New Yorkers Hail Their Hometown

By Masha Leon

Published March 11, 2005, issue of March 11, 2005.
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Liz Smith, host of the February 14 Citizens for NYC New Yorker for New York Awards dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, recalled 1975, when “… the Daily News headline read: ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’…. Some courageous people… created a committee… transformed the city via block associations [and] civilian patrols… neighbors working with new neighbors in harmony.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who, with his wife, Alexandra Schlesinger, received the New York Marietta Tree Award for Public Service, said: “In the opening chapter of the grand panoramic novel about our city, ‘A Hazard of New Fortunes,’ author William Dean Howells has a New Yorker instruct a Bostonian: ‘There’s only one city that belongs to the whole country, and that’s New York.’ If Howells were writing today, he would say that New York City is the only city that belongs to the whole world…. And it belongs to the whole world because of the spunk, initiative and democracy of its citizens.” Alexandra Schlesinger added: “To receive the award [from] Marietta’s daughter, Frances FitzGerald, who has contributed so much to the intellectual vitality of the city, and… Lauren Bacall, fills my cup to overflowing.”

New York magazine received the New Yorker for New York Award from the committee’s founding chairman of the board, Osborn Elliott. Also honored was Antonio Fung, a college student working with immigrant youth, and Bobby Short, who received the Lena Horne Legend Award. A performance tribute to Short included Elaine Stritch, Chita Rivera, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder. De Lavallade and Holder were recipients of the Volunteers in the Arts Award. As in past years, dinner was chicken pot pie, a favorite of the founder.

* * *

For the most part, European-born Jews remember their fathers — if not with love, with a modicum of respect, even when politically or religiously at odds with them. After experiencing Manhattan Theatre Club’s riveting production of Donald Margulies’s comedy-cum-tragedy “Brooklyn Boy,” starring Adam Arkin as finally successful novelist Eric Weiss, wrangling with his dying, embittered father, Manny (Allan Miller), I pondered the animus — so evident in novels and plays — that exists between American Jewish writers and their fathers.

While poignant songs like “A Brivele der Mamen” (“A Letter to Mama”) and “Mayn Yidishe Mame” (“My Jewish Mother”) enshrine the Yiddish mother (American Jewish mothers get shafted by comedienne daughters), no parallel tribute to Jewish American fathers seems to exist. Yiddish songs bemoan the fate of loving fathers sent to Siberia who’ll never see their sons; or fathers who rise early and come home so late from work, they only see their beloved sons asleep. As for that 1953 Eddie Fisher megahit, “Oh, My Papa,” it was based on the 1939 “O Mein Papa,” about a clown — by Paul Burkhardt, a Swiss. Weiss’s return to Brooklyn eventually results in psychic, parental and ethnic rediscovery. It could have been the Bronx, Long Island, Los Angeles… anywhere USA. I can almost hear my mother saying “Kh’bin dir moykhl (“You can keep it”), apropos Weiss’s lugubrious coming-to-terms with his father and his own Judaism when, in his dad’s apartment, Weiss dons a yarmulke and (foreshadowed by a farklemt lady sitting behind me who called out, “He’s going to say the prayer!”) intones Kaddish for a father with whom he never reconciled. I thought of Billy Crystal’s love letter to his dad in “Seven Hundred Sundays,” in which he tells the audience, “Tell someone you love them while you still can.” But then, Crystal is a “clown” — not a writer.

At the postperformance discussion with the play’s actors onstage, led by MTC’s director of education, David Shookhoff, my non sotto voce call from my seat, “What is it with American Jewish men and their fathers?” elicited a ripple of touched-a-nerve laughter from the audience. My question to Adam Arkin: How much of his relationship with his famous father, Alan Arkin, resonates in Eric Weiss? Shookhoff suggested that the question need not be answered. At first hesitant… an intake of breath… the younger Arkin insisted that he wanted to respond. “I could relate…. It’s not autobiographical… [but] you filter plays through [your] own experience.”

* * *

“The Last Sephardic Jew,” directed by Miguel Angel Nieto, opened last month’s weeklong New York International Sephardic Jewish Film Festival. It was presented by the American Sephardi Federation with Sephardic House and in cooperation with Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History. This remarkable film follows Sarajevo-born Rabbi Eliezer Papo, coordinator of a new Ladino culture center at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beersheba, on a revelatory post-1492 expulsion travelogue.

Papo opens with Thessaloniki (“for 400 years the only city with a Sephardic majority; 80,000 Jews vs. 30,000 Greeks”)… then on to Curaçao (“where ex-converts spread the Sephardic culture all over America”)… to Sarajevo (where Mauricio Albahari (a local) says: “Our Muslims’ hearts are in Mecca. Our Catholics’, in Vatican City. We Jews have our hearts in Jerusalem. We’d rather forget about all this and raise our children as Bosnians.”)… further to Istanbul (“Legend has it that in 1492, when Sultan Beyazit II let the expelled Jews into his empire, he told his councilor: “Tell King Ferdinand of Castile I’m grateful to him. For by expelling the Jews, he’s impoverished his kingdom and enriched mine.’”)… then to Toledo (“The capital of the kingdom of Castile when the edict of eviction was passed”)… and finally Jerusalem, where the battle now rages to keep Ladino alive. Known as “the Queen of Ladino,” writer Matilda Koén-Sarano declares: “It’s not a dying language to me.… It’s a living language with which I write whatever I want: scientific articles. It’s not true that it’s only… a language for folklore.” To Yiddishists, this sounds painfully familiar.

SINGING PRAISE: At the Citizens for NYC New Yorker for New York Awards, held at the Waldorf-Astoria, choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, Broadway triple-threat Chita Rivera and actress Elaine Stritch (left to right) took part in a tribute to jazz great Bobby Short, who won the evening’s Lena Horne Legend Award. As in past years, the evening’s featured entrée was chicken potpie, a favorite of the awards committee’s founding chairman, Osborn Elliott, right.

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