Patti is LaBelle Of The Ball

By Masha Leon

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
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“Not every Pole is an antisemite! Not every Jew is anti-Polish,” declared Sigmund Rolat, president of Oxford International Corporation. Rolat was the honoree at the March 13 benefit for The Museum of the History of Polish Jews (breaking ground next month) and for the Florence & Chafetz Hillel House at Boston University. The event was held at the Center for Jewish History in conjunction with a not-to-be-missed Yeshiva University Museum photographic exhibit, And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews.” Rolat, who was born in Czestochowa and survived World War II in hiding, stated: “Poland as a nation was also a victim of the Nazis.… No other country has a larger list of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem than Poland…. The 1,000-year history of the Jews in Poland must not be forgotten! We fought for Poland. We were their cultural and financial engine…. [Polish Jews] won Nobel Prizes.” Apropos the museum in Warsaw (financed largely by Polish public funding and designed by a group of architects from Finland), the museum should be completed in 2009. Rolat, the museum’s North American Council treasurer, stressed: “This museum will say something of the uniqueness of Polish Jewry and its role in Poland [where] we began our history together 1,000 years ago.”

Golda Tencer, founder/director of the Shalom Foundation, Warsaw, Poland, introduced Shevach Weiss, former Israeli ambassador to Poland (2001-2003). Weiss, who was born in Boryslaw, Poland, survived the Holocaust, came to Israel in 1947, became a professor of philosophy at Haifa University and was speaker of the Knesset (1992-1999). Fluent in Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish, Russian and English, Weiss lectures to graduate students at Warsaw University and the graduate faculty of law at Tel Aviv University. Regarding his visits to [Polish] elementary and high schools, he feels he is “one of the last witnesses who speaks Polish and tells the story of the Jews in Poland.”

The evening’s roster of participants included Joseph Polak, Hillel rabbi at Boston University; Wayne Zuckerman, son of Holocaust survivors from Poland, noted philanthropist and a principal of Sterling Properties in New Jersey and; Stephen Solender, chairman and president of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews’ North American Council; Michael Berkowicz, chairman of the New York region of the Museum of Polish Jews, and Poland’s consul general in New York, Krzysztof Kasprzyk, who read a letter from Poland’s prime minister. Elie Wiesel** delivered a brief video message. **

The evening concluded with The National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene ensemble. Soloists Eleanor Reissa and Robert Abelson, plus Jacob Shulman Ment (violin), Matt Temkin (percussion) and Folksbiene executive director Zalmen Mlotek (who was at the piano), performed a montage of Yiddish songs from prewar Poland. One of the most delightful was the Reissa-Abelson duet about growing up multilingual: “Grandma speaks Yiddish; father is a Zionist and speaks Hebrew; mother speaks Russian; and the governess is German!” And in America there is trepidation about introducing a foreign language in elementary school!


At the star-studded Boys’ Town of Italy’s March 30 Ball of the Year, Peter Vallone Sr. speaker and majority leader of New York City Council from 1986 to 2001, was honored as Man of the Year. Songwriter Denise Rich introduced her friend and Celebrity of the Year honoree, soul singer Patti LaBelle. The evening’s other Celebrity of the Year was Ben Gazzara, who was presented the award by his longtime friend and co-star Gena Rowlands (he appeared with her in “Opening Night,” one of the films by her late husband, actor-director John Cassavetes. “I lived on 39th Street between First and Second Avenues. I had never seen a play, but joined the local boys club where I played an Arab in a local boys club play,” Gazzara said, touting “Boys Clubs all over the world, which help boys find their dreams.” During dinner, I congratulated Gazzara on his stellar performance in the highly praised 2006 Broadway revival of Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing.”

When Billy Crystal and the late Alan King emceed the Boys Town of Italy gala in 2003, King joshed, “They needed laughs, so they hired two Jews.” The mostly Italian crowd roared at King’s Catskillian jokes about “Billy’s bris” and “bar mitzvah,” and at the story of a Yeshiva University Albert Einstein medical school-trained, Gucci bag-wielding Italian doctor who had treated him in Naples. King had told the doctor, “Stick the thermometer wherever you want.”

The Italian-Jewish connection goes deeper than humor. The late Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing, an Irish priest who fought as a resistance leader in Nazi-occupied Italy, founded Boys Town of Italy in 1945. In his memoir, “But for the Grace of God,” he poignantly describes the disaster that befell the Jews of Rome and cites instances of the Nuncio’s intervention in establishing safe havens for Jews. I asked Brother Anthony D’Adamo, Boys’ Town’s executive vice president, if among the youngsters “of every race, color, creed” from 16 countries that have visited us in Rome, there had ever been any Jewish boys. “Oh, yes,” he said. “In the 1950s and earlier, we had several Jewish boys. We’d take them to their bar mitzvah instruction to Rome’s main synagogue…. We also had visitors from Israel from Boys Town of Jerusalem, which was modeled after the one in Rome.”

Coincidentally, earlier that week Rabbi Ronald Gray, executive vice president of Boys Town of Jerusalem (founded in 1948), sent me a recent journal. It includes mention of the presentation of the Jan Zwartendijk Humanitarian Award to Manli Ho, daughter of the late Dr. Fen Shan Ho, Chinese consul general in Vienna from 1938 to 1940. Fen Shan Ho issued visas to Shanghai for thousands of Jews. Zwartendijk, after whom the award was named, was the acting Dutch consul in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1940 when he issued 1,400 false visas for 2,000 Jews to Curaçao, a Dutch island in the West Indies. Without Zwartendijk’s “end” visa (final-destination visa), Japanese consul general Chiune Sugihara, also in Kovno, could not have issued Japanese transit visas — against his government’s orders — that rescued 6,000 (some accounts say 10,000) Jews, including me, my mother and Leo Melamed, current chairman emeritus of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, plus a number of major Yiddish writers and activists that included Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring’s Joseph-Yosl Mlotek. It was Boys Town of Jerusalem that posthumously gave Zwartendijk tangible recognition at its September 1996 dinner at New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, at which the award in his name was launched along with the announcement of the dedication of the Jan Zwartendijk Garden in Jerusalem.


There was a noticeable female presence among the 370 “suits” at the May 1 Israel Bonds Real Estate New Leadership luncheon at the New York Hilton. Though visibly itching to get back to their “deals,” no one left before keynote speaker Donny Deutsch, chairman of Deutsch Inc., dispensed his version of the keys to success. Host of CNBC’s primetime TV show “The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch,” he declared: “When doing business… always take the high road. It’s about that person’s trust. It’s [always] a relationship for the long run.” Among Deutsch’s savvy business nuggets:

Failure is your friend. The most successful people in the world are not afraid of failure.

It’s the people, stupid! Surround yourself with people smarter than you.

Do it different. You zig when everyone else is zagging. We tend to look at today. Wrong! Go the other way!

Having a big heart, being a mensch. I tell young people to be good. It turns into good money.

Give me a man and a woman with the same toolbox, and I’ll [more likely] pick the woman. Women are less focused on the B.S. That’s the f—–g reason.

The honorees were Nick Berger, a director at Newmark Knight Frank; Steven Marvin, executive managing director of Olmstead Properties, and Lauren Muss, (a woman!), senior vice president of The Corcoran Group.

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