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Jerry Stiller: Son Of Sunni, Shi’ite


“My father was a Litvak, my mother a Galitz — one Sunni, the other Shi’ite,” Jerry Stiller told the guests at the Center for Jewish History’s December 6 Board of Overseers and Board of Governors dinner, held in the center’s impressive atrium. Special guest Stiller added: “I was born during the Lindbergh baby abduction. It was the Depression… we shared a Lower East Side tenement bathroom with a red-haired communist. My father, who worked for the [Works Projects Administration] on the Palisades Parkway, used to say, ‘Derharget zol er vern!’ [“He should drop dead!”]. I went to Seward Park High… my early theater work was with the Henry Street Playhouse… I was with the Actors Temple… my first award was for contributions to Jewish culture.” In 1991, at another event, Stiller told me, “You know, I went to the downtown Talmud Torah.”

“I’ve had a lucky career,” he continued at the dinner. “There was ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ with my wife, [Anne Meara].” Apropos his character in “Seinfeld,” he joshed: “How does a family that eats kasha knishes have a name like Costanza? We were a Jewish family in the witness protection program.” While working on the hit TV series “The King of Queens,” Stiller struck his head getting out of a cab. Rushed to New York Presbyterian Hospital, he got an MRI and was reassured that “there’s no brain damage,” but he was warned not to make any decisions during the coming week. “I went to the [Jewish community center], took a shower and went to the pool. ‘Mr. Stiller, don’t you wear trunks?’ I was asked. So much for no brain damage.”

From her table seat, Meara suddenly called out: “Jerry! I can’t see you! Can you stand up straight?” Unphased by Meara’s offstage cue, Stiller cited “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards, best known as the ensemble’s character Kramer. (So unhinged had Richards become at a recent club gig that his rant using the “n” word became the actor’s self-immolation heard ’round the world.) “One of the most gifted people,” Stiller lamented. “He has a dybbuk. His life’s gone down the drain. He was heckled, and he lost it.” Stiller then asked the audience: “Have any of you every been heckled? Anne and I were in a small club doing one of our [Jewish] Heshy and [Irish] Mary Elizabeth Doyle skits. A guy next to me taunted me, ‘Jew! Jew! Jew!’ I ignored him. Anne later scolded me, ‘Why didn’t you say where? Where?”

Here’s a sampling of this “Abie’s Irish Rose” couple’s first meeting. Heshy: “We go to the Catskills.” Mary Elizabeth: “So do we!” Heshy: “We go to Hymie’s kochalayn [bungalows]. Mary Elizabeth: “We go to Hennesy’s Haven near the Shamrock Chalet.”

“We are getting older,” said Bruce Slovin, chairman of the center’s board of governors. The center “is a national Jewish repository; there are agencies whose history would be lost if not for our institution. We go into closets, archives, and clean off mold so history will be rescued…. Philanthropist Eli Broad will fund the rescue of the Yiddish theater archives. [America’s] government has asked the center to save the Iraqi Jewish [community’s] archives.” With great satisfaction, Slovin declared: “The younger group is now where we were 25 years ago. They are picking up [the burden] and continuing the nurturing.” Comprising five partner institutions — The American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research — the center boasts 500,000 volumes and 100 million archival documents. It is the largest repository of modern Jewish experience outside of Israel.

During my post-dinner chat with Meara about how often she and Stiller had been in this column, Meara gave me a rib-crushing hug and joshed “Don’t k–k around with me!” I responded with Litvak umbrage: “Though I speak Yiddish, I never use language like that!” Meara put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Well, I do!” Then, in what can best be described as one-upmanship vis-à-vis her familiarity with Yiddish theater, she looked me straight in the eyes and, with a smile, said: “I want you to know, I knew them all! [The Yiddish actors]… you name them… Luba Kadison… all of them!” Never mess with Mary Elizabeth Doyle, aka Anne Meara.


“Since I am a [white-collar] criminal lawyer, let me tell you a criminal lawyer story,” said Benjamin Brafman in his seventh stint as emcee at the Israel Cancer Research Fund’s December 3 “Celebration of Life-Tower of Hope” ball. “But first,” Brafman told the 300 guests at The Pierre, “there are people in this room today alive because of the work of scientists funded by ICRF…. My wife is a cancer survivor. She is here tonight because of the brilliant work of Dr. Yashar Hirshaut, president of ICRF.”

Brafman recounted: “From time to time I take a little bit of a detour and I’ll represent a Puff Daddy [now known as Sean ‘P. Diddy” Combs] or a notorious individual.” (He was also on the Michael Jackson legal team for a short time.) “One day,” he continued, “I was asked to come to prison to meet John Gotti. I can tell that story because he’s dead,” Brafman said, chuckling. “Mr. Gotti was in preparation for his final trial. His lawyer had been disqualified, and I was known in the city as the expert dealing with government wiretaps and how to defeat them… how to win cases despite incriminating evidence on tape…. ‘I hear you’re good with tapes,’ Gotti told me. ‘Take these tapes home, listen to them, and come back and see me tomorrow.’” According to Brafman, the tapes were “devastating… secretly recorded by the FBI, had open, notorious discussions about every crime you could possibly imagine, including hideous dismemberments and murders… with 30 years of experience, I’ve never heard worse tapes…. The next day, it’s me and John Gotti in a glass room the size of this podium. He says to me, ‘Did you listen to the tapes?’ I said I did. ‘What kind of jurors do you think we should get?’ And I said, ‘Try and get deaf people.’”

Brafman, whom Combs once serenaded with a hip-hop version of “Mayn Yidisher Tate” — “My Jewish Daddy” — who “protected me as a father would” after Brafman won an acquittal of all charges, and whom he invited to his home for Shabbos dinner, recently chalked up another mitzvah on his docket. Last October, Brafman read in The New York Times about 47-year-old Antonio Provenzano, whose newly acquired 20-year-old horse, Juliet, collapsed after being hitched to his green carriage at 59th Street at Central Park. Not only did Provenzano lose his horse and pile up unpaid veterinary bills and stable rent, but he also lost his livelihood. There were some small donations plus two substantial sums: $3,000 from Michael Mason, a psychologist, and $2,000 from Brafman. Provenzano found a replacement horse, a 10-year-old Belgian gelding for $3,800, and named him Benny Mason (Benny for Brafman, and Mason for the psychologist). He had him shod with special nickel-plated shoes for asphalt and burned into the horse’s front left hoof the number 3122, the gelding’s New York City registration number. Too modest to toot his own horn, I had to refer to Corey Kilgannon’s October 9 Times article, “‘It Was Love at First Sight,’ and So, Before Long, Benny Mason Got Hitched,” for some of the aforementioned details and Brafman’s quotes: “These carriage horses in Central Park are an integral part of the city, and I wondered, ‘Who are these people who drive these horses?… I can write a check and restore this man’s entire livelihood. Besides, how many Orthodox Jewish criminal defense lawyers in New York have a carriage horse in Central Park named after them?” Wonder what kind of story Isaac Bashevis Singer would have woven out of this?

Back at the ICRF dinner, Ben acknowledged cancer survivor Geralyn Lucas, author of “Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy” (St. Martin’s Press, 2004); Leah Suskind, aka “Mrs. ICRF,” who has been instrumental in the establishment of the ICRF Donor Recognition Park in Tel Aviv; Dr. Peter Stambrook, chairman of the International Scientific Council and Scientific Review Panels, ICRF; Dr. Frank Rauscher, associate director of the Cancer Institute at Wistar Institute Cancer Center in Philadelphia and editor-in-chief of Cancer Research, and recipients of the 2006 Daniel G. Miller Excellence in Medicine Award, Dr. Nancy Ellen Kemeny, attending physician of the Gastrointestinal Oncology Service, Division of Solid Tumor Oncology at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and her husband, Dr. Daniel Libby, clinical professor of medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York. Hirshaut’s concluding remarks emphasized that “[the work of] ICRF translates into real lives saved, real tragedies averted. Joy for parents, joy for children, joy for future generations.”


There is little I can add to what has been written in remembrance of Jerusalem’s beloved five-term mayor Teddy Kollek, who died January 2 at 95. Over the years we had exchanged pleasantries at Israeli functions. But what I remember clearly is the May l, 1990, opening night of the Israel Film Festival (at which the guest of honor was Israel’s consul general to New York, Uriel Savir). That evening Kollek was touted for his book, “My Jerusalem: Twelve Walks in the World’s Holiest City” (Summit Books, 1990), and as television camera crews angled for position, Kollek traded compliments with Ed Koch, urging New York City’s former mayor to become “a movie star.” Koch replied, “I am always available for cameo roles.” Not one to be at a loss vis-à-vis reciprocal compliments, Koch declared Kollek “the sexiest man in Israel.”


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