Obama’s Rabbi, Sundance Social Action Man, Tim Rutten, Shapiro Family

Rabbi Funnye
Rabbi Capers Funnye with Cantor
Judy Greenfeld, the founder and
spiritual leader of the Nachshon

Obama’s Rabbi Visits L.A.

The man whom many are calling “Obama’s rabbi” paid a recent visit to Los Angeles to pray with local Jews. Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr., cousin to first lady Michelle Obama and spiritual leader of Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, attended Encino’s Nachshon Minyan on April 4. It was a prescient invitation, since Funnye made national headlines the following day when he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. As in that article, Funnye shared with the community his journey from a disenfranchised African American Jew-by-choice to a nationally respected rabbinical figure. A frequent lecturer on conversion to Judaism, Funnye is spreading a message he hopes will unite all Jews of diverse origins.

Redford and Bycel
Robert Redford and Lee Bycel

Sundance’s Social Action Man

Fresh from his tenure combating global injustice with American Jewish World Service, former Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) dean Lee Bycel is turning to art. Well, sort of.

Bycel will assume the first-ever executive director position of The Redford Center, a public advocacy arm of Robert Redford’s Sundance brand, which along with the cutting-edge independent film festival will include a forum for social action initiatives. With Bycel at the helm, leaders and artists will collaborate in developing action-based solutions to the most compelling civic, environmental and social challenges. The center will be based in San Francisco, but will offer a wide range of events and programs hosted at the Sundance Preserve in Utah.

Prior to traveling to Darfur and Chad where he addressed issues of genocidal conflict, Bycel worked in other influential circles. He holds a doctorate of applied theology from the Claremont School of Theology, is an ordained rabbi and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. In Los Angeles, Bycel served as HUC-JIR’s dean for 15 years and was also president of The Brandeis-Bardin Institute. He was a senior adviser of Global Strategy for the International Medical Corps and a senior moderator of Leadership Seminars at the Aspen Institute.

Upon Bycel’s appointment, Redford had encouraging words for him: “In Lee we have found a dynamic leader whose entire career has been devoted to community building and shaping programs that empower people to make social change.”

“I am particularly excited about the impact of his international and community experience and the global perspective as the center navigates the 21st century. Lee’s life work has shown he is not averse to risk or looking at new ways of doing things and that will serve us incredibly well,” the Sundance founder said.

Tim Rutten

(From left) Steven Nichols, chair, Major Gifts;
Nicole Mutchnik, chair, Anti-Defamation League
Pacific Southwest Region;
L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten;
and ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind.

Shirley and Ralph Shapiro

Tim Rutten Lectures at ADL Briefing

The Anti-Defamation League invited their largest donors to a private briefing at the new Beverly Hills Montage Hotel in March. The topic? Judeo-Christian relations under Pope Benedict XVI, as demystified by L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten, who lectured on the topic. Rutten was previously awarded the Anti-Defamation League’s annual First Amendment prize.

Hard Times Equal Giving Times For Shapiro Family

Despite economic hardships that have decreased otherwise ample portfolios, Ralph and Shirley Shapiro are giving — and giving big. In the past year, The Shapiro Family Charitable Foundation has donated more than $6 million to establish endowed chairs in the dental, medical and law schools at UCLA, the couple’s alma mater.

Last September, the Shapiros’ $1.5 million gift to endow a chair in public interest law helped launch the UCLA School of Law’s $100 million endowment campaign. In April 2009, the Shapiros pledged another $1.5 million for an endowed chair in honor of the law school’s current dean, Michael H. Schill. Last December, they committed $2 million to the Geffen School of Medicine and in March 2009, another $1 million to the Dental School in honor of its dean, No-Hee Park.

As UCLA leaders note, this kind of private endowment enables an institution like UCLA to operate at an optimum level even when higher education enrollment is down across the country.

Paul Shapiro’s ‘vout’ mishegoss

In 1945, the hippest Hollywood nightlife destination was Billy Berg’s, on the corner of Vine and DeLongpre.

A tall, suave black man named Slim Gaillard, who favored pinstripe suits, held court there. Black entertainers were seldom booked west of Western Avenue in those days, and Gaillard’s appearances at Berg’s were, in a very real sense, where Hollywood’s racial integration began.

With supreme self-confidence, Gaillard and his rotund bassist, Tiny “Bam” Brown, mesmerized audiences (which included Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman) with original novelty songs that mixed Harlem jive, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Yiddish and plain old gibberish. His favorite invented word was vout, and Gaillard used it liberally. When Hollywood committed him to film, a feature movie was titled, “O’Voutie O’Rooney.”

The polymath entertainer spoke seven languages, sang, played the guitar and piano (with the backs of his hands), and was capable of extemporizing whole songs in the moment. Gaillard, who died in 1991, was extremely resourceful. He could practically make an entire song out of the word “avocado.” Gaillard had a million-selling record in 1945, “Cement Mixer.” The tune came together as Gaillard took a break from a recording session, walked outside the studio and saw some men doing street repair. One of his most endearing records was a ditty called, “Dunkin’ Bagel” (1946). It’s largely a 4/4 instrumental, with Gaillard hollering rhythmic epigrams (“Matzoh balls!”) to Brown’s exercised responses (“Matzoh balls-oreeny!”). Gaillard gave the term mishmash a good name.

Fast forward to the present. Saxophonist Paul Shapiro, a mainstay of New York City’s downtown creative nexus, recognizes Gaillard as one of his musical forebears. Shapiro’s background in jazz and funk led him to recording session work with Michael Jackson, Rufus Wainwright, Queen Latifah, Lou Reed and Jay-Z, among many others. The saxophonist recorded two albums on John Zorn’s Judeocentric Tzadik label as a leader: “Midnight Minyan” (2003) and “It’s in the Twilight” (2006). They were both serious instrumental collections of traditional Jewish songs and standards, seen anew through the contemporary prism of Shapiro’s working aesthetic of jazz, funk and rhythm ‘n’ blues. But a funny thing happened on the way to downtown hip street cred. Shapiro encountered songs from the 1930s and ’40s like Gaillard’s “Dunkin’ Bagel” and Cab Calloway’s “A Bee Gezindt” that clearly indicated a significant musical exchange.

Prolific songwriter Henry Nemo, who died in the Pacific Palisades in 1999, wrote “A Bee Gezindt.” Nemo was an academy of jive (like Calloway and Gaillard), but also a fine tunesmith. He wrote several Cotton Club revues with Duke Ellington and contributed the lyrics to Duke’s evergreen “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” In 1992, I asked Nemo about the black stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, Ellington’s piano mentor and the cantor of the Harlem synagogue. “We got along great,” The Neme recalled, “because I was usually the only one on the scene he could talk Yiddish to.”

On his new album, “Essen” (Tzadik), Shapiro explores the cultural mash-up that occurred in American popular music when Jewish music Yiddish theater songs, vaudeville tunes, klezmer songs and novelties met blues, jazz, rhythm ‘n’ blues and swing. The result is a collection that touches history in several ways, yet always manages to make a contemporary statement that’s fun to listen to. His crack band, Paul Shapiro’s Ribs and Brisket Revue, can sound like a Lower East Side wedding outfit, an R&B group, a strip club combo and a cooking funk band. Brian Mitchell alternates traditional Jewish theme chords and manic, eight-to-the-bar boogie-woogie piano on Gaillard’s “Matzoh Balls.”

From a phone in central New York, Shapiro talked about the ways Jewish culture melded with other cultures. “You know where I think a lot of it occurred?” he asked. “The Catskills resorts. It wasn’t just Jewish bands that played in those hotels. Jews were mad about Latin music in the ’50s, and many Latin musicians went up there. They learned some Jewish songs, like any good musician would. But there was a connection, I think, because the Sephardic among us came through North Africa and Spain, with our Ladino music. There was not only a natural affinity between cultures but it was also a work opportunity for the bands.”

The Ribs and Brisket Revue has two great assets in singers Cilla Owens and Babi (pronounced Bobby) Floyd. Their vocals are both exuberant and nuanced. Floyd sounds like a crazed cantor on his vilde chaya vocal for “Utt-Da-Zay.” Torrents of pidgin Yiddish that would have delighted Gaillard have occasional bits of irony bobbing to the surface (“you actually vant this thing?”).

Owens would have made a fine singer for swing era orchestras like Lucky Millinder or Andy Kirk (in fact, she brings to mind Kirk’s vocalist June Richmond). She displays fine blues feeling on “A Bee Gezindt.” She also manages to play both sides of the coin on Sophie Tucker’s “Mama Goes Where Papa Goes,” where she delivers some of the lyrics in Yiddish. The band plays like a juke joint combo used to dodging beer bottles and bullets. Shapiro’s nasty alto sax breaks would have qualified him for duty at Duffy’s Gaieties on Cahuenga Boulevard, when Lenny Bruce emceed for the peelers in the ’50s.

Tucker is also a seminal figure for Shapiro. “I hear in her,” he said, “a serious blues infection. She had the Yiddish inflection from her background but she seriously studied the blues. It was absolutely unique that she had both. Loren Sklamberg of the Klezmatics works at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on West 16th Street in New York. He showed me a copy of the 1922 Okeh record of ‘Mama Goes Where Papa Goes,’ and it’s printed in Yiddish and English. It was recorded by many singers, including Ida Cox, the black blues singer and later, Kay Starr. I took a little from each version and gave it to Cilla. I think she’s one of the great stylists in this day and age.”

Shapiro is unequivocal in his praise for Zorn’s benevolence, through Tzadik. “It’s really Zorn,” he stated flatly , “who let me do my own music.” It was an opportunity that came with a price, though. “When I came to him with the idea for my earlier albums, he insisted that I not take this lightly. He wasn’t going to let me get away with just passing references to Jewish music. It’s very important for him that the music that he releases in his Radical Jewish Culture series be real artistic statements. He doesn’t want to be seen as a cultural appropriator.”

How have the Tzadik albums and their creative processes affected Shapiro on a personal level?

He thought for a moment and chose his words carefully before answering: “I would say that while I haven’t been transformed religiously like, I haven’t become a more regular, religious temple-goer it has deepened my interest and understanding of my Jewish roots. I may not have had a change of religious orientation, but I have become more aware of certain important connections.”

Paul Shapiro — Dunkin’ Bagel

Slim Gaillard 1946

* Mishegoss (Yiddish) — craziness, foolishness.