It was “Budapest at the Pierre [Hotel]” for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s May 13 benefit dinner honoring architect Moshe Safdie and Imre Kertész, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for literature. As Hungarian musicians and dancers entertained, diplomats from Hungary, Austria and Lithuania and 470 YIVO guests (who raised $1 million to sustain YIVO’s repository of Eastern European Jewish life and culture) feasted on a meal designed by Hungarian restaurateur George Lang. Jump-start nibblers inspired Rabbi Arthur Schneier’s unorthodox motzi: “Thank God for what we have already eaten.”
“In absence of my Yiddish, I greet you in Ladino,” said Safdie, who made his “stunning architectural debut with ‘Habitat 67’ at Expo 67 in Montreal,” according to program notes. Born in Haifa to Jewish parents from Syria, Safdie recalled growing up in the “early days of Zionism with a sense of tikkun olam… a respect for nature and its scarce resources.”
Unable to attend because of illness, Kertész, who has written extensively about the Holocaust, was shown in a filmed interview from Berlin. “I was always an outsider,” he said. “Hungarians are such nationalists, they even forgave you for being Jewish.” Though he admitted that he “knew little about being Jewish,” Kertész declared: “I’m 100% Jewish because of… Auschwitz.”
Departing from his scripted role as “presenter” to Kertész, billionaire-philanthropist Hungarian Holocaust survivor George Soros embarrassed the host institution and shocked its supporters by politicizing the evening with a rambling “editorial” about victims of violence and abuse becoming perpetrators of violence, suggesting that this model applies to the Israelis vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There were angry walkouts and loud booing that drowned out a sprinkling of applause. No wonder Bruce Slovin, YIVO’s board chairman and its guiding light, was heard to mumble: “Oy, gevalt!” A few days later, a fuming Elie Wiesel told me: “I heard what happened. If I had been there — and you can quote me — I would have walked out.”
* * *
Honored at the Seasoned Citizens Theatre Company “National Treasures” May 12 dinner at the University Club were award-winning actress Marian Seldes, photographer Arnold Newman, jazz and blues singer Gloria Lynne and public-relations pioneer Ray Josephs.
David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair, who presented the award to Newman — known as “the father of the environmental portrait” — and who had been one of my “bosses” when I was at the American Society of Magazine Photographers, recounted the following anecdote: “Ten years ago, while serving as Life Magazine’s director of photography, I assigned Arnold to photograph Israeli and Palestinian leaders and set up a session with [Yasser] Arafat in Tunisia. Arnold, who had photographed every Israeli leader since the founding of the state and established the photo department of [the Israel Museum in Jerusalem], exclaimed: ‘What! Are you crazy!’”
“We were summoned to PLO headquarters,” Friend recalled. “Arnold pulls me aside, ‘Do these guys know I’m Jewish?’ Arafat arrived in green fatigues…. As Arnold leaned toward his camera his shoe became entangled in one of the cords…. The lights began to tip in Arafat’s direction. Arnold gasped… grabbed it and exclaimed, ‘Oy, gevalt!’ Facing me Arnold said, loud enough for Arafat to hear, ‘Whatever that means.’”
* * *
Master of ceremonies Charlie Rose was stuck in traffic, so Kenneth Bialkin, American Jewish Historical Society board chairman, acted as emcee at the society’s May 20 “Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty” award dinner at the Pierre. Mayor Bloomberg praised event honoree Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman and editor in chief of U.S. News and World Report and co-publisher of the New York Daily News, and said, “Every day I pick up Mort’s paper to see what shots he’s taken at me.”
In his acceptance speech, Zuckerman homed in on the “new virulent escalating globalized anti- Jewishness… [an] antisemitism that has been activated and catalyzed by the Arab-Israeli conflict…. A new antisemitism… emerging in countries where there are no more Jews… [and] needs to be exposed and understood for what it is.”
“Europe has exported its classical racism and anstisemitism to Arab countries, which they apply to Israel and Jews in general,” Zuckerman said. “The Arabs then re-export it back to Europe using the U.N. and other international institutions as conveyor belts.”
Citing Winston Churchill as “a genius [at] political prophesy,” Zuckerman said, “Alas, he was premature in declaring all ‘isms’ as ‘wasms.’ Fascism came and went; communism came and went; socialism came and waned, but antisemitism and its 20th-century twin brother, anti-Zionism, the graffiti on the walls of history, still stalks the world.”
* * *
At YIVO’s May 18 Women’s Luncheon at the Center for Jewish History, which honored Vera Stern, Ruth Gruber, Bernice Slutzman, Myra Treitel and Jacob Waisbord, keynote speaker Mimi Sheraton — author of “The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World” (Broadway Books 2000) — delighted the audience with anecdotes about her mother, who was a wonderful cook.
“As restaurant reviewer of The New York Times,” Sheraton said, “you’d think my mother would be happy…. She hated what I wrote about…. ‘It’s not nice what you do…. A man builds a restaurant, he’s doing well until in walks Big Mouth! He has a family to support. Is it your business if people want food that’s not good?’”