Oprah Is Honored

By Masha Leon

Published June 28, 2007, issue of June 29, 2007.
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OPRAH RECALLS AUSCHWITZ VISIT AT WIESEL FOUNDATION DINNER

“When Moses spoke in the desert there were 600,000. When Oprah [Winfrey] speaks, millions listen,” said a visibly awed Elie Wiesel at the May 20 Elie Wiesel Foundation Humanitarian Award dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria. Winfrey was honored at the dinner. Emceed by Barbara Walters, the event was so high-profile an assemblage that celebrities were gawking at one another with much head-craning by many of the 850 guests eager to have a peek at, or photo-op with, Dustin Hoffman; Martha Stewart; Ron Howard; Alan Cumming; Imam; David Bowie; Winfrey’s longtime beau, Steadman Graham, and Winfrey’s best friend, Gayle King, editor of O magazine. The evening’s program included greetings by Marion Wiesel, Ted Koppel, Katie Couric, Sidney Poitier and Leonard Riggio. Violinist Itzhak Perlman performed John Williams’s theme from Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” and soprano Jessye Norman soared in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical “Carousel.”

Contemplatively, Wiesel posited, “Oprah, dear friend, what makes you so special?” He then immediately offered the answer: It’s “your ability to listen, respond, give hope…. I don’t believe in coincidence but in encounters. Yesterday was the yarhzeit of my mother and sister — exactly the day after we parted company.” Alluding to their trip to Auschwitz, Wiesel said: “You were there, in the dark places.” A visibly moved Winfrey declared: “My experience with you in Auschwitz was a privilege… [it was] transformative… I was changed by the silence…. Walking through the crematoriums, showers… how can you come out sane and still have a heart to love somebody?” She described how, on the flight home, “on my plane, neither slept. We talked between Poland, Auschwitz and New York…. We became friends.” Accepting the award, Winfrey declared: “Being a humanitarian [is] using what you have to make others’ lives better…. The award is not for what I have done but for what I can do today…. The real meaning of me [as a humanitarian] is how much was I able to influence others… make a difference in their lives and pass it on and on….” A film, “20 Years of the Elie Wiesel Foundation,” highlighted the Bet Tzipora Centers for Study and Enrichment at Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi — named in memory of Wiesel’s sister Tzipora — which serve Ethiopian youngsters in Israel. Dismayed that “antisemitism is still alive in post World War II,” Wiesel lamented, “Will there ever be peace?”


JEWISH NATIONAL FUND “TREE OF LIFE” GALA HONORS REAL ESTATE PHILANTROPIST

“JNF [Jewish National Fund] is the lifeblood of Israel; it is the water it drinks and the food that provides its sustenance,” said David Picket, president of Gotham Organization. Picket was the Tree of Life award recipient at the JNF’s May 30 dinner, also held at the Waldorf-Astoria. An active philanthropist and the fourth generation to head the family-run real estate firm, one of his many hats is chair of the board of Ten O’Clock Classics, a music organization he founded to bring classical music to young adults and children. “If you want to truly understand the importance of JNF, stand in the Golan,” Picket said. “Behind you are the barren hills of Syria; in the distance to your right past Mount Hermon is the hardscrabble landscape of Lebanon; right in front of you are the fertile irrigated fields of the Hula Valley and the rich forested hills of the Galilee beyond…. The land in all three countries is the same as are the weather conditions. The difference is financial resources and commitment — the first supplied by the JNF, the second by the Israeli people.”

Prefacing his JNF pitch, Picket told a joke: “A traveler desperate for water plods through the Negev and comes across a little old Jewish man sitting at a table with a bunch of neckties. ‘Sir, I am dying of thirst, can you spare some water?’ The old man tells him: ‘I have no water, but why don’t you buy a tie? They are only $200 each.’ The angry traveler yells at the old man: ‘Does it look like I need a tie, you idiot! I need water!’ The old man replies, ‘Okay. If you walk over that hill to the west, continue for four miles, you’ll come to a restaurant where they must have water.’ The traveler leaves, then hours later he comes crawling back to the old man. ‘You couldn’t find the place?’ Weak from dehydration, the traveler is livid. ‘I found it, but your brother wouldn’t let me in without a tie.’” Smiling, Picket said, “I set you up with this joke because it is clean, has something to do with natural resources and provided me with a thematic, albeit tenuous bridge to discuss the importance of the JNF.”

Emceed by Levine Builders chairman Jeffrey Levine, himself a past recipient of the Tree of Life award, the dinner was launched with the Presentation of the Colors by members of the Shomrim Society, of the New York City Police Department. “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah” were sung a cappella by an all-male quartet — the Besamim Ensemble — who later roamed the room singing popular selections. The JNF message was short and sweet, and then the JNFers dined and danced. Making it a family affair, Jeffrey Levine’s wife, Randi Levine, was honored June 4 by JNF’s Women’s Alliance at its annual Circle of Excellence luncheon at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.


SOMETHING DIFFERENT AT FOLKSBIENE GALA BENEFIT

En route to The Town Hall for its June 13 Gala Benefit, “Laugh: An Evening of Mayhem, Music and Mishigas” — Meshugas, if you are a Litvak and subscribe to YIVO-style articulation, as in Uriel Weinreich’s College Yiddish dictionary — the National Yiddish Theatre/Folksbiene somehow got farblondzhet and landed in Catskilland. Did the audience laugh? You bet your kishkes they did! But at the expense of the Folksbiene’s historic high-art tradition. Following the curtain-raiser was a delightful presentation by the cast of “Di Yam Gazlonim,” Al Grand’s brilliant Yiddish reworking of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” Bel Kaufman was a “class act.” Granddaughter of Sholem Aleichem, 96-year-old author of “Up the Down Staircase” and tango dancer extraordinaire, Kaufman reeled off a series of classic Jewish jokes: “Two men are discussing their tsoris, troubles. ‘Let’s talk about something more cheerful,’ suggests one. ‘How about the latest cholera epidemic?’ Or the one about the beggar who promises a Rothschild the secret to eternal life for $300. After the rich man pays, the beggar suggests: “Move to our town. No rich man has ever died there.” So far, so good.

Then a cast member from “Forbidden Broadway” — which over the years has spoofed Broadway productions to the point of near oblivion — did an over-the-top exaggeration of Barbra Streisand with another cast member imitating a “non-Jewish Tevye” (the main character in “Fiddler on the Roof”) looking and sounding like an overblown Harvey Fierstein in drag. The finale was an approximation of Mandy Patinkin frantically singing in Yiddish, followed by a film clip of Patinkin himself in the middle of an empty field, wearing a beaked leather mask — the rest of him au naturel, save for a strategically placed banjo. The audience roared in disbelief. To the rescue came energetic 84-year-old trouper Fyvush Finkel, who, with haimish panache and star presence, delivered several old favorite vignettes and finished to thunderous applause.

Along comes Friars president and penultimate Catskill comedian Freddy Roman, who began by spoofing the plethora of TV drug commercials with their catastrophic side effects. He landed on the perils of Viagra with a long spiel about erectile dysfunction and its one benefit of keeping him from rolling out of bed. A reference to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sexual prowess elicited both laughter and groans. Great for the late-late show crowd. Then came tall comedian Judy Gold, whose most recent opus, “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother,” goes counter to the Folksbiene’s traditional and historical presentation of Jewish mothers. Though not overly demonstrative, Jewish mothers have been portrayed as overly protective — with good reason — sacrificing, and wanting the best, for their children. So how did the Jewish mother of the classic songs (that is, “Mayn Yidishe Mame” and “A Brivele der Mamen”), stage and theater morph into the mother from hell whom Gold calls daily “to get material”? Emcee Carol Leifer’s oysgeshlepte — overly long — reading of a letter to her dead father had me squirming and wondering if, like me, some in the audience may have been made to feel guilty at not having written a similar letter to their fathers pre- or post-death.

During its 92-year history, the Folksbiene has been adaptive, innovative, always challenging and entertaining. It addressed the Jewish community both in the Old World and in America with sensitivity and humor. Two seasons ago, “On Second Avenue,” starring Mike Burstyn, was oversubscribed with the production’s run extended. This past season’s sold-out run of “Di Yam Gazlonim” garnered a Drama Desk award. This year’s benefit “Mishigas” was indeed a bit of “mishugas.” But hey, if you don’t try, you’ll never know. I look forward to the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene’s next hit season.






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