Remembering A ‘Happy Jewish Spirit’


By Masha Leon

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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“In 1993, when we first established Jewish Life Network, we sought to create a foundation that would help catalyze a renaissance in the non-Orthodox Jewish World,” Michael Steinhardt told the mostly youthful audience at the October 28 Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y’s memorial concert to “Celebrate the Life of Jonathan Joseph (‘J.J.’) Greenberg.” This trumpeting of J.J.’s unique Jewish joie de vivre was the brainchild of his friend, Sarah Berman.

“When seeking an executive director,” said Makor founder Steinhardt, “I sought someone who would embody… [a] forward-looking, holistically happy Jewish spirit that would be a model for a new kind of American Jewish life. In short, I needed J.J. Greenberg.… His initials stood for Jewish Joy… Makor — which uses cutting-edge film, music and classes to reach out to unaffiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s — is a testament to J.J.’s spirit… J.J. knew how to make Judaism ‘cool.’ He understood that in Jewish America, a renaissance could not happen in a yeshiva, but would require an intermingling of the social with the serious, of the modern secular world with the wellspring of Jewish identity.”

“If you lived in New York and you wore a yarmulke, J.J. knew you,” family friend William Novak said. “He defended Conservative and Reform Jews.… He wanted to save the Jewish people, one at a time.” The evening’s musical feast included the yarmulke-wearing rock, funk and R&B band Blue Fringe; legendary Israeli rock star David Broza; the musical group Soul Farm, and Norah Jones, who got her start at Makor. It was noted: “J.J. was [her] fan well before the eight-time Grammy Award winner was famous.”

A son of Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, and author Blu Greenberg, J.J. died in 2002 in Jerusalem after an unlicensed driver who ran a red light struck his bicycle. He was only 36. Even after death, J.J. lives on in the bodies of five people — including an Arab — to whom his organs were donated.

* * *

Among the guests that Robert Machinist, chairman of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, introduced at its November 4 New York gala was U.S. Congressman Ed Markey, “an ardent supporter of stem-cell research… one of Israel’s strongest supporters in Congress… who is married to U.S. Assistant Surgeon General, Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal.”

National anthems by Cantor Rebecca Garfein and a film tribute to Christopher Reeve in which he states “ Hakol efshari — Everything is possible” — launched the evening. Twenty-two men and women whose scientific achievements, research and discovery have been world transforming were then introduced to the 420 guests at the Mandarin Oriental New York hotel. Among this group was my tablemate, Fritz Bach of Harvard Medical School, who headed the team that did the first matched bone marrow transplant. He told me: “In 1939, I was 5 years old. My father was the son of a rabbi; my mother, the daughter of the richest man in Vienna.” They escaped to England, then arrived in Burlington, Vt., where, Bach said, “a U.S. soldier adopted us.” Yes, he is related to that Bach — from one of Johann Sebastian’s intermarried offspring.

The recipient of the ACWIS Women of Vision Award in Recognition of Philanthropy was Barbara Levinson, the mother of emcee Machinist. Prof. Hadassa Degani, head of Weizmann’s Department of Biological Regulation and the Willner Family Center for Biology, received the Women of Vision Award in Recognition of Research. Degani was among the first to use magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopy to study breast cancer, leading to a noninvasive diagnostic method to distinguish between malignant and benign tissue.

The Women of Vision Award in Recognition of Advocacy was presented to Meredith Estess and Valerie Estess. In 1998, when their 35-year-old sister, Jenifer, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) — a fatal neuromuscular disease closely related to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s — they started Project ALS.

* * *

“Master of the Game,” a Sunn Classic Pictures release that had its world premiere in New York on November 12 , is subtitled “A journey into the face of evil.” It’s 1944. Nazi officers billeted there brutalize four escaped Jewish concentration camp prisoners seeking shelter in a remote cabin. To save his life, prisoner #3264 (Uyger Aktan), a captured American Jewish soldier, proposes an outlandish challenge to his murder-bent captors: Were he able to prove his mastery over the Germans, would his life be spared? They agree, and what follows is a brutal, riveting, mind-bending, improbable scenario.

Following a November 9 special screening of “Master of the Game” at the Makor/Steinhardt Center, Stewart Lane (one of the producers of “Fiddler on the Roof”) and his wife, actress Bonnie Comley, hosted a post-screening reception at their East Side penthouse for the film’s stars and producer. The evening also launched the Jewish National Fund’s 2005 campaign.

Amid the crush, got to chat with #3264/Aktan, who wrote, produced and gives a trip-wire performance as the film’s game-master. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, the son of a Turkish diplomat, he experienced his first taste of racism when he was a student in a German school in Ankara. “Is it possible that you used the Nazi-Jewish concentration camp prisoner duel as a metaphor for the treatment of Turks in Germany?” I asked Aktan, who now sports a lush head of hair instead of the close-cropped scalp of the film’s prisoner-manipulator. Somewhat startled, Aktan responded with a noncommittal smile.

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