Jewish Women Speak Out

On The Go

By Masha Leon

Published April 30, 2009, issue of May 08, 2009.
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Star Power: Liv Ullman hosted the event.
Karen Leon
Star Power: Liv Ullman hosted the event.

The March 27 American-Scandinavian Foundation gala, honoring Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, was hosted by legendary Norwegian film star and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Liv Ullmann, with whom I recapped our past encounters. Gala co-chair Edward Elson, former ambassador to Denmark (1994–1998), welcomed the dinner guests. During our pre-dinner chat, Elson — whose credentials include trustee of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, past chairman of Commentary magazine and past chairman of the American Jewish Committee — told me, “I brought Morris Abrams into the AJC.” Gala guests at The Pierre included Lincoln Center chairman emeritus Martin Segal, who said of his visit with his cousin Marc Chagall in Paris in 1967, “He never asked me to sit down!” Janet Borge Crowle, daughter of Danish pianist and humorist Victor Borge, and her husband, Jim (whom her father Introduced in one of his TV shows as “my new son-in-law, ‘What’s-his-name”), were also among the guests.

I first met Ullmann in 1987, when she was given the Distinguished Service Award by the Writers and Artists for Peace in the Middle East, in recognition of her humanitarian activities as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, her concern for the survival of Israel and her documentary about refusenik Ida Nudel. Among the guests at that 1987 event were Elie Wiesel and Roman Kent, the latter a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto who invited Ullmann to be in his documentary, “The Children of the Holocaust.”

In 1993, my daughter Karen and I were sitting with Ullmann in her Manhattan apartment to chat about her film, “Sofie” (based on Henri Nathansen’s 1932 novel, “Philipsen & Son”). Ullmann described the film as “a chronicle of two brothers in Denmark from 1886 through the beginning of our century — one who wanted to remain a traditional Jew, and the other who chose to assimilate.” The film’s central character is Sofie, and she has a son who may or may not assimilate. “There was a lot of low-level antisemitism in Denmark then, and even today,” Ullmann told me during our talk. “But it was very genteel, very secretive, you know. I feel it very strongly, since I married a Jewish man, and see and hear it because nobody knows he is Jewish.” Ullmann and her husband have since divorced. I still remember Ullmann telling me, “Actually, I was closer to Jewish life in many ways than [my husband, Donald], and at the wedding, all the Jewish people were my friends.” When I later chatted with her husband, he remembered the Yiddish edition of the Forward from his childhood, and “out of nowhere,” he said, he remembered a Yiddish expression that popped into his head: In mitn drinen schvangert di bobe! In the midst of everything, the grandmother is pregnant! In other words — who needs this?!

Concurrent with the March 27 gala was the viewing of the wonderful Victor Borge: A Centennial Exhibition, held at the Scandinavia House, on Park Avenue at 38th Street. Borge was born Borge Rosenbaum in 1901. The exhibit features memorabilia and audiovisual components, and includes a photo of Borge’s paternal grandmother, who was of Prussian and Danish origin, and whom King Christian X visited on her 101st birthday. In a TV clip of one of his sidesplitting comic routines, Borge pays tribute to “inflation” and decides to “add one digit” to everything he could think of. As a result, Don Juan, became Don Two; “Once upon a time” became “Twice upon a time”; instead of “Let’s play tennis,” he invites you to “play elevennis,” and the United States Constitution became the U.S. Constithreetion. Much funnier when you hear him. If you get the print edition of the Forward or read this column online before May 2, there is still time to savor the Victor Borge feel-good exhibit.


“There are not enough women at the top of the pyramid of Jewish organizations,” declared Caryl Stern, an honoree at the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York’s April 1 luncheon. “What we bring to the table is as important as what men bring to the table,” said Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and the Anti-Defamation League’s former director of education and founding director of its award-winning A World of Difference Institute. Following a d’var Torah led by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the Rabbinical Assembly’s director of rabbinic development, JWFNY’s president, Lynn Tobias, told the 250 women at The Pierre, “To date, we have given away $2 million in grants to cutting-edge programs not filled by other agencies.” Honoree Dr. Freya Schnabel, recently appointed director of breast surgery at the New York University Cancer Institute and professor of surgery at NYU School of Medicine, said: “I was widowed at 42, and when my daughter invited me to speak to her [and her] eighth grade [classmates], I told them: “‘When you go out into the world, [be] a credit to your families, yourself and add value to the world.’”

Hosted by Paula Zahn, the event also honored Lisa Dennison, chairman of Sotheby’s North and South America, and art historian and lecturer Marlene Barsch Strauss. In its manifesto, JWFNY states: “When Jewish women are educated on breast cancer and genetics, they gain the knowledge to make more significant decisions about their lives and the lives of their families. When female rabbis and synagogues are encouraged to close the gender gap, women attain senior rabbi positions in major congregations across the country. When disadvantaged Jewish women in New York and Israel are given economic independence to start home-based businesses, they achieve success and open doors for other underprivileged women. When adolescent girls are given opportunities to explore issues of independence, empowerment and Jewish identity, they become strong women and our future leaders.” Current recipients of JWFNY grants include:

  • Footsteps, Inc. Women’s Program — Provides professional and peer support to women from some of New York’s most ultra-Orthodox sects who chose to transition into a more modern Jewish community.

  • The Jewish Theological Seminary: Evaded Curriculum — Helps train teachers to address issues such as eating disorders, substance abuse, unintended pregnancy, suicide, gender politics, violence, physical and emotional abuse, and bullying in the classroom.

  • Girl Scouts of Nassau County: Critical Issues Initiative — Expansion in the Jewish Community — Works with girls and adults to increase awareness of the dangers of relational aggression (bullying), and provides tools to stop destructive behavior.


“You didn’t think I was going to try Hebrew, did you?” joshed Les Hinton, CEO of Dow Jones & Co. and publisher of The Wall Street Journal, at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York’s March 31 gala. Citing a passage from Exodus, “‘You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong… nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute,’” Hinton, recipient of JCRC’s Corporate Leader Award, added: “I would like to think Israel’s sense of justice proper — which takes so much from the Torah — sets a  higher standard…. The Palestinians deserve sympathy, to be sure. What they don’t deserve… is a world in which there is no justice because there is no standard.… Too often in our world, too many take sides with the mighty to do wrong. Sometimes less obvious — but equally pernicious — is an occasional modern preference for the weak without regard to what’s right…. Many voices lined up a few months ago to pillory Israel for fighting the tyranny and aggression of Hamas in Gaza… [finding] fault not with a cause, but with the disproportionate balance in power.” Hinton concluded: “We are here because JCRC isn’t just about New York — or Israel — or even Jews. JCRC is about community and coalition, about dialogues and understanding.”

As in past years, the JCRC dinner at The Pierre offered a heavy-duty roster of greeters, including Janice Shorenstein, JCRC president; Louise Greilsheimer, UJA-Federation of New York’s senior vice president for Agency and External Relations; Assaf Shariv, Israel’s consul general in New York, and JCRC executive vice president and CEO, Michael Miller. The evening’s two other honorees were Eric Dinallo, superintendent of New York State Insurance Company, recipient of the Public Service Award, and Richard Paul Richman, chairman and founder of The Richman Group, recipient of the Corporate Leader Award.


“King David,” ACTOR-SINGER-COMPOSER David Sanborn’s one-man frenetic performance of Samuel I and Samuel II’s story of the king, is unlike anything one may have experienced in Sunday school, Hebrew school, Talmud Torah, yeshiva or Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring school. Directed by his mother, Ellen Sanborn (co-writer and co-composer), the production’s star, whose morphing skill mimics the plasticity of actor Jim Carrey, portrays some 20 major and minor characters in the biblical text: As Samuel, he drawls like Jimmy Stewart; as Goliath, he pumps iron and articulates like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and as an Israelite soldier, he mumbles in the style of Sylvester Stallone. What starts out as amusing gradually descends into discomfiture. Though the production, now playing at the off-Broadway Promise Theater, credits immaculate authenticity to a biblical text based on “The Jewish Publication Society and new King James translation,” I felt uncomfortable with what I perceived to be a missionary message embedded in this production.

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