Maimonidies And Menorahs

On The Go

By Masha Leon

Published December 30, 2009, issue of January 08, 2010.
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“I could pass for a Santa,” a jolly, white-bearded Rabbi Mikhael Cohen, of the Centre Communautaire Juif Francophone de New York, joshed as we chatted at the December 17 Hanukkah reception held at the French Consulate. With a yarmulke atop his head, France’s consul general,Philippe Lalliot, told the crush of celebrants that he had just come from “lighting the 15-meter-high menorah on Fifth Avenue, alongside Governor [David] Paterson and my friend, [artist] Ron Agam.”

Jews of Wall Street: Columnist David Brooks speaks at the holiday event.
Jews of Wall Street: Columnist David Brooks speaks at the holiday event.

The simcha took place in a room dominated by a wall-size 18th-century GobelinS tapestry, which, Lalliot noted, “was symbolic of the connection between France and its Jewish citizens.” He elaborated: “France’s Jewish community is the biggest in Europe [and] has contributed to France’s cultural, intellectual and economic wealth. The tapestry tells the story from the Book of Esther and the triumph of Mordechai delivering the Jews from the Persian Empire.” Lalliot continued, “From history, we have inherited and we share common values and aspirations to build together and live in a better world.”

Lalliot added: “Freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, the right to be different, democracy, the rule of law, tolerance… are those aspirations that I see shining in the candles lit by the flame of the Shamash….Given those ideals… antisemitism is our common enemy. The French government will not tolerate that any racist or antisemitic act go unpunished.” He also noted: “We have never ceased to recall that the Israeli people must be able to live in security within recognized and guaranteed borders. To paraphrase the president of the Republic in his historic speech in the Knesset last year, the security of Israel is not negotiable.”

Lalliot quoted 12th-century rabbi and physician Maimonides, who said that “Holy days are appointed for rejoicing and for such pleasant gathering as people generally need….” That prompted a genuinely surprised Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue to declare: “This is the first time I have heard a diplomat quote the Rambam!” (Rambam is the Hebraic acronym for Maimonides’s full name and title.)

The choir of the Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School, directed by Kenneth Birnbaum, performed charming renditions of l Hanisim by D. Frimer, Maoz Tzur (Benedetto Marcello 1686–1739) and the traditional spiritual “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” The SAR High School band, directed by Anat Barak, closed the evening with S.A. Goldfarb’s “I have a Little Dreidel” and with the Beatles song “Yesterday.”

As we were leaving, I spotted a pile of beautifully crafted petite wooden dreidels that were lying on a table in the consulate’s lobby. They were accompanied by a sign that read, “Veuillez prener un dreidel avec vous!” (“Please take a dreidel with you!”). A man hesitated and looked at me as he picked up a fistful of dreidels. “My son is having a bar mitzvah tomorrow,” he said sheepishly. “Take! Take! And mazel tov!” I absolved him of guilt. He smiled, and added another fistful.


“Welcome, Jews of Wall Street, non-Jews of Wall Street… I am a proud Jew and like to say ‘Jew’ ” said master of ceremonies David Faber, CNBC anchor and chief investigative correspondent, at the December 16 UJA-Federation of New York Wall Street& Financial Services Division dinner, held at the New York Hilton. “I’m the grandson of a kosher butcher,” began the keynote speaker, New York Times columnist David Brooks. ”One hundred years of secularism in the family. I married a Protestant woman; three years later, she wants to have a kosher home [and] the kids go to a Jewish day school. Only God would screw me this way.” Brooks lauded President Obama’s grace under fire amid challenging events, invoking the phrase “no-drama Obama,” and spoke of the president as one who is “carried along by evidence [and is] a model for self-confidence.” And, if I heard him correctly in the room filled with more than 1,000 guests, Brooks noted that the president is surrounded by “very smart people… half from Harvard, half from Yale.”

“We live in a world not so lucky…. It is an enormous gift to give back,” said Marc Lipschultz, global head of energy and infrastructure business at Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., and recipient of the Wall Street Young Leadership Award. He accepted the award from dinner chair Henry R. Kravis, co-founding member of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. “Most of our parents and grandparents crossed the ocean for a better life,” noted John Paulson, president, Paulson & Co. Inc., a giant hedge firm. Paulson received UJA-Federation’s Gustave L. Levy Award.

In a different spin on giving, the dinner guests were told that they could “text message” their donations “via your Blackberries or cell phone.” The gift pledge then appeared on the overhead screen behind the dais. Total pledged that evening: $19 million. There was also a plea for a “Gift of Life” — seeking a possible bone marrow donor for 49-year old Alan Cohen, “whose twins are about to be bar mitzvahed…. A five-minute swab can save someone’s life.” In keeping with the theme of “giving back,” about 100 dinner seats, valued at $350 each, were donated to unemployed professionals and business-school students from throughout the Metropolitan area.


The December 14 American Friends of Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gala, held at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and underwritten by Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert, was a grand success. The IPO’s renditions of “Hatikvah” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” were viscerally thrilling. Conductor and violinist Pinchas Zuckerman launched the program with a sublime rendition of the Haydn Concerto for Violin in C Major, followed by Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 in G Minor” (“The Hen”). Described in the program as one of America’s most dynamic cellists, Amanda Forsyth, dressed in a red-silk halter dress, was a visual and aural treat as she performed two works by Max Bruch.

Tully Hall’s Starr Theater was an intimate and acoustically pleasing setting for the program. During the orchestra’s dynamic performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture,” I was particularly impressed by the choreographic finesse of Ayal Rafiah, the cymbals-clashing percussionist with peyes.

Addressing the black-tie assemblage, Elaine Wolfensohn — who, with her husband, James Wolfensohn, and Rochelle and David Hirsch, co-chaired the benefit — paraphrased what appeared in the printed program notes about the orchestra’s 74th season. “This has been a particularly difficult year…. Due to the severe economic conditions in Israel, the orchestra took it upon itself to take a sizable salary cut in order to balance its budget. We are proud that AFIPO was able to help the orchestra continue some of the programs that would have been cut.” In contrast to years past, when guests were bused to a dinner at a hotel from the concert hall, this year the dinner was served in the lobby of Alice Tully Hall. And in lieu of floral centerpieces, plastic silhouettes of musical instruments graced each table.

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