It’s Down Home Southern Comfort at Federation Gala


By Masha Leon

Published February 28, 2003, issue of February 28, 2003.
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Cowboy hats, jeans on bottom and chic on top — “Southern Comfortable” — was the dress code at the February 11 UJA-Federation of New York Entertainment, Media & Communications Division bash at the Regent Wall Street Hotel. Joel Katz, the first attorney inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and “a definitive leader in the field of entertainment law,” was the recipient of the evening’s “Spirit of Music Award.” Among the 450 music honchos who helped raise $750,000 to benefit the Music for Youth Foundation were Clive Davis, Frances Preston and Tommy Mottola, who came with his wife, Thalia Soldi, a Mexican soap opera star.

“Joel is a Jew lawyer from Brooklyn who moved to Georgia,” said host Jason Flom, president of Lava Records, whose rawhide jokes implied that Jews in the South were something of a rarity. “As Joel’s rabbi and friend, I am probably one of the only rabbis passionate about country music,” said Rabbi Philip Kranz of Temple Sinai in Atlanta who, in 1993, was voted “Clergyman of the Year” by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Charles Feldman, a BMI vice president and a born-and-bred Alabaman, exhorted the crowd to “raise a glass for Joel, you Southern-fried Brooklynite.”

As he presented Katz with a shofar inscribed with part of Psalm 89 — “happy is the people who know the joyous music of the shofar” — entertainment attorney Allen Grubman proclaimed: “Joel, you are a man of music, eloquent words and inspiring deeds and the only lawyer I know who is loved by every country music artist.” Award-winning country duo Brooks & Dunn — clients of Katz — performed gratis for country-music-deprived New Yorkers.

During our conversation, Katz told me that his family had come from Hungary. To clarify another point about his provenance, he said, “I was born in the Bronx — not Brooklyn!”

* * *

Greeting the audience at the February 6 gala opening of the remarkable exhibition, “A Portion of the People: 300 Years of Southern Jewish History,” at the Center for Jewish History, Theodore Mirvis, Yeshiva University Museum’s vice chair (and a second-generation Virginian), quoted Michael Feldberg, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society: “The South… is not the ‘wilderness’ that so many unknowingly assume it must be; it has been the very cradle of Jewish life in America.”

In his keynote address Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, recalled Irving Harby, a journalist and founder of Reform Judaism, who in 1816 wrote to Secretary of State James Monroe protesting the removal of an American consul because he was a Jew. “Harby reminded the future president, who had incorporated the principle of religious freedom in the Virginia Constitution, that Jews were not a religious sect deserving toleration; rather they constituted ‘a portion of the People.’” Ergo the title of the exhibit.

Exhibit subdivisions such as “An End to Exile,” “In Pursuit of Gentility,” “The Birth of Reform,” “The Polish Synagogue” and “Plantation Life” offer “aha”-eliciting historical gems. In 1800, Charleston, S.C., had the largest Jewish community in America.

“There were 2,500 Jews in the United States at that time; 400 in New York and somewhat fewer in Philadelphia,” Cole said. “But Charleston had 500…. It had two theaters, an opera, concerts by foreign artists and lectures by leading literary and scientific scholars of the day. This was the cosmopolitan world that Charleston’s Jews called home.”

Among the speakers and contributors to this exhibition were Erica Jesselson, chairwoman of the Yeshiva University Museum board; museum’s director Sylvia Herskowitz; exhibition curator Dale Rosengarten; Rachel Chodorow, AJHS director of programs; Sidney Lapidus, AJHS’s incoming president, and catalogue contributor Eli Evans, a North Carolinian and the author of “Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate.” Evans’s most recent book, “The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner,” prompted the late Abba Eban to declare, “The Jews of the South have found their poet laureate.” Now y’all come down to the Center for Jewish History, you hear?

* * *

Last week I congratulated Zalmen Mlotek, director of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, on his amazing virtuoso 10-minute recap of Abraham Goldfaden’s operetta “The Witch,” which he performed at last month’s “A Dialogue in Word and Song” at the Center for Jewish History. Rabbi William Berkowitz, who moderated the dialogue with Mlotek, focused on the influence of his parents, the late Yiddish Forward editor Yosl Mlotek and Yiddish song and poetry maven Chana Mlotek, who instilled in him a love of Yiddish and Jewish music.

During the interview, Mlotek recalled his Juilliard days and several Leonard Bernstein anecdotes. My favorite: “At Juilliard, students had packed the hall for an orchestra run-through…. Lenny came late, got on the podium and shouted, ‘He did it! He did it! Let’s have a C-major chord for Jimmy Carter and an E-flat for Menachem Begin!’ The students, who never read papers and spent all their time practicing, had no idea that Bernstein was referring to the peace treaty signed by Sadat and Begin.”

ROCK AND ROLL: Above, the duo Brooks & Dunn lends a country feel to UJA-Federation gala Feb. 11. At left, Tommy Mottola and Clive Davis kibbitz. Below, Allen Grubman, Deborah Grubman and Joel Katz are all smiles.

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