At YIVO, Honoring Those Who Champion Mameloshn


By Masha Leon

Published June 04, 2004, issue of June 04, 2004.
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Lolle Boettcher of St. Louis and the Moriah School of Englewood, N.J., were honored with the Janusz Korczak Teaching Award at the May 13 dinner of the American Friends of The Ghetto Fighters’ Museum in Israel. Amy Miller, board president, touted the museum as “the world’s only memorial studying resistance.” Its International Book-Sharing Project, created by Karen Shawn, links more than 100 classrooms in secular, Catholic and Jewish schools in the United States with religious schools in Israel for in-class, online and letter-writing projects to study the Holocaust in a variety of disciplines.

The awards were established in memory of Warsaw-born innovative educator Janusz Korczak (née Henryk Goldsmit), whose progressive orphanage was moved by the Germans into the Warsaw ghetto. Korczak was offered sanctuary outside the ghetto, but refused. On August 5, 1942, Korczak, the 200 children and staff were rounded up and deported to Treblinka, where they were all put to death.

Rita Meed presented the Korczak award to Daniel Libeskind, whom she referred to as “my first arts and crafts teacher at Camp Hemshekh.” In his signature black shirt, and in a staccato cadence, Libeskind addressed “the world’s amnesia… antisemitism,” and his perception of the function of Holocaust architecture as “not only a making of space, but a text to communicate what has been lost.” Touting his design of the Jewish Museum of Berlin, “the most visited museum in Germany by young Germans,” Libeskind explained, “In the voids of that museum… I focused around a loss that cannot be fathomed.”

* * *

“We are the largest repository of Yiddish culture in the world outside of Israel,” Bruce Slovin, chair of the Center for Jewish History, told the guests at the May 17 YIVO Institute for Jewish Research dinner.

Championing the Yiddish language and Bundist tradition, board member Motl Zelmanowicz delivered an impassioned address reminiscent of rallies I witnessed during my childhood in prewar Warsaw. Daniel Libeskind, YIVO Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, recalled: “When I grew up in Poland, my parents maintained Yiddish… they were not members of the Communist Party. They were Jews…. When I came to Israel, I spoke Yiddish in the streets of Tel-Aviv. Yiddish was discouraged… [that’s where] Israel made a big mistake. Yiddishkayt is not a culture of the past but of the future.”

The first Mordechai Gebirtig Lifetime Achievement Award in Music — named for the popular Yiddish folk poet who was killed during a deportation from the Krakow ghetto by the Nazis in 1942 — was presented to Chava Alberstein. Born in Poland with Yiddish as her mother tongue, she moved to Israel at age 4. “Singing in Yiddish was not the road to popularity in Israel,” she said. “Then… a devil came to me and said, ‘What do you mean the end of Yiddish?’ So I started to compose… new songs in Yiddish.… It brings out to me things I cannot find in Hebrew, which is edgy [and] ironic — not like the softness found in Yiddish.” Accompanying herself on guitar, Alberstein (who has had many of her 50 albums in Hebrew, English and Yiddish go gold or platinum) enchanted the audience as she sang her own, as well as popular, Yiddish folk classics. Bravo!

* * *

Book mavens gathered at Random House’s Louis L’Amour Room for the Jewish Book Council’s May 11 reception that honored Michael Steinhardt with its Impact Award and celebrated his memoir, “No Bull.” Alluding to his and Steinhardt’s ongoing dialogue about faith, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin said: “Steinhardt admits to not believing in God…. His book does fulfill its title — no bull. He knew how to choose the right companies [and] he knew how to choose the right mitzvah — tzedaka. Michael… a lover of art, animals and America… did what few people do. He said dayenu! Instead of growing his money, he took his wealth… sowing seeds for the next generation.”

After reading a passage from his book about Birthright, Steinhardt said: “Most of the people who go [on Birthright] are, alas, the product of the miserable education we provide our kids…. This is the last Jewish moment before they go out into careers….. If we could get half of this age group on Birthright [worldwide] to Israel for one trip, it would stem the time of this inevitable decline. “Samuel Freedman, author of “Jew vs. Jew,” confessed, “I [once] wrote a skeptical piece on Birthright… I am more than glad to be proven wrong…. [He] bet on the viability and persistence of the Jewish people…. Putting his money where his purported lack of belief is.”

* * *

When I first mentioned Tony Randall (who died May 17 at age 84) in my column, I received a Yiddish-sprinkled letter from Forward reader Rabbi Arthur Kahn of Tulsa, Okla. “I am certain that you know that Tony, who stems from our little shtetl of Tulsa (population half a million), is Jewish. His name is Aryeh (Arthur) Leonard Rosenberg. But are you also aware that he was born to heimishe yidishe mentschn who were respected, observant members of Congregation B’nai Emunah, where I served as rabbi for 36 years?”

Though famous for his appearances in theater and film and as fusspot Felix Unger in the still-syndicated television hit, “The Odd Couple,” Randall earned kudos for presiding at such events as YIVO’s November 24, 1991, benefit at the Plaza. Later, at the November 1999 gala for the Gomez House at the Jewish Museum, Randall, wearing a tri-cornered hat atop a gray damask yarmulke, entertained the guests — including Gomez descendants — with a dramatic reading from a script titled “Ask Mr. Gomez.” Luis Moses Gomez fled the Spanish Inquisition, eventually landing in America in 1714, where, in Marlboro, N.Y., he built Mill House, one of the oldest manifestations of a Jewish presence in America. Gomez became the first president of America’s first synagogue, Shearith Israel.

“Why did Mr. Gomez pay for the spire at Trinity Church?” asked Randall. As Gomez, he replied: “There was such freedom here as we never had in Europe. In Europe, would a Jew have been asked to build a church? The snake that doesn’t bite me, let it live a thousand years. This colony of New York and its churches do not bite. Let them live a thousand years. I love New York.”

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