Setting the tone for the January 18 Silver Anniversary Gala of the Congress of Racial Equality, Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education, stated, “[This evening] is a partial fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, led by a mosaic of leaders who remind us that we are all children of God.” With a wide smile and deep décolletage, philanthropist Tova Leidesdorf, recipient of the International Brotherhood Award, saluted the black-tie crowd at the Sheraton New York Hotel with: “Good evening! Salaam,! Shalom aleichem! I was born in Palestine…. During World War II, American soldiers came to my home for Shabbat dinner. They brought Hershey chocolate bars. Imagine what that means to a little girl! They were better than all the diamonds I got later!… I came to America and married Arthur Leidesdorf [son of Sam Leidesdorf, 1881–1968], a founder of the United Negro College Fund).” She touted her ancestor-by-marriage, William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr. (1819–1848), “who was born half black, half white and a Jew!”
Michael Steele, Republican National Committee chairman and recipient of the Public Service Award, applauded CORE for “still doing what it was founded to do — marching for future generations.” He concluded his address with a codicil: “We didn’t get here because we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because someone else helped us.”
Recipient of CORE’s Civil Rights Award, Philadelphia, Miss., black mayor James Young acknowledged soberly: “Brave men and women came to help us.” As did Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute and the dinner’s co-chairman, Young recalled the 1960s attempt to integrate the schools in Mississippi, and the murder of the three civil rights workers — James Chaney, a black activist; Michael Schwerner, a New York Jewish CORE organizer, and Andrew Goodman, a Jewish volunteer for Summer Freedom who on June 21, 1964, had been shot near Philadelphia, Miss.”
Referring to Leidesdorff as “my paisan” — as they both come from St. Croix, Virgin Islands — CORE’s national chairman, Roy Innis, declared: “We need to revel in the election of Obama as the first black president, [and] we need to recognize Mayor Young as the first black mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi,” which CORE national spokesman Niger Innis had earlier informed was a city with a white majority. Roy Innis amplified: “After the Civil War, from 1865 to 1932, black people voted Republican. Since then, we discovered Abe Lincoln in the guise of FDR and became exclusively Democrat. Something is wrong. We need to be recognized in both parties…. There is a tendency to interpret any legitimate critique or criticism of one of our brothers as ‘being picked on.’ Don’t blame racism when you are hit on the chin!”
The dinner journal’s biographical notes clarified the provenance of Leidesdorff, of whom Tova Leidesdorf extolled: “What a lovely contrast! Half white, half black and a Jew!” Described in his profile as “one of the best-kept secrets in the pioneering of the West and the creation of the state of California, he was born in St. Croix to William Leidesdorff, a Jewish Danish sugar planter, and Anna Marie Spark, an African plantation slave. What was not in the notes, Tova Leidesdorf disclosed to the audience: “An English lord on the next plantation adopted him… sent him to New Orleans to learn the cotton business. He fell in love with Hortense, a Creole. When her father found out that the groom was half-black and half-Jewish, the wedding was off, and Hortense committed suicide! That’s when he set off for San Francisco.”
The journal notes inform that he is listed as a founding father of the State of California; was the first African-American consul in American history and the first treasurer of San Francisco, and that he authorized the first public school in San Francisco, for which he donated the land. And when gold was found on his 35,000-acre property shortly before his death (which set off the California Gold Rush), he became the first African-American millionaire.
In the tradition of, “The apple does not fall far from the tree,” Samuel Leidesdorf, Tova Leidesdorf’s father-in-law, brought Albert Einstein to America and served as his personal accountant. He was one of the founders of the United Jewish Appeal, and guaranteed a multimillion-dollar loan to the Chase bank for the creation of Israel Bonds. He created the Coalition of Christians and Jews. His accounting firm, S.D. Leidesdorf & Co., evolved into what is now Ernst & Young. His son Arthur, Tova’s husband, helped build the 92nd Street Y, owned one of the largest collections of Fabergé eggs in the world, served as chairman of the Citizens’ Budget Committee of New York City and was a permanent member of the U.S. State Department Fine Arts Committee, “[making] significant donations to the U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Reception Rooms and U.S. embassies around the world,” according to The Leidesdorf Legacy,” which was distributed to all the guests.
New York Festival of Song-Killer B’s audience-pleasing program by its co-artistic directors, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, had nothing to do with pollen-collecting stinging insects. The NYFOS/Juilliard School concert, held January 13 at Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, was devoted to American songs by lyricists and composers whose names begin with the letter “B”: Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock, Marc Blitzstein and others.
What resonated was the contemporary content of many of the songs. Berlin’s “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” is from the 1930 film “Mammy” and has 2010 written between the lines: “What care I who makes the laws of A nation?/Let those who will take care of its rights and wrongs./What care I who careS for the world’s affairs/As long as I can sing its popular songs?” IPod, anyone?
Bernstein’s music for “I, Too, Sing America,” from his song cycle “Songfest” and set to a poem by Langston Hughes, is a reminder of America’s recent past: “I, too, sing America./I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen/when company comes/but I laugh,/And eat well. And grow strong./Tomorrow,/I will be at the table….”
Blitzstein’s “Nickel Under the Foot” from “The Cradle Will Rock” (1935) is set during the Depression and has the sound of today: “… for dinner I could only afford coffee… Mister, you don’t know what it felt like, thinkin’ that was a nickel under my foot.” For edgy content, there was “Love in the Thirties,”] from the third and fourth volume of “Cabaret Songs,” (1934), with William Bolcom’s music and Arnold Weinstein’s lyrics: “Dad, can we live in the elevator building?/Kid, with our luck we’d live on the ground floor./Dad, why aren’t we communists? Kid, we can’t afford it.” Bock’s “A Trip to the Library” from the 1963 musical “She Loves Me” (lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) was a delightful respite. Bernstein’s upbeat “Spring Will Come Again” (lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and originally intended for “The Skin of Our Teeth” ), with its hopeful closing stanza — “Once again we’ll know/All we know/that after winter comes spring” — was enhanced with Barrett’s program notes, in which he informs: “The haunting melody of ‘Spring Will Come Again’ — one of Bernstein’s most beautiful — was used as the central movement of the ‘Chichester Psalms’ now set to the text of Psalm 23 (“The Lord Is My Shepherd, I shall Not Want) sung in Hebrew.”
Choreographed by Jeanne Slater, with Blier and Barrett at the piano, the program’s Killer B’s Interpreters — as much via body language as through vocal pyrotechnics — were sopranos Catherine Hancock and Meredith Lustig, mezzos Carla Jablonski and Naomi O’Connell, baritones Carlton Ford and Timothy McDevitt, and bass-baritone Adrian Rosas
The January 21 diversion of a US Airways flight because a passenger assumed that a young man’s tefillin box on his forehead was suspicious triggered a long-forgotten memory of a similar incident in 1941 in Kobe, Japan. I called Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who for eight years served as a rabbi in Japan and was whom I’d hear tell the details of that bizarre incident. “In Kobe the young Mirer Yeshiva boys discovered a new childhood,” Tokayer began. The Mirer Yeshiva was the only yeshiva whose members survived intact, and many of them were on the same February 1941 train with my mother and me to Vladivostok from Moscow — all of us recipients of Sugihara visas. “The yeshiva had not yet been reconstituted, they had free time and they discovered that on the roof of Kobe’s largest department store, nine-story high Daimaru on Motomatchi Street, there was a playground where, like the Japanese mothers who left their children in the care of responsible caretakers, my mother would sometimes let me go.”
He continued: “The Mirer youngsters had never seen swings or sliding ponds in the shtetls, so every morning they would compete with the Japanese youngsters for the sandbox and monkey bars. One day, a young student woke up late and rushed to Daimaru’s rooftop, seeking his pals. Since he had not yet davened, he quickly strapped one box to his forehead, securing it with two ‘antennae,’ and another box to his forearm with yet another ‘antenna,’ and began walking the periphery of the roof, shokling — gesticulating and moving his arms in all directions. An elevator operator reported to the police that there was a strange foreigner on the roof with a radio transmitter strapped to his forehead! This was a serious wartime crime! Japan had been at war with China since 1937. The student was arrested. Along with his tefillin, he had brought along a salami! He was accused of spying.” Eventually he was released, after the significance of tefillin was explained to the authorities.
The tefillin incident also reminded me of the reason that we refugees were not permitted to have cameras during our stay in Japan for fear that we might take photos of Kobe’s harbor! Therefore, the only two photos I have of my mother and me and fellow refugees (including Oyfn Shvel editor Sheva Zucker’s father Mayer Zucker (who spent the war years in Shanghai) were taken by Japanese strangers in a park. As promised they later sent copies of the photos to my mother!