Lord Is Honored, Just In Time

By Masha Leon

Published May 04, 2007, issue of May 04, 2007.
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“I want this to be an evening of hope,” declared Rabbi Arthur Schneier, senior rabbi of Park East Synagogue and president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, at the foundation’s March 27 awards dinner. Following “God Save the Queen” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the co-emcees — CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric and PBS interviewer Charlie Rose — artfully chaperoned the roster of speakers along with the evening’s honorees: Richard Holbrooke and Lord John Browne of Madingley.

John Negroponte, deputy secretary of state, told the guests at The Hotel Pierre: “I’m here to celebrate Lord Browne [group chief executive, BP, a natural resources company] and Richard Holbrooke [former ambassador to the United Nations and currently vice chairman of Perseus, an equity firm]…. Dick and I have been friends since we were roommates as young Foreign Service Officers in Vietnam.” After briefly alluding to such “difficult issues” as “Iraq, Iran, North Korea, the Middle East,” Negroponte homed in on the HIV/AIDS pandemic and its current 39 million victims worldwide. He touted “the president’s $15 billion emergency plan for AIDS relief over five years that will support treatment for 2 million people, [help prevent] 7 million new infections and care for 10 million people,” adding, “I can’t think of a better time or place than here tonight to highlight the continuing challenge of the greatest immediate health crisis affecting humankind.”

Browne was uncharacteristically passionate as he expounded on the theme of “multiple identities.” His extensive list of credentials includes nonexecutive director of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. and a trustee of the British Museum (1995-2005). He was knighted in 1988 and made a life peer in 2001. His mother, Paula, is a survivor of Auschwitz.

“I believe that at the heart of much conflict is the false belief that people can be labeled with a single identity….” Lord said. So a Jew behaves in one way, a Muslim in another…. People do not have single identities…. One of the features of… global markets is the changing relationship between individuals, corporations and the nation states…. It is possible to be a British-based company that employs almost four times more Americans than it dies Britons, and twice as many Russians as Americans…. We learned the hard way… people, however skilled… professional, didn’t want to cease being Russian…. We had to apply the principle of multiple identities. The greatest influence on my life was my mother. Before the war, she was a young girl in what is now Eastern Europe. She survived Auschwitz… married a British soldier, lived in Germany and England… and instilled in me [a belief] in looking forward rather than back… freedom of individual choice so long as it does no harm to others’ rights or minorities and underdogs in the face of the bullies who seek to make people conform to their view of the world.… One of my ambitions has been to break out of the standard social, cultural, racial base which used to be the requirement for employment… to help people whose identities are constrained by circumstances beyond their control… refugees and asylum seekers. The Jews and homosexuals who at different times in history have been physically marked out to make sure that everyone knew who they were…. I can [never] get out of my head that my mother… was a refugee and an asylum seeker.”

In a surreal twist, Browne resigned his post at BP this week after it came to light that he had offered false testimony in a court battle with a British tabloid over the details of his private life.

The evening’s speakers included Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank; Paul Wolfowitz, currently beleaguered president of The World Bank Group; and dinner chair Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. The invocation was delivered by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington and ACF vice president; the benediction was by Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and also an ACF trustee.


“My father got it in Yiddish and read it every day,” former New York City mayor Ed Koch told the overflow crowd at the April 22 launch of the exhibit “The Jewish Daily Forward: Embracing an Immigrant Community,” at the Museum of the City of New York. “I read it ‘religiously’ weekly in English. It’s a great paper…. Got a letter from a genealogist at Ellis Island about a document [indicating] that my father came here at 15 alone. It notes: ‘Not sure he’d be able to make it in this country’ — and that’s how I became mayor.” Pete Hamill, beloved Irish-American journalist and novelist and former editor of the New York Daily News and the New York Post, whose evocative and incisive introduction graces “A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life From the Pages of the Forward (W.W. Norton) whose publication coincides with the exhibition. Hamill informed the crowd: “I [was a] Shabbos goy in [a] synagogue in Brooklyn… so was Marty Scorsese’s father, Colin Powell’s father and… in 1940, a guy from Memphis, Tennessee — Elvis Presley.”

“Everything I know about the Forward I learned from [Forverts-founding editor] Abe Cahan,” Hamill continued. “I loved I.B. Singer, my most favorite Nobel Prize winner, who got the news [of his award] while sitting in a deli…. [The Forverts] had the largest circulation of any foreign [language] paper in the city… a number never matched by any foreign paper in the city. [Cahan] never wrote down to his readers — assumed the reader was smarter. Can’t imagine Abe Cahan’s take on Anna Nicole Smith. [Like other New Yorkers] Yiddish is in my DNA. It’s in all of us, no matter where your parents came from.” As an example, Hamill cited a front-page headline from the Spanish-language daily El Diario, in which a congressman insisted, “Serrano: no soy un schmuck.”

“Now that is a mentshekh Irishman,” said Forward publisher Samuel Norich of Hamill. Norich recalled the Forward’s 50th anniversary in 1947, which coincided with the publication of the extraordinary volume “The Vanished World” (seen tagged at a antiquarian sale-exhibit at $2,000). “In 1947 all we could say was Kaddish,” Norich continued. “Today we are not saying Kaddish but shehecheyanu.” Among the hundreds of organizational guests, Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring members, Forverts/Forward fans were many Forward staffers: Yiddish Forverts editor Boris Sandler, and English Forward editor J.J. Goldberg, associate publisher David Drimer, managing editor Wayne Hoffman, and arts and culture editor Alana Newhouse, who edited the amazing, must-have-on your coffee table-bookshelf “The Living Lens.” (What a bar/bat mitzvah gift!)

Following the exhibit opening, headed for Tang Pavillion for some Chinese takeout food. Who should be at a table, but Neil Simon! How’s that for a New York moment? Though over the years we had met at a number of events, I recalled our first encounter (March 1, 1987) at the star-studded “YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Honors Neil Simon” gala, held at the Shubert Theater. Not sure if Simon remembered all the details. With Joseph Papp at his side, Norich (then executive director of YIVO), presented Simon with a rare volume — one of only two copies extant [in Yiddish!] of the life and works of Sholom Aleichem. Simon told the audience that not only does he not speak Yiddish, but — to the dismay of the Yiddishists and YIVOists in the audience he also thought that few of those present in the theater spoke Yiddish! Papp’s rationale for the presentation was that he felt it was time to honor someone who, though he does not know Yiddish, is still an “outstanding creative force in Jewish literature and theater and — perhaps it is one way to reach out to a larger audience to heighten interest in Yiddish.”

Simon expressed regret that he had not seen the recent Yiddish version of his comedic masterwork, “The Sunshine Boys, ” staged by Isaiah Sheffer at Symphony Space and starring Theodore Bikel and Fyvush Finkel. “I don’t speak Yiddish,” he explained. As we parted, Simon said he was busy “at work” and would call me “later.”

What was uncanny about this encounter was that my coverage of the YIVO-Simon award event appeared in the May 15, 1987, English section of the Forward’s “90th Anniversary Jubilee issue! The front page listed a roster of Yiddish headlines with English translations: from the Forverts: March 26, 1911 — “The Morgue Is Full of Our Victims: The Triangle Fire Tragedy”; September 1, 1939 — “Nazi Army Deep in Poland Vilna, Warsaw, Lodz Bombed”; April 24, 1943 — Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Fight Nazis”; May 8, 1945 — War Ends in Europe” On the second page was a photo of then Forward general manager Harold Ostroff and then assistant editor Bernard Bellush, who were “planning the English section of the Forward” plus an in-depth article, “A Portion of a History: The Jewish Daily Forward,” by Jacob C. Rich.

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