“When I was getting ready [to play] Jake La Motta [in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film “Raging Bull” and battling cancer and winning, it was nothing like the pressure of this speech,” Robert De Niro said before introducing his wife, Grace Hightower, one of three honorees at the March 1 American Cancer Society of New York’s Mother of the Year Award Luncheon, held at the Plaza. “I better do a good job or I won’t have a place to sleep tonight. You are one tough woman, Grace! I am proud of you. Mother, wife, friend, she is our mother-of-the-year every day. Today she is yours.” Hightower replied simply, “Nursing, protecting, caring, we are all mother of the universe.”
Also honored was Dr. Emily B. Sonnenblick, a founder of Rosetta Radiology. Trained in ultrasound and imaging at the Mount Sinai Medical Center, where she maintains a teaching appointment, her expertise in women’s imaging includes mammography, ultrasound, breast biopsy and breast MRI. Sonnenblick is married to Dr.Ken Offit, who heads the clinical genetics department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The couple’s three daughters, Anna, Caroline and Lily Offit, were present. “My mother leads by example,” Anna said. “Our mother treats her patients like her daughters. One patient thanked my mother for finding a small tumor others could not find. My mother can find the tiniest imperfection in a sweater and return it the next day.”
The third honoree, Dr. Diane Reidy-Lagunes, began with, “I am a daughter of an Irish Catholic New York City firefighter and an Italian- Jewish high school math teacher, and I married a Mexican; therefore, I like to call myself a New Yorker.” An assistant attending in the Department of Medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, she was honored for research initiatives, including developing methods to integrate molecular-based therapies into the treatment of colon cancer. Bilingual in English and Spanish, and recipient of the 2010 Memorial Sloan Kettering Department of Medicine Teaching Award, she and her husband of six years, Sergio Lagunes, are parents of Alec, age 4, and Keira, 2.
The event was hosted by broadcast journalist Paula Zahn, who lost both of her parents to cancer. Diana Feldman, the American Cancer Society’s volunteer chairman of special events, thanked the three honorees for “paving the way with arduous steadfastness.” In his message in the luncheon’s journal, Donald Distasio, CEO of the American Cancer Society’s Eastern Division, congratulated the honorees and praised the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge New York City for providing “lodging and support programs to cancer outpatients and their caregivers while the patients are receiving lifesaving treatments at our city’s hospitals.” Hope Lodge, which opened in 2007 and offers its services free of charge, has helped reduce the financial and emotional burden for 5,500 guests who have come through its doors from 26 countries and 46 states.
Lily Safra was a vice chair, and the benefit’s co-chairs were Muffie Potter Aston (an honoree last year), Somers Farkas, Diana Feldman, Prudence Inzerillo, Cynthia Lufkin, Gianna Palminteri, Maureen Reidy and Rachel Roy. Among the guests were designer Donna Karan filmmaker and artist Mira Jedwabnik Van Doren and uber-publicist Peggy Siegal.
Park Avenue Synagogue was the setting for the well-attended March 6 discussion “From Superman to X-Men,” featuring X-Men writer Chris Claremont and former DC Comics president Paul Levitz, author of the 720-page “75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking” (Taschen, 2010). Moderated by Jeremy Dauber, director of Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, the discussion focused on the Jewish subtext of America’s comic book heroes. “Comics were at the bottom of the food chain,” Levitz said. “These heroes resonated so indelibly with the public.” As an example he cited Superman, the “ultimate out-of-towner” who comes from nowhere, “sets up shop and makes good and saves the world.” And as for Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, Levitz said: “He is a working-class kid. His primary job is to find money.” He noted that each superhero has “human concerns.”
Claremont, who is donating his papers to Columbia University, defined the X-Men as “a metaphor for the Jews… accessible to adults as well as to kids.” The character of Magneto (aka Erik Magnus Lehnsherr), created by Stan Lee in 1963, is a former teacher of the New Mutants who has absolute control of magnetism. He is tortured by the fact that he could have stopped the Nazis in Auschwitz if only he had been aware of his incredible powers at the time. In 1966 Lee turned over the writing and illustrating of the X-Men comics to other artists, including Claremont. In “Up, Up, and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Super Hero” (Leviathan Press, 2006), Simcha Weinstein writes that “it was Jewish writer Chris Claremont who gave the original characters their complex personalities and backgrounds and developed the background that confirms the Jewish link to the X-Men.”
Recalling his work on Magneto, Claremont reflected: “I was trying to figure out what was the most transfiguring event of our century [that] would tie in the super concept of the X-Men as persecuted outcasts. It was the Holocaust! Once I found a departure for Magneto, the rest fell into place. It allowed me to turn him into a tragic figure who wants to save his people.” In his book, Weinstein quotes Claremont as saying,“ I had the opportunity to redeem him, to see if he could start over again, if he could evolve in a way that Menachem Begin had evolved from the guy that the British considered ’Shoot on sight’ in 1945 to a statesman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.”
The appreciative audience left the discussion on a superhero high and armed with a reading list on the topic of Jews and American Comics.
-“Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form” by Paul Buhle (New Press, 2008) -“Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero” Danny Fingeroth (The Continuum, 2007) -“Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land,” edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle (Abrams ComicArts, 2011)