“I’m going to dare what has never been done at Yeshiva [University]: read the day’s parsha,” declared Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker, keynote speaker at Y.U.’s 86th annual Hanukkah Dinner Convocation, held December 12 at the Waldorf Astoria. Y.U.’s president, Richard Joel — who would later tell the 770 guests that “this was the most successful dinner in Yeshiva University history” — conferred the university’s honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree upon Booker, who delighted the assemblage with his talmudic savvy. He credited his knowledge to an “encounter that changed my life at Oxford University.” He detailed how he “stumbled upon a Simchat Torah celebration at a Chabad House,” which he described as akin to “a scene from Barbra Streisand’s film ‘Yentl’: bad tailoring, strings hanging from below the jackets!” It was the beginning of his providential years’ long association with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Booker joshed: “I’m 6 feet 3 inches and he is 5 feet tall. I am very handsome… [but] his face is covered with hair. He gave me Elie Wiesel’s [book] ‘Night’ to read … Studying Torah with Boteach [has been] an incredible experience.” Peppering his address with biblical, talmudic and Hebraic quotations, Booker stated, “Jews should be a light unto the nations.” He lauded Y.U. as “not only a place where you are enabled to make a living, but where you are [impelled] to change the world. Tikkun olam.” During dinner, I exchanged a few pleasantries with Ivanka Trump Kushner (upon conversion to Judaism, she took the name Yael), whose husband, Jared Kushner, is related to Murray Laulicht, one of the evening’s honorees.
A member of the board of overseers of Y.U.’s Stern College for Women, Laulicht, along with his wife, established the Linda and Murray Laulicht Holocaust Education Teacher Training Fund at New Jersey’s College of Saint Elizabeth. They have endowed the Laulicht Non-Surgical Aortic Valve Replacement Program at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center, in Jerusalem, and are the supporters of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, N.J. An honorary Doctor of Humane Letters was also conferred upon Arthur Hershaft, communal leader, philanthropist and member of Stern College for Women’s Board of Overseers. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1959 with a major in printing, Hershaft joined his father, Leon, in Dad’s business. From Poland, the elder Hershaft made his way to the Bronx, where he found employment in a small business that produced clothing labels for the apparel industry. According to the bio notes, “The company eventually produced labels mandated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) just after the Depression.”
Honorary Degree recipient Emanuel Gruss was born in Poland in 1921. His father had been a banker and an active Zionist. The family escaped from Poland in 1939 and came to the United States. Gruss served in the U.S. Army under George Patton, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and earned both a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Fluent in Polish and German, Gruss, who helped liberate several labor camps, was instrumental in arranging food, medical and housing assistance for survivors. In 1952, he purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. His firm was among the first to encourage investment in Israeli stocks. An honorary degree was also awarded to philanthropist Laurie Tisch, president of the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund. It was noted by Joel that Tisch “established the Laurie M. Tisch Repayment Program, which offers ‘forgivable loans’ for Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law graduates who have chosen to pursue careers in public interest/public service law.” Tisch is a member of the board of directors of the New York Giants, the NFL team that is co-owned by her family.
The entertainment for the dinner was Y.U.’s a cappella group, the Maccabeats, whose YouTube video “Candlelight” has had 3,928,951 hits to date!
The December 13 American Friends of the Open University of Israel Gala, held at The Plaza, honored James Snyder, director of Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, with its Artist Laureate Award and presented its Yigal Alon Award to Shaul Mofaz, former defense minister, deputy prime minister and minister of transportation, currently a [Kadima] member of the Knesset. The ever-glamorous president of AFOUI, Ingeborg Rennert, hailed Snyder as a “visionary” whose supervision of the museum’s recent $100 million internationally acclaimed expansion, “melds the past of the Jewish people for the preservation and presentation for the future….. You have built a mishkan, a shrine, for the ages.” The award to Mofaz, who fled to Israel from Tehran in 1957, was presented by AFOUI board member Babak Hakakian. He touted Alon, a founder and commander in chief of the Palmach after whom the award was named, as one akin to biblical heroes David, Joshua and Judah Maccabee. An award co-presenter , AFOUI benefactor Nazee Moinian, lauded the general, whose military biography encompasses the Six Day War, Lebanon, the raid on Entebbe, etc., “on behalf of the Persian-Jewish community.”
“Fifty thousand students of Open University thank you,” said the university’s president, Hagit Messer Yaron**, a scientist who was awarded the Popular Science Magazine Award and the World Intellectual Property medal for her research in flood warning and detection. “The economic future of Israel depends on educating our society. Every element, each segment of the population, must be productive…. Your [help]… the purchase of a textbook, underwriting a chair, makes it possible.”
AFOUI Chairman Malcolm Thomson asked the guests to imagine: “It is May 2010. We are in Bet Hanasi, the residence of [Israel’s] president, Shimon Peres…. Forty-eight commandos in uniform snap to attention and salute Commander-in-Chief Peres, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Minister of Education Gideon Sa-Ar and president of Open University of Israel Professor Hagit Messer Yaron…. After serving two-and-a-half years in combat, [these] elite commandos were selected to participate in a new program: Project Academic Commando — a joint venture of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], the Ministry of Education and Open University…. I visited the commandos at their training base… In one semester, working as though in combat… the commandos completed three semesters… in computer technology and science.” Thomson added: “I also visited with Israeli-Arab women studying to be teachers and doctors…. Arab imams participated in courses, using modern techniques of mediation and conflict resolution to enhance their traditional skills.”
The evening’s guest roster included Elie and Marion Wiesel; Israel’s acting consul general, Ido Aharoni; State University of New York System Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, and New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Upon receipt of an invitation from France’s ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont, to the December 16 reception at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, in honor of Gena Rowlands, I RSVP’d in, as they say, a New York minute. The last time I had spoken with Rowlands was at the February 14, 2001, “Red Ball,” put on by Broadway producer Martin Richard. I looked forward to witnessing Vimont’s presentation of France’s Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres to Rowlands, whose often wrenching portrayals of women I greatly admire. During the champagne-sipping pre-ceremony, I asked Rowlands about her appearance on the CBS-TV series “Numb3rs,” which is now shown only in reruns. In the series’s October 5, 2006, episode, titled “Provenance,” she portrayed Holocaust survivor Erika Hellman, a woman on a mission to recover the art stolen from her family by the Nazis. When I asked what it was like working with Woody Allen (who directed her in his 1988 film “Another Woman”), her face lit up. She replied, in a measured cadence: “Woody never talks.” Pause. “He leaves it up to you.” [Pause] He stages — things.”
Before the medal presentation, Vimont scrolled through Rowlands’s filmography, paying tribute to her late husband “John Cassavetes, who was inspired by you — his wife and muse,” and lauded her visceral portrayals of women in the Academy Award-nominated “Gloria” and “A Woman Under the Influence,” both collaborations with Cassavetes. Vimont spoke of Rowlands’s French fans and said that the actress became “an essential part of the adventure of independent film, its leading lady, its grande dame.”
“Well!” Rowlands began, taking the mic after the medal presentation. “I love the French! I have been a fan of the French for a long time. My late husband’s work was not popular when he began. But the French came through! I thank you all for coming.” Then, as an afterthought, she asked, “You think I am too old to start learning French?”