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Swaths of Color at Brain Trauma Gala


It was glitz, pageantry and royalty in service of lifesaving at the March 7 Royal Rajasthan Gala to benefit the Brain Trauma Foundation. With sitar players and drummers providing background music, the event’s general chairman, His Highness Maharaja Gajsingh II of Marwar-Jodhpur, in a fuchsia silk turban, mingled with the guests at The Hotel Pierre. The festively dressed crowd — some women in bejeweled saris, men in black tie or Nehru jackets — included event sponsors Elihu and Susan Rose, Lee and Marvin Traub, Bernadette Peters, Sigourney Weaver, George Soros (BTF board member) and his sari-clad companion, Sandra Navidi.

In February 2005, the maharajah’s son, Shivraj Singh, suffered a serious head injury while playing polo in India. Dr. Jamshid Ghajar, a neurosurgeon at Cornell/Weill University and president of BTF in New York, was brought in to consult on the prince’s treatment in India. At the dinner, the Maharajah thanked all on behalf of “those who will benefit from your generosity in the future,” adding, “[BTF] put Shivraj back on his feet again. When he went into his coma, [he was put] under the care of the Mount Sinai team. Shivraj is back on his feet again. [The reason that] he is not here [is] because he is presiding over the star-studded wedding of Liz Hurley and Arun Nayar in India.” His son’s injury was the catalyst for the maharaja to help found the India Head Injury Foundation, an India-wide trauma system, because, it was noted, India has the leading incidence of traumatic brain injury in the world, yet no meaningful trauma treatment system.

In the United States, there are 2 million traumatic brain injuries a year. This form of injury is the leading cause of death and disability in children and young adults, mainly from car crashes, falls and sports. Board member Elizabeth H. van Merkensteijn said: “This foundation is the only foundation in the world to improve outcomes — no matter where you are…. TBI is the leading cause of death under 45, eight times that of breast cancer, 34 times HIV…. Fifty thousand will die annually.” The foundation’s guidelines have been used throughout the United States, throughout our armed forces — including those in Iraq — to save thousands of lives.

Dinner was a departure from the usual roast chicken and/or steak, and included Tandoori chicken, Basmati rice, Beluga lentil dahl, curried eggplant, cauliflower and peas and papadum (a hard lentil cracker). The over-the-top live auction was led by professional auctioneer Hugh Hildesley, whose daughter suffered a brain trauma injury but, thanks to BTF guidelines, and to getting the right care in New York, is now an adjunct professor. Opening with a gown by Naeem Khan (who dressed princess Yasmin Khan— no relation), valued at $5,000, the auction continued with a spectacular 15-day tour of India that was valued at $20,000; an eight-day trip as guest of the maharaja at one of his palaces that was valued as “priceless,” as well as an over-the-top six-day stay with 13 friends or family members at Ahilya Fort in Indore, estimated value $33,000. The auction raised $ 1 million. It’s also likely that it was BTF guidelines that contributed to saving the life of a friend of ours who suffered serious head injury after falling down a flight of stairs at a New York City restaurant. And that’s why I could agree when Prince Richard Hokar of Indore said that evening, “The delivery of important care… when we have loved ones who are affected by the most complex, traumatic and debilitating form of injury, [is] enormously complex for the caregiver.”


For me, 5767/2007 was a triple-header dayenu year. In addition to a family Seder the first night of Passover, I participated in the New York Chapter American Jewish Committee’s March 20 annual Diplomatic Model Seder attended by representatives from 85 countries, as well as the March 25 Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring 74th Gala Cultural Seder. Coincidentally, both festivities took place in the architecturally exquisite sanctuary of the Upper West Side’s Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun, above whose bimah hung a banner proclaiming “A Call to Your Conscience —Save Darfur!”

“We like to eat,” joshed B’Nai Jeshurun’s Argentine-born rabbi, Marcello Bronstein, addressing consuls and ambassadors of nations as far-ranging as Zambia, Bhutan, Uzbekistan, South Korea and Nauru — most of whom had little familiarity with the Seder, if any. “Life is a balance between joy and sadness,” continued Bronstein, who made a point of differentiating between modern-day Egypt — whose diplomats were present — and the Seder’s biblical “Egypt,” which he defined as “mitzrayim — ”a place of constraint and slavery.” The Seder was co-led by Rabbi Rachel Cowan of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Cowan, who grew up in a Unitarian family in Boston and traces her lineage to the “Mayflower,” converted to Judaism. With her late husband, writer Paul Cowan, she co-authored “Mixed Blessings: Untangling the Knots in an Interfaith Marriage” and “A Torah Is Written.” (The Forward has included her twice in its Forward 50 issue.)

Though led by the two rabbis, AJCommittee members dispersed at tables around the room helped explain the symbolism of the Seder plate to the diplomats in both the historic and universal context. At my table I was surrounded by a very witty Nirupam Sem, India’s permanent ambassador to the United Nations, and by Japan’s consul general in New York, Motoatsu Sakurai, and his wife, Nobuko. I had met the couple previously on several occasions — one being the annual birthday bash for Japan’s Emperor, which they hosted. Nobuko Sakurai, a Christian who told me she was familiar with “the story of the Exodus,” found the minutiae of the Seder meaningful yet fascinating. By Seder’s end, the discussion around the table was neither about Passover, world events nor politics but the vagaries of New York City apartment rentals and children’s college admission angst. Cantor Ari Priven, backed up by an instrumental ensemble performed traditional Passover works and songs — in various styles — and led the assemblage in an energetic dayenu chorus. Also contributing to the Seder’s success were AJCommittee’s New York Chapter’s president, Barry Alperin, its director of International Relations Linda Senat, and Marion Stolz-Loike, chair, AJCommittee diplomatic outreach. The Seder’s program’s booklet design was modeled on the 1896 Prato Haggadah from The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary and each guest was given a copy of the beautifully illustrated (by Jeffrey Shrier) annotated Reconstructionist Haggadah, “A Night of Questions,” edited by Rabbi Joy Levitt and Rabbi Michael Strassfeld (2000).

It was Gut Yontef! time at the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring Seder — a celebration led by neither rabbi nor cantor but with audience participation augmented by the W.C. Chorus, The New Yiddish Chorale and a roster of soloists.

Led by Zalmen Mlotek, who’s the W.C.’s director of arts programming and the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene’s director, and Adrienne Cooper, the W.C.’s executive officer for external affairs, the event’s participants included artists Joanne Borts and Shifra Lerer; Jewish Currents editor Larry Bush; Forward Association executive director Sam Norich; Fani Jacobson, a past W.C. vice president, and W.C. president Peter Pepper. To top it all off — the delicious you-want-to-give-them-a-hug or, as they say in Yiddish, a knip in bekl (a pinch of the cheek) children of the W.C. Yiddish schools.

The Seder’s universal theme was highlighted by the evening’s honoree, Roman Kent, a Holocaust survivor, active philanthropist, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, recipient of the Elie Wiesel Holocaust Remembrance Award and the Medal of Honor presented to him by the Polish Government. Kent stressed: “We Jews are the people of memory — from the most secular to the most pious… but although Jewish memory has served the Jewish people well, it has never been concerned with Jews alone…. So we who remember, cannot allow other genocides to go unnoticed and the cries of children to go unheeded…. We must re-tell the story of slavery and the liberation in order for future generations to comprehend our Jewish past…. We have to raise our voices again and again, shouting ‘Never again!’ to us or to any other peoples.”

The Ma Nishtano/Why is this night different?” Four Questions was a trilingual highlight with the W.C. school children asking the questions in Hebrew and Yiddish and the answers given in Yiddish and English! In song and poetry, historic landmark Seders were recalled: The song Zog Maran, “Tell Me Marrano” recounts Seders celebrated in caves in hiding during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. In tribute to the [Passover] April 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto “when the Jews rose up against the implacable enemy in armed resistance” actress Mina Bern declaimed in Yiddish “In Varshever Geto Iz Haynt Hoydesh Nisn. (“Today it is the month of Nisn in the Warsaw Ghetto… the Seder is celebrated with) wine made of water, the matzo from bran as we recite again the old miracles that worked for us once in Egypt.”).

Though the W.C. Seder follows the traditional order of the hagode — how it is spelled in the W.C.’s beautifully illustrated English-Yiddish and transliterated Seder program — participants cited not only the traditional elements from the biblical/ historic exodus, but also recalled the March 12, 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory as well as currently ongoing injustices. Said one Seder participant: “Experiencing our own passage from slavery to freedom, we think of those still oppressed today. Next year may all who are unjustly deprived of freedom be liberated.” Said another, “At this Seder, we dedicate ourselves to liberation from the tyranny of poverty, the tyranny of war, the tyranny of ignorance, the tyranny of hate.” Between singing “dayenu” and “Eliohu hanovi (Elijah the Prophet), the delicious meal was enhanced by four — maybe five — cups of wine. L’chaim!

Not to be missed: “The World Was Ours” a tribute to Vilna by Mira Jedwabnick van Doren, airs 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 14, on PBS (Channel 13 in New York). A labor of love, it is one of the finest documentary tributes to a people, a city and a culture that is no more but whose heritage continues to enrich us all.

And, may I add, this reporter is one of the film’s “talking heads.”


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