Last weekend, there were several Jews who shined brightly in the public eye. Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots was the first Jewish MVP of the Super Bowl. Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots and a very generous philanthropist to Jewish causes, won his sixth Super Bowl title. And Adam Levine, lead singer of Maroon 5, performed at the halftime show.
But the real Jewish stars of the weekend for me were Chaim Witz and Stanley Bert Eisen, better known as Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, co-founders of the iconic rock band KISS. They played their final (well, we will see if really true) concert in Portland.
Let me share that last year I gave a speech at a national Jewish Federation conference all about KISS’s impact on my professional career. In many ways, they shaped my way of thinking about Jewish life and my role as a Jewish professional.
Before I tell you more, let’s understand where the two co-founders of KISS came from. First, Gene Simmons was born in 1949 in Haifa, Israel. His mother was a Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor who watched her family die in the concentration camps when she was 14 years old. At the end of World War II, she headed to Israel where she met her husband, Gene’s father. They eventually split and Gene and his mother came to the United States when he was only 8 years old (at that young age he was already fluent in Hebrew, Hungarian, Turkish, and Spanish and would later learn English in the United States).
Paul Stanley’s family also has a Holocaust connection. His mother and her family fled Nazi Germany from Amsterdam and his father’s parents were from Poland. Although neither Gene nor Paul were ever Jewishly observant (Gene did attend a yeshiva at age nine), being Jewish has always played a part in who they are.
It was September 10, 1975 and my mother celebrated her 33 rd birthday. We had the entire family over and my cousin brought with him the newly-released (that morning) morning) KISSAlive album . I was six years old and never heard of the band before. But the album cover with the painted faces, the loud guitar riffs and bass, and the song “Rock and Roll All Nite” turned me into an instant fan.
But there was something more to them and the album title said it all -- they are “alive.” They rock! Energetic. Extreme bravado. And they ooze confidence. They truly believe that “if you want the best – you’ve got the best” -- in them.
As an observer of the band and its members, here are some lessons I learned from KISS:
Gene Simmons once said, “What we’ve created is perhaps the four most iconic faces on planet earth.” Many of you may remember that fateful night on September 18, 1983 when KISS was on MTV and “unmasked.” They showed each member of the band without their makeup. I could literally hear screams throughout my neighborhood of people yelling at their television sets “put the makeup back on!” They took a risk, and moreover, emphasized that despite no makeup, the essence of who they are as a band was the same (yet eventually they would go back to the makeup).
The concert in Portland was fantastic! Just what one would expect. Loud … lots of pyrotechnics … theatrics – they were “on” and everyone at the Moda Center had the experience of “KISS alive!”
PS – I should note that the band’s current lead guitarist, Tommy Thayer, is a graduate of Sunset High School. His family also has a Holocaust connection.
His father was Brig. Gen. James Thayer, a very successful local business and community leader. On May 4, 1945, Thayer's platoon was hunting for German ammunition dumps near Wels, Austria. As they followed a remote forest road, the platoon began to find dead and emaciated people. At the end of the road, Thayer and his men discovered and liberated the Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp, part of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex, saving approximately 15,000 Hungarian Jews.