinely visited Hedy's home to discuss defense forces with her husband, Friedrich Mandl. Little did anyone know, the young bride was paying close attention and concocting inventions in her own mind. Desperate to escape her abusive, controlling husband, Hedy devised a plan. On August 10th, 1933, she convinced her husband to let her wear all her jewelry out. However, instead of returning home, she ran away with all her jewels and plans for a new future.

As fate would have it, Hedy boarded a ship to the United States carrying a man named Louis B. Mayer. Mayer eventually featured her in many movies, including Samson and Delilah. Hedy slowly began to nurture her inner Thomas Edison, fostering all the ingenuity she learned in her previous life monitoring her horrible husband's meetings. In her spare time, she invented machines and other creations. Her most successful patent was based on the idea of frequency hopping. This patent became the progenitor for Wi-Fi. Without Hedy’s invention, technology might not be where it is today.

What speaks to me most about Hedy is her incredibly abundant courage, intelligence and modesty. She abandoned the comforts of an opulent European life and started over in a new country. She also balanced a full life of acting and intellectual pursuits. Hedy busted stereotypes. She was very successful yet humble, intelligent and stunningly gorgeous. On the Merv Griffin talk show, the host asked her what brand she wears and what she does with her money. She simply replied that none of that matters and she's just glad she is healthy. Like Hedy Lamarr, I hope to balance my social life with my cerebral endeavors and I aspire to be courageous and brave. I hope this incredible Jewish heroine’s amazing story is always remembered.

2016

Leonard Adleman

By Aaron Feldman, Milken Community Schools, Los Angeles

A pinch of DNA, weighing but 6 grams, contains over 80 times more information than the most complex computer. DNA is the building block of our existence, determining the proteins that express our genetics. So I was fascinated by Jewish scientist Leonard Adleman’s experiments using DNA rather than integrated circuits for computation. He wanted to use the base pairs of adenine-thymine and guanine- cytosine to represent the zeroes and ones used for data storage and calculation in computers. His first proof-of-concept experiment in 1994 proved successful. Using various sequences of DNA as encoded pathways, Leonard Adleman conquered the previously unsolved Hamiltonian Path computation problem. Adleman, "the father of biocomputing" had essentially created an entirely new field by blending molecular biology and computer engineering.

He harnessed nature’s code for life, which it has been perfecting for millions of years, to further our modern society’s technological capabilities. Biocomputing can perform calculations that are too large for current computers. Moreover, because DNA can replicate, biocomputers could actually "grow," providing increasing computational ability with each DNA replication.

Adleman’s work can also be expanded by using DNA as so-called "doctors in a cell." These molecular biocomputers could regulate certain cellular processes, preventing and treating diseases by releasing small quantities of drugs within the body.

Leonard Adleman’s work inspires me because of its novelty and huge potential. He explores the question of life, speculating that human beings are intelligent, adaptive biological computers. He merges seemingly disjoint fields, with bold, futuristic experiments. As Adleman points out, "biology and computer science—life and computation— are related. I am confident that at their interface great discoveries await those who seek them."

Incredibly, not only did Leonard Adleman invent biocomputing, but he has advanced chemistry, computer science, mathematics, and even AIDS research. He is a true Renaissance man who defines the modern era. Like Adleman, I too am interested in many subjects: computer science and biology, but also writing, history, and piano playing. I remember working on my computer one night, switching between developing a computer program and drafting a speech on organ donation while listening to the Rachmaninoff piano piece I was learning.

As I get older and college applications near, I have been told to focus on only a few of my interests. However, I am more than just a “science guy” or a writer. Adleman managed to succeed in many areas, and I too wish to continue learning and exploring my many deep interests. I can’t narrow myself down, because each of these topics is a part of what I love and who I am. Just like Adleman, who sits in his office for hours with nothing but blackboard and chalk, I love to think… and to only think in one way, about one topic, would not let me experience the world of learning and knowledge to my full capacity.

2015

Aaron Copland: The heart of America.

By Maetal Gerson of Los Angeles

Through art, we express the passion and freedom of the mind and soul. As a young child, I took the passionate idea to heart, banging on any piano keys I could find, calling my mom to stop the car when a particularly exquisite Palestrina Mass came on, and jumping up to conduct Beethoven’s Pastoral when I was three. For me, music spoke a language so beautiful I couldn’t help but respond. Those who have the ability to capture an essence in a brush of color, a dissonant chord, or a verse of poetry and who can sculpt that essence into something that is exquisite, are beloved. They are called Artists. One such Artist is the man, Aaron Copland. With the same passion as I, but with a specific spirit to express, Copland wrote the pieces that would, in his lifetime, label him the “father of the American sound.” The spirit he expressed was the heart of America.

To listen to Copland’s music is to peer through a kaleidoscope into America. He took tunes from the many different traditions and cultures within our nation and found a way to harmonize their dissonances to create a unifying message. Aaron Copland became famous just after the Post War years, when Americans were searching for a way to see themselves as a nation. As a young artist, Copland was already incorporating bits of Jazz, Latin, and even Klezmer music into his own works. All he had to do was to tie these tunes together to express America. Copland did not capture, but unleashed the wild rhythms of the West with his driving rhythms, and he returned time and time again to the simple and traditional Shaker melodies. In the process, he found the simple dignity and wild exuberance that was America. Above all, his music is honest at the core. It is this honesty that flows through the ears and into the hearts of all Americans who listen to Copland’s works. His universal strokes express a harmonized America.

I have not yet seen the America that is envisioned in Copland’s music. The America I hear today is far from harmonized. Even Copland did not experience the America he envisioned in his masterpieces. He was, in fact, blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Perhaps he wrote so deeply about his country because he understood its flaws. In the open chords and the wistful melodies, there is an unmistakable undertone and longing to be free.

Through his art, Copland reminds us that we live in a great land; one that is breathtakingly vast and that is infused to the very roots with unbridled freedom. The music dances through time, for within the deep tones lies the soul of America. This is a land of dissonances, of harmonies, and of resolutions. It is this promise of resolution that makes his music universal. The music dances through America. And it dances through me.

2014

Betty Friedan: The feminist and activist was a woman with a pen and a will to change the world.

By Gabriella “Gabi” Kamran of Los Angeles

I hear it in my Jewish Law classroom, my Girl Talk minyan, my school newsroom, my synagogue, my home. Feminism isn’t Jewish, they say, referencing mechitzas and tefillin and passage after passage of polygamy, rape, Eve and her fateful fruit. Each time, my heart sinks an inch as I am forced to repeat the words that have become so familiar, referencing Eshet Chayil, Queen Esther, Judge Devorah and Betty Friedan.

I tell them of the summer of 1970, when Friedan stood on the steps of the New York Public Library at the Women’s Strike for Equality and said, “Down through the generations in history, my ancestor prayed, ‘I thank Thee, Lord, I was not created a woman.’ From this day forward women all over the world will be able to say, ‘I thank Thee, Lord, I was created a woman.’” It was a natural confluence between two pillars of identity, the halves of spirituality that make up the whole Jewish woman. It was tikkun olam, tzedek tzedek tirdof, and betzelem Elohim meets freedom and justice for all. This was the common thread woven into every aspect of Friedan’s work, from “The Feminine Mystique” to the National Organization for Women, and it is a thread that continues into the tapestry of my own life.

I see Betty Friedan when I find my mom washing dishes in the kitchen at midnight while my dad watches “24” on the couch. I hear Betty Friedan when my grandfather tells my pregnant cousin that he’s sorry she’s having a baby girl. I feel Betty Friedan when I read the Torah alongside my male classmates and when I explore the depths of my self-worth. As I study Friedan and her accomplishments in my U.S. history textbook, a part of me leaps out and clings to the words on the page because in those words I see a reflection of myself: a woman with a pen and a will to change the world.

With words and a powerful voice, Friedan picked up fragments of our broken world, the fragments of women who had fallen from the earth, and pieced them together to make one united olam. But you can still see the cracks, the places where darkness peers through and rattles the gaps between the pieces of our planet, the male and the female. I have taken it upon myself to wield my pen like crazy glue and smooth the cracks to finish what Friedan started. Because Betty, you hoped that I would say, “I thank Thee, Lord, I was created a woman,” but here, today, I shout out loud, “I thank you, Betty, for you I am proud to be born a woman and a Jew.”

2013

Bess Myerson: The Walk of an American Jew

By Dafna Fliegelman of Suffern, New York

At one point in everyone’s life, a wish is made. A wish so distant from home and completely out of reach. A wish that more likely than not, won’t come true. But never the less we wish anyway; we dream on anyway. Because having high hopes is important and being let down makes us stronger in the end. Therefore we hold on to what helps us fall asleep at night and what makes us wake up in the morning with a smile on our faces. It is the dreams we pray will come true. And sometimes they really do. Bess Myerson is a prime example of how young desires can become reality.

Bess was born on July 16th 1924, to a strong Jewish family. She grew up in New York, in the Bronx. She lived in a multi-family dwelling with her parents, Louis and Bella, and two sisters Helen and Sylvia. Just after graduating Hunter College with a degree in music, her oldest sister Sylvia entered a photograph of Bess into the Miss American Pageant. Before long her, fame began to unravel like the red carpets she would soon be walking on. At first she was advised to change her name to give off a “less Jewish” appeal but Myerson refused. Being Jewish was always something she took pride in and never tried to hide the fact that she was a Jew. She felt proud to strand for something.

After winning over the judges with her charm and musical talent her fame truly began. But not all of it was so positive. Many sponsors for Miss America pulled out once they found out a Jewish woman had won. Many were shocked and angered by this, but Bess stayed strong and kept her head high, and her heals even higher. The year of 1945 was a wonderful year for our Miss America but also incredibly difficult. After being exposed to anti-Semitism and hatred first hand, Bess Myerson decided to take a stand. She began to speak for Anti-Defamation League (ADL) at schools and public services.

A few years later Bess Myerson had another fantastic breakthrough when she began appearing in television programs and became a pianist. No matter where Bess Myerson went in life, she always kept Judaism in her heart and on her mind. She became a well known spokes-figure for Israeli bonds. Bess Myerson never let the minds of other interfere with how she felt about herself. She stayed strong and chose the highroad. I admire her strength and ability to be her own person. She has power from within that she let shine through and she stayed true to her Jewish heritage. She is a wonderful Jewish American that I look up too. She had many roads that lead to great paths in her life, but even with all the sunlight on her way, she never forgot where she came from; which road led her to where she is.

Runers up


2018

Drake: I'm a Jew and I Know It


By William Krause, The Frisch School, Paramus, New Jersey

Music helps me get under my mother's skin. I rarely pass up the opportunity in the car to abruptly yank her out of her relaxed classical music mode by turning the tuner to the right two notches to blast the hip-hop station. Her utter distaste for the loud, base heavy sounds never fails to amuse me. "It's Drake", I assure her, "he is Canadian. You'll love him".

My relationship with music is limited. It serves two purposes. Not only my go to tool of mother torture, it prepares me for games. The intensity of the beat and lyrics seep into my blood and pump me up. I become the warrior ready for battle. My playlist, is predominantly one artist. Drake.

Lacking formal music training, I can't explain the technicalities of Drake's musical composition. I wonder if he even could. What I do know is that Drake is one of the most acclaimed rappers of all time, winning 96 music awards and worth over 90 million dollars. A resumé to make any mother proud.

Or maybe not. Drake is Jewish. He attended Jewish day school and even celebrated his bar mitzvah. In a culture where most parents are pushing law school and medical school, the fast paced, vice-filled music industry may not be a Jewish mother's ultimate goal for her son. Even if his mother sheps nachas over her son's domination of the hip hop industry, do his fellow tribe members stick his blow up picture on the wall of Jewish icons? Conversely, does he still identify with the chosen ones, having chosen an atypical path of his own?

From the looks of it, Drake does identify at some level as a Jew. He sometimes sports a diamond studded chai necklace on his neck. He openly discusses his Jewish heritage when interviewed. The lyrics in his songs reference his Judaic lineage with stanzas like "I was born to do it, born to make bomb music/ I flow tight like I was born Jewish/ Well, actually I was born Jewish". And if you could look past the sacrilegious content, one of his latest videos casts Drake in a tallit and a kippah, bowing his head as he reads from the Torah, and includes pictures of his own bar mitzvah. While he may identify as a Black man or a Canadian more, he eagerly shares his Jewish roots.

Drake certainly does not personify the traditional Jewish contributor to American music. One would not peg him for a Jew like one would Barbra Streisand or Billy Joel.

His music genre may feel virtually the opposite to those with typical Jewish undertones. His outer image may not embrace Judaism like Nissim does. The thing is that when he unabashedly acknowledges his Jewish heritage, that inevitably makes Judaism more relatable to the broader public. He encourages popularity by association and that's something to be proud of. It's Drake, Mom- he is Jewish - you'll love him.


2013

Jonas Salk: The Face of Bravery


By Olivia Mittman of New York City

In 1952, fifty eight thousand cases of Polio were reported.  It was the most devastating of the polio epidemics that had struck the U.S.  Over three thousand people died and thousands more were left in a state of paralysis.  Fear had taken over the nation.  Years later, Jonas Salk would emerge with a life-saving solution.

Jonas Salk was born in 1914 to a humble family in New York City.  From a young age, he was a dedicated learner and was noticeably gifted.  Salk joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1947 and took on a project by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to research the different types of polio. Through his work, he saw an opportunity to develop a cure.  He eagerly assembled a team and began a fight to end the devastating disease. 

Salk took charge of the team and worked tirelessly to develop the vaccine.  By 1954, he had begun testing the vaccine on humans.  Some of the first people to receive the vaccine were members of his own family, including himself.  Salk risked his own life for the sake of others.  He courageously experimented on himself to spare others the possible dangers of the vaccine.

Jonas Salk truly embodied the morality of Judaism.  He cared about the well being of others and devoted his life to them.As a Jew, he encountered anti-Semitism and was denied many opportunities.Despite the prejudices he faced, Salk stayed true to his identity and never gave up on his aspirations.

true to his identity and never gave up on his aspirations.  

Salk demonstrated Pikuach Nefesh, a Hebrew term for the preservation of human life. Saving one’s life overrides any other religious law. When one is in danger, the other must do everything in their power to save him. If saving someone means breaking a law of the Torah, one is allowed to break that law. In the Talmud, we learn that one is permitted to kill an aggressor in order to save the victim. Similarly, polio can be considered the aggressor and the people its victims. Jonas Salk took it upon himself and risked his own life to end polio for the greater good.

When I think of American Jewish heroes, Jonas Salk is the first person to come to mind. As a young high school student looking towards the future, Jonas Salk is an inspiration. The wisdom Jonas Salk possessed was God-given, but his bravery was his choice. I, and my peers can learn from his courage and choice.

 

 
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