“Russian Transport”: An American Dream Derailed
“Russian Transport,” a new play by Erika Sheffer and presented off-Broadway by The New Group at the Acorn Theatre, deals with a scenario that could not have been imagined at the time of Soviet Jewry’s “Let My People Go!” movement of 1967–1989. In the play, Diana ( Janeane Garofalo ) and Misha ( Daniel Oreskes ), who converse in Russian and in Russian-accented English, are trying to make ends meet in Brooklyn’s Russian-immigrant enclave in Sheepshead Bay. Their American-born kids understand Russian but also speak flawless English peppered with four-letter words. Fourteen-year-old Mira ( Sarah Steele ), who aspires to go to college, also wants to go to Italy, but Diana puts the kibosh on her travel plans by warning her that she will encounter anti-Semites. This is the only hint that the family is Jewish. Mira’s older brother, Alex ( Raviv Ullman ), makes extra money by working for his father’s struggling car service. The arrival from Russia of Diana’s sexy kid brother, Boris (Morgan Spector), fractures the family’s tenuous equilibrium. At first grateful to Uncle Boris for extra driving jobs to make money, Alex realizes that he is not simply chauffeuring naive young Russian girls to benign destinations: His uncle — a thug in sheep’s clothing — seduced him with money and ensnared him in a criminal enterprise.
Deftly directed by Scott Elliott , founding artistic director of The New Group, the play’s denouement occurs on the upper level of an appropriately claustrophobic two-story set designed by Derek McLane . Kudos to the entire cast — and a special bravo to Janeane Garofalo for pulling off a pretty good accent in Russian, a language she learned phonetically.
The play opened on January 30, and its run has been extended to March 24. At the February 4 performance I attended, I ran into Ben Stiller ; his wife, actress Christine Taylor , and Peter Strauss , best known for his roles in the television miniseries “Kane & Abel, “ “Rich Man, Poor Man” and “Masada.” Stiller directed Garofalo in the 1996 film “The Cable Guy,” and the two of them co-wrote the book “Feel This Book: An Essential Guide to Self-Empowerment, Spiritual Supremacy, and Sexual Satisfaction”(Ballantine Books, 1999). Stiller, with whom I last spoke at the February 28, 2011, Museum of the Moving Image gala, chatted with me about his parents, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara , who have appeared in this column numerous times.
The “Let My People Go! The Soviet Jewry Movement 1967–1989” exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust will be on display through the end of April.
Celebrating Camp Good Grief, an Oasis of Healing for Children of All Ages
“Children grieve differently than adults when a parent or loved one dies,” said Alexandra Urdang , chair of the Valentine Salon, an annual luncheon benefiting the free summer camp for grieving children Good Grief. “This is our thirteenth luncheon,” she told the 200 women gathered at 583 Park Avenue on February 8. “We deal with families whose lives have been altered, who struggle to heal.”
The event was hosted by Paula Zahn , co-host of WNET/Chanel 13 SundayArts, who described the range of losses — from death by illness to suicide and homicide — that children and families face. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “Camp Good Grief, a summer day camp for children, employs art, music, structured play and group therapy designed to give children the necessary tools to effectively cope with their feeling of loss.”
“This is a labor of love for me,” said Jacalyn Weinstein , who, with Susan Kohl Katz , conceived of the Valentine Salon luncheon as “a way to increase awareness of the Camp Good Grief program.” Affiliated with the East End Hospice, in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., the camp is facilitated by certified social workers, therapists and nurse practitioners trained in grief therapy for children.
The luncheon’s honoree was Rachel Lloyd , founder and executive director of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, which provides assistance to sexually exploited girls. Lloyd was a leading advocate for the Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act, which protects child victims of sex trafficking.
Remembering Kutsher’s, A Many Splendored Resort
Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg ’s documentary, “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort,” which had its world premiere on January 26 at the New York Jewish Film Festival, caused me much angst. The fragmented look back to Kutsher’s glory days did not do justice to an institution that offered more than comics’ yuks, sporting events and an endless flow of food. Starting in the 1960s, my husband, Joe, and I made an annual weeklong pilgrimage to the Catskills — and every few years our Kutscher’s visit made it into my Forward column. The following is an excerpt from my July 25, 1997, column.
The hills are alive with the sound of Yiddish… and Kutsher’s is celebrating its 90th birthday — possibly the Masada of the once glorious Jewish Catskills. Mameloshn — in its many dialects — Litvishn, Galitzianer, Hungarian — can be heard…. This past week, Israeli singing star Carmela Corren , wanting to connect with the audience, peppered her patter with Yiddishisms. “I speak ‘Papaloshn’ — because both my father and mother spoke Yiddish.’ That weekend’s guests included New York State Supreme Court judge Joseph Mazur , whom I had met a few years earlier, and whose cousin Jay Mazur is president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and a longtime friend of former Forward Association General Manager Harold Ostroff. Two tables away sat Milton Parker, SPPM (self-proclaimed pastrami maker) and the owner of the Carnegie Deli. “Ah, the Forward,” he said. “In 1947 I opened my first store on East Broadway, across from the old Forward building.” Saturday night, David “Dudu” Fisher , who had portrayed Jean Valjean in Broadway’s ‘Les Miserables,’ received six standing ovations after a bravura performance of Yiddish and Hebrew songs.
Holding court Sunday morning lakeside was Siggi Wilzig, my longtime friend. He was born in Germany, survived Auschwitz as a teenager and came to the United States in 1947. He was chairman of the board and CEO of The Trust Company of New Jersey — “the Bank with a Heart.” Among his listeners was Oskar Schindler survivor Murray Pantirer. Wilzig told me about the time he brought his niece to Kutsher’s, where he had his own table in the dining room]. “A stunning blonde, she was in the midst of a divorce and had nowhere to stay…. I dared not bring her to my apartment. No one would believe she was my niece…. I arrived erev Shabbes. What I did not realize was that the hotel had been taken over by a Polish polka convention whose members created their own kosher menu. From morning to night there was dancing and drinking. In the lobby, Milton and Helen Kutsher gave me a cool hello.
Wilzig’s son, Alan Wilzig , and the Kutshers’ son, Zach Kutsher , recently launched Kutsher’s Tribeca, a restaurant in New York City.