From National Issues to National Treasures

By Masha Leon

Published December 16, 2005, issue of December 16, 2005.
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“Today’s young people are no longer satisfied with the story of survival,” said Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Shlomo Lahat, former mayor of Tel Aviv, at the November 16 American Friends of Beth Hatefusoth-The Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora dinner, held at The Pierre. “They are looking for positive concepts and values based on tradition and culture and see a Jewish vision oriented to the future,” Lahat emphasized. On the program were Sam Bloch, AFBH chairman and trustee; Leonid Nevzlin, chairman of the board of the museum; Harvey Krueger, past AFBH president, and California Congressman Tom Lantos, the evening’s keynote speaker, whom Krueger described as “Israel’s staunchest supporter today.”

“I feel like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s eighth husband,” Lantos began. “I know what is expected of me, but how to make it interesting?” Lacing into Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rant that Israel “be wiped off the map,” Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor Lantos, revealed: “I wrote Kofi Annan that it was unthinkable to visit Tehran under those circumstances. Two days later, Annan canceled his visit.” Describing his most recent trip to Israel for the ceremonies commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Rabin assassination, Lantos waxed nostalgic for the Israel of the 1950s, when the country “was poor and interesting… a homogeneous, egalitarian community. [At the] Rabin Center, I felt as if I was in Beverly Hills… fancy clothes, and an incredible banquet.” Referring to the American Jewish community’s silence during the Holocaust, Lantos said: “[Today] we understand that there is no room for silence… Jews must stand up not only for Israel but against tyranny everywhere.”

Lantos lauded Nevzlin, a leading shareholder of Russia’s Yukos Oil Company who is living in self-imposed exile in Israel, for his commitment to Jewish cultural life in Russia and Israel. “I was in Moscow the day his friend and Yukos partner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was condemned to nine years in prison,” Lantos said. “[His] trial is part and parcel of Jewish history.” Born in Moscow in 1959, Nevzlin was president of the Russian Jewish Congress and founder of the Moscow Jewish Cultural Center. In 2003 he immigrated to Israel, where his first project was the establishment of The Leonid Nevzlin Research Center for Russian and East European Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Opera singer Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick — one of Lantos’s 17 grandchildren (he has two daughters) — performed several arias. She told me that like the other Lantos grandchildren, she carries the Tillemann name in memory of her grandmother’s family, which perished in the Holocaust.

* * *

So savvy was the audience at the November 20 America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s Gala Concert at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater that neither rustle nor inopportune applause interrupted the sublime performance of Beethoven’s Trio No 4 in B-Flat, played by Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet), Alon Goldstein (piano) and Amit Peled (cello). More dazzle was offered by mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham’s renditions of “Habanera” and “Seguidilla,” selections from Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman presented the King Solomon Award to Rachel and Dov Gottesman, patrons of Israeli arts and culture. Actor Harvey Keitel, “a former U.S. marine,” presented the Aviv Award to Israeli filmmaker and “former Israeli paratrooper” Amos Gitai. “The best way to treat a country you love is to be critical,” said Keitel, who delighted the audience with his disclosure that four years ago he married Daphna Kastner, a Jewish actress/director, in Israel. AICF board chair Vera Stern presented the Excellence in Performance Award to the Jerusalem Quartet — Alexander Pavlovsky (violin), Sergei Bressler (violin), Amichai Grosz (viola) and Kyril Zlotnikov (cello).

* * *

It was NSR (No Sitting Room) at Theatre 80 for the Congress for Jewish Culture’s November 21 benefit honoring Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman, Yiddish poet-singer-songwriter extraordinaire and recipient this year of a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. Born in Czernovitz, Bukovina, she survived the Holocaust, came through displaced persons camps and finally made it to the Bronx. Beginning with narrators Adrienne Cooper and Shane Baker, the program proceeded with Alicia Svigals (violin), the honoree’s nephew Binyumen Schaechter (piano), Peter Rushefsky (tsimbl) and actors-singers Phyllis Berk, Shifra Lerer, Theresa Tova, Hy Wolfe and Josh Waletzky performing Schaechter-Gottesman’s evocative poetic musical works. Each is a mnemonic journey merging place, time, soul and art — songs of love about parents, friends and places anchored to a time and a world gone. At evening’s end, the young Pripetshik Singers made me a bit farklempt. At the piano was Pripetshik director Binyumen Schaechter; his daughter, the honoree’s great niece Reyna Schaechter, is a Pripetshik soloist. In the audience was the honoree’s brother, noted Yiddish writer-editor Mordechai Schaechter, as well as Schaechter-Gottesman’s beaming son, Itzik Gottesman, associate editor of the Yiddish Forward. Amid the applause, a Holocaust survivor’s phrase came to mind: A nekome oyf Hitlern — a revenge on Hitler — i.e., “We are still here!”

* * *

From Forward reader Ed Colker, a gentle note alerting me to my faux pas in the December 2 column, in which I credited the design of Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book to architect Isamu Noguchi (he did design the museum’s sculpture garden). “The Shrine of the Book, in the shape of a covered jar, was the vision of architect/sculptor Frederick Kiesler,” Colker wrote. American Jewish architects Kiesler and A. Bartos designed it. In 2003, Colker, a painter, graphic artist and founder of the nonprofit Haybarn Press, issued a limited edition work in honor of Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever’s 90th birthday. It included a dual-language portfolio of 10 poems translated by Dr. Barnett Zumoff, Forward Association president. On December 5, the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring honored Zumoff and his wife, Selma, at its Stand Up and Celebrate gala for their contributions in medicine, Yiddish letters and volunteerism.

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