A Mother-Daughter Moment

On The Go

By Masha Leon

Published June 26, 2009, issue of July 03, 2009.

JERRY SEINFELD, JOE NAMATH, DR. ERIC KANDEL, GLORIA AND EMILIO ESTEFAN HONORED WITH ELLIS ISLAND FAMILY HERITAGE AWARDS

“Imagine what it must have been like to come here as an immigrant.” said Candice Bergen, host of the 2009 Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards ceremony, held May 19 and honoring Joe Namath, Jerry Seinfeld, Dr. Eric Kandel, and Gloria and Emilio Estefan. “The fear of the unknown, many coming alone… as small children, full of hope for a new promised land called America…. For all of us, Ellis Island represents… hope, promise and the right to dream.” “Yadda, yadda, yadda” coiner Seinfeld made his stand-up debut in the Great Hall at Ellis Island with, “Thank you for giving us the immigrant experience with uncomfortable benches.” His great-grandparents, Salim and Selha Husney, came to America from Syria in 1909. When Selha and her youngest baby died in the 1918 flu epidemic, the surviving four children were sent to the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. One of these children, Jerry’s grandmother, Betty Husney Seinfeld (who married Kalman Seinfeld, the son of Austrian immigrants), was among the guests. Seinfeld mused: “My great-grandfather came here at 15. He had no money. He heard this was a good place. What if he had not made this decision?” Honoree Kandel’s description of his road to a Nobel Prize was awe-inspiring. “Broadway Joe” Namath left the audience teary-eyed. And the Estefans, who are music phenomena, inspired the audience with their sagas of surviving Castro’s Cuba, perseverance in the face of adversity and unabashed patriotism.

Yada, Yada, Yada: Jerry Seinfeld was honored at the Ellis Island event.
Karen Leon
Yada, Yada, Yada: Jerry Seinfeld was honored at the Ellis Island event.

With his signature red bowtie, the ever-whimsical Kandel, recipient of the 2009 Ellis Island Family Heritage Award in the Field of Science and Medicine, began on a serious note. Kandel, whose work on dementia and other mental illnesses that affect memory, earned him the 2000 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, told of how, when he was 9, his life in Vienna was transformed overnight after the March 1938 Anschluss. “The day after [Germany’s annexation of Austria], a kid in my class said, ‘I can never speak to you again.’ No other student from my class ever spoke to me again.” Two days after his 9th birthday, Kristallnacht erupted. In April 1939, a 10-year-old Kandel and his older brother, Ludwig, headed — unaccompanied — for Antwerp, Belgium, and arrived in New York on May 11, 1939, aboard the S.S. Gerolstein. Later joined by their parents, they settled in Brooklyn. A graduate of Yeshiva of Brooklyn, then Erasmus High School and Harvard College on a scholarship — “I was one of two students out of 1,140 to be accepted” — Kandel received his medical degree from New York Medical College. He told the Ellis Island gathering that when he decided to switch careers and pursue brain research, his wife, Denise Burstyn, overrode his protestations that finances were an issue, “assuring me, ‘Money is of no significance.’” He paused, smiled: “She never said this again.”

After viewing a video with a soundtrack of Hungarian music that covered the arc of the lives of Joe Namath’s grandparents and parents, and Namath’s own life as a star football player, Namath, recipient of the 2009 Ellis Island Family Heritage Award in the Field of Sports, was dabbing at his eyes. “I’m a very fortunate young man to be here. I saw my dad up there [in the video]… I got goose bumps…. got all chocked up.”  Bergen informed: “On December 4, 1920, 11-year-old Janos Nemeth and brother Laszlo, with their mother Julia, arrived at Ellis Island aboard the S.S. Rotterdam. They had left their Carpathian village, Rimavska Sobota, in Hungary, following its takeover by Czechoslovakia, to join family in Beaver Falls, Pa…. Janos quickly called his new country home. His father, Andras, who had come here nine years earlier, changed his name to Andy; Janos became John, and brother Laszlo, Lester, adapting the Americanized name ‘Namath.’ In 1943, a long hoped-for daughter, turned out to be baby John William Namath.” A talented football player at the University of Alabama, Joe Namath was signed by the New York Jets to a record-setting tune of more than $400,000 and was named Rookie of the Year in 1965 by the American Football League. “My father could not read or write,” Namath said. “He worked to take care of his family. I was a slow learner. I’m here thanks to them, my teachers, my educators. But I love this country more every day. I look [to see] who is happy around the world and I feel so lucky to be here. And for that I have to thank my father.”

“We do what we do because we love this country,” said Gloria Estefan, who, with her husband, Cuba-born Emilio Estefan, was presented with the “2009 B.C. Forbes Peopling of America Award” by Forbes Magazine family member Bob Forbes. Havana-born Gloria Estefan — whose family fled to Miami when she was 2, declared: “We immigrants appreciate [this country] more than those who grew up and lived here for generations…. No social classes, no restrictions…. That is why my father volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army. He said, ‘Be sure you contribute something to this country, to live the American Dream.’” Her father was captured and imprisoned by Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion. He later served in Vietnam and suffered ill health due to exposure to Agent Orange.

“On 9/11 we realized that no matter where we come from, we cry for this country.”  The two met when Emilio Estefan, bandleader of the Miami Latin Boys, asked 18-year-old Gloria Fajardo if she would sing with his band. The rest is music history: Miami Sound Machine. While Gloria Estefan was traveling to a performance, a truck plowed into the back of her bus, injuring her critically: Her spine was fractured. After a year of therapy and physical rehab, she recovered. Bergen noted: “[The Estefans] have been a dominant force in the popular culture of their adopted America…. Emilio sits on the Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center.”

The evening concluded with Broadway star Liz Calloway (whose great-great- grandmother came here from Slovenia) singing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Stephen Briganti, president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, informed that in 2011, the museum will be renamed Ellis Island: The National Museum of Immigration. If you have not yet been to Ellis Island, no need to be anxious about the crossing — it’s a breezy, delightful ferry ride.


ALAN DERSHOWITZ AND CUNY CHANCELLOR GOLDSTEIN HONORED AT YIVO DINNER

The YIVO Institute of Jewish Research’s 84th Annual Benefit Dinner, held May 26 at the Center for Jewish History, honoring CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, was hosted by YIVO board member Martin Peretz. YIVO Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Dershowitz, whose credentials include Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and, according to his biographical notes, “the top lawyer of last resort,” credited the Catskills resort Grossinger’s with helping him win cases. “My whole career is based on Grossinger jokes!” He cited how he argued on behalf of the 1967 Swedish film “I Am Curious Yellow” (which had been seized by U.S. Customs for obscene sexual content and became a landmark in the history of film censorship when the U.S. Court of Appeals overrode the decision, following the testimony of such defenders as Norman Mailer and critic John Simon). “I was arguing [that] the State had no jurisdiction as long as there was a sign outside warning potential viewers of the sinfulness of the film. I won with a Grossinger joke! A Jewish man brings his broken watch into a store that has a watch sign outside the window. ‘Can you fix this?’ he asks. The proprietor informs him, ‘I’m a mohel.’ The man is adamant. ‘But you have a watch outside your window!’ ‘What would you want I should put in the window?’ the man asked.” A few other Dershowitz stand-up chucklers: “A man walks into a country club with a hot looking prostitute on his arm. ‘Why would a 19-year-old be willing to marry you? You told her you were 70?’ his friend asks. ‘No, I told her I was 100.’” Then, changing his position to soapbox, an incensed Dershowitz castigated Jimmy Carter and Noam Chomsky. “The world has turned against Israel…. Hamas uses babies as shields. How can you react to mothers in Gaza with dead babies!…. Sanctions won’t stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” Passionately, he spoke of eyes “eroticized by hatred of Israel,” about how “Israel will never forgive [the Palestinians] for ‘making us kill your children.’” He was livid on the issue of Jewish college students filled with “anti-Israel passion…. No facts, no argument… will budge them…. I have never seen a less courageous group in the U.S. than professors with tenure. Terrified that they will take a position on anything controversial…. Many on campus pro-Israel are silent. Jewish students are afraid that if they are perceived as too pro-Israel, then, as one said, ‘no one would date me.’ Israel is no longer a heroic state… it is now a pariah.” Before descending from the auditorium  stage, Dershowitz issued a call to arms: “Do not be silent!  We cannot be intimidated!”

YIVO trustee Charles Rose presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Goldstein. Jonathan Brent, YIVO’s new executive director and CEO, was introduced. In his overview of the YIVO’s history, Brent noted that its founders included Sigmund Freud, Max Weinreich and Albert Einstein. He shared his amazement at the scope of the YIVO’s  24-million document treasures, ranging from the archives of the Bund to those of Grossinger’s. The essence of what YIVO stands for was articulated by the institute’s chairman, Bruce Slovin: “Memory, a primary trope in the Jewish community, [is] a key to our survival. The responsibility to preserve, study and honor our history is one we all share. In this age of disposable electronic content, our Jewish heritage is in danger of being forgotten and runs the risk of losing the rich and vibrant culture that is our shared past.”


U.S. SENATOR GILLIBRAND ADDRESSES 700 UJA WOMEN AT MOTHER-DAUGHTER LUNCHEON

More than 700 women (and a few men) gathered at the New York Hilton on June 8 for UJA-Federation of New York’s Women’s Philanthropy “In Her Footsteps” lunch, to honor their own stars. Counter to Jewish female comedians who tend to malign their mothers, at this generation-to-generation event, mothers and daughters lauded each other as role models, reservoirs of wisdom, love and caring — for their own families and for those in need. The event was hosted by Marcia Kramer, political reporter and anchor for WCBS-TV in New York. The guest speaker, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, hit all the right notes. She paid tribute to Senator Nita Loewy, a lunch guest, whom she acknowledged as her mentor; credited her grandmother, “who spent 50 years passionate about who was elected,” for getting her involved in politics; touted “Israel as a beacon of light and hope in the Middle East”; wants to “make sure that Iran does not get nuclear weapons”; is adamant “against terrorism and antisemitism”; was for “health care reform,” and touted the Metropolitan Council on Poverty for its programs… feeding 34,000 hungry New Yorkers.” She underscored, “Israel’s security is one of my most important priorities!”

“My… ode is to old men. They are terrific!” said striking, white-haired honoree Pearl Meyer, whose credentials include entrepreneur, mentor and philanthropist; founder of two consulting firms, and currently senior managing director of Steven Hall & Partners. “My first mentor was my mother, [who felt that her] high standards of integrity and charity were a way to a person’s happiness and world peace…. I did not know I was a ‘Jewish woman.’ I was equal… My mother put all appeals in a shoebox and went through them, examining each to decide how much to give. My job was to write the check. She gave to UJA-Federation. I did not know who it was.” Meyer then explained her own passion for older men. “I see a white-haired guy in a navy suit, and I know I made a sale! My first boss paid my salary. My father, who respected and took care of me, paid my bills. This was before the age of diversity and equally,” she said. “No middle-aged people. They are tough!”

Mother-daughter Honorees Diane and Pamela Wohl touted each other’s warmth and generosity, and noted the ways in which their commitment to UJA-Federation has impacted their lives. “You are never too young or too old to forge your own personal Jewish journey,” Diane Wohl said. Another pair of honorees, Carol Levin and her daughter, Abby, thanked their mentors and role models in the room. “I am 65, my mom and dad are in the room, [my husband and I] have been married for 43 years,” an elated Carol Levin told the audience. “I came to New York in 1991 and UJA opened its arms to me.” Active in the Hampton Synagogue (of which the rabbi, Marc Schneier, and his wife, Tobi Rubinstein Schneier, were present), she delivered a personal droshe (sermon/parable) about Biblical Leah, “who was blessed by God with a miracle daughter.” Thus too was “I blessed with my daughter Abby,” she said, overcome with emotion. A very teary Abby Levin countered with how she was “honored to be with my own mother.” For the women in the room — those with daughters in particular — this was a four-Kleenex moment. These women’s names may not resonate, but it is their commitment and fervor that enables organizations such as UJA-Federation to save, feed and sustain tens of thousands in the United States and abroad. Let’s hear it for the ladies who lunch!



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