From Under the Chupah to Over the Ark, and Other Ottoman Tales


By Masha Leon

Published April 23, 2004, issue of April 23, 2004.
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Ömer Öhnon, Turkey’s consul general in New York, was the keynote speaker at the March 31 launch of the “Jewish Costumes in the Ottoman Empire” exhibit at the Center for Jewish History. Curated by Sylvio Ovadya, the exhibit has been sponsored by the American Sephardi Federation, the Sephardic House with the Jewish Community of Turkey and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations.

“This exhibition is not only about the life of Jews in Turkish lands,” Öhnon said, “but is a reflection of co-existence… and respect… terms [that] have gained a new meaning… in a time when intolerance, antisemitism, religious fanaticism in all religions [and] terrorism have become the main threats and challenges to modern day societies.”

Elaborating on the “common history of Turks and Jews living together,” Öhnon noted that “after the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, Jews started coming into the lands of the Ottoman Empire from… what is today Germany, France, Hungary and Italy…. In 1492 came the main influx when Jews came from Spain and found a new home in the Ottoman Empire.” During World War II, Öhnon added, “Thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe found refuge” in Turkey, which he said also “granted safe passage for thousands of Jews fleeing the Holocaust.”

Among the exhibit’s “aha”-eliciting revelations: Jewish brides in the Ottoman Empire wore a robe, a kaftan, of velvet decorated with flower patterns embroidered in silver threads. After the wedding, the dress would be donated to the synagogue and retailored for the parohet, which covers the ark, where the Torah scrolls were kept.

* * *

With its theme of greed, brownnosing and betrayal, playwright Larry Gelbart’s “Sly Fox” (based on Ben Jonson’s 1606 play “Volpone”), should have been titled “Gotcha!” Richard Dreyfuss is in top form as Foxwell Sly, an avaricious old codger who keeps friend and foe guessing as to who will inherit his chest of gold. Dreyfuss is also outrageously funny masquerading as a judge assisted by ditzy court clerk Professor Irwin Corey. The audience at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre was kept laughing, thanks to a loopy cast of characters, vaudevillian shtick and over-the-top Carol Burnett-ish skits.

During intermission, as “Sly” producer Julian Schlossberg and producer, playwright and director Arthur Laurents looked on, I introduced Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, to Sholom Aleichem’s granddaughter Bel Kaufman whose husband, Sidney Gluck, an artist-photographer, then gave Richards a courtly kiss on the hand.

* * *

Try to catch the last airings of Showtime’s “Coast to Coast,” a mature, yet wacky drama-cum-comedy about a journey of marital reconnection starring a flawless Richard Dreyfuss as Barnaby and an amazing Judy Davis as his wife, Maxine. On their voyage they experience shock and awe as they revisit a roster of pivotal characters from their discordant past, including their friend Stanley, a newly minted yogurt magnate (played by “Coast” director Paul Mazursky) and a romantic interest from Maxine’s college days — Casimir Michaelstadt (Maximilian Schell), a professor who claims to have “saved a beautiful Jewess… during the war,” and now laments that his son is “somewhere in the Negev.” Poignant, refreshingly intelligent, it’s worth a TV trip.

* * *

“What’s best in music is not to be found in notes,” actor Keith Davis said, quoting Gustav Mahler at the Juilliard School’s March 31 “Classified Jazz… Jazz and Classical Music Together” benefit at the Juilliard Theater. Co-hosting the event was another Juilliard alum, actress Christine Baranski; Mary Rogers and Marvin Hamlisch were the co-chairs. Among the guests were Richard Schwartz, chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts; Cynthia Lufkin, and Muffie Potter Aston.

Among the evening’s highlight performers were soprano Renée Fleming and jazz artist Wynton Marsalis.

* * *

Sixty-four diplomats representing more than 50 countries joined American Jewish Committee members in celebrating the AJC’s 14th Model Seder for Diplomats held April 1 at the 92nd Street Y. Assisted by Cantor Julie Jacobs of Congregation Mount Sinai, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, led the festive Seder.

“The reality,” Potasnik told the guests, “is that we have a representative of Egypt in the room. We read in the Hagadda about the hostility between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The message we have to convey is that an enemy of yesterday can become an ally today. ‘Moshe’ was a name given to him by an Egyptian princess…. We retain that name…. Here was the daughter of the Pharaoh unwilling to accept the status quo of sinah [hatred] and heroically saved a Jewish child. We recogonize those who dare to be different…. Dayenu!”

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