At 80, Lang Still Keeps the Flame Alive


By Masha Leon

Published July 09, 2004, issue of July 09, 2004.
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Guests savored paprika chicken, dumplings, duck liver plus 80 cakes at the June 15 surprise 80th birthday party for George Lang thrown by his wife, Jennifer, daughter Gigi and son Simon. Held at the La Palestra gym — next door to the Café des Artistes, which Lang owns — there was room for Hungarian folk dancers plus 300 well-wishers including Arnold Newman, Joan and Bob Tisch, Glenn Close, Jack Rudin, Skitch Henderson, LeRoy Neiman, Max Frankel, Gerald Schoenfeld, Schuyler Chapin, Jo Carole and Ronald Lauder, Evelyn and Leonard Lauder, Ed Koch and Beth Rudin DeWoody.

In his absorbing autobiography, “Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen” (Knopf, 1998), raconteur extraordinaire Lang, born in Hungary, the only child of a Jewish tailor, details his World War II survival saga; his postwar name change from Deutsch to his mother’s maiden name, Lang (which, he notes means “flame” in Hungarian), and his journey from concert violinist to planner of banquets “for kings, queens, celebrities with or without crowns” such as: Nikita Khrushchev, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace and Pope John Paul II. Among his many delicious vignettes: his first date in America “with a comely violinist” when an equally deficient-in-English taxi driver took them “to the goodest place” — the Lower East Side Second Avenue nightclub Moscowitz and Lupowitz.

I met Lang September 9, 2001 — two days before 9/11 — at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s 120th birthday bash held at Brighton Beach’s National Restaurant. After expressing his indebtedness to HIAS, emcee Lang introduced one immigrant from each of the 12 decades of HIAS’s existence (I represented “the 1940s.”) The several hundred HIAS celebrants roared when Lang compared his arrival in America in July 1946 (aboard the S.S. Marine Flasher) to “marrying the girl you love, then discovering that she has money!”

* * *

I must admit that until its June 15 awards dinner dance at The Plaza, I was unfamiliar with the remarkable Calvary Hospital. Dinner emcee NBC News co-host Al Roker told the 450 guests who raised $650,000: “Calvary, the country’s only acute [terminal] care hospital… is about care that comforts rather than care that cures.… My father spent his last seven days on earth at Calvary.” The evening was co-chaired by Steven Golub, managing director of Lazard, whose father also passed away at Calvary.

A video, “You are never alone,” was followed by greetings from Calvary President and CEO Frank Calamari. Indra Nooyi, president and CFO of PepsiCo, who received the Calvary Medal, boasts daunting credentials: a degree in chemistry, physics and math from Madras Christian College in India; a master’s degree in finance and marketing from Calcutta’s Indian Institute of Management; and a master’s in public and private management from Yale. Elegant and upbeat, Nooyi credited her mother’s neighbor, Dr. Devmany Jaitly, who is on staff at the hospital, with “taking my mother to visit Calvary…. This little woman in a sari could not believe that the Calvary patients were terminally ill. She went shopping for chocolates and gifts. When my mother came back, she told me: ‘I don’t care how busy you are, you are going to Calvary!’ [I decided] I’ll go if it will shut the old lady up. You know how Indian mothers are…. It [proved] a transformational experience.… Having lost my father to cancer, it touched me.”

Later I inquired whether there was a Jewish presence, and I was put in touch with hospital chaplain Rabbi Mollie Cantor. “There is so much love [for patients], regardless of race or religion,” Cantor told me. “There are Jewish patients [we serve] from secular to Orthodox.” Rabbi Cantor’s colleague, chaplain Rosalie Ossian, amplified: “At Calvary, the in-hospital high tech palliative care of pain is the best in the country.” Ossian, whose family roots are chasidic — “Vishnitzer and Lubavitch” — explained: “There is a rich Jewish life. We have a Sefer Torah from Czechoslovakia from the ruins of the Holocaust. If you can’t go to Friday 2 p.m. services, we daven in the room.… In the past we had a patient who was a Kindertransport survivor and a woman who had been a cook at Auschwitz.… This week, we have 25 Jewish patients.”

* * *

On June 14, the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged celebrated its 36th birthday at New York’s Jewish Museum, where JASA boosters got to relish the blockbuster exhibit, “Modigliani Beyond the Myth.” UJA-Federation President and JASA board member Morris Offit stressed: “There is nothing more dignified… than how [one] treats the elderly.” Founded in 1968, JASA’s programs serve more than 55,000 elderly New Yorkers. Last year, JASA provided more than 1 million meals; safe affordable apartments for more than 2,600 tenants, and assistance to 500 abuse victims. JASA also managed in-home visits for more than 2,500 clients.

The event honored founding trustee Robert Tishman, “a giant in the real estate industry.” Tishman quipped: “I’m the only charter member available… all the others have disappeared.” Also honored was Saul Katz, president of the New York Mets and a JASA board member. Katz told me that his father came from Zloczow in 1929, “not far from Lvov,” then added: “When my mother was asked if she came from Poland or Russia, she’d say, ‘Depends if the cossacks were coming or going.’”

* * *

While Amedeo Modigliani reigns uptown, a documentary exhibit showcasing his younger brother, “Mené: The Other Modigliani; A Life for Peace and Democracy,” is on display through September 1 downtown at the Center for Jewish History. Presented in conjunction with the Centro Culturale Primo Levi and the Italian National Archives in Rome, this modest exhibition focuses on Mené Modigliani’s life as an activist, unionist and Italian patriot whom David Dubinsky, president of the Ladies Garment Workers Union, invited to visit and lecture in the United States on the dangers of Nazi and Fascist policies. According to Italian journalist Andrea Fiano, a member of the panel at the exhibit’s May 16 opening: “Modigliani always enjoyed being interviewed by the Forward’s reporter.”

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