Putting a new spin on the old saw, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Moishe Rosenfeld, producer of the June 3 Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre Gala concert starring Neil Sedaka, told the 3,000-strong audience: “Practice, practice your Yiddish!” And so mameloshn bounced off that venerable hall’s acoustically famed walls with the Klezmatics launching the evening with the upbeat un mir zaynen ale brider (“And we are all brothers”).
A farblondzet Mal Z. Lawrence morphed Carnegie Hall into the Catskills and had the audience roaring with his familiar shtick about Florida condominium life and senior-friendly casinos where slot machines display prunes instead of cherries and mezuzas instead of bar-bar-bar. Hershey Felder, Joanne Borts, Eleanor Reissa and Adrienne Cooper contributed heymish, show biz and cabaret pizzaz.
“The Folksbiene has found a permanent home,” declared Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Thanks to the matchmaking skill of Second Avenue Deli’s Jack Lebwohl, the Folksbiene will share space with the Second Avenue Community Synagogue. “History has bestowed on us a great responsibility,” said Zalmen Mlotek, Folksbiene’s executive director. “It is our… obligation to future generations… to [perpetuate] America’s only professional Yiddish theater.” Architect Daniel Libeskind promised to design a state-of-the art theatre gratis.
“I sold 30 million records between 1958 and 1965.… And then came… The Beatles… and I retired,” Sedaka told the crowd. His father came here in 1910 from Istanbul…. “My [Sephardic] cousin is Edye Gorme.” (Sedaka later told me his mother was a Galitzianer.) In 1958 his band arrived at the Esther Manor hotel in the Catskills “where I met my wife, Leba… and Esther became my mother-in-law… I thought I married a Catskills heiress.”
Accompanying himself at the piano, Juilliard-trained Sedaka launched his Yiddish debut with Vu zol ikh geyn? (Where should I go?) Then he and an ageless Claire Barry, stunning in a hot-pink pants suit, thrilled the audience with a medley of Yiddish show tunes. “As for my age,” Barry informed: “It’s like a telephone number — unlisted.” The knockout finale: 300 children plus the [adult] New Yiddish Chorale belting out “Tumbalalaika” followed by Sedaka’s Rock ’n Roll hit, “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” Over the top!
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To get Neil Sedaka’s attention as he made his way past TV cameras up the red carpet for the June 10 Songwriter’s Hall of Fame Awards Ceremony at the New York Marriott Marquis, I sang out: “tumbalalaika!” Sedaka, with Leba at his side, and sporting his Cartier diamond “43 years’ good husband” lapel pin, came over to shake my hand and countered with: “tumbalalaika freylakh zol zayn!”
Charles Fox (who has written scores for more than 100 films, including “Barbarella” and “Goodbye, Columbus”; whose TV theme songs include “The Love Boat” and “Happy Days”; whose Grammy Award-winning song “Killing Me Softly With His Song” was performed that evening by Roberta Flack) was a 2004 SHOF inductee. “My father was an avid Forward reader” Fox said. “He was from Szydlowiec [Poland]. When he wanted to tell me something important, he’d say: kum aher, khvil dir epes zogn, “I have something to tell you.’”
Hal David, chairman and CEO of the SHOF, received, with Burt Bacharach (who was not in attendance), the Towering Song Award for their hit, “What the World Needs Now Is Love” (which Dionne Warwick performed at the gala). David, a lyricist, declared: “Song is the expression of our soul… [it] tells of our struggles and experiences.” (During our private chat, he confided “My father read the Forward.”) Described as “an acknowledged ambassador of the arts,” Michael Goldstein, chairman of the Toys“R”Us Children’s Fund, Inc., and president of the 92nd Street Y, accepted the Patron of the Arts Award from BMI President and CEO Frances Preston.
Sedaka, who explained to the 800 guests the origin of his family name — from tzedaka — accepted the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award from Regis Philbin. “I started writing October 11, 1952 — and the first song was a stinker,” said Sedaka, who then sang his poignant “Hungry Years.”
Rock & Soul pioneers Daryl Hall and John Oates were inducted into the SHOF by multitalented Michael McDonald (of Doobie Brothers fame). Country music mega-star Garth Brooks sang “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” by Don McLean. After being inducted into the SHOF, McLean stated, “I am an American artist,” then thrilled the audience by singing his iconic hit, “American Pie.” Everyone joined in the chorus! Bill Cosby presented the Johnny Mercer Award to Stevie Wonder, who said: “Those of us who are songwriters, are blessed.… We can change the world.… We can encourage, inspire… give vision to those who are blind.” Hovering above the evening was the spirit of Ray Charles, who’d passed away that day.
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Lynn Korda Kroll, a past president of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, set the thematic tone of the foundation’s June 7 Jewish Cultural Achievement Awards in the Arts dinner. “We live in a time when art, literature and theater are disappearing from education and are under assault by fundamentalism… when enlightenment and civil discourse are being replaced by a marketplace geared to shock, schlock and disgust.… But fortunately,” she informed the 375 guests at The Plaza, “we also live in a time when NFJC and its supporters survive and thrive… to enhance the quality of American Jewish life.”
“We don’t produce plays… we support the playwrights who write them,” said NFJC Executive Director Richard Siegel, recipient of its Cultural Leadership Award. “[NFJC] is a catalyst….We allow filmmakers to tell their stories….We help scholars develop their careers….We help Jewish museums do the work which you see when you walk through their doors.”
“I’m happy to be in a room of Jews among whom very few are mad at me,” said Literary Arts Award recipient, feminist and author Anne Roiphe. Recalling a visit to Rachel’s Tomb, where she saw women wrapped in a “red yarn to keep away the evil eye,” Roiphe said: “That thread represents our music, art, novels, plays, books.… Keep turning out art, and we will be protected from evil.”
Introducing Performing Arts Award recipient Wendy Wasserstein, her friend Swoosie Kurtz, an actor, described the prolific playwright as, “a revolutionary voice… an American Jewish woman who did not change her name.” Wasserstein added comic relief by describing her disastrous attempt to get her 4-year-old into Temple Emanu-El’s nursery school. Back at the apartment, she realized: “I wore two shoes — both left — [each] the wrong color…. There goes Dalton… Harvard… marriage!… My daughter is now at the 92nd Street Y.”
Karen Leon contributed to this column.