Blacks and Jews In Harmony At the New York Festival of Song

By Masha Leon

Published June 03, 2005, issue of June 03, 2005.
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The New York Festival of Song, which for the past 17 years has presented tantalizing musical buffets, deserves bravos for its

May 3 “A Prince of a Fella” tribute to producer/director Hal Prince and for the May 11 “Lost Tribes of Vaudeville” exploration of the Jewish-black musical connection.

Co-chaired by Jamie Bernstein, John Kander, Barbara Fleischman, Mary Rodgers and Henry Guettel, the Prince tribute at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall — with “Prince Hal” in attendance — showcased an ensemble of Broadway, opera and cabaret stars performing selections from some of Prince’s classic shows: “Follies,” “She Loves Me,” “A Little Night Music,” “The Pajama Game” and others. Sheldon Harnick, Charles Strouse and Joel Grey (and the audience) lauded co-founder and co-artistic director Steven Blier, whose superb piano accompaniment and witty commentary keeps NYFOS fans coming back.

A quintet of Jewish and African-American artists — Judy Kaye, Bruce Adler, Anika Noni Rose, Darius de Haas and James Martin — took the NYFOS “Tribes” audience at Merkin Concert Hall on a journey through black-Jewish cross-pollination: “Under the Bamboo Tree” morphed into “Under the Matzo Tree”; “The Sheik of Araby” became “Sheik of Avenue B”; Molly Picon gave her take on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”; Adler talked about Cab Calloway, noting his version of “Abi Gezint!,” and performed Calloway’s jazzy spin on the Yiddish folk song “Ot Azoy Neyt a Shnaider” (“Thus Sews a Tailor”), which Calloway had renamed “Utt Da Zay.” “Had my cantor been like Calloway,” Blier said, “I’d be more devout today.” Adler’s high-octane “Ikh Bin a Border Bay Mayn Vayb” (“I’m My Wife’s Boarder”), “Rumania, Rumania” and joke-laden “Hootsatsa” thrilled the audience and left them hungry for more.

* * *

“Welcome, music lovers,” host Liz Smith said to the black-tie guests and the 800 New York City school kids in Carnegie Hall’s balcony. The crowd had gathered for the May 9 New York Pops 22nd birthday gala benefit. The event honored music industry giant Clive Davis, former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite and patron of the arts Mrs. Samuel J. Lefrak, and paid tribute to composer Cy Coleman (who died in November 2004). Davis praised Pops founder and conductor Skitch Henderson for giving “20th-century American music visibility.” On the program were Maureen McGovern, Fantasia, Heather Headley, Michelle Lee (who said she knew the Forward well) and amazing 90+ Kitty Carlisle Hart, who led the audience in singing Irving Berlin’s “I’ll Be Loving You Always” (first recorded in 1926 by Josephine Baker). Watching Cronkite conduct the Pops (with baton!) in John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars & Stripes Forever,” CBS anchor Lesley Stahl declared, “It doesn’t get more American than that.”

* * *

Looking like a cross between Tevye and a cuddly koala bear in his signature white T-shirt and black caftan, Menashe Kadishman, honoree at the May 12 American Friends of Tel Aviv Museum of Art gala at the St. Regis, likened the guests to parents: “Parents support children, and you support the museum.”

An artist and sculptor of international renown, Tel Aviv-born Kadishman, whose monumental sculpture, “Sacrifice of Isaac,” stands in the plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, mused: “Every artist wishes to change the world, wants one’s art to bring peace… I thought my sculptures would change the world.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, said: “I disagree with Kadishman…. Art does change the world…. As an example… the opening of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.”

Also honored were Ruth and Gerard Daniel, German natives who made settled in Israel in the late 1930s and the early 1940s. They met and married in Israel and, in 1992, built Israel’s largest Reform synagogue and community center, Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv. Paying tribute to the Daniels and to Kadishman was museum director Mordechai Omer. Surprise guests were artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The latter’s henna-hued tresses may have inspired the more muted saffron shade of the duo’s Central Park installation, “The Gates.”

A mention of the museum to California-based filmmaker Henry Jaglom (“Deja Vu,” “Venice/Venice,” “Last Summer in the Hamptons”), with whom I have developed a friendship via phone and mail — and whose ancestral provenance includes the Moses Mendelssohn — wrote me: “My father [Simon Jaglom] was the driving force [behind the creation of the Tel Aviv museum].… My aunt Raya Jaglom, for 30 years the president of World WIZO, coordinated it…. In 1971, on the opening, we all came to Tel Aviv… there was a concert honoring my parents, led by Leonard Bernstein.… When my father died in 1992… he donated the bulk of their collection of… paintings to the museum to be permanently displayed together in a… wing called the Simon and Marie Jaglom Pavilion of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art, where they can be seen today.”

* * *

Four years ago, when Genevieve Piturro heard a child ask, “What are pajamas?” she was motivated to found the Pajama Program, which began with 1,000 pairs being distributed to children in shelters and foster homes. Now there are more than 30,000 pairs distributed to 13 countries. At the program’s May 6 luncheon at The Pierre, chaired by Sharon Maranz Walsh (who told me her grandmother read the Forward), one of the honorees was CNN “American Morning” co-anchor Soledad O’Brien, a mother of four who donated 1,000 pairs of pajamas. In The New York Times’s May 19 series, “Class Matters — A Marriage of Unequals,” Cate Woolner (Jewish and wealthy), who married Dan Croteau (working class), recalled: “When I was little, what I fixated on with my girlfriends was how I had more pajamas than they did. So, when I’d go to a birthday sleepover I’d always take them a pair of pajamas as a present.” For me, this evokes the memory of my mother at a hand-operated Singer sewing machine in Vilna in 1940, stitching a pair of flannel pajamas — my first since the bombing of Warsaw. To this day, the smell of fresh flannel is an indelible memory and a reminder of a “normal” childhood.

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