Few believe that Jewish poor exist,” New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in his keynote address at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty luncheon, held July 26 to honor Builder of the Year Jeffrey Levine. He described Levine — past president of the Queens County Builders and Contractors Association, board member of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council and one of the National Association of Home Builders Pillars of the Industry — as a “nuts-and-bolts builder who has made character, integrity and community leadership the hallmark of his personal and professional life.”
Addressing the 325 guests at Guastavino’s, on East 59th Street, Silver added, “We need that leadership now more than ever, [because] amidst all the political posturing and debt ceilings and deficits, no one is talking about [Jewish] poverty. The city has made a lot of dreams come true. Made a lot of people wealthy beyond their imagination. But the true measure of New York will never be the number of billionaires and millionaires it has spawned, but rather how it treats the immigrant, the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the isolated, the very young and the very poor.”
Among the event’s high-profile attendees were Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; UJA-Federation of New York president Jerry Levin; Bill de Blasio, public advocate for New York City; Met Council CEO William Rapfogel, and John Liu, New York City Comptroller. As he did at last year’s Met Council luncheon, Liu proclaimed, “My grandmother in Taiwan sends you a ‘Mazel tov.’”
Barry Cross, a resident since 2010 of The Linda and Jerome Spitzer Residence — a Met Council housing development for senior citizens, located in Manhattan at 351 East 61 St. — is a testament to Silver’s injunction that “ours is an obligation not merely to serve, but to educate, to combat ignorance with acts of charity and deeds of kindness [and] to recommit ourselves to ensuring that no one is left behind.” Cross, a divorced father of three, was born in England and came to the United States in 1949. He told the assembled:“ I want to thank the people who helped me. I had fallen on hard times. I was looking for an affordable way to [live] independently…. Fourteen years ago I took a dive…. I went down to Met Council on 80 Maiden Lane. Met Council helped me more than you will ever know.” A former chef, Cross often hosts small dinner parties in this apartment. He does yoga and lives with his dog, Misty.
Met Council operates nearly 1,400 affordable housing units for low-income New Yorkers, with another 700 units in the pipeline. The organization’s No Wrong Door policy includes a kosher food network; a family violence program, which offers crisis counseling and short-term therapy; legal and immigration services; home care therapy; handyman services, and more. Guests at the luncheon included Claire Schulman, past borough president of Queens; Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of Brooklyn Heights’ Congregation Mount Sinai; Rabbi Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, and Jeff Wiesenfeld, a principal at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.
The July 21 performance of David Botwinik’s musical opus “From Holocaust to Life” was a gift to those of us who treasure Yiddish song. Sung by soprano Lisa Willson (a blond stunner), each song was lovingly articulated as though Willson — who is not Jewish but whose great-grandmother was — were to Vilner Yiddish born. Post-concert I suggested to Willson, whose international concert and opera credits include such roles as Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus and the title role in “Tosca,” that she add “Yiddish coaching” to her résumé. Elena Berman-Gantard accompanied Willson on the piano.
Among the works Botwinik set to music were Abraham Sutzkever’s “Di Yunge Mame” (“The Young Mother”) and Shmerke Kaczerginski’s “Khalutsim Lid” (“Song of the Pioneers”). The hour-long program included “Valdstsene” (“Forest Scene”) by M.M. Shaffir; “Di Litvishe Shtetele” (“The Little Lithuanian Town”) by Joseph Jaffe and Botwinik’s own “Kumt Tzu Undz” (“Come to Us”) — a paean to Yiddish, proclaiming: “Yiddish: Listen to Yiddish, our language, wonder language…. Come to us our estranged brothers and behold the treasure we possess….” Eight-year-old Emma Gantard and 13-year-old Dina Malka Botwinik (the composer’s granddaughter) were shown on a DVD, singing in Yiddish as though they, too, had been born and raised in Vilna.
David Botwinik was born in 1920 in Vilna and, as the program notes that “by the time he was 11, he had already appeared as a cantor at several local synagogues…. At 18 he was the prompter for a Yiddish version of Verdi’s opera ‘Aida.’ After World War II he worked with Shmerke Kaczerginski in Lodz (Poland) listening to survivors and transcribing… many unknown songs for the 1948 book “Lider fun di Getos un Lagern” (“Songs of the Ghettos and Concentration Camps”), which was edited by the great Yiddish poet H. Leivik.” He studied music at Rome’s Santa Cecilia Conservatory and immigrated to Canada in 1956. In Montreal he was a music teacher and choir director in the Jewish Peretz and the United Talmud Torah schools for 35 years.
Bravo to Alexander Botwinik for his 16-year long effort to produce his father’s book, “From Holocaust to Life: New Yiddish Songs With English Translations,” which was published in 2010 by the League for Yiddish and is now in its second printing. Botwinik grew up in Montreal and studied music and education at McGill University. Currently a Yiddish instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, he coordinates the annual choral youth group Zimria, sponsored by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.