‘Center’ing Around Jewish Culture, Arts and History


By Masha Leon

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.

The Curtain raiser for the December 15 Center for Jewish History’s Board of Governors and Board of Directors annual dinner program was emcee Joel Chasnoff, a comedian whose reservoir of Jewish-Christian humor included references to “Jewish guilt” and a chuckler about the “Conservative Jew” who was “the Shabbos goy at an Orthodox building in Riverdale.”

Following greetings by center Chairman Bruce Slovin, Peter Geffen, the center’s executive director, told the 200 guests: “In the history of the Jewish People, there are few… parallels to the gift that America has given us.… There are few places… where we have given back so much to the country and culture within which… we live…. As a historical institution, we are about facts, figures and events… the experience [of] individual Jews and… Jews united and divided along ideological, religious and socio-economic grounds. We give life to the struggles and achievements of artists, musicians, doctors, lawyers, farmers, day laborers, seamstresses, manufacturers…. to all of us.”

Geffen recalled a 1972 trip to the Soviet Union with a small group of high school students from the Park Avenue Synagogue. “We all wore Stars of David… to attract the attention of ‘the Jews of Silence’.… In Leningrad, our guide, a young, beautiful woman… whispered… in my ear, ‘I am a Jew.’ … She told us she had never identified herself to anyone.… She wanted to know who she was and what her being a Jew was all about.”

“That whisper is answered in this building… home to the unique collections of the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute, the Yeshiva University Museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research… [and its] sole remaining library of Polish and Lithuanian Jewry.… This collection of the partners’ 1 million documents, 500,000 books, 250,000 photographs and archives…. contains the story of our people.”

The superb Rafi Malkiel Quintet’s program of music by Jewish American composers included Leonard Bernstein’s “America” (from “West Side Story”), Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Bob Dylan’s “Times They Are A-Changin’’’ Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” A special bonus was vocalist Sasha Dobson’s mesmerizing rendition of Richard Rodgers’s “Bewitched.” Dinner, served in the center’s atrium, included “braised flanken! mignon” (How’s that for “melting pot”?!).

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A few days earlier, at the December 12 American Society for Jewish Music and American Jewish Historical Society-sponsored “Chanukah in Concert” at the center, Isaiah Sheffer, artistic director of New York City’s Symphony Space, read Grace Paley’s charming short story, “Anxiety.”

The evening’s centerpiece, “Jewish Humor From Oy to Vey,” by Seymour Barab (“a comic opera in concert version”), proved more oy than vey. Cantor Martha Novick, Adrienne Cooper, Nico Castel and Cantor Robert Abelson, a quartet of superb vocalists, valiantly sang 16 Jewish jokes(!) set to composer Barab’s splendid operatic score. Here’s a sampling: Becky put away a dollar every time her husband made love to her. Husband says: “Had I known, I would have given you all my business.” (Oy!). A man sleeps with another man’s wife. The two decide to play Pinochle to see who gets to keep her. Punch line: “Can we make it a penny a point to make it more interesting?” (Oy!). Another: The Rabinowitz diamond, like the Kohinoor and Hope diamonds, comes with a curse. What’s the curse? “Rabinowitz,” his wife sings out. (Oy!)

Why, I wondered, would a composer — whose credits include “The Toy Shop” commissioned by the New York City Opera (performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.), and whose full-length Civil War opera, “Philip Marshall,” (inspired by Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize) — set such Catskills chestnuts to sublime music? Truth be told, many in the audience roared. Perhaps the jokes tickled memories of late late-night comics’ shows at Brickman’s, Grossinger’s, The Raleigh and The Concord? Maybe they did belong on the center’s stage as exemplars of American Jewish humor history.

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What always struck me about Jerry Orbach (who died December 28 at age 69) was his fluorescent smile and that he never took a bad picture. Among my recent encounters with Orbach are Martin Richards’s February 2001 Red Ball, at which he and his wife, Elaine, were honorees, and the February 2002 Bide-a-Wee “Have a Heart” dinner honoring canine heroes of Ground Zero, which the Orbachs chaired. When he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in January 2000, Orbach told the star-studded assemblage that after a Johnson-Humphrey election gala in 1964, he waited on a long line to get his coat. “Suddenly, out came Gregory Peck, [who] went to the head of the line past everyone — politicians, diplomats — got his coat and breezed right out. It was then I decided it was best to be an actor.” Our last chat was at the April 2002 American Theater Wing benefit honoring composers and lyricists. Orbach, the event’s master of ceremonies, whispered to me. “I had my picture in the [Yiddish] Forward when I was 11 1/2 years old.”

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Bravo to eagle-eyed and savvy Sylvia Bernstein of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and Jean Forman Shorr of Chicago for noting the glitch in my December 17 column regarding Beverly Sills never singing at the Met. Of course she did! While trimming the text of the banter between Sills and co-host Julie Andrews, I incorrectly noted Sills instead of Andrews as not having sung at the Met!

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The recent death of Diana Zborowski, wife of American and International Society for Yad Vashem Chairman Eli Zborowski, resonated personally. During my 1991 interview with Yitzhak Arad, then Yad Vashem’s chairman, I told Arad that my father, Matvey Bernstein (whom Arad knew in pre-war Warsaw), had donated his Holocaust archives to Yad Vashem. “Matvey was your father!” exclaimed Eli Zborowski, who sat in on the interview. “Your father was a witness at my wedding in Warsaw after we were liberated!”

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