Hamlisch Hits The Keys at ISEF Benefit

By Masha Leon

Published June 21, 2007, issue of June 22, 2007.
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Marvin Hamlisch, guest artist at the May 14 International Sephardic Education Foundation benefit, told the black-tie crowd at New York’s Mandarin Oriental that as a graduate of the Juilliard School, he’d landed a job as rehearsal pianist for “Funny Girl,” which starred Barbra Streisand. This led to film producer Sam Spiegel asking him to “play for his parties,” which in turn led to Hamlisch’s scoring several films. Hamlisch recalled how, when he was invited to Hollywood, Calif., by Spiegel, “I was terrified to fly, so I spent 60 hours on a train.”(He has since learned to love flying.) Hamlisch played selections from his film scores for “The Swimmer,” “The Way We Were,” “The Sting” and “The Spy Who Loved Me.” He also played “One,” which he wrote for the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line” (now in revival). ISEF’s president, Nina Weiner, paid tribute to the late Edmond Safra and to his wife, Lily Safra, recipient of ISEF’s Lifetime Award. In 1977, Lily Safra founded ISEF “to offer equal opportunity for his underprivileged Sephardic brethren in Israel…. Since then, ISEF has extended its reach to embrace immigrants from Ethiopia to the Caucasus Mountains, Israel’s loyal Druze community, and new immigrants from Europe and South America.”

Noting that “fewer than 50% of Israel’s 17-year-olds graduate high school and only one-third go to college or university,” Weiner touted, “Our outstanding students are role models not only for Israel’s immigrant and underprivileged communities, but for Israel as a whole, as it faces the complex challenges of the 21st century. To date, ISEF has provided 60,000 scholarships — 750 each year at 19 campuses in Israel — plus graduate studies at Harvard, Yale and Princeton.” The evening’s guests included a svelte Tovah Feldshuh (her prosthetic Golda Meir stage padding from “Golda’s Balcony” but a memory); Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Kenneth and Ann Bialkin, David Marwell, and Israel’s consul general, Arye Mekel, and his wife Ruth, soon to be leaving New York. A listing of prominent ISEF alumni included Dr. Igal Madar, research scientist at John Hopkins University. Madar invented new PET scan methodology for rapid detection of tumor response to chemotherapy, and Baruch Shimoni, faculty member of Bar-Ilan University’s sociology and anthropology department and ISEF HSBC postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. Also noted were Keren Azulay, a doctor of the science of law candidate at Columbia University Law School; Dr. Shenhav Cohen, postdoctoral fellow in cell biology, researching leukemia at Harvard University; Itsik Francis, doctoral candidate in molecular biology at University College of London and visiting researcher at Columbia University’s Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s disease. As the benefit’s co-chair, Abraham Cohen proclaimed: “Education! Education! Education! The benefit raised $1.2 million.


Malcolm Thomson, chairman of the executive committee of the American Friends of Open University of Israel, emceed at AFOUI’s June 5 gala. He amplified on the term “upper crust,” which had been a subtext for his first sermon as a 27-year-old rabbi at an affluent congregation in Greenwich, Conn. Informed that the term can be defined as “a lot of crumbs held together by dough,” Thomson then invoked a verse from T’hillim, which he interpreted to mean that “the acquisition of wealth is a positive mitzvah [and] man should give charitably of his wealth.” Thus inspired, the 290 guests in the Edmond Safra Auditorium of the Museum of Jewish Heritage raised $400,000, which was augmented by a matching grant of $500,000 from Ira Leon Rennert, husband of the AFOUI’s new, vital and super-chic president, Ingeborg Rennert. Founded in 1974, OUI, a vision of the Rothschild family, now boasts 70 study centers serving 41,000 students, with its Dorothy de Rothschild Campus in Ra’anana reaching beyond Israel’s borders. Baron Robert de Rothschild assisted in the evening’s presentations of awards to New York City District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, internationally renowned flutist Eugenia Zuckerman and real estate developer William Friedland. Elie Wiesel gave the evening’s keynote address.


Among the Rothschilds I have known was Baron Guy de Rothschild, head of the family’s French banking dynasty. He died June 12 at the age of 98. We met at the November 11, 1984, First Inaugural Dinner of the Holocaust Division of UJA-Federation, held at the New York Sheraton. The baron was the keynote speaker. Fortuitous seating enabled me to chat with him during dinner. I asked if he was familiar with Sholom Aleichem’s delightful short story — a favorite monologue for Yiddish actors—“If I Were Rothschild.” He had never heard of it. I later sent him a copy of the original Yiddish text along with an English translation, and received a gracious handwritten thank you note.

That UJA event was the first time a survivors’ group had officially thanked America’s soldiers as more than 400 survivors mingled with young men in dress uniform. Representing all the U.S. Army liberators was James M. Gavin, the youngest division commander in the Army. Gavin led the 82nd Airborne Division in the Battle of the Bulge and in liberating the Wobbelin death camp. Notables that evening included Ehud Aviran, assistant military attache of the State of Israel in Washington, D.C. (he received a plaque for FORMING? the Jewish Brigade); Ambassador Naphtali Lavie; William Longarzo, commander of New York Area Command at Fort Hamilton and UJA Survivors divisions chairman, and Roman Kent, currently chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and treasurer of the Claims Conference.

With the anniversary of D-Day but a few weeks ago, the baron’s comments all those years ago still resonate with sobering immediacy. He recalled a speech he had given as a 17-year-old about Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the family’s patriarch. The baron was adamant that there is a need to help Soviet Jews, Ethiopian Jews, the poor and the handicapped, urging American Jewry to remain strong and vital and compassionate. “We have said ‘No!’ to barbarism and defied Nazism. We have outlasted Hitler and turned our nightmare years into a moral vision. And we share this memory with the world in order to protect humanity from another Holocaust and ultimate nuclear destruction.” The baron spoke of how he had been invited to help assist the organization of the Jewish community of France in 1967, and how the Rothschild family has maintained its identity and commitment to Judaism and to Israel for eight generations. Invoking Kristallnacht, he graphically described how Ukrainians with whips had herded the Jews into gas chambers. Rothschild had served in the Free French Forces as a company commander (winning the Croix de Guerre with a palm) and had been chairman for 32 years of Le Fond Social Juif Unifie, France’s counterpart to UJA. Urging support for Israel and stressing the imperative to be an inspiration and “example of the Jews who died standing up,” Rothschild declared, “May you live long, may all benefit from your history, from all the Kristallnachts.” Then, he concluded, “I am an optimist.”

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