Alan Alda Issues Verdict on Court TV


By Masha Leon

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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Henry Schleiff, chairman and CEO of Court TV Network, was presented with the Torch of Liberty Award at the Anti-Defamation League’s November 6 dinner at the Plaza. “There’s no CEO in our business like Henry Schleiff,” said master of ceremonies Regis Philbin. Time Warner’s chairman and CEO, Richard Parsons, joshed: “Welcome to the 50th anniversary of Henry’s bar mitzvah…. He’s a true mentsh — a Swahili word. He has made Court TV the fastest-growing, most talked about cable TV show.”

A chipper Alan Alda, who said he had been brought down two weeks earlier from a mountaintop in Chile for emergency intestinal surgery, declared: “Court TV is not only an instrument of justice in itself, it is used to reach out to teenagers… and [teaches that] choices mean consequences…. True tolerance [will exist] when [there is] no longer a need to expend energy on being tolerant.”

A whimsical Kerry Kennedy said, “According to Thomas Jefferson, the greatest threat to democracy is a long-winded dinner speaker.”

Ergo her brief comments: “Fight bigotry…. Remember the Holocaust…. It’s okay to be different.” Citing “Jewish tradition’s respect for the printed word,” the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said: “The crematoriums in Auschwitz did not begin with bricks but with words… 9/11 did not begin with box cutters, but with words…. ADL deals with words of hatred…. The only vaccine to inoculate children against hate is education against bigotry, racism and antisemitism.”

Turning to chandelier-rattling tenor Michael Amante, who got a standing ovation for his Italian arias, Schleiff joked: “The Reform Jews in the room thought you sang beautifully… the other half thought you sang in Hebrew.” Schleiff defined Court TV as “a balance between making a profit and making a difference.”

“Mere ignorance can easily grow into intolerance,” he said, adding that education is the answer to “the vitriol, which is like opium for the uniformed.”

His parting words: “Go without hate… but not without rage.”

* * *

In the audience at the opening-night gala of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre’s latest production of Leon Kobrin’s “The Lady Next Door,” or “Di Next door’ike,” were Yiddish-theater divas and self-described “two graces” Shifra Lerer and Mina Bern. Also present were Chana Mlotek, Corey Brier, Motl Zelmanowicz, Dr. Barnett Zumoff, Harold Platt, Erica Jesselson and, of course, Folksbiene executive director Zalmen Mlotek.

Adapted, directed and with excellent English supertitles by Allen Lewis Rickman, this is vintage Yiddish soap opera. “Di Next-Door’ike” vixen Clara (Debra Frances Ben) is a hoot. Yelena Shmulenson-Rickman as Hindele, the long-suffering shtetl wife who is transformed into an American lady, is charming. And the 11-member cast with its over-the-top emotings is uniformly excellent.

When it premiered in 1916, Kobrin’s drama — about the transition from Old World shtetl to New York City tenements, illicit amorous shenanigans and labor agitation — was revolutionary. Americanisms such as “gee whiz” and name morphings like Velvl to Willie may elicit laughter. But these were harbingers of the deconstruction of a lifestyle that can now only be experienced via films, documentaries, the archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and, thanks to the Folksbiene, at Manhattan’s Jewish Community Center through January 4.

After the show, I asked Eleanor Reissa (who last year starred in the Folksbiene’s production of I.B. Singer’s “Yentl”), who the chasidic young men in the Next Dorike audience were. “They’re from Boro Park and Monroe,” Reissa said. “They told me, ‘You were Yentl!… We saw it four times!’ They quoted from the play!” Ah, the power of the Folksbiene!

* * *

The November 9 “Voice of Jewish America” musical tribute to Cantor Richard Tucker at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall was a once-in-a-lifetime treat for ear and soul.

“No place has given our people more opportunity to sing than the USA,” the Jewish Theological Seminary’s chancellor, Ismar Schorsch, said of the event, part of the five-day JTS and Milken Archive of American Jewish Music Project celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Jewish arrival on American shores.

And sing they did! Cantors Ida Rae Cahana, Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson, Raphael Frieder, Alberto Mizrahi, Simon Spiro and stellar clarinetist David Krakauer had the auditorium walls vibrating. Under the baton of Neil Levin, the combined choirs of the JTS, Adath Jeshurun Choral Society and Beth Sholom Chorale of Elkins Park, Pa., Nashirah: The Jewish Chorale of Greater Philadelphia, Temple Beth El Chorus of West Hartford, Conn. and the Schola Hebraeica and Coro Hebraeico were sublime. Ronald Corp conducted the wonderful New London Children’s Choir, which sang English renditions of Yiddish classics including “In the Valley” (known to Yiddishists as Bei dem Shtetl Shteyt a Shtibl). The evening ended with chorales, cantors and audience united in singing Irving Berlin’s gift to the nation: “God Bless America” — in Yiddish and English.

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