The Power of the Pen

By Masha Leon

Published January 13, 2006, issue of January 13, 2006.
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When I apologized for using a plebeian ballpoint to take notes at Montblanc North America’s December 8 launch of its “Limited Edition Juilliard 100” pen, its president and CEO Jan-Patrick Schmitz, reassured me, “It’s not about the pen, but about the arts.” Schmitz added, “It was the written word that has carried arts and culture through history and, since 1906, ours is a natural linkage.” Limited to eight pieces worldwide, the $34,000 pen encrusted with 668 diamonds has a portrait of August Juilliard — who in 1905 founded The Juilliard School — chiseled on its 18-carat-gold nib. Joseph Polisi, president of the school, announced its upcoming April 3 Centennial Celebration. Chaired by Cynthia and Dan Lufkin, the gala will include performances by such Juilliard alumni as Renée Fleming, Emanuel Ax, Wynton Marsalis, Itzhak Perlman and Leontyne Price.

“There is a need for the commitment to the arts for all children of all races and creeds…. The arts will die if not replenished by new generations,” said special guest Audra McDonald, a Juilliard School alumna. Among the guests at Montblanc’s flagship boutique were Juilliard School chairman Bruce Kovner and Fox columnist Roger Friedman. The latter told me, “My great-grandfather, George Davis, wrote for the Forward… in its early days.”

* * *

With Hanukkah and Christmas concurrent, the “bulge” of events led to multi-“headers”: First there was Reuth’s December 13 gala dinner at the St. Regis Hotel. The event honored Rosa Strygler and Ursula Merkin, two of the organization’s longtime devoted workers. Born in Krakow, Poland, Strygler survived the Bochnia ghetto and Auschwitz (where her parents and other family members perished), fled to Hungary and was liberated in Budapest. Merkin grew up in Frankfurt, Germany, immigrated with her family to Palestine in 1936 and came to New York in 1947. Since 1937, Reuth — which in Hebrew means “brotherhood and friendship” — has been one of Israel’s oldest, largest professional organizations for social welfare, health care and subsidized housing for the elderly.

On to the Crown Building Penthouse for the winter benefit of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Rabbi Marc Schneier founded the organization. In the crowd were Lyor Cohen, Mark Green and Eliot Spitzer. One of the Joseph Papp Racial Harmony Award recipients that night was New York-born Joe Low. Now in the diamond business, in 1973 he went to Israel to volunteer during the Yom Kippur War. Three years ago he started Israel at Heart in response to what he perceived to be a negative portrayal of the State of Israel in the media.

My evening ended at Janna Bullock’s $30 million East 67th St. mansion for a holiday party and a concert by 20-year-old Russian violin prodigy Mikhail Simonyan. At 13 he made his New York debut at Lincoln Center with the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra and studied with, among others, Pinchas Zuckerman. As a Siberianesque wind howled outside across the Central Park steppe, a fire crackled in the vintage fireplace in a setting akin to a 19th-century salon. Simonyan — superbly accompanied at the piano by Minsk-born Tatiana Goncharova (who was surprised I knew where Baranovitch was!) — dazzled the assemblage with his rendition of works by Bloch, Elgar, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Maryanne Wyman, chair of the March 7 Russian National Orchestra Gala at Lincoln Center (at which Simonyan will perform), remembered my asking her at an earlier NRO recital if the orchestra had any Jewish members. She told me, “A third of the orchestra members are Jewish, as is its conductor, Vladimir Jurowski.” Among the partyers were publicist R. Couri Hay, film star Armand Assante with daughters Alessandra and Anya (who someone gauchely assumed were his dates), Denise Rich, Michèle Gerber Klein, Sylvia Miles, Andrea Stark, Alex Donner and Cece Cord. Last week at Lincoln Center’s Shun Lee Chinese restaurant, I chatted with Yefim Bronfman, who will be performing at the NRO March Gala.

* * *

The Real Estate and Construction Industry Chapter of American ORT honored Jeffrey Levine, president of Levine Builders, at its December 14 luncheon at The Roosevelt Hotel. ORT educates more Jewish students worldwide than any other organization. It operates schools and programs in 60 countries and boasts more than 3 million graduates to date. In Israel, ORT graduates receive high-tech education needed to fill more than 25% of Israel’s job market.

* * *

That same evening, at Congregation Anshe Chesed on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was the launch of a book, “The Personhood of God: Biblical Theology, Human Faith and the Divine Image” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005), by Rabbi Yochanan Muffs, distinguished service professor emeritus of Bible and religion at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In the book’s foreword, theologian David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, writes: “[Muffs] known throughout the world as one of the leading contemporary biblical scholars… a biblical philologist and an expert in Mesopotamian religion and its influence on the Bible… [is] the master of midrashic analysis whose rich theological imagination reveals the gripping realism of the biblical God and the intensity of God’s relationship to human history.” Among the participants that evening were Muffs’s wife, Yochevet; Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Anshe Chesed; Burt Visotzky, professor of Midrash at JTS, and Neil Gillman, professor of philosophy at JTS. The crowd of multigenerational Muffs admirers and students included Jerome Chanes, Nahma Sandrow and Jed Perl, author of “New Art City” (Knopf, 2005).

The first Passover Seder I attended with my husband, Joseph, after we married was at the home of his aunt Mary Muffs, where young cousin Yochanan Muffs, a lover of classical music, transformed the celebration into an eclectic happening. During meal intermissions, he performed at the baby grand and animatedly conducted everyone in song.

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