A Trio of Farewells


By Masha Leon

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.
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I first met Coretta Scott King — who died January 30 at 78 — in 1995 at a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration hosted by the World Jewish Congress. The event, which took place at the Seagram Building, celebrated the proclamation by Jewish communities in 80 countries that Jews worldwide will remember King’s legacy. In attendance was Rabbi Marc Schneier, then chairman of the congress’s Commission on Intergroup Relations. Israel’s then ambassador to the United Nations, Gad Yaacobi, said, “Dr. King shared with the Hebrew prophets the message that justice and righteousness is universal.” Then WJC chairman, American section, Evelyn Sommer, added: “We are a people with a long memory. Dr. King stood with us to bring justice vis-à-vis Soviet Jewry. [He] shared our fight against antisemitism.”

“Shalom,” King said as she was presented with a copy of the Kaufman Haggadah (which until the fall of the Soviet Empire had been in a Hungarian archive). “No recognition I have received has been as significant as this.” She recalled how, at a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly that took place just 10 days before his assassination, Dr. King had been moved by the Hebrew rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” King recalled being invited to deliver a tribute at Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s memorial. She cited the “ultimate contribution” to civil rights, by slain activists Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. “I have a moral obligation to denounce antisemitism [for being as] vile and contemptible as racism,” she said. During our chat, I told her how I had met her husband in June 1967 in Washington at the American Booksellers Association convention, which took place at the Shoreham Hotel. Surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards, Dr. King stepped forward, smiled and shook my hand.

* * *

“Outed” by son Ted Lewis as having been only 82 — not 95 (as reported in early obits) — when he died February 3, “Grandpa Munster” Al Lewis was an original. At our first meeting, at a 1996 Halloween party, the 6-foot-plus Lewis — in full Munster regalia — embraced me with a rib-crushing hug. “Lezt Yiddish?” he asked. “Zikher leyen ikh Yiddish” (“Of course I read Yiddish”), I replied. Apropos his children’s book series, “Deadtime Stories” (Troll Communications), which began in 1996, he urged the guests to read to their children “because reading stimulates the imagination.” Lewis explained his reason for turning down many television and movie offers: “Scary, yes — but gore and violence, never!” A few days later, we met again to chat about his days in the Yiddish theater. “I played with them all — David Kessler, Paul Muni, Miriam Kressyn, Seymour Rexite and Fyvush Finkel. Then I stopped speaking Yiddish and worked in vaudeville, burlesque and my own medicine show, TV. I’m Yankl Newcomer [ironic for an old-timer].” As we parted, I told him “Zay gezunt” (“Be well”). “Baruch Hashem,” he replied.

* * *

For many women, news of Wendy Wasserstein’s recent death of cancer at 55 felt like the loss of a family member. In 1984, when the English edition of the Forward did not yet exist, I reviewed her off-Broadway play “Isn’t It Romantic” for the Forverts’s English supplement. In 1989 I wrote a review of “The Heidi Chronicles,” which I subheaded “Or Why Isn’t She Married?” In 1993 came “The Sisters Rosensweig,” of which I said, “The best way to relish the full mother-daughter-sister-wife bouquet is at a matinee where women outnumber men 10 to one and… relish the nuances of angst, despair, loss and triumphs of the three sisters who’ve made it professionally, but whose personal lives are unraveling.” Since I am a mother of three daughters — a pianist, an artist and a songwriter — the play had real resonance for me. I wrote Wasserstein a fan letter, but I added that it bothered me to see Jewish identity reduced to a few stock expressions (i.e., schmuck, schlep, schnorr, etc). Her response was most gracious.

I commiserated with Schneier about Wasserstein they day after her death, and he told me: “Wendy was a cherished member of our congregational family at the Hampton Synagogue. [She] participated in all the milestones, from its dedication to the launching of our author discussion series [and] reading from her book, ‘Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties’ [Knopf, 2001]” Schneier added: “In ‘The Sisters Rosensweig’ playbill, I was listed as ‘religious consultant.’ When I asked Wendy why she wanted me to do this, she said, ‘If anyone objects to what is being said, I can hide behind you.’”

* * *

At the January 27 reception for Bernard-Henri Lévy, held at the French consulate, I met actor and Forward reader Ronald Guttman. Most recently, Guttman has been seen as a journalist in the film “Munich” and as Angelo, who dies on the operating table, in an episode of the TV series “Lost.” He invited me to a screening of his latest vehicle, the film “The Tollbooth.”

Seated next to former New York City mayor Ed Koch and onetime parks commissioner Henry Stern at the Quad Cinema, located in Greenwich Village. I settled in for what turned out to be a journey that alternated between charming, humorous and predictable. Sarabeth (Marla Sokoloff), one of three sisters, is the centerpiece of this “coming-of-age” saga, which focuses on her stalled art career and her relationship with her non-Jewish boyfriend. Tovah Feldshuh — who could bring high drama to a telephone book reading — plays Ruthie Cohen, the mother who hacks a tchaynik about wanting “a few Jewish grandchildren.” Paterfamilias Isaac Cohen (Guttman) floats above the chaos of his dysfunctional family as he tries to inject religiosity, quotes Spinoza and lays on Holocaust guilt. Still, the family survives, the daughters find their “centers” and Guttman faces mortality.

Debra Kirschner, the film’s writer, director and producer, notes that she was inspired by “Fiddler on the Roof,” positing, “What might three modern Jewish sisters want that would shake the foundations of their contemporary yet traditional parents?” So what else is new? Since Fiddler’s time (1880s), “modern” Jewish daughters have been rebelling by becoming Zionists, communists, socialists, atheists, actresses and assimilationists, and by intermarrying. If you have daughters, the film will talk to you. It’s now playing on Long Island at Roslyn’s Clearview Cinemas.

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