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JNF Tree of Life Branches Out To Embrace Feldshuh and Zaks

“Don’t mess with Tovah!” warned Lewis J. Stadlen, master of ceremonies at the Jewish National Fund’s December 8 Tree of Life Award dinner at the Marriott Marquis honoring Tovah Feldshuh (“Golda’s Balcony”) and stage director Jerry Zaks (“Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Lend Me a Tenor,” in which Feldshuh starred). Stadlen, an actor whose films include “I.Q.” and Mel Brooks’s “To Be or Not to Be,” told the 200 guests: “In 1956 I discovered I was a Jew in a gentile world…. when my mother said…. ‘We’re for [Adlai] Stevenson.’”

“As an actor, I worship Tovah,” Richard Dreyfus said. “But as a Jew… she’s a nice person.” Feldshuh, a master of the riposte, zinged back: “One day we will play husband and wife…. It’s very Chekhovian.” Feldshuh acknowledged “the two Ruths in the room” — journalist Ruth Gruber and sexpert Ruth Westheimer — “one from the head and one from the other end,” and then credited her mother, Lily, for her “tiny nose.”

Douglas Sills, star of “Little Shop of Horrors,” his face like the map of Ireland, lamented not being able to convince people he was Jewish. Sills recalled trying out for a Sholom Aleichem play directed by Jack Gilbert: “‘What do you want?’ Gilbert asked. ‘I’m here to audition.’ ‘It’s a Jewish play,’ replied Gilbert. I told him, ‘I’m Jewish’… 13 years of Hebrew school… [I] began to unzip my pants…. Gilbert said: ‘I don’t care! You look like Wonder Bread.’”

Every performer that evening, including composer Andrew Lippa (“The Little Princess”) and Kristin Chenoweth, star of “Wicked,” seemed to be “auditioning” for Jerry Zaks. Even Dreyfus, who recalled as a youngster putting dimes in a “JNF blue box,” said to director Zaks: “I really like you…. And I am a very talented actor.”

“I’ve wandered into the wrong room… looking for Shamrock county,” joshed Nathan Lane, who stars in “The Producers.” “This is not about my secret desire to convert,” said Lane, who then rattled off a list: “kugel… shiksa goddess… and liposuction.”

“I’ll be brief,” Zaks said. “In 1934 my mother was in Bendin, Poland, a little girl with a [JNF charity box] pushke…. Rich people gave her 5 cents; poor people gave her 10 cents.” His parents’ World War II saga: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen; his father jumped from a train and survived. They married in Stuttgart, where Zaks was born in 1946.

“In my father’s butcher shop in the Bronx there was always a ‘blue box’… so trees could grow in Israel,” Zaks said. “I asked my father, ‘How can trees grow in the desert?’ He replied, ‘Only the Jews can do that.’” World JNF board chairman Yehiel Leket announced that a grove of 1,000 trees was planted in Israel in Feldshuh’s name and another 1,000 on behalf of Zak.

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At the December 15 party hosted at the East Side penthouse of last year’s JNF Tree of Life honorees — theater producer Stewart Lane and Bonnie Comley — Chanukah and holiday exchangers included artist Max Ferguson. His realistic portrait of the hosts embracing inside the plush and gilted Palace Theatre dominated the library, where Lane’s three Tonys — for “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Will Rogers Follies” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” — were displayed. As I admired Al Hirschfeld drawings of Lane and Comley, Ferguson volunteered: “Did you know that Hirschfeld’s drawing of the Lubavitcher rebbe [Menachem Schneerson] is unique.… All the Ninas [hidden references to Hirschfeld’s daughter Nina] are in Hebrew!” Two days later he sent me a print of that Hirschfeld drawing, along with a replica of Ferguson’s own “graphite on paper” drawing of the rebbe.

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Carlos Benaim, and his wife, Darel Benaim, a psychoanalyst, were honored with the Generation to Generation Award at the December 9 International Sephardic Education Foundation dinner at the Plaza. Benaim, a vice president at International Flavors and Fragrances, described his father as a youth in Morocco as “the most promising student among his 10 siblings, who [from age 13] worked to finance his tuition.”

“They so believed in his potential,” Benaim said, that “as a religious family, [they] risked sending him to a Jesuit school where he faced daily efforts of conversion. From there, he went on to become the first Moroccan Jewish student at the University of Madrid…. The emphasis on education… are the values we share with ISEF.”

Lily Safra (whose late husband, banker Edmond Safra, launched ISEF in 1977) praised its president, Nina Weiner, as “a tireless champion under whose leadership 12,000 university scholarships have been distributed to students from disadvantaged homes across Israel.” Currently 700 students are in college, including 61 doctoral candidates.

The dinner also honored Professor Michael and Sara Sela. A past president of the Weizmann Institute, Michael Sela founded its department of chemical immunology. His own research led to the discovery of a drug for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. Sara Sela has held positions in many organizations, including the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

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