“I went to Yom Kippur services at the Shul of New York,” author Amy Tan told me as, around us, people were nibbling finger food and sipping champagne at the October 4 kickoff party for the upcoming “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” Alzheimer’s Association Rita Hayworth Gala. “It’s the shul where Sarah Jessica Parker was married…. Services were led by a Korean who had been adopted by a Jewish family…. The synagogue was founded by German Jews, and [I believe] it’s the oldest synagogue in the city.” Tan continued: “Vera Michaels and Mike Hearn are the co-presidents of the shul. Vera is a survivor from Hungary. Mike is not Jewish, but is co-president. He is the curator of Asian art at the Met… I’ve been to numerous Seders at friends’ homes and even had one Seder at my own house. I went to Dean & DeLuca… told them ‘I want the Seder dinner,’ and they give you everything, the bitter — wasabi peas — the lamb shank, the egg… and a condensed Haggadah.” Tan, currently working on an opera based on her one of her books, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter, added, “I have a little Chinese Haggadah, a replicate of a pamphlet dating back to the Kaifeng [era], which I bring to every Seder I attend.” (Kaifeng, China, was where Jews had settled as early at the ninth century C.E. Remnants of that community existed until the l800s.)
Tan and I first met at a June 1991 Putnam Publishers’ bash at the Four Seasons, when her second book, “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” was published. Referring to her first best-seller, “The Joy Luck Club,” I had mentioned the character Marlene, who suggests to her friend, “Why don’t you tell your mother to shut up?” Marlene’s response is: “I don’t know if it’s explicitly stated in the law, but you can’t ever tell a Chinese mother to shut up. You could be charged as an accessory to your own murder.” I told Tan that I could not imagine a Jewish daughter saying that to her mother. Tan smiled. “Actually, it was a Jewish woman in my writing class who told me to have my character say, ‘Why don’t you tell your mother to shut up.’”
Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, who established the fundraising gala in her mother’s memory 22 years ago, told the partying crowd: “Mother started showing signs of Alzheimer’s in her 50s and died at 69.” To date she has helped raise more than $44 million for the Alzheimer’s Association. Gala auction co-chair Claudia Cohen announced, “You don’t want to go to Kentucky like a schlepper.” She was touting the May 2007 all-expense Kentucky Derby escapade “at the side of [Phyllis George, gala honoree] the former first lady of Kentucky.” The trip will be auctioned off at the November 14 gala. Another auction incentive will be Denise Rich’s offer of four days at her Aspen abode. Potential Derby and Aspen bidders at the party, hosted by Naeem and Ranjana Khan at their contemporary Soho loft, included Francine LeFrak, Bryant Gumbel, Arlene Dahl, Erica Reid, and Margo and John Catsimatidis.”
SINGING PRAISES FOR WASSERSTEIN’S TRANSLATION OF ‘THE MERRY WIDOW’
It remains a mystery how playwright Wendy Wasserstein — who wrangled with issues of family, ethnicity and feminism in such prize-winning plays as “The Heidi Chronicles,” and “An American Daughter” — came to write the “English translation of the dialogue” of Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow.” At the October 5 opening night benefit performance of the Dicapo Opera Theatre’s production of this confection of an operetta, even Wasserstein’s sister, Georgette, Wasserstein and mother, Lola Wasserstein Levis (on whom Wendy Wasserstein had based the character of Gorgeous in “The Sisters Rosenzweig”), could offer no clue. According to the program notes, Mrs. Levis — nee “Lola Schliefer, an amateur dancer” — came here from Poland when “her father was accused of being a spy.” Neither time nor regime was specified. But Levis volunteered, “I spoke Polish when I came here.. .but in America, I had to learn to speak Yiddish.”
The evening’s two honorees included opera stars Elaine Malbin and Martha Eggerth. Malbin, currently the artistic director of the Opera Index Vocal Competition, made her professional debut at 14 and her operatic debut at 17. She was an RCA recording star with such TV credits as “The Voice of Firestone” and the Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Perry Como shows. Budapest-born Eggerth, who has sung the role of “the widow” Anna Glawari more than 2,000 times on Broadway and throughout the United States in the 1940s and ’50s, also appeared in two MGM films with Judy Garland: “For Me and My Gal” and “Presenting Lily Mars.” In 1999, at age 87, Eggerth sang on stage of the Vienna State Opera house to mark the venue’s first production of “The Merry Widow,” a role she continues to perform in “Merry Widow” medleys at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Eggerth — still a knockout at 94 — grasped my hands and patted me on the cheek when I told her that I was a fan not only of hers but also of her late husband and performance partner, Poland’s Jan Kiepura. Special kudos to the opera’s general manager, Michael Capasso — the cast was superb, the costumes and sets lavish, and Maxim’s Can-Can girls deliciously zaftig.
At the post-performance dinner at the New York Athletic Club, I chatted with Rosemary and Brian McAllister, whose family has been towing ships along the East Coast and in New York Harbor since 1864. McAllister mentioned that on November 6, his tugs will help move the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum from its berth at Pier 86 to the Bayonne Drydock for restoration, (hopefully) completed by 2008. My tablemates included Anton Coppola and his wife, Almarinda, a dancer and onetime Radio City Rockette. Coppola, artistic director/conductor of Opera Tampa in Florida, is the uncle of film director Francis Ford Coppola, whose daughter Sofia Coppola, is winning plaudits and spinning heads in the fashion arena with her latest film, “Marie Antoinette”.
I have yet to see the lavishly praised film, but MGM’s 1938 production of “Marie Antoinette” — starring Norma Shearer (as Marie Antoinette), Tyrone Power (as Axel de Fersen) and Joseph Schildkraut (as the Duke of Orleans) — remains indelibly imprinted in my memory banks. In 1940, my parents and I, having fled Nazi-occupied Warsaw, found temporary sanctuary in Vilno, Lithuania. Part of Poland until the1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, which split Poland into German-Russian occupation zones, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviets. Then, for a blink of a historic moment, the Russians retreated and Lithuania was independent and free. On June 15, 1940, my parents took me to see MGM’s “Marie Antoinette.” Too young to fully comprehend the political background of the French Revolution, I was smitten by the film’s spectacle, Shearer’s costumes and luminous performance. When we entered the theater, Lithuania was independent. As we exited the theater, Russian tanks were rolling down Vilno’s cobbled streets.
REAL ESTATE LEADER HELPS KIDS HAVE SWEET DREAMS
At its third annual awards gala, held October 5 at the Club 101, WorkLife Matters Magazine honored Jacky Teplitzky for her commitment to the Pajama Program, a New York-based charity that provides new pajamas to underprivileged boys and girls. Teplitzky is executive vice president of Prudential Douglas Elliman, a residential real estate firm with 3,300 agents, and is an active member of Park Avenue Synagogue, a member of UJA-Federation of New York’s Women’s Executive Circle Real Estate Committee and a lifetime member of Hadassah. With the help of UJA-Federation and Hadassah, she has worked to help expand the Pajama Program — which now reaches children in Siberia, Armenia, Bolivia, China, Greece, Mexico and South Africa — to benefit children in Israel and in the Middle East.
Teplitzky told me that, following an 1880s pogrom in Russia, the family fled to Argentina and then to Chile, where she was born. “My uncle fought in the  Six Day War, and in 1970 my father went to Israel to play soccer in the Maccabiah games. He fell in love with Israel, and then the family followed.” They settled in Ashkelon, six miles from the Gaza border. A recent profile in the New York Daily News’ Real Estate section of Teplitzky — who is ranked in the top one percentile of Manhattan’s nearly 30,000 licensed real estate professionals — shows her holding a rifle from the time she had been a soldier in the Israeli army. “I got a call from a potential client, a rabbi in Brooklyn. Why would he choose a woman broker, I asked. ‘If a woman can clean a rifle, she can represent me’ was his answer.”