Once Upon a Time in Iraq; Two Funds Fight Cancer


By Masha Leon

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
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At the July 1 Jewish Community Relations Council of New York presentation “A Walk Through Jewish Iraq,” Alice Hecht, chief administrative officer of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, using slides and film clips, recapped her 1996 through 1998 visits to Baghdad’s old Jewish quarter “between weapons’ inspections.” Describing services at “the only functioning synagogue” left in the quarter, she said: “There was not one Shabbat that there was no [service]…. If they stopped, the building would be closed.”

Hecht recalled a heart-pounding mission when asked by congregants “to take out some ancient scrolls… written on deer skin…. They were not Torahs,” she emphasized. “No antiquities were to be taken out of the country…. It was a violation of Iraqi laws…. But,” she paused, “sometimes you take a risk in life.” Reflecting on conversations she’s had with expatriate Iraqi Jews in New York, Hecht (born in Belgium, mother from Vienna, father from Russia and grandmother from Turkey) said: “They speak of their ‘Once-upon-a-time’ good life in Iraq just like [expatriate Austrian] Jews [speak] of Vienna.”

* * *

“I lost my mother to cancer,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, an honoree at the June 23 Israel Cancer Research Fund luncheon at the Pierre. “As generous as you are in this room, you need a federal partner,” the New York Democrat said, vowing her support for “continuing funds for cancer research.” Author of “The Official Preppy Handbook,” fund honoree Lisa Bernbach touted major discoveries made by the fund’s grant recipients: Doxil, Gleevec and p53.

Honoree Marcia Kramer, a CBS reporter — who acknowledged doing the “famous ‘I never inhaled’ [Bill] Clinton interview” — made a donation to the fund in memory of “my mother who died of cancer.” Honoree Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO of the Kaplan Thaler Group ad agency whose mother is a cancer survivor, described her horrified reaction when she was diagnosed with a carcinoma at 39. “‘Am I going to make it to 40?’ I asked my doctor…. He told me, ‘Don’t have any children…. You’re 39, there is no research.’” She found another doctor and has since had two children.

ICRF president Dr. Yashar Hirshaut recapped the fund’s 1,400 grants made since 1975 to scientists in Israel. He cited the fund’s role in the development of Gleevec. I mentioned to Hirshaut that at the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation seminar I attended on June 20 at the Marriott Marquis, Dr. Mohamad Hussein, director of the Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, an Egyptian, touted an Israeli colleague doing myeloma research. Hussein told the crowd: “We Muslims and Jews work well [together] in Israel.”

Hirshaut said that Hussein had most likely been referring to “Velcade… now in clinical trials.” Using technical terminology, Hirshaut explained the minutiae of the drug’s initial research in Israel.

* * *

At the first Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation dinner I attended, in 2001, Dr. David Epstein, Novartis Oncology president, was honored for the newly approved drug Gleevec to treat myelogenous leukemia. The dinner also honored Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Among the guests was newly diagnosed Geraldine Ferraro. Nearly 15,000 new cases of myeloma — a cancer of the bone marrow — are diagnosed each year.

At this year’s foundation dinner (preceding the seminar), “Today Show” anchor Ann Curry (whose mother died of “a fast-moving gall bladder cancer” and whose sister survived breast cancer) quoted her Japanese mother’s motto: “Gombaru, which means to never, ever give up even if there is no chance of winning.”

Keynote speaker Ferraro — looking fit — praised her doctors and the experimental drugs she was taking. “I want to cry,” she said, “when people call and tell me, ‘I can’t afford the medication.’” Ferraro , now a myeloma-research advocate, applauded a bill “authored by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Barbara Mikulski [signed last year by President Bush]… that authorized $275 million for blood cancer research.” The dinner’s event chair was an upbeat “in remission” Stottlemyre.

This week, I caught up with two of the dinner’s participants: dinner chair Alan Wilzig, chairman and CEO of Trustcompany Bank of New Jersey, and Fred Margulies, a past president of the JCRC of Nassau County. Alan Wilzig’s father, Holocaust survivor Siggi Wilzig — and my friend — succumbed to myeloma in January 2003. Wilzig confided that “in his final days in the hospital, my father, was drawing escape plans… as though he were still in Auschwitz.” An ebullient Margulies, who’d been diagnosed with myeloma five years ago, told me he’s well enough to be “back at work.”

* * *

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” touted the glory of books to the more than 50 guests at the June 18 Jewish Book Council parlor meeting hosted by Francine and Samuel Klagsbrun at their Park Avenue apartment.

Citing the Torah, Kushner said: “Having a religion based on a book meant that God’s will would be accessed not by mystical means by dreams or drugs, but by study…. Books… are the indispensable ingredient for developing the knack to go beyond the confines of one’s own skin.… [They] expand the imagination…. God gave us souls; the people who write, edit, publish, distribute, buy and read books do the rest.”

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