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Diplomats From 40 Nations Dine, Sing ‘Dayenu’ at Seder

“This is about as ecumenical as it gets,” master of ceremonies Alan King said at the April 4 festive Boys’ Town of Italy “Ball of the Year” at the Waldorf-Astoria.

“They needed laughs, so they hired two Jews,” joshed King, referring to himself and gala chairman Billy Crystal. “I was present at Billy’s bris,” King told the predominantly Italian black-tie crowd. “I was at his bar mitzvah… his wedding. He’s like a son to me: He never calls; he never sends me any money.” Not to be out-joked, Crystal retaliated: “Glad to be here on ‘good Shabbes.’ Shalom. We’re like the ‘before’ and ‘after.’… Alan still calls Iraq Mesopotamia.” The crowd roared.

“Six months ago,” King said, “I became ill while filming ‘Family in Naples.’ I don’t trust a doctor who does not speak English…. In walks this elegant woman; her English is better than mine. Only in Italy would a doctor make a house call with a Gucci bag. She tells me she trained at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein and spent four years at Long Island Jewish [Medical Center]…. I told her, ‘Stick the thermometer wherever you want.’”

Crystal went on to roast “Man of the Year” honoree Edward J. Micone Jr., executive vice president and executive producer of Radio City Entertainment, describing him as “a man of integrity… who established the NBA Players Home for Unwed Mothers…. [Ed] asked Bill Clinton, ‘Have you ever had a Jewish girl?’ and told [President] Bush, ‘If there’s a problem with the French, I’ll call Jerry Lewis.”

Charles Evans — founder of the sportswear company Evan-Picone, producer of the movie “Tootsie” and national director of the Alzheimer’s Association — received the Humanitarian Award for launching the Crusade for Fire Detection, which educates the public about the “importance of installing smoke detectors.”

Boys’ Town of Italy was founded in 1945 by Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing, an Irish priest who fought as a resistance leader in Nazi-occupied Italy. In his memoir, “But for the Grace of God,” he poignantly describes the disaster that befell the Jews of Rome and cites instances of the Nuncio’s intervention in establishing safe havens for Jews. I asked Brother Anthony D’Adamo, Boys’ Town’s executive vice president, who delivered the evening’s invocation, if, among the youngsters “of every race, color, creed” from 16 countries who “visited us in Rome,” there were any Jewish boys. “Oh, yes. In the 1950s to early ’60s we had several Jewish boys. We’d take them for their bar mitzvah instruction to Rome’s main synagogue…. We also had visitors from Israel, from Boys’ Town of Jerusalem,” which, he said, “was modeled” after the one in Rome.

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Diplomats from countries as disparate as Albania, Hungary, Uzbekistan, Papua New Guinea, Germany, Peru, Turkey, Estonia, Tuvalu, Sweden and France joined members of the New York Chapter of the American Jewish Committee in celebrating a “Model Seder for Diplomats” on April 9 at the Harmonie Club.

“You are helping us as Jews to perform the mitzvah of bringing strangers into our home,” said Peter Rubinstein, senior rabbi of Central Synagogue who with Central Synagogue Cantor Ida Rae Cahana, led the celebration.

“Few can boast of inviting guests from 40 countries,” said Rubinstein, who then asked for a moment of silence “for those who have lost their lives in war and terror throughout the world — not only in Iraq.”

The rabbi focused on the universality of the Seder. Diplomats from Bangladesh, Canada, Venezuela and Russia “starred” in solo Hagadda readings.

Though initially uninformed about the Seder, many did not hesitate to ask for “seconds” of charoset and gefilte fish. Then to have more than 100 New York Jews and international diplomats join in a rousing, table-pounding “Dayenu” with a raised-fist-“Hey!” finale flourish was astounding.

When a TV reporter filming the event asked for comments “about Iraq,” Marian Stoltz-Loike (who with Lucy Siegel co-chaired the Diplomatic Outreach Committee’s Seder) responded: “What is really important [tonight] is what is happening in this room.”

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The UJA-Federation of New York’s Entertainment, Media & Communications Division hosted an April 10 reception honoring Matthew Blank, chairman and CEO of Showtime Networks, Inc., for his leadership of “a network that is a haven for creative freedom.”

Also honored was Christine Lahti, who portrays Dr. Gisella Perl on Showtime’s “Out of the Ashes.” A Jewish gynecologist from Sziget, Hungary — also Elie Wiesel’s hometown — Perl performed 1,000 abortions “with her bare hands” in Auschwitz in order to save these women from the gas chamber.

Following the reception at the Royal Rhiga, the crowd headed to the Equitable Building for the premiere screening of “Out of the Ashes.” As he presented a plaque to Lahti, Ernest Michel, an Auschwitz survivor and executive vice president emeritus of UJA, told the 500-plus guests in the screening room that though he’d worked in the infirmary in Auschwitz, he’d never met the real Perl, who survived to set up a practice in the United States. She died in Israel in 1988.

“Out of the Ashes,” which aired April 13 (and will have additional air dates on April 27, May 9 and May 14), is finely crafted with an exquisite performance by Lahti. Though difficult to watch at times, it is on my must-see list.

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