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Leelee Sobieski of Manhattan trekked to Brooklyn to pick up a ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract for her recent wedding. While in the neighborhood she dropped in at Abraham Bandaís Pomegranate, the worldís most fabulous kosher food market, on Coney Island Avenue, where she was assisted by Gabriel Boxer.KOSHER SHOPPER Leelee Sobieski of Manhattan trekked to Brooklyn to pick up a ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract for her recent wedding. While in the neighborhood she dropped in at Abraham Bandaís Pomegranate, the worldís most fabulous kosher food market, on Coney Island Avenue, where she was assisted by Gabriel Boxer.

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Tony Curtis and his future bride, Jill Vandenberg, at Emanuel gala in 1995
Tony Curtis and his future bride, Jill Vandenberg, at Emanuel gala in 1995

Tony Curtis Gives Back

T
ONY CURTIS, one of the last of the great Hollywood legends, was also one of those stars who rediscovered their roots and decided to give back.

Born Bernard Herschel Schwartz in the Bronx, Tony grew up with immigrant Hungarian parents. His mother was Helen Klein; his father Emanuel Schwartz, a tailor in Manhattan. Tony had Hungarian on his tongue until he went to public school.

So it was no wonder that his personal passion later in life ó his primary passions were acting and painting ó was the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, named for his father. Tony visited his fatherís birthplace, Matszalka, in 1987 and saw the shul and cemetery in total disrepair.

"A lot of the stones were toppled over, not from vandals as much as from time," he told me in 1992 when he filmed Naked in New York for Martin Scorsese. "There they sit, silent survivors of that period of time. We must maintain those monuments as an education for all Hungarian young people."

Through the Emanuel Foundation, Tony focused on Budapest where he helped restore the ancient Dohany Synagogue, erected a Holocaust memorial tree on the grounds, and built a Raoul Wallenberg Park to honor righteous gentiles who saved Jewish lives.

He embarked on his mission out of respect for his parentsí heritage, which they passed on to him. He said that heritage was private. He didnít wear his religion as a cloak visible in public.

"When you live in a society where everybody is equal, your Jewishness or gentileness, or whatever you are, becomes a very personal experience. Itís like prayer, itís personal."

He said he would go to the temple on the High Holy Days. On a trip to Israel heíd go to the Western Wall every morning. "I put my notes in the Wall. A guy came up and helped me lay tefilin. I like that environment."

The Emanuel Foundation held its annual fundraising dinners in New York. In 1995 Tony addressed the guests at the Pierre Hotel. He was accompanied by a statuesque beauty, Jill Vandenberg, a 25-year-old horseback instructor. She was a picture of whiteness: white satin gown with white gloves, and platinum blonde hair that complemented Tonyís silvery mane.

"Iím not an actress," she said. "Thatís why we get along."

Dr. Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, whispered, "Itís interesting to see how everyoneís trying to get close to her ó the women with envy and the men with jealousy."

Tony made Jill his sixth wife three years later.

The foundationís late executive vice president, Andor Weiss of Brooklyn, revealed how he enlisted Tony. Andor wrote a letter: "Why arenít you doing something for the Jewish community in Hungary?" Tony invited him to meet in Los Angeles.

"I told him he has to come to the Beverly Grand Hotel which has a kosher restaurant," Andor recalled. "While we talked he drew a picture on the tablecloth of a woman lighting two Shabbos candles, with challah on the table. I knew then that his answer would be positive."

At the foundationís 1998 dinner at the St. Regis Hotel, Kelly Curtis filled in for her father. Kelly and Jamie Leigh Curtis are daughters of Tonyís first wife, Janet Leigh.

Kelly told me she went to church with her Presbyterian mother, but also to temple with her friends. She connected to her identity when she went to Hungary with her father in 1987.

"When I look at myself, I feel Jewish," she said. "I have a very strong Jewish identity running through me ó itís my legacy."

Tony Curtis died of a heart attack at age 85 on Wednesday, Sept. 29, at his home in Henderson, Nevada.

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Eddie Fisher 1989
Eddie Fisher 1989

The Eddie Fisher I Knew

E
DDIE FISHER loved such ravishing beauties as Ann-Margret, Angie Dickinson, Kim Novak, Judy Garland, Juliet Prowse and Mia Farrow among many others. He married five times.

The heartthrob of the Ď50s started out as a ten-year-old singer in his Philadelphia hometown. On the High Holidays He made $20 as the soloist with the tall white yarmulke.

"Canít you find a nice Jewish girl, Eddie?" I asked of the man whose rendition of Oh, My Pa Pa opened the tear ducts of a generation.

"For what I have been through it is too late for me to find a nice Jewish girl in show business. The woman I have now is not Jewish, but she is a very spiritual person, very religious in her thinking."

The woman of that moment was a psychotherapist named Lyn Davis, a tall gorgeous blond from L.A.

"She has changed a lot of my thinking. Not as far as being a Jew," he insisted. "I am a Zionist. I believe in America, I believe in Israel."

This was in 1981 at Carrie Fisherís cozy apartment on Central Park West. Eddie was staying there while Carrie, of Star Wars fame and his daughter from Debbie Reynolds, was making a movie in California.

It was a time when he was extricating himself from an abyss of senseless gambling in the casinos (reportedly losing $20 million) and self-destructive drug abuse. Lyn was his roommate before marrying Norman Lear.

"Carrie has played a major role in my turnaround," he said. "She made me come to New York. That was my beginning. A new beginning. A renewed Jew."

The end came on Sept. 22, when he succumbed to complications of hip surgery at age 82 at his home in Berkeley, Calif.

 

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Joseph Stein and wife Elisa Loti 1990
Joseph Stein and wife Elisa Loti 1990
Joe Stein On The Great White Way

P
LAYWRIGHT Joseph Stein, who died at age 98 on Oct. 24 in Manhattan, was an original member of Minyan of the Stars. The organization encouraged show business personalities to celebrate Jewish holidays and traditions.

One of the first gatherings took place at Steinís home on Park Avenue. It was Chanukah 1990. Lou Jacobi looked around and exclaimed, "We have show people here, even a scout from MGM. MGMóMy Gantze Mishpocha [my whole family]!"

His mishpocha included Topol, Elie Wiesel, Theodore Bikel, Marvin Hamlisch, Zalman Mlotek, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Sylvia Miles, Marilyn Michaels and her mother Freidele Oysher.

Folksinger Oscar Brand raised his guitar and sang in Yiddish and English. He was followed by Bruce Adler and Jacobi who sang their versions of "Oy Chanukah, Oy Chanukah."

Stein won a Tony Award for best author of a musical for Fiddler on the Roof, which opened in 1965 and lasted six years, breaking Broadway records at the time. The show earned nine Tonys.

In a 1991 interview Stein said he got the idea for a Tevye show from his father who lived with his son the last year of his life. His father, Charles, who designed womenís pocketbooks for Saks and other major stores, used to tell stories about life in Poland before emigrating to America.

Stein wrote the book, Sheldon Harnick did the lyrics and Jerry Bock the music. But they had a heck of a time trying to get it produced. "The Jewish producers considered it too Jewish," Stein said. One asked, "What do we do when we run out of Hadassah benefits?"

Fred Coe, a Southern Baptist producer, said he loved it but couldnít raise the money. Along came the Jewish Hal Prince and the rest is history.

While Stein succeeded in capturing shtetl life on stage, his wife, Elisa Loti, wasnít as lucky with a Jewish production.

She was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where her father was president of the local Zionist organization and mother was president of WIZO. Elisa came to New York and taught at a kindergarten at Beth Jacob Synagogue on the Upper West Side before turning to acting and directing.

When Isaac Bashevis Singerís Teibele and the Demon opened on Broadway in 1981, Elisa wanted in.

"I auditioned 10 times" she told me. "Finally I was rejected. Eve Friedman, the author, said I didnít look Jewish." Thatís showbiz.

Two years later Elisa had better luck on her own. She directed and starred in one of her husbandís hit shows, Enter Laughing, in a revival off-Broadway.

"Iíd bring a shopping bag full of food for the actors," she said. "I want to see my actors eat. Iím a Jewish mamaóor bag lady."

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Austin Pendleton in Rosmersholm
Austin Pendleton in Rosmersholm

Great Season Ahead

I
 SAW Mike Poultonís version of Henrik Ibsenís masterpiece, Rosmersholm, and I was overwhelmed. This eerie play, written in 1886 by the keen-edged Norwegian dramatist, kept me glued to my seat the entire evening. I was so involved, I couldnít get up at intermission, waiting apprehensively for the next bombshell to drop onstage.

Austin Pendleton was outstanding as the arch conservative Doctor Kroll. Between acting stints in New York and around the country, he teaches at the HB Studio. Did you catch him in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps?

This was the Pearl Companyís gem in its 27th season. New Yorkís premier classical theatre company last year settled into its new home at New York City Center.

This season began with The Sneeze, adapted by Michael Frayn from Anton Chekhovís plays and stories, followed by Ibsenís Romersholm, and continues with Moliereís The Misanthrope (till Feb. 20), followed by David Davalosís Wittenberg (March 11-April 17). Tix at www.nycitycenter.org.

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Dr. Shenhav Cohen and Roya Hakakian
Dr. Shenhav Cohen and Roya Hakakian

Iran Tries To Convert Jewish Students

S
CHOOL days can be stressful enough. In Iran it is a challenging experience in more ways than usual for a Jewish teenager.

At a recent ISEF luncheon at Sothebyís in New York, to raise scholarship funds for needy students in Israel, Roya Hakakian recounted growing up in Iran after the 1979 revolution.

For a Christian, Jew or Zoroastrian there was constant pressure at school to convert to Islam. Roya could not evade such pressure, even at to a Hebrew day school.

One day her class was called to assemble in the basement near the cafeteria.

 A woman, clutching a bull horn, introduced herself as Mrs. Mohadan, the new principal.

Roya saw "a short woman, dressed in baggy pants, with an oversize raincoat with sleeves that reached down to her knuckles, and a scarf that covered everything but her eyes. On top of this she had a black veil."

Roya found this strange. "If we needed a new principal it wouldnít be a non-Jew with a black veil. We were 15-year-old girls and we started to giggle. We thought it was funny. We always looked for something to chatter about."

But it terrified her parents when they heard the news.

Every afternoon the Muslim principal gave a lecture to the young Jewish students on the merits of Islam as a superior religion. "And she constantly warned us of the evils of sex," Roya said.

In 1985 Roya left Iran. She came to New York where her brothers were already living. She worked at CBS as an associate producer at 60 Minutes and published two volumes of Persian poetry. Currently she produces documentaries on the Middle East and contributes to the Weekend Edition of NPRís All Things Considered.


 
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