Bidding Abe Hirschfeld Farewell


By Masha Leon

Published September 02, 2005, issue of September 02, 2005.
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Parking-garage mogul, publicity hound and overall one-of-a-kind character Abe Hirschfeld died of cancer August 9. The August 10 New York Post headline read, “A ‘Post’ Mortem for Crazy Abe Hirschfeld” (who had owned the paper for two weeks in 1993). The more sedate New York Times went with “Abe Hirschfeld, a Millionaire and an Eccentric, Dies at 85.” Then there was the August 16 ad placed in The Times by Hirschfeld Properties LLC: “We Mourn the Loss of Our Inspiration, Abe Hirschfeld.” Born in Poland in 1919, Hirschfeld moved to Israel in 1933 and came to the United States in the 1950s. His bizarre curriculum vitae includes: offering — though never paying — $1 million to Paula Jones to settle her sexual harassment suit against President Bill Clinton; running for assorted elective offices; producing a failed Broadway play (“The Prince of Central Park”) and publishing Open Air PM, a local paper that folded after five months.

Whenever we met, Hirschfeld and I spoke Yiddish. In December 1994, he celebrated his 75th birthday with a Minyan of the Stars Hanukkah gala atop the Hotel Pennsylvania, which Hirschfeld then owned. To avoid a press assault, New York governor-elect George Pataki arrived via the back stairs. Jeff Wiesenfeld, who then worked on the governor’s transition team, escorted him. Pataki praised Hirschfeld’s devotion to his faith, family, city and state. Hirschfeld told the nearly 500 guests, “I tried to get Al Sharpton, but after $60 worth of phone calls, gave up and got through to C. Vernon Mason.” Mason, the lawyer who worked with Sharpton in the 1987 Tawana Brawley case, shared the Hirschfeld family table. “A good political handicapper, Abe doesn’t care what others think about the friendship,” Mason said. That evening, jewelry designer Aya Azrielant presented Libby Pataki and Zipora Hirschfeld with 18-carat gold cufflinks.

For the following year’s Minyan of the Stars Hanukkah bash (at which he re-celebrated his 75th “birthday”), Hirschfeld ran a full-page ad in The New York Times inviting “the world.” He promised appearances by Senator Alfonse D’Amato and Governor Pataki (neither of whom showed). But mayoral hopeful FernandoFreddy’ Ferrer came, as did fellow builder Donald Trump. “Now was there a more beautiful wedding than mine?” Trump beamed, referring to his December 1993 nuptials to Marla Maples, which the Hirschfelds had attended. Zipora later told me, “I knew Donald when he was in diapers.” At the minyan’s 1996 Hanukkah party, Hirschfeld welcomed Charles Gargano, chairman and commissioner of Empire State Development, who noted that New York City’s renewal would not have happened without such private-sector individuals as open-air garage innovator “cars don’t catch colds” Hirschfeld. In 1998, Time magazine listed Hirschfeld among the 100 “titans and geniuses” of the century. I never figured out why, in 2000, Hirschfeld, in prison for hiring a hit man to make a business partner disappear, sent me a three-pound transcript from his court proceedings. After that, I never heard from him again.

* * *

As it nears its first anniversary at the Westside Theatre off-Broadway, “Jewtopia,” an edgy comedy by playwright-actors Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, is set to add Florida to its performance locales. On September 17 the show will open in Coral Gables. I got to see “Jewtopia” thanks to Irina Pantaeva, a 5-foot-10-inch Mongolian beauty whom I’d met at a dinner at Cipriani. Appearing as Rachel Kahn (as in Genghis) in “Jewtopia,” she convinced me to see the comedy, which, according to press releases, had the critics “kvelling.” Born in Buryatia on the Russian/Mongolian border, Pantaeva is married to Roland Levin, a Jewish photographer who grew up in Riga. “I love my Jewish in-laws… I make great matzo ball soup and chopped liver,” said Pantaeva, a mother of 18-month and 16-year-old sons. “They are being raised in both traditions — shamanism and Judaism.” As a teenage model in Moscow, she was spotted by Pierre Cardin. “I became the first Asian supermodel in the world.” Her journey from Soviet Siberia to the world’s fashion runways is at the center of a documentary, “Siberian Dreams.”

In “Jewtopia,” Chris O’Connell, a Catholic, wants to marry a Jewish girl “so I’ll never have to make another decision.” Jewish Adam Lipschitz, on the other hand, is looking for “a gentile girl who cooks, cleans” and in other ways serves him. The comedy seesaws between hysterically funny and appallingly crass. Performed by an uninhibited cast of seven, the play is composed of a series of vignettes at temple mixers and Internet-inspired dates with characters with names like Fire-tushy and Chop-Jewey. An on-key sidesplitting scenario of a Jewish couple’s request for menu substitutions at a restaurant had my husband, Joe, in stitches and me fighting a losing battle not to laugh.

In the second act, “Jewtopia” — directed by John Tillinger (“Say Goodnight Gracie,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “Inherit the Wind”) — morphed into outright embarrassment with a Seder that included a prurient rabbi, a drunken mother and the entire family in need of rabbinic and psychiatric intervention.

The playbill’s “Yiddish Glossary for Bad Jews and Gentiles” left me upset. If you’re going to use Yiddish expressions not used in polite discourse, at least transliterate correctly. It’s not just the botched spelling, but what this vocabulary implies: that Yiddish is a crude language capable of describing only body parts and bodily functions. Example: “Fococked” (should be fakakt) which is listed as screwy, messed up, but actually means full of s–t. “Pupik” is translated as stomach, but it means bellybutton. “Schtup” is defined as “to do it,” but in fact it means “to push.” “Shpilkas” is translated as “a flood of emotions,” but it means “pins” as in “sitting on pins and needles.” And “Zay gezundht” (should have no “dh” between the n and t) does not mean “God bless you,” but “Be well, be healthy.” But who am I to argue with theatrical success? No doubt audiences in South Florida will “plotz” as they did in Los Angeles (where it was the longest-running original comedy in the city’s theater history), Chicago and New York. Gey veys (Go figure).

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