BOYS’ TOWN OF ITALY GALA AND MEMORIES OF A NEW YORK ITALIAN-JEWISH SEDER
“The Forward! That’s my paper!” Lainie Kazan exclaimed as she and I chatted at the April 3 Boys’ Town of Italy Gala, held at The Pierre. It was a fundraiser for the Rome-based home for disadvantaged, homeless children from around the world (and a model for Boys Town Jerusalem), and the photographers were in overdrive. There was Ruth Westheimer (“I’ve just published my 35th book!”), next to Alp-high singer-dancer Tommy Tune. Statuesque Brazilian superstar Luciana Jimenez (who had a child by Mick Jagger) wore an extremely dramatically low-cut gown that elicited gawks from many gala guests. Also photo-blitzed were silver-maned supermodel Carmen Dell’Orifice, still gorgeous at 78, and ultraglamorous chanteuse Liliane Montevecchi. Hosted by “Saturday Night Live” alum Joe Piscopo, the evening had a special guest: philanthropist Veronica Atkins, who was born in Russia and whose husband was the late Dr. Robert Atkins, creator of the famed Atkins Diet.
During the reception, Kazan and I revisited the “good old days” at the Catskills’ Kutsher’s Country Club, where we had met. She had been a frequent guest, always seated at the Kutcher family’s table in the dining room. During a photo-op lull, Dell’Orifice told me: “I was raised in the Depression by a single mother. We lived in shelters.” Don’t recall how Bernard Madoff (who stiffed her big-time) invaded the conversation, but if I remember correctly, she said something that sounded like “a voodoo doll.” Montevecchi, who became incensed because her name was being mispronounced by some of the award presenters, jumped up from her chair and belted out: “It is M-o-n-t-e-v-e-c-c-h-i !” Her name remained mangled, but her renditions of chancons (lyric-driven French songs) were enthusiastically applauded.
Being that it was a week before Passover, I asked Montevecchi if she remembered the 1988 Italian-Jewish Seder in which she had participated. “Mon Dieu!” she exclaimed, adding a dramatic wave with her hand. The nonkosher, nontraditional Seder was held at Marcello’s, an Upper East Side Italian restaurant that has since closed. Led by rabbi-become-financier Malcolm Thomson, the co-master of ceremonies was Joey Adams, who sang a juicy “Oyfn Pripetshik.” Instead of the traditional “Ha Lokhma Anya” (“This Is the Bread of Affliction”), Eddie Fisher warbled, “Sing a song of Israel”!!
Tovah Feldshuh, whom Thomson had bat mitzvahed as a 13-year-old (and who is currently starring on Broadway in “Irena’s Vow”), asked the Four Questions. Following Sylvia Miles’s quasi-historical answers, Feldshuh went to a back corner of the restaurant to breast-feed her then 4-week-old daughter, **Amanda-Claire. When called upon to read from the Haggadah, Montevecchi, the only Italian present (other than the waiters), prefaced every guttural Hebraic word — for example, charoses — with “Oh, Jesus!” and then would quickly apologize: “Mon Dieu! With my accent, nobody understands a bloody word of what I am saying!”
Since I had brought a batch of copies of the Forward with me to the Seder, Thomson used the occasion to explain the role the Forward played in the lives of American Jewish immigrants and recalled the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and its impact on America’s labor movement. He also expressed nostalgia for the Forward’s Bintel Brief column. As far as I know, there has not been another such Italian-Jewish Seder in the United States.
JEWISH BOARD OF FAMILY AND CHILDREN’S SERVICES HONORS ITS OWN BENEFACTORS
“We are seeing the repercussions of the growing economic crisis in the lives of individuals and families coming through the doors of our community counseling centers, and in the voices we hear on the phone from people seeking help,” said Paul Levine, CEO of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. Though the April 2 JBFCS gala benefit at Cipriani 42nd Street raised more than $1 million — “more funds than raised in previous years,” as noted by John Hermann Jr. JBFCS’s president of the board — what made this event memorable was the 400 guests’ unabashed admiration for the honorees: Weil Gotshal & Manges partners and JBFCS trustees Michael Epstein, Lori Fife, Stephen Jacobs, and Lori and John Reisberg.
Notwithstanding the daunting national statistics — in preface to the video, Levine stated, “One in four adults, 26.2% of Americans, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year” — the disclosure that “at our doorstep, 65,000 people in the five boroughs and Westchester rely on JBFCS’ s 175 programs ” hit home. Once the mass statistics were broken down into individual cases with their successes noted — via a video presentation — could JBFCS’s scope and reach be fully appreciated. Augmenting this was a sampling of case studies and profiles in its annual report: “Rachel, a young adult woman from an Orthodox family who was depressed and suicidal and engaging in very high-risk behaviors…. After years of misdiagnosis, access to and evaluation by JBFCS led to intensive psychiatric and chemical dependence treatment services…. She is now working her way through college as an ambulance driver and planning a career in nursing.” Another extreme case: “Leah, a young woman in her 20s, so severely disabled she crawled and ate her food from a bowl on the floor without utensils. Both of her retinas were detached. With JBFCS’s help, she was properly diagnosed…. Recently a nurse held out her medicine in a cup and Leah reached for it. It was the first time she had made any gesture to use her hands and feed herself!”In addition to its professional staff, JBFCS is fortunate to have access to another priceless resource — its 2,600 individual volunteers.
FRANCE HONORS NEW YORKER EDITOR DEBORAH TREISMAN WITH ITS ORDER OF ARTS AND LETTERS
On March 30, the French Consulate Cultural Services’ director,, Kareen Rispal, presented the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres to Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker. Treisman was lauded for such editorial coups as “rushing last fall to the New York Public Library to borrow a short story by Nobel Prize-winner Le Clezio and translating it in 24 hours so that ‘Celui Qui N’avait Jamais Vu la Mer’ [‘He Who Had Never Seen the Sea’] could run in The New Yorker’s following issue.” She credited “my French grandmother, Suzanne Touren, and my mother, Anne Treisman, for having spoken French around me whenever they didn’t want me to understand something, [thus] inspiring a lifelong desire… to learn the language.” She paid tribute to “my stepfather’s sister, Ruth Kahneman… a child of Eastern Europeans… [who] lived in Israel for a long stretch…. For me, she was the quintessential Parisian…. Both these women embodied everything I love about French culture: a lifelong sense of youthfulness, and a sincere delight taken in the minor pleasures of life, from a good cheese or a slice of ginger cake to a line of poetry….”
Also honored were John Elderfield, who is the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, and Patrick Demarchelier, whom Rispal noted as “one of the world’s greatest fashion photographers.” By the time Rispal finished enumerating Demarchelier’s credits and kudos — “clients such as Calvin Klein and Chanel; hundreds of magazine covers, including Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue; an ironclad exclusive contract, first with Hearst Publications and then with Condé Nast; album covers for Quincy Jones, Elton John and Madonna; portraits of Laura Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Princess Diana of Wales, who requested that you be her personal photographer, [making you] the first non-British official photographer of the Royal Family” —Demarchelier seemed so overwhelmed, he modestly just said a simple “Merci. Thank you.”