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A Yiddish Fête


The October 8 New York Police & Fire Widows’ & Children’s Benefit Fund at the New York Hilton was a historic moment. For the first time, four New York City mayors —Michael Bloomberg, Rudolph Giuliani, David Dinkins and Ed Koch —were recognized by a single cause. “I never pass a cop on the corner without stopping to say thanks for keeping us safe,” Bloomberg said. “We [mayors] are all in step when it comes to supporting widows and orphans… I take those midnight calls…. We live in the safest large city in America, and as long as I am mayor, I will make sure [we get] the best equipment and support to help keep us safe. The firefighters and police put their lives on the line, like men in the Army…. They are the first preventers as well as the first responders. They run into danger, when most of us run away.” Via video, Giuliani stated: “After 9/11, the city realized the importance of what the police and firefighters do for us…. We need to give support to their families [so that] they do not feel they are alone. This is the way you pay back those who help keep us safe.” Crediting Giuliani for “my premature return to civilian life,” Dinkins said, “Service to others is the rent we pay while on earth.” The event chairman, retired Major Leaguer Daniel “Rusty” Staub, joshed that Koch “was our mayor for 12 years. I think Mike [Bloomberg] likes that.” Cane in hand, Koch declared: “We [mayors] are a ‘Band of Brothers.’ I recently had a quadruple bypass. I was close to death I understand loss of life…. I recently had to visit a widowed spouse and was overwhelmed by tears. You want to comfort them. While you are crying, they comfort you.”

Supporting a Cause: Mayors Dinkins, left, and Koch at the New York Police and Fire Widows? & Children?s benefit. Image by KAREN LEON

New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly touted outgoing fire commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta for his service to the city. It was noted that since its inception 24 years ago, the fund has raised $140 million to support 700 widows and children. The nearly 800 guests in the hotel’s ballroom were treated to a presentation of the colors by the New York Fire Department honor guard and Drum and Pipe Band. Firefighter Regina Wilson sang the national anthem. The invocation was by the Rev. Daniel Murphy, and the benediction was by Rabbi Alvin Kass.


“Every morning, my grandmother Fanny Geller would give me 3 cents to buy her a Forward,” Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York, told me at the October 21 fifth annual cabaret benefit of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, held at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. I mentioned my Forward provenance and told him that I am a CUNY (in order: City College of New York, Hunter College, Queens College) graduate, as are my three daughters (Queens College).

“We lived at 23 East 9th Street, near Avenues C and D, and we shopped from pushcarts,” said Goldstein, recipient of the Folksbiene’s Public Education and Heritage Award. Accepting the award, the CUNY graduate, who co-authored books in mathematics and statistics, declared, “I feel humbled and privileged to inaugurate the new home for the Folksbiene [at Baruch College],” and expressed, “gratitude to the 500,000 students and 38,000 employees who help keep the [CUNY] system at its high level.”

Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Dr. Barnett Zumoff, professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and adjunct professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and NYU School of Medicine, recalled, “Like every other Jewish child in New York, I began by [having] the Yiddish theater as part of my childhood. My organizational background began in THE Workmen’s Circle, and I have been a sponsor of the Folksbiene from its very beginning.”

Before Folksbiene’s board of trustees chairman, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, started lobbing his roster of Yiddish jokes from the podium during the presentations that preceded the evening’s entertainment, old-timer Fyvush Finkel (currently the maybe yes, maybe not dybbuk in the Coen brothers’ latest film, “A Serious Man”) — who sat behind me in the theater — challenged me: “Why are there no Yiddish gangs?” Gey veys, go know. “Because you can’t wear a yarmulke backwards,” he said, chuckling. Not to be out-joked, Brooklyn’s Congregation Mount Sinai leader, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, who sat next to us, told the one about a woman in a restaurant who complained: “‘Waiter! This napkin is dirty!” As Potasnik told it: “The waiter looked at the woman and replied: ‘Lady, 10 people have used it, and no one else complained!’”

Also honored were longtime Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring’s supporters Milton Pincus and his wife, Rosalyn Barcan Pincus (married 66 years, they met at the Workmen’s Circle Mitl-Shul, or Yiddish high school); Neil Goldmacher, vice chairman and principal at global real estate services firm Newmark Knight Frank, and Seena Stein, founding partner of Newmark Knight. Folksbiene board member Mark Mlotek made the presentation. The cabaret program, with piano accompaniment by Folksbiene musical director Zalmen Mlotek, included Tovah Feldshuh, Daniella Rabbani, Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys, Jana Robbins and, singing in Yiddish, South African-born award-winning singer and Tony nominee Tsidii, who originated the role of Rafiki in “The Lion King” on Broadway. The evening concluded an invitation to the audience by president of the board of directors Feliks Frenkel to support Folksbiene and enjoy its future programming.


The last time I saw stage and film actor Joseph Wiseman, who died at 91 on October 19, was at the funeral of his wife, dancer/choreographer Pearl Lang, this past February. Frail, in a wheelchair and looking lost, he nodded in recognition, but I am not sure if he fully grasped that his wife would no longer be at his side. Best known for his role as the infamous Dr. No in the 1962 James Bond film of the same name, Wiseman has a stage/screen curriculum vitae that included the character Leduc, a psychotherapist, in the 1964 original production of Arthur Miller’s “Incident at Vichy.” I had also seen him in December 1989 in Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man,” at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.

Wiseman was not the Yiddishist that Lang was, but the two would occasionally appear together at the Kultur Kongres (the Congress for Jewish Culture). And though I would greet them both in Yiddish, whenever I called to speak to Lang, Wiseman would reply, in mellifluous English, “I will tell Pearl you called.”

In January 2006, I called Lang with a story. A day earlier, I had stopped by to see dressmaker Nelly Kosmidis Lozeski, who occasionally did alterations for me. She was born in Crimea and taken back to Greece as an infant, and her father, like mine, had spent time in one of Stalin’s Siberian gulags. We often shared “European” memories. This time, I found her teary-eyed and listening to an audiotaped reading. “Shh!” she cautioned me. “It’s ‘Gimpel the Fool.’ I listen to it at least once a month, and it always makes me cry. That poor soul who has no luck in life. The actor who plays him is just wonderful.” I told her that I knew the author of “Gimpel,” Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as the story. “Do you know who is reading it?” I asked. No. I listened. The voice was unmistakable. “It’s Joseph Wiseman, a famous actor,” I said. “I know him. His wife is a dancer and choreographer and a friend.” Lozeski seemed thunderstruck. “I’ll call them and tell them about you, that he has a new fan,” I said. When I phoned Lang the next day to tell her the “Gimpel” tale and to ask if it would be all right to mention the Lozeski episode in my column, there was momentary silence. “Joe is in the hospital, recovering from a serious fall,” she said. “But go ahead, it’s such a wonderful story, and if he reads it, maybe it will act as a catalyst to get him to do the physical therapy he balks at and will get him out of that wheelchair!”

Lozesk asked if it would be all right if she wrote to Wiseman and asked for his autograph. A few weeks later, she showed me Wiseman’s short thank you note, written with an unsteady hand. She pinned it to her bulletin board, alongside swatches of silk, lace and photos of wedding gowns she had made for customers. I have not had the heart to tell her that the “Gimpel” man who made her cry is gone.


There’s erotica and then there is ouch! erotica, and the two are intertwined in Karin Albou’s film “The Wedding Song,” which opened to the public October 23.

To view this film, set during World War II, when Tunis was about to be occupied by the Nazis, you have to be a quick subtitle reader if your French and Arabic are not up to speed. Betrayal and heroism fuel this film, which centers on the friendship between Nour (Olympe Borval), a Muslim, and her Jewish friend, Myriam (Lizzie Brochere). There is flesh, flesh, flesh — at home, in bedrooms and public baths — evocative of 19th-century French academy paintings of women lolling in harems. As a curtain raiser, women slice off a dead ram’s genitals, which are then hung from the waistband of a fleshy belly dancer. The belly dancer seductively undulates before the bride to be and her female entourage. And if Brazilian bikini waxing is not your favorite cosmetic procedure, watching the removal of all pubic hair — with beeswax — is not for the fainthearted. Still, it is a fascinating window to a time, place and culture that Hollywood never exposed in such films as “Morocco” (1930), “Algiers” (1938), “Casbah” (1948) and “Casablanca” (1942). Life is grim. Unemployment of Muslims is high. Betrayal to the enemy pays. And envy of Jews — whose women go to school, walk about freely and live comfortably, while their Muslim neighbors struggle — is akin to the Jew envy that at times fueled Eastern European pogroms. Bottom line: This is a film about culture clash and women who are trapped by history and tradition.

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