Diaspora Museum Honors Sharansky

By Masha Leon

Published July 05, 2007, issue of July 06, 2007.
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“I was a totally assimilated Jew… didn’t know [where] Jerusalem was,” admitted Natan Sharansky, former member of Israel’s Knesset. Sharansky was the honoree at the May 11 American Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth Museum of the Jewish Diaspora gala, held at New York’s Hotel St. Regis. “We knew we were Jews, because it was written on our parents papers…. And then came the Six Day War.” Sharansky, who in 1977 was accused by the Soviets of being a CIA collaborator and sentenced to 13 years in prison — including solitary confinement — described the tectonic effect of Israel’s victory on Soviet Jews’ self-image. “We began to study Hebrew… history, not from Tanach, but from [Leon Uris’s] “Exodus.” We requested 1,000 copies [and] began to see ourselves as part of a 1,000-year heritage. You were no longer afraid to say ‘I’m a Jew.’… Jokes appeared about the Jews with chutzpah who beat the Arabs. Goyim told us: ‘Look what God is doing for you.’” And in keeping with the museum’s Diaspora outreach imperative, Sharansky underscored the need for Israel to strengthen its identity ties to American Jews.

Sharansky recalled being called in by the KGB: “You really think the people will hear you… they are students and Jewish housewives.’ Smiling, Sharansky said, “That’s the army that destroyed the Soviet Union.” Since Sharansky’s release in 1986, when he joined his wife, Avital (née Natasha), in Israel, he has built a curriculum vitae that includes forming the Zionist Forum (an umbrella organization of former Soviet activist groups), co-founder of Peace Watch, associate editor of The Jerusalem Report and founder of the political party Yisral B’Aliya (“Israel for Immigration”). From 1996 to 2005 he was minister and deputy prime minister in all of Israel’s successive governments. Currently he is chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies, at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center. “The Six Day War,” Sharansky said, “was not a local victory, but the Day of Destruction of the Soviet Empire.” Reflecting on 40-year-old Beth Hatfutshot Museum, located at Tel-Aviv University and supported by the Israeli government, Sharansky underscored that it is the only one of its kind in the world to address the full spectrum of Jewish communities, their heritage and customs — “a bridge between the past and the world today.”

Recalling his visits to 40 American campuses —“centers of new antisemitism” — Sharansky remembered his shock when a cake was flung in his face at Rutgers University. Nonplussed, he added, “It was a kosher cake — delicious.” Also honored was Stephen Greenberg, the museum’s past president, who declared: “We’ve adhered to the [Holocaust] call: ‘Remember, Never Forget!’ Beth Hatefutsoth remembers not the [Holocaust] horrors but the [glory] of the Jewish world that was.” I first met Sharansky in June 1986 in Anaheim, Calif., at an American Booksellers Convention reception hosted by Random House, publisher of his “refusenik” memoir “Fear No Evil.” As champagne flowed and chocolate-covered fist-sized strawberries beckoned, a modest, smiling Sharansky chatted easily with guests. including then Random House chairman Robert Bernstein, its trade division head, Joni Evans, and David Brinkley, former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post. Would I like to do an interview in New York? What a question! Upon my return, a hand-delivered copy of the book arrived at my office, and in a marathon read I completed it in time for the next day’s “10:50 a.m., 45-minute maximum interview.” Mine was the third interview that day.

Sharansky’s body language suggested, “Here’s another one to get through.” He was unfamiliar with the Forward, SO I gave him a few copies of the paper plus a speedy overview of the Forward’s history, ethos and readership. “I don’t know how many ‘interrogations’ you have gone through so far,” I began. He interrupted: “More than with the KGB.” I assured him that my questions would be different, since I had witnessed my father’s arrest by the NKVD (KGB’s predecessor) and later discovered he had shared a cell with Menachem Begin in Vilno’s Lukishki prison. At the end of an interview more than an hour long, focusing on his fortitude in prison and on the evolution of his Jewish identity, he autographed my copy of his book: “To Masha — To Jew with Russian name from Jew who had Russian name Anatoly.You are the first reporter who asked me original questions. Thank you and all the best. Sincerely, Natan Sharansky.”


Paraphrasing the soothsayer’s warning to Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March,” my caveat is, “Beware of hosts who keep journals and leave to posterity guests’ bon mots and faux pas, snide remarks and personal disclosures not meant for daylight. Still, there is nothing that beats a literate gossipy read about the rich, famous and talented. And that you get in spades in “The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman” (Alfred A. Knopf). At the book’s recent launch party at the jaw-dropping, art-laden 57th Street Osborne duplex that Lerman shared with his longtime companion, Gray Foy — the evening’s host — the crush made a sardine can seem spacious. The guests — some of whom are in the book — included Marian Seldes, Steve Martin, Robert Osborne, Ellen Adler, Mimi Sheraton, Maria Cooper Janis, Tina Brown, Louise Hircshfeld, John Guare, Phyllis Newman and Jeffrey Lyons.

Lerman (who died in 1994) was a renaissance man whose career journey included New York Times writer about theater, dance, music, art and books; Vogue features editor; Vanity Fair editor in chief, and, from 1934 to 1936, stage manager of Grossinger’s Playhouse. He was a best friend of Truman Capote, Maria Callas and Marlene Dietrich Those who remember this Catskill landmark’s early days — decades before their trend-setting headliner-studded nightclub — will relish his description of the breakfast menu captioned, “Good Morning, Pickled Herring.” Lerman recaps tryouts by Danny Kaye, Yiddish theater with Jennie Moscowitz and fond memories of Jennie Grossinger.In a 1971 entry, he laments her decline as “senile, last seen unexpectedly, tottering through hospital corridors.”

Editor Stephen Pascal’s introduction informs that Lerman was born in Manhattan in 1914 on 107th Street (in what is today Spanish Harlem) to Eastern European parents. He was a “secular Jew” who “rarely set foot in a synagogue after his bar mitzvah and saw himself as ‘more Yiddish than Jewish.’” His eventual collection of friends — aka “everybody” — is what makes the book a fascinating read. A 36-page, double-column index lists names of actors, writers, artists and royalty, many of whom are long gone. Here’s a random sampling of entries about some still with us, who have graced this column:

“September 4, 1979, New York City: Kissinger dinner for the Sinatras: To Nancy’s right, Frank Sinatra, to her left the Israeli ambassador. Henry, diligently coy, constant self-commendation….

May 8, 1984, Norman Mailer at lunch at Four Seasons: “Women are essentially cold-killers….” He says he has ten years left in which to write novels… about Christians; he feels they are cold people, alien to him….

May 13, 1984, Washington, D.C. :Bess Myerson, New York City’s commissioner of consumer affairs, today said that when Jackie married Onassis, she did it not so much for the money but because she thought that the money would bring her the privacy she craved and the protection for herself and her children….

October 8, 1989: When I asked Steve Martin about “The Merchant of Venice” (Dustin Hoffman [played Shylock] in London) he said: ‘That play is a mess! What a mess!” He went on to say he knew nothing about Shakespeare… ‘all those girls and that antisemitic plot.’….

October 19, 1967: At Russian Tea Room, Stella beautiful as always…. Stella raged against her students’ utter lack of any comprehension, total lack of feeling, no culture. They bring nothing…. January 2, 1977, Stella Adler was stopped by a man who said, “I knew your mother when you were born. I know her age, so how can you be forty-five now?” Stella: “My mother had her age, and I had mine.”

January 2, 1972, the painter Ellen Oppenheim said. “We stopped fighting, my mother and I when she bought a house one mile down the road. You can fight with your mother, but you can’t fight with your neighbors”….. January 1, 1987. Betty [Comden]’s annual party a triumph of spirit…[actress] Marian Seldes: “I now live only blocks away.” That was her way of telling me that she has moved in with Garson Kanin [director and screenwriter], taking the [late] Ruth Gordon’s place.

November 3, 1953 New York—We had a little Halloween do on Saturday night last…. We had a regular rash of blondes…. These included Angela Lansbury.”

Two personal postscripts: Oppenheim — aka Ellen Adler — who was at the Lerman book party and not too happy with some of the anecdotes about her mother, told me: “In the 1940s when Lenny [Bernstein] used to take me to parties he said that ‘When Ellen has an exhibit it was like a bat mitzvah.” And had I read the book before chatting with Seldes at the book party, I would have said something about the coincidence that Seldes and Lansbury — who had both been “Lermanized” with anecdotes some 20 years apart — are now appearing together on Broadway in “Deuce,” the hit show about two aging tennis stars. The next night I saw that play. Lansbury (who was nominated for a Tony) and Seldes received a standing ovation.

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