“My commitment to Meretz and the peace movement has always been intricately and indissolubly connected to my belief in an Israel that is not only secure in life and limb but anchored in moral rectitude,” stated a white-bearded, prophetic-looking Theodore Bikel, honoree at Meretz USA’s festive dinner January 9 at New York’s B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. “In our past there has always been… friction between scholars, strife between Pharisees and Sadducees… Hasidim and Misnagdim. What kept us alive was… mind pitted against mind and man wrestling with God…. Dialogue keeps one alive…. I trust that what you are hearing from me… will be understood as coming from a man who is driven by a passion…. Not for mere physical survival, but… an Israel as a moral force rooted both in history and modernity.”
With a backdrop of film stills of Bikel from “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” “My Fair Lady” and “The African Queen,” actor and emcee Bruce Adler launched the show. Actress Tovah Feldshuh careened from stand-up shtick to belting out “Everything’s Coming Up Theo!” (Feldshuh, with her “Golda’s Balcony” credentials, should have had a shot at playing Golda Meir in Steven Spielberg’s film “Munich.”) Debbie Friedman sang her own works solo and with Bikel. David Bromberg, performer-arranger-writer (and brother of Meretz USA executive director Charney Bromberg), heightened the evening’s nostalgic mood with his evocative rendition of “Mr. Bojangles.”
As nearly 200 Bikel fans — including Matthew “Mati” Lazar, Meir Fenigstein, Sam Norich, Ruth Westheimer, Sidney Gluck and feisty 94-year old Bel Kaufman — kvelled, Harold Shapiro, event chair and president of Meretz USA (one of the oldest American Zionist organizations dating to the mid-l920s), presented Bikel with a print of “Let My People Go” by Isaac Lichtenstein “It will have an honored place in my home known as ‘Plaquistan,’” joshed Bikel. I recalled Kaufman’s words when, in 1999, she presented a then 75-year-old “Theo” with a Seasoned Citizens Theatre Co.’s National Treasures Award: “One applauds longevity, but that alone is not an accomplishment.” Bikel responded: “A taxi driver recently told me, ‘You look like Theodore Bikel, he should rest in peace.’” The Meretz evening closed with a vigorous 82-year-old Bikel, guitar in hand, leading the audience in singing “If We Only Have Love.”
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Earlier that evening, a reception for Israel Film Festival founder and executive director Meir Fenigstein was hosted by Cheryl Fishbein and Philip Schatten at their East Side apartment. Amir Ofek, Israel consul for public affairs, stood in for flu-felled consul general Arye Mekel. “As [Ariel] Sharon would say, ‘The show must go on,’” Ofek said. “Film can be a powerful instrument to bring [Israel’s] message to the world.… Even to expose Israel as a normal society in which conflict exists is important, and Meir is doing holy work.” Fenigstein laughed, then recounted his convoluted journey from being singer Poogy with the Israeli rock group Kavaret to founder of the now world-class Israel Film Festival, which takes place in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami. The festival opens February 23 on Manhattan’s West Side at Clearview Cinema.
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Apropos the garment industry and “its genesis, if you will, as a Jewish business,” David Sable, dinner chair and emcee at Yeshiva University Museum’s January 10 A Perfect Fit gala dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, cited scripture: “and the Lord God made for Adam and his wife [Eve] garments of skin and clothed them.” Underwritten by YUM founder and chair Erica Jesselson, the dinner was held in conjunction with a YUM exhibition that is not to be missed: A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, 1860-1960. The exhibit is now at the Center for Jewish History. Sable, chairman and CEO of the marketing firm Wunderman, admitted: “My zayde was a tailor and my bubbe worked sewing piece goods…. I had aunts and uncles who cut and sewed and unionized.”
“From Ukraine to Havana, my father imported shmattes,” said dinner chair George Feldenkreis. He is chairman and CEO of Perry Ellis International, one of the largest apparel manufacturers in the world. “We came [from Cuba] to the U.S. in 1961…. The good guys were leaving or being killed. My father wanted to live in a country where you can be free. From my father I learned to work hard, but to be truthful…. I’ve seen a Jew as candidate for vice president… the diminishing of discrimination against Jews, Catholics, gays. This is a most accepting society. Thank God for living in this great society.”
YUM director Sylvia Herskowitz introduced a film in conjunction with the exhibit. Here are a few threads to chew on: In the 1860s, the Fechheimer Bros. Co. of Cincinnati was granted government contracts to manufacture Civil War uniforms. This was the first time men’s sizes were standardized. And the mass-produced shirtwaist dress — sold for $3.96 at Macy’s in 1908 — “democratized fashion” by encouraging the equalization of class distinctions. Yeshiva University president Richard Joel offered a Dvar Torah on Joseph and his coat of many colors. Among the fashionistas and fashion mavens: YUM board members Bruce Slovin and Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, dinner co-chair Sy Sims and his wife, Lynn, and fashion maven Tova Ronni.
Dinner honoree Robert Haas, chairman of Levi Strauss & Co and great-great grandnephew of the company’s founder, recalled Levi Strauss as a pillar of the general and Jewish community. “An early supporter of San Francisco’s first synagogue [Congregation Emanu-El], he kept employees on payroll after the 1906 earthquake, helped fellow businessmen during the depression and integrated the company before it was legislated.” Also honored was Andrew Rosen, founder and president of the upscale contemporary fashion line Theory. His grandfather, Arthur Rosen, founded Puritan Fashions in 1910. The shmatte business seems to be a generational calling.