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From ‘Rags’ to Riches


The musical “Rags,” with a book by Joseph Stein, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, closed shortly after I saw it August 23, 1986. In my Forward tribute to this work about the Jewish immigrant experience, I wrote that the audience kept shouting “Keep ‘Rags’ open! Keep ‘Rags’ open!” and 1,000 protesters, including the musical’s klezmer band, protested vainly on the streets. I expressed my “condolences” to Stein and Strouse in person — but not to Schwartz. I finally got to applaud Schwartz at the annual award and induction ceremony of the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 18. SHOF inductee Schwartz performed his song “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked” and told the 1,000 guests, “That’s what we’re all doing tonight.”

From the Heart: ASCAP head Paul Williams praises songwriting. Image by KAREN LEON

“This marks our 40th anniversary,” SHOF chairman Hal David said. “The inductees have impacted on popular music in a major way… [playing] a more important role when times get tough.” Paul Williams, president and chairman of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (better known as ASCAP), declared: “For those of us in the business… songwriting is the heart that pumps the blood…. First there is the blank page, [or] as Sammy Cahn said, ‘First comes the phone call’ and maybe you are lucky enough to have ended a relationship.” In an impassioned plea, Williams addressed the issue of illegal downloading of music. “There are people who would never steal a CD in a store, but will download illegally…. We represent struggling songwriters.”

Master of ceremonies Bruce Morrow (aka “Cousin Brucie”) joshed, “I feel like I’m at my relatives’ homes.” Jason Mraz, recipient of the Hal David Starlight Award, which is given to “gifted songwriters who are making a significant impact on the music industry,” performed his hit, “I’m Yours,” and, after thanking the audience, said: “It is our responsibility to touch, move and inspire people.”


“Death in Love,” Boaz Yakin’s stomach-churning film, opens with a Jewish teenager (Emma Bell) seducing a Dr. Mengele-genre Nazi doctor whose passion — experimenting on live victims — is a fate she manages to avoid. Flash forward: We meet her in America as the middle-aged, still stunning Jacqueline Bisset, a French-born, Yiddish-speaking, food-hyping mother whose two sons, the older one (Josh Lucas) a con artist, and his younger brother (Lucas Haas) an obsessive-compulsive pianist, are emotional wrecks. We are asked to believe that the cause of their dysfunction is their mother’s intermittent irrational behavior, which is a result of her wartime history — details of which they may or may not know. Auto-erotic and sado-masochistic episodes alternate with mundane-cum-philosophical banter about the emptiness of life, the aging of man, religion as a con, and Jews and money. I tend to be kind to Holocaust-related films, even inferior ones. But the abusive encounters of Lucas and his female boss, the brothers’ masturbation and repeated cameos of the male derriere punctuate a film so devoid of any kind of love that it belies half of the film’s title.

The press kit credits Yakin with the insight that “the film is to him not a movie just about the Holocaust; it is about how inherited trauma and pain can affect our present without our even truly being aware of what occurred before we were born.” You need not be a child of Holocaust survivors to grow up in a pathologically charged household. And if this is a film about inherited trauma, why the storyline of Bisset picking up with the murderous Nazi doctor who unexpectedly reappears in her life more than halfway in the film and begins murdering her male admirers? Yakin also admits to “trying to process years of personal and familial depression” by writing a screenplay that, as he puts it in his press interview, “would make me uncomfortable every day that I was writing it.” If Yakin intended for the film to be personal therapy by way of transferring his internal torment onto the movie’s viewers, he very well may have succeeded.

Eva Fogelman, who has seen Yakin’s film and is a daughter of Holocaust survivors and an expert on the psychological impact of historical trauma, told me: “There is a tendency to make a film about Holocaust survivors and children of Holocaust survivors that stereotype them as emotionally disturbed individuals…. The reality is that most Holocaust survivors and children of Holocaust survivors have been able to adapt and live lives that are productive, that are life-enhancing rather than focus on death.” In contrast, the only authentic Jewish content in Yakin’s film deals with death and how the bodies of his mother’s murdered friends are tenderly prepared for ritual burial.

BALLET ON MENU AT YESHIVA UNIVERSITY WOMEN’S ORGANIZATION LUNCHEON The announcement that 11 members of the New York City Ballet had been fired as part of the company’s belt-tightening was as painful as a muscle tear. Some of these dancers, barely in their 20s, may have performed with the corps de ballet in the June 24 performance of “Swan Lake” — the special treat of the Yeshiva University Women’s Organization Spring Luncheon and Ballet Benefit that took place on the Grand Tier of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.

Standing in for Yeshiva University President Richard Joel, Chancellor Norman Lamm joshed that the organization, celebrating its 85th year, “is even older than I am.” He then presented the Generation to Generation Award to Magda Reichner, her daughter Renee Rubinstein and her granddaughter Hadassah Rubinstein. Magda Dundi, an Auschwitz survivor born in Czechoslovakia, married Oscar Reichner, a survivor from Bratislava. They have two daughters, seven grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren!

The Arts and Cultural Award was presented to Sylvia Axelrod Herskowitz, who retired earlier this year after serving since 1976 as director of the Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History. In her greetings, **Dinah Pinczower, national chairman of the board, noted that YUWO contributed more than $270,000 to the university this past year. She said that in addition to sustaining “our Torah Chesed program, we established a scholarship in Holocaust studies at the university’s Bernard Revel Graduate School.”

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