Dance Fever at Sutton Place Synagogue


By Masha Leon

Published July 11, 2003, issue of July 11, 2003.
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The Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan “rocked” as the 220 guests at the June 16 Yiddish Artists & Friends Actors Club & Yiddish Theatrical Alliance Annual Dinner Dance Gala waltzed, cha-cha’d and hora’d to the beat of Mitch Kahn’s Orchestra.

Corey Breier, master of ceremonies, club president and recently appointed president of the alliance, announced “a surprise guest, Kitty Kallen… and she’s Jewish!” Once called “Pretty Kitty,” Kallen had sung with Artie Shaw, and with the Jimmy Dorsey Band she recorded “Besame Mucho,” their biggest hit. In 1954, with her smash hits “Little Things Mean a Lot” and “Kiss Me Once and Kiss Me Twice,” Kallen was voted “most popular girl singer in the USA” by Billboard and Variety polls.

Still stunning at 82, Kallen told me: “Everyone thought I was Irish. They never knew I was a yidishe meydl…. The first time my mother took me to the Yiddish theater in Philadelphia, I knew I wanted to be in show business…. The family name was never changed,” she said. With a twinkle in her eye, she added: “I was actually named Kathleen.”

Yiddish stage star Shifra Lerer wished a speedy recovery to the absent Mina Bern. In her first public appearance following open-heart surgery, a svelte Lillian Lux took a bow. In keeping with the evening’s tribute to “the composers of Second Avenue theater” and with Folksbiene director Zalmen Mlotek at the keyboard, Cantor Robert Abelson, Claire Barry and Joanna Borts — perched atop an upright piano a la Marlene Dietrich — performed songs by Abe Ellstein, Alexander Olshenetsky and Joseph Rumshinsky. A chorus of “ah”s greeted Mlotek’s disclosure that some popular hits were “derivatives” of Yiddish songs: “Chim Chim Cheree” from “Mary Poppins” (for which Richard and Robert Sherman won an Oscar) began as Itzik Manger’s “Vaylu,” and George and Ira Gershwin’s “My One and Only” was based on Abraham Goldfaden’s “Shlof Mayn Feygele” (“Sleep My Little Bird”). As the evening wore on, like the Energizer bunny, an indefatigable ever-smiling 95-year-old Frank Friedland danced the night away with a bevy of partners.

* * *

It was taste, nibble, nosh and sip as I wended my way past more than 5,000 international and American exhibitors during the Fancy Food Show, held from June 29 through July 1 at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Italian pastas, cheeses, olives, anchovies, biscotti and heavenly gelato; Dutch, Belgian and Swiss chocolates, coffees, teas, cakes and cookies; specialties from Russia, Turkey, Greece, Germany, Poland, Brazil, Canada and France — great for the palate but devastating for the hips. And, every so often, a wonderful story.

Intrigued by a taste of their new chocolate-flavored hummus, I stopped to chat with Paul Eterian Jr., an Armenian who, with his partner — “a Lebanese Christian” — runs the Massachusetts-based Cedar’s Mediterranean Foods, Inc. Their hummus has been judged “America’s Best” by the American Tasting Institute “three years in a row.” Detailing his extensive line of palate-pleasing goodies, Eterian boasted: “We import halvah from Israel made with [the best] sesame seeds from the Sudan… and our tahini comes from a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley.”

During my annual stop at the San Diego-based Chewys Rugulach booth, owner Ahmad Paksima greeted me effusively: “Would you believe it! My son Shahram, who grew up working in the bakery, got a full scholarship to Harvard!… From rugulach to Harvard!” he kvelled. Paksima, who was born in Bombay to an Indian father and Iranian mother, learned the recipe for rugulach from a Polish baker in New York. “They are O.U.-certified kosher,” he assured me.

At the Wissotzky Tea Ltd. exhibit — the company, now run by the family’s fifth generation, currently goes by the name Osem USA — a map showed the company’s growth from its beginnings in 1849 in Moscow; to London in 1907; to Poland in 1917; to Israel in 1936, and worldwide in 1961. “Did you know there’s a song about Wissotzky tea?” I asked one of the reps who shook his head. So I called Joshua Waletzky, who wrote both the words and music to ‘Wissotsky’s Tea” which, he said, “was based on a monologue by Sholom Aleichem and was first performed in 1972 for an original musical at Camp Boiberik…. It’s about Gitl ‘Purishkevich,’ who makes a living selling Wissotzky’s teas. Her son was drafted into the czar’s army, and, unlike the rich, she can’t buy his freedom. So she goes to the gallery at the Duma, where the antisemite of the time, Purishkevich, is accusing the Jews of being disloyal [because] not a single Jew is in the army…. Before being thrown out of the gallery, Gitl shouts: ‘What about my Moishe!’ That’s how she became known as Gitl ‘Purishkevich.’” As for the song’s refrain — “Ay-ay ve-dig-a-day-day… Wissotzky’s tea! Ay-ay…. Please buy!” — what a great commercial jingle!

* * *

Imagine a Sephardic Jew responsible for one of America’s most popular snacks! After a stop at the Yohay Baking Company’s booth, I called Morrie Yohai to see if there was any relationship. “Distantly,” he said.

“Our branch spells the name with an ‘i,’” said Yohai, a vice president of Sephardic House, now part of the American Sephardi Federation and located in the Center for Jewish History. “But all the Yohais/Yohays go back to Gallipoli, Turkey.” He then told me that when he worked for the Old London Food Company “before it was bought by Borden’s…. It was I who invented Cheez Doodles.”

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