Hundreds Toast Bronfman at Hillel Tribute

By Masha Leon

Published April 29, 2005, issue of April 29, 2005.
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The extended Bronfman family clan was among more than 600 guests at The Pierre Hotel for the April 6 Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life tribute to Edgar M. Bronfman, whose many “hats” include president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, former president and CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd., father of seven and grandfather of 23. Youngest son Adam, event chair and Hillel International board member, credited “Jan Aronson, my father’s wife” with “my present relationship with my father.” Touting his father’s vision of a pluralistic Judaism, Adam Bronfman described his dad’s “golden life” as a model “to leave this world a better place than… you found it.”

A benign “roast” by Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman — “Edgar’s partners in Jewish renaissance,” according to Hillel President Avraham Infeld — preceded a PBS-style interview by Charlie Rose, who opened with: “I’m not Jewish… from North Carolina… [but] if I [were] Jewish, I’d like to be part of the Bronfman family.” Rose continued, “You came to a sense of religion… late in life.” Honoree Bronfman described “a defining moment” in synagogue with his parents when his father, Samuel, “was racing through the prayers at the speed of lightning…. I left…. I did not come back…. I was very rebellious.” Bronfman, who now is president of World Jewish Congress, recalled years later being urged by Rabbi Israel Singer to do something to get the Jews out of the Soviet Union. During one of his “many trips to Moscow,” Bronfman recalled seeing “all those Jews standing outside Lubjanka prison. [I thought,] they’re risking jail [just] to talk to other Jews!”

Asked about the difficult relationship with his father — who “hung on so long” versus his own retirement at 65 — Bronfman told Rose: “My faculties are fine…. I need someone younger to take over the helm…. I want to… get more Jewish people involved. Set an example… 50% of [Jewish] students on campus come from families with only one Jewish parent. We have to say to them, ‘You’re welcome!’” At evening’s end, he declared, “It’s wonderful to be Jewish and know who you are.” Had Yiddishists been present, they’d have serenaded Edgar Bronfman with the spirited folk song used for happy occasions, Di Mashke trinken bronfn, trinken vayn (drink whiskey, drink wine). For the Yiddish challenged: bronfn — from the German (spirits, whiskey) — evolved into Bronfen-man, the man who made or sold whiskey. L’chaim!

* * *

While chatting with Woody Allen at the April 6 New York City Center opening gala concert of the Martha Graham Dance Company, my daughter Karen mentioned that she was with the Forward. “Do you write in Yiddish?” Allen asked her. “No, but my mother does,” she replied. Allen volunteered, “I don’t speak Yiddish, but I grew up in a household where everyone read the Forward.” Karen used to play the clarinet, and she asked Allen if he played every day, Allen replied, “No, but I practice every day.” When Karen asked his wife, Soon Yi, “Do you play clarinet?” she shook her head, smiled and said, “No, no!”

At the postperformance bash at Tavern on the Green, I saw event chair Melania Trump and husband Donald; Max Frankel, a past New York Times editor; honorary chair (along with Betty Ford, who was not in attendance) Mikhail Baryshnikov; dancer-choreographer Pearl Lang (whose creative credentials also include reciting Yiddish poetry); company artistic directors Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin, and board of trustees member Edward Bleier, who told me, “Martha Graham is to dance, what Picasso is to art.”

During the company’s New York City 11-day run, I managed to catch several performances of Graham gems, including “Embattled Garden” (1958), “Errand Into the Maze” (1947) and her 1944 masterpiece, “Appalachian Spring.” Lang, who teaches the company’s dancers technique and choreography, told me, “When Martha had to stop dancing and could no longer perform the lead roles, she entrusted me to dance seven of her roles with her company.” On a personal note, in the mid 1980s I met Martha Graham at a private reception held for her friend, Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild, who was in town to promote her beloved project, Batsheva Dance Company (Graham had trained the company’s dancers in Israel). Seated on a silk chaise with the baroness at her side, an iconic, unflinching Graham regally accepted all compliments with aplomb.

With Additional Reporting by Karen Leon.

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