Sea of Faces

On The Go

By Masha Leon

Published November 18, 2009, issue of November 27, 2009.
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ABOARD THE INTREPID: RABIN MEDICAL CENTER GALA REMEMBERS ITS NAMESAKE, YITZHAK RABIN

The American Friends of Rabin Medical Center’s November 2 “Broadway on the Hudson” gala aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum celebrated one of Israel’s premier hospitals and honored Teva North America, a division of a global pharmaceutical enterprise with roots in Israel, and its president and CEO, William Marth. AFRMC’s executive director, Joshua Plaut, welcomed the 760 guests — including diplomats and civic, business and philanthropy leaders — to the beautifully decorated, cavernous dining hall aboard the refurbished Intrepid. He introduced a short video excerpt from the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s October 24, 1995, address aboard the Intrepid, when he was presented with the Intrepid Freedom Award. It was Rabin’s only New York address other than the one he gave at the United Nations just 10 days before his assassination in Israel.

Back in 1995, Rabin’s prophetic speech mesmerized the nearly 1,000 dinner guests, including New York State Governor George Pataki, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New Jersey State Governor Christine Todd Whitman and lots of military “brass,” as well as Intrepid Museum founder and “angel” Zachary Fisher, who, with his own funds, saved the ship from being scuttled. (Until his death in 1999, Fisher always included a few Yiddish phrases whenever I was aboard.)

Soberly, Rabin mused: “I shall always remember the moment just after making the decision to mount an action: the hush as senior officers slowly rise from their seats, the sight of their receding backs, the sound of the closing door and then the silence in which I remain alone. That is the moment you grasp that as a result of the decision just made, people will be going to their death.” Rabin recalled the “silence of the moment after the terrifying silence of the moment before” he issued orders for hundreds of military operations when he was a military commander. “At that hour, they are still laughing and weeping… still weaving plans and dreaming about love, still musing about planting a garden or building a house — and they have no idea these are their last hours on earth. Which of them is fated to die?” Rabin concluded: “We will continue to work together to fight tyranny, racism, antisemitism and intolerance wherever it exists…. A nation that knows how to preserve its past has a great future.”

Master of Ceremonies: Charlie Rose aboard the Intrepid.
Karen Leon
Master of Ceremonies: Charlie Rose aboard the Intrepid.

During my chat with Rabin that night in 1995, my daughter Karen, who was photographing Rabin for this column, told the prime minister that she had photographed him several years earlier in Israel during a private reception. “Visit us soon again,” Rabin told her. Rabin was assassinated the following month, on November 4. The master of ceremonies aboard the Intrepid in 1995 and at the 2009 Rabin Medical Center gala was Charlie Rose, who recalled that his last words to Rabin had been, “See you in Jerusalem.”

In 1996, the Golda-HaSharon and Beilinson hospitals in Petah Tikvah were merged and renamed the Rabin Medical Center. AFRMC’s chairman, Abraham “Barry” Cohen, touted the hospital’s premier cardiac care. Today the center boasts the largest cardiology and cardiothoracic departments in Israel. In 2008 there were 48,000 visits to the ambulatory cardiology clinic, more than 400 pacemakers procedures and more than 100 heart transplants. Israel’s representative to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, expressed her gratitude for the support that Israel was shown at the dinner at a time when the Jewish state faced new antisemitism in the guise of “politically correct anti-Zionism.”

Sherrill Milnes, a baritone formerly with the Metropolitan Opera, sang America’s national anthem; New York University’s Jewish a cappella group Ani V’ata sang Israel’s anthem, “Hatikvah.” Comedian Robert Klein got good laughter mileage out of his angst-ridden set-to-music colonoscopy cantata; Dan’yelle Williamson and Brad Bass performed songs from “Memphis,” a musical that just opened at the Shubert Theater, and Tony Award-winning tap dancer extraordinaire Savion Glover had the audience on their feet. The New York City Swing Band kept the guests dancing late into the night.


PATRIARCH BARTHOLOMEW VISIT TO PARK EAST SYNAGOGUE — A HISTORIC EVENT

This was not your usual synagogue happening. Just visualize: a processional of Greek priests, wearing gold crosses, coming down the aisle of Park East Synagogue’s sanctuary, and the children’s choir of the synagogue’s day school greeting the visitors with repetitive shalom aleichems, followed by the synagogue’s male a cappella quartet’s heralding “Halleluyah!” The October 28 event was a historic first visit by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, to Park East — the same synagogue visited by Pope Benedict XVI during his 2008 trip to the United States. Arthur Schneier, Park East’s senior rabbi, was, as they say in Yiddish, in zibetn himl (seventh heaven). In addition to Park East congregants, the audience members witnessing this historic moment included communal leaders, former New York City mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins, and dignitaries and diplomats from Argentina, Cuba, Austria, France, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Shalom aleichem,” Schneier said, welcoming the patriarch onto the bimah. He began by citing that day’s Torah portion, Lekh, Lekha — God’s directive to Abraham “to carry my message to [his] fellow men.” Focusing on “the need for the children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims, to withstand the latest onslaught against humanity,” Schneier stressed the importance for “respect for religious and cultural diversity and inter-religious dialogue” as “essential components of an interdependent world…. We must stop the shipwreckers of civilization.” Turning to white-bearded patriarch Bartholomew, Schneier beamed and said, “Your Holiness is following in the footsteps of Abraham, for peace.”

“Our visit here… transcends a mere courteous visit of a Christian leader to a Jewish leader,” Bartholomew declared in beautifully articulated English. In command of the microphone, the bishop stated, “We also come inspired by our conviction that the most urgent task that lies before all faith communities is our global cooperation for the promotion of greater tolerance and understanding among the peoples, races and religions of our planet…. Foremost… is the preservation of God’s creation, the natural environment that we are commanded to ‘till and keep’ [Genesis 2:15] as priestly stewards of the earth…. For the environment surely transcends doctrinal boundaries… it is something that we can only address together and not in isolation.”

Addressing “the rising fundamentalism and fanaticism in religious circles, as well as the escalating racism and terrorism in the world,” Bartholomew referred to the “outrageous horror of the Holocaust” stating, “For us Christians, we shall never forget the heroes of Bulgaria and Greece who, during the Second World War, risked their own lives to save their Jewish friends and neighbors.” When two Park East Day School students — a boy and a girl, each a grandchild of Holocaust survivors — mounted the bimah with a gift for the patriarch, Bartholomew, like a kindly grandfather, embraced and kissed each child. His parting directive was: “Let us hold our hands not only in prayer, but also in solidarity with one another. We owe it to our God, to our common patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to each other and to the world.”


FRENCH FILM STAR ISABELLE HUPPERT PRESENTS AWARD TO ROBERT WILSON AT FIAF GALA

As French film star Isabelle Huppert ascended the Plaza Hotel steps for the November 2 black-tie French Institute Alliance Francaise Trophée des Arts 2009 gala, at which she was the presenter to theater master Robert Wilson, she was besieged by autograph seekers. I had met her in 1989 at a reception following a screening of French films with Jewish themes, at which her Jewish provenance was briefly mentioned. Perhaps that is why her portrayal of the character Lena, a young Jewish wife in the 1984 film “Entre Nous” (originally “Coup de Foudre”) — which I reviewed for the Forward — is done so poignantly. In the 1980 Hungarian film “Örökség” (also known as “The Heiresses and The Inheritance”), set during World War II, Huppert portrays a Jewish woman who becomes a surrogate mother for a woman who can’t have a child. This time, I startled Huppert with my direct query: “Was it your parents or your grandparents who were Jewish?” Somewhat taken aback, Huppert replied, “My grandparents.” Actually, it was her father, a safe manufacturer.

During the FIAF award presentation, Huppert waxed euphoric about Wilson. “I want to tell everyone how important this moment is for me, how much I enjoy being seen by you, directed by you and loved by you…. As an actress, I never feel as free as when I worked with Bob. With him, theater becomes a playground of infinite liberty.” As she presented the award to Wilson, Huppert added: “I have a special memory of Susan Sontag, our mutual friend. So many years ago she was here, in my place, giving me this award, the perfect example of the French-American friendship we are celebrating tonight.”

Robert Wilson, playwright, avant-garde stage director and founder of the Watermill Center, has worked with numerous artists, including Allen Ginsberg. He is best known for his collaboration with composer Philip Glass on “Einstein on the Beach.” Wilson told the guests, “It was the French, not the Americans, who discovered my work [and] commissioned ‘Einstein on the Beach.’”

Among the 450 guests were France’s ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont; France’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Gerard Araud; France’s consul general in New York, Philippe Lalliot; retired chairman, CEO and president of the Wyeth pharmaceutical company and gala honoree Bernard Poussot; FIAF President Marie-Monique Steckel; film star Isabella Rossellini; FIAF trustee Michèle Gerber Klein; former NBC News anchor Garrick Utley; Ronnie Chammah (Huppert’s companion, whom she describes as “[the only] father of my [three] children”), and Galerie Mourlot owner and founder Eric Mourlot, grandson of Fernand Mourlot, who during the German occupation was involved with fictitious printing studios owned by Jewish friends and colleagues, thus avoiding the transfer of assets to the state and the production of false identity papers.






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