Loving Living Legends

By Masha Leon

Published March 30, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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“Only in America [can you find] Irish supporters of the Jewish State of Israel,” declared Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel, at the March 6 Jewish Community Relations Council of New York gala dinner. Ailes presented the Generation to Generation award to Peter James Johnson, chairman of Leahey & Johnson, P.C., and to his sons, Christopher and Peter Jr. Acting as spokesman for the family, Peter Jr. enthralled the 500 JCRC guests as he meshed his own family’s history with the ethos of JCRC.

“Though we may worship in different houses, we share roots as diverse as Ireland, Russia and Poland. We share a history of privation and discrimination, a history of triumph over adversity, of optimism over pain, the need to give to those who have less, to share with those who need more and the desire to honor the Almighty, our nation and, yes, our fathers.” He recalled how “during the dark days of the Depression, my father helped his mother raise nine brothers and sisters…. As a police officer on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1940, he befriended an Eldridge Street storeowner who had fled Nazi persecution. He almost lost his life as a marine at Iwo Jima, lived his own ‘On the Waterfront’ saga helping clean up the mob-controlled longshoremen’s union in New York City, challenged the corruption of Tammany Hall and became one of the great trial lawyers in the country.

“My grandfather, a longshoreman, often walked past a kosher butcher store owned by [the evening’s guest of honor] Brian Schreiber’s family on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village. Did they ever imagine that Brian and the Johnsons would stand together at The Pierre Hotel on this cold March evening, united by a shared vision of a closer New York and stronger Israel?” Introduced by Martin Sullivan, president and CEO of American International Group, Inc., as “a mensch — an Irish expression,” he said, following by roars of laughter,” AIG senior vice president Schreiber touted New York’s diversity and demographic challenges and pinpointed “creativity” as Israel’s “biggest blessing.” Devorah Halberstam, director of government services of Devorah Halberstam, director of government services for Brooklyn’s Jewish Children’s Museum, offered the blessing over bread. UJA-Federation of New York’s president, Morris Offit,averred: “We at UJA value the strong [imperatives] of JCRC as a bridge builder,” and Matthew Maryles, JCRC’s outgoing president, received the Leadership Award from the council’s executive vice president and CEO, Michael Miller. As the evening’s final speaker, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke of his recent trip to Dublin and Israel, where he dedicated a ward at Hadassah Hospital in his mother’s name and another ward in his father’s memory. The mayor joshed, “My 98-year old mother insisted on a stop-off in Lisbon and Dublin because, she said, ‘I’m not sure I’ll get there again.’” Applauders included Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and his wife, Veronica; New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn; New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum; Kenneth Bialkin, American-Israel Friendship League president and board chairman; John Ruskay, executive vice president and chairman of UJA-Federation;Martin Begun, past president of the Jewish Community Relations Council; Yeshiva University PresidentRichard Joel; David Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust; Sally Goodgold, JCRC’s secretary of the board; AIFL’s executive committee chairman,Charlotte Frank; Matthew Lazar, founder and director of Zami Chorale; former New York City mayor David Dinkins; Howard Rubenstein, president and found of Rubenstein Associates, and City Comptroller William Thompson.


“At this stage of my career, to be the youngest nominee is a rare opportunity,” chuckled Clive Davis, the record industry’s influential executive and one of three “Living Legends” honored at the March 7 Lighthouse International Music of Winternight black-tie benefit. Quoting Emerson, Davis stated, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” I want to continually give back.” Chaired by Barbara Saltzman, the gala also honored Broadway and film star Carol Channing and Kitty Carlisle Hart, film and TV star and past chair of the New York State Council on the Arts. (Neither Hart nor Channing was able to attend. Flame-haired film star Arlene Dahl accepted the award for Channing, who was in Los Angeles.)

Braving a pre-dinner photo-flash barrage were WNBC News channel anchor Chuck Scarborough, film producer Martin Richards, diet maven to the stars Nikki Haskell (who prides herself on preparing superb Seders for celebrities) and Howard Lutnick, chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald. Italian film star Liliane Montevecchi made a head-turning entrance with her supermodel friend Carmen Dell’Orifice, who is still working in her 70s and had been talk show host David Susskind’s love interest when he died in 1987 at 66. Seeing Montevecchi reminded me of our first encounter, at an unforgettable 1988 Yiddish-Italian Passover Seder (more about that at the end of the column).

Emcee Scarborough recalled his father’s “struggle with macular degeneration,” then informed that “61 million Americans over 65 have some kind of eye disease [and] 165 million worldwide live without vision.” Tara Cortes, president and CEO of Lighthouse International, announced, “In three years, 20 million in the aging population will experience diabetes which robs them of their sight.” She touted the organization’s innovative programs of intervention for infants and services to enable people with vision loss to remain productive, as well as the Lighthouse Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School (founded in 1913), which provides quality music instruction to youngsters and adults — including professional musicians who are visually impaired. “Lighthouse taught me to use a voice-interactive computer,” said vision-impaired honoree Stephen Marriott, executive president of culture at Marriott International. at whose Marriott Marquis hotel ballroom the gala took place.


The 1988 Italian Seder, held on Manhattan’s East Side at Marcello’s restaurant (where I first met Montevecchi), was led by Rabbi Malcolm Thomson (then a partner of the firm Sanford C. Bernstein, investment bankers). Seder participants included Joey Adams, Lou Jacobi, Sylvia Miles, Marilyn Michaels and Tovah Feldshuh.

Between b Haggadah readings, Feldshuh breast-fed her 4-week old daughter, Amanda, aka Eyde Chaye, in a corner of the room. In its nontraditional and somewhat eccentric format, the Seder, instead of opening with the age-old holakhmo anyo (“this is the bread of affliction”), had “cantor” Eddie Fisher belting out “Sing a Song of Israel.”

Montevecchi, in black mini culottes and head-hugging hat, added an ecumenical touch by periodically calling upon Jesus for help when she could not pronounce the (transliterated) guttural kharoyses — one of the elements on the Seder plate. In beautiful Hebrew, Feldshuh asked the fir kashes— four questions. Joey Adams, who continued to trumpet his Jewish roots, sang all the verses of “Oyfn Pripetshik”— which he claimed his mother had sung to him lovingly in Yiddish. He then admonished, “Remember your Yiddishkeit, whoever you are” and, turning to Montevecchi, wagged his finger, underscoring, “and you, too!”

The Seder meal was a culinary revelation: bibini (turkey meatballs), a Piedmontese favorite of Primo Levi; ministra di riso per Pesach (Passover chicken soup with rice); carciofi alla giudia (artichokes, Jewish style), and for dessert, torta del re (king’s cake). As we progressed through the Haggadah, Thomson revealed historical tidbits, such as the fact that Benjamin Franklin wanted to use the image of the parting of the Red Sea on the obverse side of the United States seal. Thomson also touted the Forverts/Forward, and the role the paper played in the lives of Jewish American immigrants. He related the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and its role in America’s labor movement, and nostalgically recalled excerpts from the column A Bintel Brief.

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