Two Firsts for an Interethnic Foundation


By Masha Leon

Published December 12, 2003, issue of December 12, 2003.
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A “Salute to Musical Theatre,” performed at the Rainbow Room by Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald, Ann Reinking, Roy Scheider, Michael Smith and the superb Boys Choir of Harlem enhanced the celebrity-studded November 17 “Stella by Starlight” gala to benefit the Stella Adler School of Acting.

Ellen Adler announced that her mother’s Stella Adler/Clurman Archives are now in the safekeeping of the University of Texas at Austin. Her son, Tom Oppenheim, the studio’s president and artistic director, recalled his great-grandfather Jacob Adler: “He fled Russia and journeyed to America in search of artistic freedom…. [He] found it on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he built his Yiddish Arts Theater…. I remember Stella saying to my mother and me: ‘When my students come to me they are bums; they don’t know how to walk, they don’t know how to talk. And when they leave me, they are artists.’”

Sidney Lumet, who accepted the Jacob Adler Award on behalf of Steven Spielberg (in absentia), presented the Group Theatre Award to Ruby Dee and her husband, Ossie Davis.

Elaine Stritch, a Stella Adler devotee, dished: “When Ellen and I were both dating Marlon [Brando], Stella invited him to lunch at the Plaza…. After lunch she said, ‘Marlon, you are not to see Ellen any more… unless, darling, you marry her!’ Three waiters dropped their trays!… Stella made a purchase at Tiffany’s. Asked where to send it, she gave a New York address. ‘I thought you were English,’ said the saleslady. ‘I’m not British,’ replied Stella. ‘Just affected.’… I started to talk like her…. It scared the s—t out of me!”

John Travolta, recipient of the Stella Adler Award, recounted meeting Stella 27 years ago. “It was after ‘Saturday Night Fever,’” he said. “We were having tea in her Fifth Avenue apartment…. ‘You are brilliant playing a monkey,’ she told me. ‘Your talent is your character.’ She paused… ‘you must play [Ibsen’s] Peer Gynt!’”

* * *

Two “firsts” marked the November 19 Foundation for Ethnic Understanding benefit hosted by Mona Ackerman at her Fifth Avenue apartment: the group’s first woman honoree, Helen Yarmak, renowned fur and jewelry designer, and its first Latino honoree, Ruben Rodriguez, president and CEO of Ruben Rodriguez Entertainment.

Rodriguez reminisced about “growing up in a Latina household in an African-American neighborhood” and “being bused to school, to a Jewish neighborhood.” With a lump in his throat, Rodriguez recalled: “My mother said, ‘The best way to travel is through people, because when you get there, you won’t be a stranger.’”

Also honored with the Joseph Papp Racial Harmony Award were Christopher Williams, founder, chairman and CEO of the Williams Capital Group (described by Fortune magazine as “one of the 50 most powerful blacks in corporate America”), and Peter Thomas Roth, CEO of Peter Thomas Roth Labs, whose 100-plus product cosmetic line (“a favorite among the likes of Tiger Woods, Steven Spielberg and Bill Clinton,” according to program notes) has fueled support for the 92nd Street Y, the Creative Coalition and the G&P Foundation, among others.

The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s president, Rabbi Marc Schneier, described his September trip to South Africa with Martin Luther King III. Both men were speakers at the September 7 South African Jewish Board of Deputies dinner gala. Their goal was “to export our model of black-Jewish cooperation and racial tolerance in the United States,” which, Schneier said, “led to a new relationship between the foundation and Tikkun, which brings South African black and Jewish high school students together.”

* * *

“Sephardic Crossings,” the eighth International Sephardic Film Festival, was launched December 2 with an opening night gala at the Center for Jewish History. Among the evening’s 192 guests were Peter Geffen, the center’s new president; Gulcan Akoguz Karagoz, consul of Turkey in New York; Lina Filiba, executive vice president of the Jewish community of Turkey, and Georgios Alexopoulos, consul of Greece in New York.

Describing the festival’s eclectic offerings, Esmé Emanuel Berg, Sephardic House’s director and the acting director of the American Sephardi Federation, explained that “Sephardic” is not “limited to the conventional meaning of the word, i.e. the Jews of Spain.”

“The festival,” he said, “presents films from a number of countries focusing on a diverse range of languages and communities.” Among the festival’s 17 films “La Verité Si Je Mens/Would I Lie To You?” (1997), which was a big hit in France and was making its American premiere. Set in Paris’s rag-trade district, its hero is mistaken for a Jew. Among the movie’s many delights, one of the most delicious malaprop Shabbat dinners on film.

The evening showcased director Carole Basri’s riveting film, “Searching for Baghdad: A Daughter’s Journey,” which chronicles her quest in India, Hong Kong, Singapore and Myanmar (formerly Burma) for remnants of the 2,500-year-old Baghdadi Jewish community’s diaspora as well as her own family’s roots. In Burma, Basri met a young student of Iraqi descent named Sammy Samuels (who appears in her film). Through her efforts and the generosity of Yeshiva University, Samuels was granted a full scholarship for four years of study at Y.U.

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