In Praise of Hillel


By Masha Leon

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
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‘Tonight David and Abby are our king and queen,” Avraham Infeld, president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, said of financial guru Abby Joseph Cohen and her husband, investment analyst David Cohen. The Cohens were honorees at Hillel’s June 6 International Gala, held at the Pierre Hotel. “In China they call Abby ‘Goddess’; in Israel, ‘the High Priestess,’ and in the United States she’s been dubbed ‘Prophetess of Wall Street.” Infeld touted Hillel’s presence on 513 campuses throughout the United States and Canada. “There are Hillels in Israel, South America and the former Soviet Union. We have sent almost 1,000 young people to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico to help restore the homes of residents battered by Katrina — the largest Jewish volunteer force in the Gulf.” Also touting the importance and impact of Hillel was its chairman of the board, Edgar Bronfman.

Keynote speaker Elie Wiesel homed in on why the foundation is named after Hillel and not his rival, Shammai. “He was never angry,” Wiesel said of Hillel, whom he extolled for his humanity and compassion. As an example, Wiesel chose the issue of making a bride happy. “Scripture says the bride is always beautiful and graceful. Shammai’s position was, if the bride is not so beautiful, no lies. That truth comes first. He is too severe. Why make the bride unhappy?” Wiesel said, tilting his head. “So lie!”

Speaking on behalf of his wife and himself, Cohen stated: “We believe that Hillel is perhaps the organization in the Jewish community best equipped to educate the next generation. No other group so fully embraces the entire community the way Hillel does: kosher or not; observant or not; religious or not; Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox — just Jewish. Where else can Jewish students find political, social action, environmental groups, including [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]?”

* * *

Not until actor Brian Stokes Mitchell concluded his elegantly finessed introduction of Tovah Feldshuh — National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Performing Arts Award honoree — at its June 5 dinner at the Rainbow Room did I, and others, realize that Feldshuh would not be present! Instead, looking smashing in a hot-pink Edwardian gown, Feldshuh charmed via video as she touted the NFJC and her latest reincarnation as Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello Dolly” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J.

With dramatic flair and impeccable diction, actress Marian Seldes, event host, interrupted her own welcoming remarks by touching her ear and exclaiming: “I forgot to put on my earrings!” Clipping them on, she introduced Literary Arts Award recipient Robert Pinsky, who enthralled the audience with excerpts from his own poetry and with oblique observations about the Jewish genius for synthesis, i.e., Irving Berlin, writing “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas,” and with an aside about the king of Sweden noting that “‘European Jewry provided a communality between [the] nations of Europe — cosmopolitans [opposed to] the provincial.’” Poet, author and contributor to PBS’s “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” Pinsky (United States poet laureate for three unprecedented years, from 1997 to 2000) accepted NFJC’s medal from Columbia University professor and poet Richard Howard.

Among the slide projections of Visual Arts Award honoree Shimon Attie’s installations was “Linienstrasse 137: Slide projection of a police raid on former Jewish residents, 1920 Berlin.” Superimposed on the building — which still stands today — is a photograph of its former residents. Among Attie’s future projects is an installation with the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway, based on the Oslo Peace Accords.

* * *

“How many brought [their Judith Leiber] bags here?” Marie Brenner asked at the Women’s Luncheon Committee of the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust’s June 8 benefit at the Pierre. A dozen or so hands shot up. Leiber fans at the luncheon — co-chaired by museum trustees Patti Kenner and Ann Oster — included Kitty Carlisle Hart and Beverly Sills. “How do you go from child of the Holocaust to [renowned designer of handbags] Judith Leiber?” asked conversation facilitator Brenner, an author as well as a Vanity Fair writer-at-large. “My mother loved handbags. My father sold jewelry on the installment plan [and] traveled Europe.” Leiber said. He brought bags from Vienna. In 1939, I applied to the [handbag] artisan guild and became the first female apprentice in Budapest.” Responding to Brenner’s prompts about her Holocaust memories, Leiber cited the inconvenience of “26 people sharing a two-bedroom apartment” in Budapest’s ghetto. In 1945 she met her husband-to-be, American soldier Gerson Leiber; in 1963, they opened the Judith Leiber Company so that Judith Leiber could produce her own line of bags. Several are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the Smithsonian Institution.

* * *

As soon as I read the June 26 New York Times obit for publisher Lyle Stuart, I was on the phone with attorney/author/TV host Leon Charney, whose book, “The Charney Report: Confronting the Israeli-Arab Conflict,” was published in 2001 by Stuart’s company, Barricade Books. My husband, Joseph, and I often met Stuart, a colorful persona, at the annual American Booksellers Association conventions we attended in past years. Charney sounded distraught. “On Friday [June 23] I had lunch with Lyle to deliver the final manuscript of ‘The Mystery of Kaddish,’” he said. “I had worked on it for three years. We were planning a book party. It is ironic that Lyle, an atheist, would publish a book on Kaddish. His wife, Carole, asked me how does the prayer go, and I sang it cantorially. Lyle died that night!! He was cremated the next day.” “Why Kaddish?” I asked Charney, whose 1984 book, “Special Counsel” (Philosophical Library Inc.), chronicled his behind-the-scenes take on the Camp David peace treaty. “When my mother died, I was confronted by the issue of having to say Kaddish and obligated myself for 11 months, three times a day,” he said. “I was curious as to the prayer’s authorship.” So he began to explore and chanced on transcultural and German ritual elements in Kaddish. Ergo, Charney’s book.

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