Question: What do you get when you cross Hollywood, the Holocaust and Jewish communal fund-raising? Answer: Something exactly like last Wednesday night’s Simon Wiesenthal National Tribute Dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
It was a deliriously effulgent affair, a symbol of the diversity and reach of the Los Angeles Jewish community, and of the Wiesenthal Center. In what other town could you draw a line-up that included Michael Douglas, comedian Chris Rock, a packed crowd of top Hollywood executives, several heroes of the Holocaust, a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead and Bob Dylan, who came out on stage to sing perfectly three perfect songs? And did we mention Harrison Ford?
Of course, it helps when your calling card is Jonathan L. Dolgen. Dolgen –chairman of Viacom Entertainment Group, former president of Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Fox, Inc. — was the night’s honoree, the recipient of the Wiesenthal Center’s 1997 Humanitarian Award. Persuaded to step into that role by his friend Jeffrey Katzenberg, a Wiesenthal Center trustee and the “K” in Dreamworks SKG, Dolgen turned out to be the ideal choice. He’d never been honored before in such a way, meaning that his charity chits extended wide and deep and long, long into the past.
So they came. Close to 1,100 guests and $1.6 million in contributions. The tribute journal read like a “Best Of” compilation from Daily Variety: Sony, Universal, Castle Rock, Arnold and Maria, Tom and Nicole and dozens of others kicked in at the $25,000-$100,000 level (including Daily Variety itself). Disney was good for $25K too, and chairman Michael Eisner was listed as an honorary dinner chair, despite Katzenberg’s bitter split and lawsuit with the Magic Kingdom. The lesson: You may never eat lunch in this town again, but you’ll always be hit up for an ad book.
The big names helped leverage Big Talent. Sure the Wiesenthal Center, with its museum and educational programs that expose thousands of children and adults every year to the horrors of the Holocaust and the importance of tolerance, is a worthy cause. But there are hundreds of worthy causes out there –who gives is almost always a function of who expects you to give.
Beyond the ad book, these dinners usually proceed along a strict law we can only guess was handed down at Sinai along with the other Ten. Cocktails in a crowded anteroom, speeches that strive for brevity and humor but achieve neither, a dinner of in-flight quality, live entertainment that wouldn’t stand a chance on an evening’s channel surfing, the lugubrious presentation and acceptance of an award and somewhere around midnight, just a few more closing remarks.
But Wednesday’s event broke those rules. It was smooth, professional, and truly entertaining. The speakers –Katzenberg, Douglas and Dolgen himself — spoke with the same quick, no-nonsense, joke-inflected patter that enables them to chew up 100 agents before breakfast. Dinner was well-above average too: a seared lamb chop the size of a family pet, smothered with morel mushrooms.
During dinner, Wiesenthal staffers worked the tables, introducing around Tom Leyden, the former skinhead who now speaks on behalf of tolerance.
But all this, however competent, was backdrop. The real show began with comedian Chris Rock, young, hot and black, who admitted to being out of his element, then proved it. Ten minutes of jokes that heavily relied on the seven words you can’t say on TV, much less in front of the Orthodox rabbis of the Center and their many Orthodox supporters. Paramount Studios, part of the Viacom group, had requested Rock appear. He’d been briefed by Hier on the nature of the cause. But Rock, just off a sold-out concert at Universal Amphitheater, seemed unable or unwilling to bowdlerize himself. Those who weren’t experiencing fribulations were laughing hard– Up Front thinks Rock’s a scream–and in the end, the Rocky Horror Show probably only served to show how cool the Center is to the many young execs and agents in the crowd.
After Rock came Bob Dylan. Imagine that. He sang three songs, beautifully, coherently, acoustically, ending with “Forever Young.” Then he was gone, like a dream, leaving, by his decree, no pictures and no video.
Things got even more surreal when Rabbi Hier presented brief videos and spoken tributes to five people who came to the aid of Holocaust survivors just after the war: Colonel Richard Siebel, who liberated the Majdanek camp; U.S. Army Chaplain Rabbi Abraham Klausner, who ministered to survivors; Dr. Ruth Gruber, the journalist who brought the plight of the displaced persons to world attention; Captain Rudolph Patzert, who ran DPs toward Palestine against British regulations; and Clifton Truman Daniel, who accepted the tribute on behalf of his grandfather, President Harry S. Truman, for helping create the State of Israel. All this on a stage that had just seen 10 minutes of penis jokes and the greatest folk-rock singer of his generation.
The sum effect was a bit baffling, but even more intriguing. How has Rabbi Hier managed to crack Hollywood in a way that has got to be the envy of every other Jewish organization in town? How does he manage to mark the suffering of the Six Million at a luxurious dinner featuring comedians and singers without cheapening it? What can the Center do next year to top this? And, finally, how did Harrison Ford get there?
Food and Memory
If you’ve read “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin” by Cara DeSilva, you’ll want to attend a reading, lecture, book signing and tasting with the author at the Skirball Cultural Center on Sun., June 8 at 2 p.m. If you’ve never read the book, which was reviewed and lauded in these pages, you’ll certainly want to attend. The event will begin with an introduction by Michael Berenbaum, president and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. A screening of an animated Czech film about Terezin will follow DeSilva’s talk. Afterward, participants will be able to sample recipes from the book in dishes prepared by Ziegler’s Cafe. Tickets are $25 (general) and $15 (students) and may be reserved through Theatix at (213) 466-1767.
A Volunteer’s How-To
The hullabaloo surrounding National Volunteer Day–speeches from President Clinton, Colin Powell, and so on–reminded us that for eight years, the Wagner Human Services Training Program at the University of Judaism has been graduating trained human-service workers qualified and eager to work as para-professional volunteers. This year’s class will be graduated on June 3. Orientation to the incoming class will be held June 16. To enroll, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 215.
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