NO LONGER “FLOATING LIKE A BUTTERFLY,” ALI IS STILL “THE GREATEST”
“I’ve heard a new sexy phrase tonight: I want to sequence you ,” joshed Deborah Norville at the November 9 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Inaugural Double Helix Medals dinner, held at New York’s Mandarin Oriental. She was alluding to the laboratory’s chancellor, James Watson , co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. “Jim, lots of us will line up for any sequencing you want to do,” said “Inside Edition” host Norville, presenter of the Double Helix Award to “fellow Kentuckian” Dr. Philip Sharp . He discovered the mechanism for RNA splicing, which earned him the 1993 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
“I grew up in a happy household,” Watson told the 500-strong black-tie crowd. No one talked about disease, only enemies — Hitler and the Depression. At 19, an uncle was diagnosed with melanoma…. My ambition in life [became] to cure cancer…. The genome project will make it practical to diagnose every cancer… [and] instead of going to a psychiatrist, you will be able to check the DNA for ADD.” Referring to Humanitarian Award recipient Muhammad Ali , Watson said: “I told [his] wife [Lonnie] I’d like to sequence him… why he got Parkinson’s.” Assisted by his wife, a dignified, muted Ali mounted the dais, where he sat near her as she delivered a heartfelt plea for support for research to help “rid the world of Parkinson’s disease.” Meredith Vieira , co-host of NBC’s “Today” and host of the syndicated “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” cited the former world heavyweight champion’s signature phrase: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee;” she then presented “the most recognized person in the world” with the “first ever” Double Helix medal for Humanitarianism.
So imprinted into the national psyche are such Ali quips as “Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla’ in Manila,” that in the opening scene of the 1999 Jewish Repertory Theatre’s production of Arje Shaw ’s “The Gathering,” Holocaust survivor Gabe ( Theodore Bikel ) greets his grandson Michael ( Jesse Adam Eisenberg ) with their hero Ali’s signature proclamation. I first met Ali in the 1960s at Chicago’s Palmer House, at which time he signed my dinner menu with a flourish. In April 1998, Ali was honored by Givat Haviva at New York’s Sheraton Hotel along with Thomas Hauser , author of “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.” Dinner attendees included Anwar Sadat’s daughter, Camilla Sadat , and Hank Greenberg’s son, Stephen Greenberg . Emcee Dick Schaap recalled driving through Kentucky with Ali, “then known as X .” He recalled Ali’s dismay when, stopped at a light, Schaap had stared at a pretty blond girl. “You crazy man, a Jew looking at a white girl in Kentucky can get you electrocuted for that!” At the Givat Haviva evening, Ali was moderately articulate yet still able to handle a pen to autograph my copy of Hauser’s book. In 2001, when United Cerebral Palsy honored Ali at a dinner at the Marriott Marquis, Ali had waxed philosophical: “I am 59 years old. Next year I will be 60. Yesterday I was 22. What is more important than fame and glory is to do the right thing.” At the Double Helix dinner, Lonnie Ali hovered lovingly at the side of “the greatest.” (During the December 3 Museum of the Moving Image tribute to Will Smith , who portrayed the boxer in the 2001 film “Ali,” I asked the honoree what impact the role of Ali had on him. “Ali changed my life forever,” Smith said. “To walk in his shoes has inspired me to become a better man.” More about the Smith tribute will appear in a future column.)
The Double Helix medal for corporate leadership was presented to Suzanne and Bob Wright , co-founders of Autism Speaks. When their grandson was diagnosed with autism, Bob Wright — chairman and CEO of NBC Universal and vice chairman and executive officer of General Electric Company — and his wife mobilized the largest foundation for research of autism in the United States. The Wrights cited the catastrophic impact on a family whose twin sons were “each diagnosed with autism — one at 15, the other at 18 1/2.” After informing the audience that the odds for a child to be in a fatal car accident are one in 23,000 but the odds for autism are one in 166, Suzanne Wright justifiably labeled this “a secret epidemic” whose devastating family fallout often includes divorce. This disease recently received national visibility as the cover story of the November 27 issue of Newsweek. And in the science section of the December 4 issue of Time, headed “Fathers,” it notes: “A very large study of fathers in Israel found that the risk of autism among children is up to six times greater when the father is 40 or older, as opposed to when he is 29 or younger.” The mother’s age was not relevant.
Emcee Phil Donahue elicited chuckles with the revelation, “When I said, ‘I do’ [to Marlo Thomas ], I married a hospital” — a reference to father-in-law Danny Thomas’s life-long devotion to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. “All of you here helped raise $2.5 million” for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Donahue declared. Among the guests was NBC TV CEO Jeff Zucker , a Forward-reader.
“THE WORLD WAS OURS” — A DOCUMENTARY LOVE LETTER TO VILNA
After 15 years of research, travel and tender loving commitment, Mira Jedwabnik Van Doren ’s premiered her documentary film tribute to her birth city, Vilna, at New York’s Center for Jewish History. Titled “The World Was Ours,” the film premiered November 7. “More than any other Jewish community in Eastern Europe, Vilna was commonly recognized as the capital of Eastern European Jewry,” Carl Rheins , executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, told the overflow crowd (extra chairs had to be set up in the center’s atrium). “It was certainly the pre-eminent center of Yiddish cultural and intellectual life — and the birthplace of the YIVO Institute.”
The film focuses on the vibrant, multifaceted, political, religious and social sectors of Vilna’s 70,000 pre-World War II Jews. Unlike their counterparts in Warsaw, the intelligentsia in Vilna spoke Yiddish. As you watch the extraordinary archival film clips, stills and “talking heads” (this columnist included), you cannot help but experience angst, anger and painful regret at what was so brutally lost. Yet, despite the known fate of Vilna’s Jews, Van Doren presents the city’s prewar glory as an uplifting, joyous ode to the creativity and resilience of a community that traced its roots in Vilna back to the 1300s, where by the 1500s Jews had full rights. According to legend, when Napoleon passed through Vilna he labeled it “The Jerusalem of Lithuania.” The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720-1797) defied tradition and encouraged Jews to study secular subjects. The film touts the good — 25% of Vilna’s university student body was Jewish — and the bad, a horrific 1919 pogrom. The film also underscores that while Vilna’s Jews, trapped in the ghetto, were being decimated by hunger, illness and execution, there was a remarkable resilience and resistance: The library remained open seven days a week; there were concerts, lectures and plays that even some high-ranking Nazis attended!
The film’s advisory committee included, among others, late Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz and Yitzhak Arad , retired brigadier general and chairman of the board of Yad Vashem. The post-screening discussion included Van Doren (who had left Vilna at the age of 10); Vilna-born Benjamin Harshav , Jacob and Hilda Blaustein professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Yale University; Vilna-born William Begel , president of Begell House, Inc., publishers, and, also from Vilna, Samuel Bak , an internationally recognized painter who post-liberation fashioned a visual testimony to a world that was shattered.
Though born in Warsaw, I consider Vilna my second “birth” city. Following the trauma of Warsaw’s bombardment and the city’s occupation by the Germans, my mother and I reached Vilna in 1940 where we were reunited with my father. For a brief moment in 1940-1941, Vilna offered a haven and Yiddishkeit . In my mind I can still walk the streets of Vilna, smell the spring blossoms on the chestnut trees that lined Slowackiego en route to the YIVO where my father worked, almost taste the Realgymnazium’s blended attar of ink, wood and hard-boiled eggs. People find it hard to believe that Vilna schools taught foreign languages, mathematics, science, literature and other academic subjects in Yiddish! Shortly after arriving in Vilna, I celebrated a birthday. In a photograph taken that day, sitting at the party table is Bialystok-born 7-year old Leo Melamed (ne Leybl Melamdovitch), who is currently chairman emeritus of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Of the 23 children in the photo, Leo and I, along with three others, are the only survivors; the rest perished after the June 1941 occupation by the Nazis.
In a clip in Van Doren’s film, I recount my parents and I going in to see the movie “Marie Antoinette” staring Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power. (Van Doren would not tell me how she managed to get an original poster of that 1938 film, which she includes in the documentary). When we entered the theater, the Lithuanians were in power. When we came out, Russian tanks were rolling down the streets and people were rushing about carrying loaves of bread, sacks of potatoes, onions, etc. Hoarding had begun. Were it not for a visa to Japan that my mother was able to obtain from the Japanese consul general, Chiune Sugihara, we most likely would have ended up in the slaughter pits in Ponary forest outside Vilna.
When it comes to wide-arc documentaries about Jewish life in pre-1939 Poland, Josh Waletzky ’s l980 opus, “Image Before My Eyes,” is, according to Forward publisher Samuel Norich , “the gold standard.” Van Doren’s documentary love letter to a single city — Vilna — warrants similar accolades.