New Orleans was the motif for the Food Allergy Initiative’s December 7 ball, at which that city’s culinary master, Emeril Lagasse, was presented with FAI’s Lifetime Achievement Award by Four Seasons owner Julian Niccolini, who declared: “Nobody in this country has taught us more about food and cooking than Emeril. In New York, we call a man like that a mensch.” Chaired by FAI’s vice chairman, Sharyn Mann, and FAI’S chairman and president, Todd Slotkin, the gala raised $3.9 million. The FAI Legacy Award, in memory of Senator Edward M. Kennedy and presented to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., was accepted by the latter’s wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy, and their son Conor Richardson Kennedy, who is allergic to peanuts. Dinner corporate chair David Koch, an executive vice president of Koch Industries, Inc., whose oldest son suffers from multiple allergies, introduced guest of honor Charles Koppelman, executive chairman of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, who offered his spin on the old “American Express — don’t leave home without it” slogan: “Forget American Express. My motto is, ‘Never leave your house without your EpiPen!’” Koppelman, former head of EMI Music Publishing, added: “My son-in-law and two of my seven grandchildren have allergies. In restaurants, he asks the waiter to check if the chef had recently eaten or touched a peanut… if any peanuts had been in the pan in which his food was cooked.”
In keeping with the New Orleans ambience, a working water fountain, like those of New Orleans’s St. Charles area, graced the center of the Waldorf-Astoria’s ballroom. Cajun music by the Crescent City Swingers got the audience up and dancing around the room, and tap dancer extraordinaire Savion Glover topped off the evening.
“What we seek is nothing less than a cure for potentially fatal food allergies,” Slotkin said. “There are 12 million food allergy sufferers in the United States. Three million are children.” Citing a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Slotkin informed that in children younger than 18 “the food allergy epidemic continues to grow…. Forty years ago, it was one in 100 children; today it is one in 25.”
As for food labeling — the superb Chef Emeril-inspired dinner menu included a two-page listing of every dish’s ingredients, down to seasonings, additives and vitamins. For example, the smoked salmon cheesecake with pickled beet salad and ravigote sauce appetizer was accompanied by a 70-item ingredient listing! Applauding Emeril (who is also a parent of a child with allergies) were celebrity restauranteurs Daniel Boulud (Daniel NYC), Sirio Maccioni (Le Cirque) and Drew Nieporent (Nobu, Tribeca Grill), as well as Elie and Marion Wiesel, and Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert.
“I am proud to stand with the Yeshiva University community,” declared Lawrence Summers, keynote speaker and recipient of an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, at the December 13 Yeshiva University Hanukkah Convocation. “My uncle [the economist] Paul Samuelson, who died at 94 this morning, never spent a full week in Washington [D.C.]. That he could spend his entire life in a university environment is indicative of the impact scholarship has on government,” said Summers, who in November 2008 was appointed by then President-elect Barack Obama as director of the National Economic Council and as assistant to the president for economic policy. “After [my uncle’s] oral exam for his Ph.D., Harvard did not want to award him a professorship. That kind of prejudice is absent from the university today…. Talent, not background, must determine rewards in the 21st century,” said Summers, who was president of Harvard University from July 2001 to June 2006. Honorary degree recipients included actress Tovah Feldshuh, Fifth Avenue Synagogue cantor Joseph Malovany and inventor Maurice Kanbar, whose inventions include the lifesaving SafetyGlide hypodermic needle protector, SKYY Vodka, the D-Fuzz-It Sweater & Fabric Comb and Zip Notes.
At the post-convocation dinner, Y.U.’s president, Richard Joel, touted the 8 Points of Light honorees, “representing the flames of the menorah and reflecting the best of our university family.” A most unusual “flame” was Matthew Williams, a senior at Yeshiva College and a chair of its honors program’s student council. Joel recalled: “When I told Matt at a Sephardic student gathering that his was not a Sephardic name, he said that he thinks he is the only Sephardi student who is also a Native American.”
“Do you mean native born?” Joel recalled asking. “No, really Native American,” Williams replied. “It seems,” Joel said, “that Williams’s grandfather was a member of the Choctaw Nation and enlisted in the Army during World War II. He was posted in Fez, Morocco, [where] he captured the eye of the daughter of a local rabbi…. He converted to Judaism so they could wed.” The couple moved to Oklahoma, where they raised their Jewish family. One of the points of light is Robert Grunstein, a Y.U. ’96 graduate who became a dentist, refurbished a fire engine as a mobile dental office. For the past five years he has driven to predominantly immigrant neighborhoods in Northern New Jersey and has inspected the teeth of public school children, free of charge.
Joel noted: “By showing these children that a complete stranger can care for their well-being, Dr. Grunstein teaches them that they have potential worthy of investment…. And he does all this while wearing his kipah.” Sheri Rosenberg, another one of the Points of Light and director of the Human Rights and Genocide Clinic and of the Program in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies at the Cardozo School of Law, was selected by the U.S. Department of State as one of two American lawyers to work for the Human Rights Chamber in Bosnia following the years of ethnic cleansing. This past summer, Rosenberg went to the Hague, where she argued a landmark case before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. She represented Jacob Finci, a Jewish citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, “who was prevented from running for president solely because of his religion.”
The Keynote speaker at the December 2 America-Israel Friendship League Partners for Democracy Dinner, Israel ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, told the black-tie crowd at The Pierre, “I reminded the president [Obama] that my father landed on Normandy Beach on D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, that our family paid their dues both to the USA and Israel.”
It was a night of America-Israel love quips, beginning with AIFL Board of America-Israel Friendship League chairman Kenneth Bialkin touting the “love affair between the U.S. and Israel, both lovers of liberty and defenders of freedom.” AIFL Israel Board chairman Dan Gillerman defined the “love affair” as one “by people who build a bridge over troubled waters,” yet he cautioned, “love, like marriages and friendships, must never be taken for granted.” A Partners for Democracy Award recipient, business leader and philanthropist Lester Crown, was adamant: “Israel is the canary [in the coal mine] of Western Civilization…. Israel’s 5 ½ million Jews have contributed to humanity in all fields…. Israel’s care of 3,000 years of history and tradition must be defended.” Also honored was Michael Federmann, chairman and CEO of Federmann Enterprises Ltd. His name, as noted in the introduction to his presentation, is “a name synonymous with Israel’s hotel industry — the Dan Hotel chain.”
The evening’s longest address was by Janet Napolitano, whom Obama swore in as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security this past January. Describing herself as “an alumnus of trips to Israel,” Napolitano explained that the “attack of 9/11 was the reason for our creation,” and that “we are the newest and third-largest Cabinet, with 230,000 employees.” Napolitano addressed “home-based terrorism,” noting that “president Obama works tirelessly across government [lines] and with our allies overseas to avoid a repetition of 9/11”, and that “in case of catastrophe, we need to learn from Israel… report suspicious activities” and mirror “Israeli vigilance.”
Oren, author of “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East” (Oxford University Press, 2002), informed that he spent the past three decades “studying U.S. policy in the Middle East…. Yes, there is a strategic alliance. There is a trade relationship. And despite “some differences,” the friendly relationship between the United States and Israel will not change. Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue delivered the evening’s invocation; AIFL President Harley Lippman, remembered late AIFR supporter and friend of Israel Jack Kemp, who served for four years as secretary of housing and urban development under then president George H.W. Bush and in 1996 was the Republican Party candidate for vice president of the United States. The evening’s music was provided by mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani, who was a soldier-musician in the Israel Defense Forces, and by Natalie Tenenbaum, an Israeli-born Juilliard School-trained pianist who has performed with the Israel Symphony Orchestra.