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Birthday Bash

“There was so much love in that room, it was overwhelming,” gushed Ruth Gruber, marveling at “all those people coming out at 8:30 in the morning to help celebrate my 95th birthday.” Held at My Most Favorite Dessert Company on West 45th Street, the September 29 simcha was hosted by Doris Schechter, Favorite Dessert founder and one of the 1,000 refugees whom Gruber, as assistant to then secretary of the interior Harold L. Ickes, helped bring from Italy in 1944 to sanctuary to Oswego, N.Y. The well-wishers included David Marwell, Pati Kenner, Vera Stern, Fanya Heller, Alice Ginott — and 100-year-old, still working journalist, Rhea Tauber, whose husband, Abe Tauber, had been the Red Cross liaison aboard the army transport vessel Henry Gibbons, which carried Gruber and her 1,000 charges to the United States. Gruber just completed her 19th book, “Witness: My Whole Life Through My Photographs,” due in April 2007 (Schocken Books). Her other books include: “Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent,” “Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation” and “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America.”

Slightly older by just a few months, 95-er Bel Kaufman dedicated a poem to Gruber which included the following verse:

A learned scholar, Ph.D, fearless seeker after truth Renowned from sea to shining sea, a brilliant writer — that’s our Ruth I think that all her vim and verve has got to be just Jewish nerve I wish her joys aplenty and blessings by the score Till she’s 120 and I four months more.

As the party was breaking up, Schechter asked Kaufman (author of “Up the Down Staircase” and renowned for her weekly tango dancing sessions), “Bel, are you still dancing?” Without missing a beat, Kaufman replied, “Are you still breathing?”

When I asked John Catsimatidis, award recipient at the September 18 Appeal of Conscience Foundation dinner at the Marriott Marquis: “How do you say mazel tov in Greek?” he smiled and answered: “It’s congratulations.” His support for charitable and public service organizations extends beyond the Greek-American community. Catsimatidis rose from immigrant beginnings to become chairman and CEO of the Red Apple Group — a company with holdings in oil refining, retail petroleum products, supermarkets, convenience stores, real estate and aviation.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns, apologized that President Bush, the dinner’s honorary chair, was unable to attend. Touting the need to establish trust and respect among all religious [groups] around the world,” Burns warmly praised Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil, the recipient of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation’s World Statesman Award. “Brazil is much like the United States of America… [it] sets a good example [of] people from diverse background living side-by-side,” said Burns.

Extolling the evening’s honorees — da Silva, Catsimatidis and Bonnie McElveen-Hunter (chairman of the American Red Cross) — as “bridge builders,” foundation president, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, senior rabbi of the Park East Synagogue, declared: “We’re literally walking on eggs… [And] though we speak of globalization, we’ve become more Balkanized…. Look at this dais. We’re not at war. We are any religious leaders who reach out to those… who want to polarize this world. We are interested in building bridges because we live on the same planet… Religion can be abused or misused like fire… [but] if properly used, is a force for peace and understanding…. I want this evening to be an evening of hope.”

President da Silva, one of eight children who did not learn to read or write until the age of 10, did not graduate from high school. But, said Rabbi Schneier, “[he] is an honorary graduate of the [existentialist] University of Life.” Rising through the ranks of the trade union movement, he founded the Workers’ Party in 1980. With the help of a translator, he spoke of his commitment to human rights. “Our fate cannot be separated from the fate of the rest of the community…. We live side-by-side with our 10 neighbors. Democracy, diplomacy is always our option. We reject violence.” Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, presented the award to “President Lula” on behalf of New York’s Governor George Pataki.

Last week, at another event, I chatted with Catsimatidis about da Silva’s problems in the recent Brazilian elections. “He’s got lots of tzores, he said.

“Now that has the sound of an authentic Greek word,” was my response.

Intrigue and murder were also on the menu at the September 21 Harmonie Club luncheon of the National Women’s Division of the New York Chapter of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. The non-gastronomic trivia was provided by Marlene Barasch Strauss, an art historian and featured lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institute and the Art Institute of Chicago. Strauss, currently working on a book titled, “Kings, Queens and Courtesans — Great Art Inspired by Great Passion,” delighted the more than 100 guests with chuckle-eliciting historic nibbles that came under the heading of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in Ancient Rome.”

For example: It appears that being addicted to the dernier cri — the absolute latest — in fashion was as prevalent in Rome as it is today. Women had wigs made from the blond hair of slaves, and hairstyles changed so quickly that it was said in the morning a man might not recognize the lady from the night before.

Strauss told of Livia, who as the wife of Caesar Augustus accumulated a retinue of 1,000 slaves. Though pregnant, she had divorced her husband to marry Caesar Augustus — that touter of family values and morality. He insisted that her about-to-be ex-husband give her away in marriage “as if he were her father.”

Nero tried to drown, crush and poison his mother, Julia Agrippina, many times. He sank her in a boat, but she swam back to shore; tried to collapse the ceiling above her bed — still she survived; tried to kill her with arsenic, but she was immune having been exposed to it when she tried to poison Claudius.

Which reminded me that in one of the episodes of the PBS series “I Claudius,” Herod, who had grown up with the disabled Claudius (whom he called “little marmoset”), once warned the adult Claudius to “trust no one.” Alas Claudius did not heed Herod’s warning.

At a kickoff reception for the upcoming Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Double Helix Medals Dinner (at which boxing legend Muhammad Ali will be one of the honorees), the laboratory’s president, Bruce Stillman, and its chancellor, James Watson, made the complicated vocabulary of genetic research accessible to a select gathering at Doubles. Among the guests: Donald and Barbara Tober, Howard and Sandra Tytel, Deborah Norville, Elizabeth Watson, Audrey Gruss and Susan Herschorn.

With humorous asides, Watson, Nobel Prize winner in 1962 for Physiology or Medicine, and one of the four discoverers of the structure of the DNA molecule, expounded on the research work being done at the laboratory. It has been in existence since 1890, is home to seven Nobel Prize winners and is one of the first institutions in the world to specialize in genetic research. Stillman noted, “We are rated No.1 in the nation,” focusing on the causes of cancer as well as neurological disorders like autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“It could cost $10 million to genetically sequence the first person,” Watson said. “But eventually the cost will escalate down to $100,000 then $1,000. We will get to the point where we will be able to read every cancer.”

Commenting on autism, Watson stated: “Autism seems to be [more] prevalent among boys — ten to one — and [also] among mathematicians…. [Child psychologist] Bruno Bettelheim had blamed cold mothers for causing autism.” I’m not sure if he was serious or joshing, but with a broad smile Watson cautioned: “If you want to see autism… just go to the Cambridge math department.” He added: “If you have a smart daughter, don’t send her to M.I.T. [where she might end up marrying another mathematician] — instead send her to Harvard.”

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