“I guess what I just experienced was what we now call a Nobel Prize moment,” New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels said as he accepted the Media Bridge-Builder Award from Blu Greenberg, founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, at the November 2 Tanenbaum Award Ceremony and Memorial Lecture, held at the United Nations headquarters. Prefacing his Marc Tanenbaum memorial speech, Steinfels declared: “I am a writer who is afflicted by having an imaginary group of readers in my mind as I work. Among those are Blu and [her husband] Yitz Greenberg, [president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation] …. As I finish a sentence or paragraph or column, I think, ‘What would Blue or Yitz think of that? Should I rephrase or even rethink it?’” Co-director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, Steinfels offered his observations. He even ventured a comedic stand-up aside regarding the Christian about to be eaten by a lion in the Coliseum, muting the beast’s hunger by informing him, “After dinner there will be long speeches.” The Corporate Bridge Builder Award was presented to Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The evening’s award presenters were former U.S. deputy secretary of state John Whitehead and, via video, actor James Gandolfini.
In keeping with Tanenbaum’s mission to “reduce conflict and prevent hatred and violence perpetrated in the name of religion” by “supporting religious peacemakers who struggle in areas of armed conflict” and “by overcoming religious intolerance in workplaces, health care settings and schools,” Steinfels noted: “The staple of media has migrated from tabloid headlines to talk radio to the demagogues-for-hire on the payrolls of FOX, MSNBC, CNN and a growing number of other channels.… First, conflict…. Whether we do reporting, punditry, analysis or criticism, those of us in the media traffic in stories. And a major element of a good story… is conflict. We focus on conflict because readers… crave it [and] deserve it. The conflicts that they face or wish to avoid are important to them, because they want to know.
“Often religious leaders are uncomfortable about acknowledging conflict among their faithful or within their teachings…. Only a few fringe groups in this nation denounce other faiths with… harsh rhetoric…. It is a truism of religious sociology that liberal Protestants get along better with liberal Catholics and conservative Protestants get along better with conservative Catholics.… Bill Clinton reminded us at an earlier Tanenbaum award dinner that Ghandi was assassinated by a fellow Hindu who thought that Ghandi was being disloyal to his own; that Rabin was murdered by an Israeli Jew who thought Rabin was betraying his religion…. The chief victims of religiously inspired violence by Muslims are other Muslims….The challenge of building bridges, even to those who are wary or hostile to bridge-building is — courage.”
The event’s master of ceremonies, Tanenbaum president and founder Georgette Bennett, touted EmblemHealth, one of the event’s sponsors, noting, “Emblem is the largest health insurer in New York State, and also one of the most forward-looking. They believe in treating the whole patient and understanding the role that religion can play in medical decisions.” Tanenbaum’s executive vice president and CEO, Joyce Dubensky, recalled how, during her childhood, her 5-year-old brother, Kenny, “was called ‘Jew bastard! Christ killer!’ by neighborhood kids. All that summer, every day… I remember sitting on my front porch with Kenny while the other kids played on the street…. One of the reasons I am with Tanenbaum is because no kids should ever sit on their front porch feeling so alone just because they are Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist…. Because Tanenbaum takes the idea of justice for everyone and turns that idea into a lived reality… one person at a time.”
“We are a collective power making an impact,” declared Karen Sobel, chairwoman at the November 5 UJA-Federation of New York Women’s Philanthropy Lion of Judah Fall Luncheon. Addressing the 300 women and the sprinkling of men, including John Ruskay, UJA-Federation executive vice president and CEO, at Gotham Hall, Sobel said, “UJA is now helping those who had been UJA contributors in Westchester.… Can you imagine, not being able to provide your family with food?” The special guest was perky, intellectual feminist powerhouse Fania Oz-Salzberger, best-selling author and 2009–2010 Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Professor for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. “Through the vast corridors of Jewish history, [resonates]… the Jewish female voice… in the home, the public arena, always assertive…. Whereas [historically] Jewish men retreated into books, Jewish women [biblical and modern heroines] were all about living, surviving… passing on the narrative of the Jewish people.” Oz-Salzberger persevered: “It was six strong women [who] brought Moses into the world and kept him alive. Jewish midwives are the first professionals mentioned in the Bible…. And it was Ruth, Naomi and Esther” who [challenged] dictators. “Tamar, a widow, dressed as a streetwalker… seduced her father-in-law and made sure the line of Judah will not disappear — King David.”
As she recited the biblical Jewish female roll of honor, the refrain “Tell Me More! Tell Me More!” from the song “Summer Nights” in the musical “Grease” ran interference. And boy, was there more! “Biblical men lived in real history — not isolated [like] Talmudic men [who] cloistered the women within a paternalistic wall.” From the Bible she segued to modern Europe. “All over Europe… the late 18th-century bourgeoisie of Berlin, with its flourishing salons…. By the late 19th century, [women] were the most enthusiastic readers in Europe. When German universities opened their doors to women, Jewish women entered in droves….”
Founding director of the Posen Research Forum for Jewish, European and Israeli Political Thought, and author of “Translating the Enlightenment: Scottish Civic Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Oz-Sulzberger posited: “How did these daughters of the shtetl come to shine so quickly and brightly… grow into scientific and scholarly giants?” Answering her own question, she said, “Let’s go back to the Bible. Greek goddesses were virgins, they were seldom mothers… they died childless and lost the lineage. Whereas… Jewish women —heroines — were all about living, surviving.”
So successful was the November 5 Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust’s 21st annual Generation to Generation Dinner that extra dinner chairs had to be brought in. In fact, it was noted that one third-generation volunteer brought 30 guests that night. The evening coincided with a preview of the museum’s new interactive heritage installation, the Keeping History Center, which offers visitors the museum’s collections as a state-of-the-art digital experience. Museum director David Marwell announced the newly installed Wall of Honor, located on the first floor. The wall highlights museum supporters’ names “to show how much we appreciate and rely on your support.” Interrupting the dinner’s simcha buzz, a hush, as first-, second- and third-generation survivors were asked to rise. The museum’s vice-chairwoman, Ann Oster, reflected, “About 21 years ago… the museum was just an idea.”
Among the guests whose names appear on the Wall of Honor was my dear friend, 92-year-old dancer-choreographer Felix Fibich At a table, noshing on superb stuffed cabbage (and other goodies) Fibich, eloquently using his arms, hands and shoulders, began to demonstrate “the language of Jewish dance.” Suddenly looking decades younger, he explained, “My dance form is rooted in Jewish tradition. You praise the Lord with every part of your body… men shoklt zikh, [“you shake and shudder — move from side to side]. In the beginning I was told, ‘You are dancing like a woman,’ so I decided to observe the Hasidim…. I went to see how the Hassidim danced in their kapotes [long black coats], observed [the celebration of] Simchat Torah , studied, danced… Russia, Turkomenia…. My wife, Judith Berg [who choreographed the dance for the death sequence in the 1937 film “Der Dybbuk], and I came to America in 1946. We toured. I knew no English… but with dance, you don’t need language.”
If the name Fibich does not register — he was in the cast of Joseph Papp’s production of Café Crown — you may have seen him in the 2001 widely aired Cingular TV commercial. Looking like a bald leprechaun in a black body-fitting leotard, Fibich attempts to teach a group of 300-plus football players how to perform plies and entrechats and entreats these gravity-bound Sumo-sized athletes to try to “float like butterflies.”
There he is! Piercing blue eyes under a black-hat brim, a reddish-blond moustache matching his peyes (side locks), and like a plant reaching for sunshine, his pale face is rising above a sea of black hats and shtreymls (fur-trimmed hats). It was that photo on the invitation that brought me to the November 5 launch of documentary photographer Agnieszka Traczewska’s Bracha: A Blessing photo exhibit at the Polish Consulate. Young, beautiful and blond, Traczewska seemed an unlikely chronicler of Hasidim. She returned from Poland having chronicled the Hasidim who returned from B’nei B’rak, Mea Shearim, and the Crown Heights and Boro Park sections of Brooklyn to visit the old tzadiks’ graves. “They are my people, too,” she told me. “Because they came from the same place I come from.” As unlikely as it may seem, she said they welcomed her. “I have a real friendship with them.”
“So many young Poles, having nothing to do with Jewish history, have created as a life project the care of Jewish graves… collecting pictures.” She added: “No one is paying them. It is very touching for the people who come to Poland.”
Her passion is in the panels of photographs of Hasidim coming to their life source. Each panel of photographs is accompanied by text. Here are a couple of samples:
“The broken matzevot (tombstones) are strewn all over the cemetery. I was sitting on a cracked stone bench next to Rabbi Mendele’s ohel [tent or structure built over the grave of someone who was prominent]. The Germans had not destroyed it. I knew I was the last generation of the humiliation and slaughter. And I must become the first generation of revival. It is going to be a difficult journey, but I will make it. I will make it, no matter what.” — Frida Vogel Stary, Rymanow, Poland 2009.
“Our Tzaddik taught us: you shall not attain salvation if you don’t get to know yourself and your own mistakes. But remember, it is never too late to return to God, may His name be blessed.” — Rebbe Shimon Noson Nuta Biderman, The Great Rebbe of Lelow (Lelover rebbe) and B’nei B’rak. He died this year on Yom Kippur in Lelow, Poland.
The exhibit and its photographer reminded me of the evocative Yiddish song “Don un Donia” (“Don and Donia”) that has been part of my Yiddish song vocabulary since childhood. As children — with adults — we sang it in Warsaw, Vilna, in Japan and in the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring School in Montreal. The lyrics and music, by Mikhl Gelbart and Sholom Secunda (of “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn,” the Andrews Sister mega-hit), respectively, tell of Don, a brilliant young heder boy with black peyes who goes to heder early in the day while Donia, “the queen of the steppe,” with golden braids and sunlight on her eyebrows, takes her flock into the fields. The twain cannot meet. Gelbart and Secunda could not have imagined the historic coming-together of the descendants of all those Dons and their present-day chronicler — a distant descendant of the Donias of yore.