The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s 86th annual benefit dinner, held on November 30 and honoring JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chairman Jacob Frenkel with a lifetime achievement award, was as much a gathering of financial gurus as it was of Yiddishists, intellectuals and historians. Guests included Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel, and YIVO board member Leo Melamed, chairman emeritus of the CME Group.
Bruce Slovin, chairman of the YIVO’s board of directors, touted Frenkel as a “laureate of the 2002 Israel Prize in Economics” and as someone who, according to the program notes, “is credited with reducing inflation in Israel and… integrating the Israeli economy into the global financial system.” Fischer, who presented Frenkel’s award, recalled how Frenkel visited his father’s grave in Lodz, Poland. “It was cold… the enormous cemetery, which was restored by Ron Lauder, was covered in snow…. He found a man who mapped the cemetery [and] who found the grave.” After reminiscing about his friendship with Frenkel, Fischer said, “He never betrayed a confidence.” In his acceptance speech, Frenkel said, “Let’s preserve the past to build the future… YIVO is not just preserving the past.”
Lawrence Summers, a professor at Charles W. Eliot University, proclaimed, “I will talk only about Jacob and his inherent trait — chutzpah! On our trip to [Breznev’s] Kremlin, I forgot my passport. The Kremlin is not a chummy place. On the bus I was sitting next to Jacob, not a talker, who presented me to the [Kremlin] guard in a combination of languages. As the guard hesitated, Jacob quickly pulled me past the guard. That’s how Jacob deals with obstacles.” Summers quipped: “His mother suggested he take a course in history. Jacob told her: ‘Mom, I’m at MIT. We’re about the future.’”
Martin Peretz, a YIVO board trustee, acted as the host. YIVO Executive Director and CEO Jonathan Brent announced the launch of the YIVO-Bard Institute for East European Jewish History and Culture ,which, as described by Bard University President Leon Botstein, “is a new joint venture to help preserve our heritage through scholarship.”
Other noted guests included Zygimantas Pavilionis, Lithuania’s consul general in New York; Marjorie Tiven, Commissioner of the New York City Commission for the United Nations, and Frederick Lawrence, president of Brandeis University.
“It is America’s pre-eminent Yiddish theater company… producing since 1905. That’s longer than ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ ‘Cats’ and ‘Les Miz’ combined,” said Broadway producer Stewart Lane, an honoree at the November 22 National Yiddish Theater — Folksbiene’s “Second Avenue to Broadway” cabaret dinner, held at the Bohemian National Hall. Lane, the author of the recent “Jews on Broadway” (McFarland), continued: “You’d think that a Yiddish theater company, the only one left of the 15 Yiddish theater companies once producing on Broadway, would only get audiences that speak Yiddish. The fact is it has expanded from the 2 million tri-state area Jewish population to everyone interested in attending theater in New York.” David Steiner, chairman of Steiner Equities Group and developer of Brooklyn-based Steiner Studios, presented Lane with the award.
Marc Schneier, founding rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue, introduced the evening’s second honoree, Martin Greenfield, head of Martin Greenfield Clothiers, Ltd. According to the program notes, Greenfield “started his career as a floor boy carrying bundles of cut cloth from one tailor to another.” He now runs the “last remaining union shop with more than 100 employees in the New York City area.”
Schneier smiled. “Did [Greenfield] ever imagine 40 years ago, when he made my bar mitzvah suit, that I would be his rabbi, and that Martin, known as ‘tailor to the stars’ and creator of the wardrobe for HBO’s 1920s Prohibition series, ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ would be making a bar mitzvah suit for my son?”
The impeccably attired Greenfield — a Holocaust survivor from Carpathia, Czechoslovakia — declared, “I do better making clothes than making speeches,” and then gleefully added, “un ikh ken redn yidish” (“and I can speak Yiddish”).
Shane Baker of Kansas City, Kan., an Episcopalian who is the executive director of the Congress for Jewish Culture, joshed, “I don’t want to [just] become a Jew, I want to be a Litvak.” Folksbiene Executive Director Bryna Wasserman told the upbeat crowd, “Tonight is an opportunity to keep alive the legacy of the Yiddish theater, which was attended by the thousands in the [Warsaw] ghetto, and create a bridge between the past and the future.” Jeff Wiesenfeld, chairman of the board, declared, “The Folksbiene is the greatest pleasure of my life, outside of my family.” Lane, who was accompanied by his wife, Bonnie Comley, — his producing partner and a two-time Tony Award winner — said that the catalyst for his book “was my wish to document the efforts of a culture that has made such a huge impact on the art form we call theater. My research into the Yiddish theater was a starting place for many writers, composers, lyricists, producers, performers and directors and only touched on some of their contributions…. The Folksbiene was not just a starting point for artists, but a permanent legacy for everyone.”
The evening’s performance line-up included The Hampton Synagogue’s cantor, Netanel Hershtik; Broadway/TV actress and vocalist Judy Blazer, and Tony-award winning singer and actress Judy Kaye, who made a few audience members teary-eyed with her wrenching “Mayn Yidishe Mame” and whose no-holds-barred rendition of “Some of These Days” would have earned a nod from Sophie Tucker. Broadway/film actor Ron Rifkin sang the beloved “Oyfn Pripetshik”, and had the audience join him in “Tumbalayka.” Elmore James, whose credits include the Broadway production of “Big River,” wowed the crowd with his rendition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River” in perfectly articulated Yiddish. The musical program, complete with soloists, ensemble members and orchestra, was led from the piano by Folksbiene Artistic Director Zalmen Mlotek.
Special guests included Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland: Sigmund Rolat, chairman of the North American Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, Poland’s consul general in New York.