Memo to Oscar: Just Say ‘No’ to Swag


 

The contrast was just too much. On one channel, I watched as tens of thousands of people struggled to survive the devastating impact of the tsunami that left more than 250,000 dead and countless others injured and homeless, and on another channel, presenters at last month’s Golden Globe Awards leaving the ceremonies with their “travel-themed” gift baskets worth $37,890 each.

The Golden Globes took place exactly three weeks after the tsunami struck Southeast Asia, creating the largest natural disaster in our lifetime. The gifts, which were contained in a custom wicker ottoman, included:

• An Australian wine adventure package with first-class Qantas airfare and accommodations at Rosemount Estate, where guests will create their own wine (value $16,000).

• A sitting with portrait photographer Judy Host ($5,000).

• Ehrlooms diamond pendant ($2,700).

• Sports Club L.A. six-month bicoastal membership ($2,250)

• Brite Smile teeth whitening ($1,100).

• Missoni shawl ($900).

• Chopard watch ($865)

• Janet Lee luxury pet carrier ($400).

This tradition continued at this year’s Grammys, where each presenter and performer received a $35,000 basket.

Gift baskets have become a cottage industry. They are a part of every major Hollywood event. I have never understood this concept. These people are already blessed with so much. They are pampered and catered to at every turn. Why do they need these extravagant presents? Why do people who need it the least receive the most?

The companies that donate the goodies for the baskets do so because they see it as a great advertisement and endorsement for their products.

Where will it stop?

In 2002, the Academy Awards baskets were worth $20,000 — each. In 2004, they were estimated at $100,000 each and contained more than 50 items, including a seven-day cruise to the Mediterranean or Caribbean and a 43-inch, high-definition Samsung TV, coupled with one year of Voom HD satellite service. The baskets were given to approximately 100 presenters, performers and other select individuals.

The perks actually begin as soon as the Oscar nominations are announced. For example, Estee Lauder gave each of this year’s 20 nominees in the acting categories a Michael Kors leather bag filled with such goodies as: Manolo Blahnik sandals, a personalized Loro Piana cashmere blanket, Baccarat crystal and La Grande Dame Veuve Clicquot champagne. They were also invited to a private spa in the penthouse of the Regent Beverly Wilshire (value $15,000).

Victoria’s Secret gifted the five best-actress nominees with a pair of black lace panties that have a little something extra — a removable 7.2-carat diamond and pink sapphire brooch. The lingerie comes in a pink leather clutch, with another sapphire-and-diamond piece, a detachable four-leaf clover ($15,000).

The full contents of this year’s Academy Awards basket is being kept under wraps until this Sunday’s show. However, a few gifts have been revealed: a red leather case filled with Shu Uemura cosmetics, including mink eyelashes; and Kay Unger cashmere pajamas. It’s amazing to realize that just one basket could probably pay for a child’s four-year college education.

I would love to see one of the award shows step forward and set a precedent by discontinuing the gift basket extravaganza and instead, have the various companies honor the presenters by making monetary donations to their favorite charitable causes.

Because of the magnitude of the tsunami disaster, it would have been most appropriate to not distribute any baskets at the Golden Globes, Grammys or Oscars this year. However, because these groups decided to proceed, it would have great meaning if each recipient would make a matching monetary donation equivalent to the value of their basket to tsunami relief or another charity of their choice.

Another option would be for them to sign the basket, and then put it up for online auction, with the proceeds going to tsunami relief or another favorite charity. It would be wonderful to see these ideas become an ongoing tradition at all award shows, whenever gift baskets are distributed. (Kudos to the presenters at the Critics’ Choice Awards for auctioning their baskets to aid tsunami charities.)

Celebrities have tremendous influence in our culture. Turning gift baskets into charitable contributions is an opportunity to be a role model and teach everyone, especially our children, about gratitude and the importance of helping others.

One organization is already a shining example of these lessons: Clothes Off Our Back. which was conceived by a group of actors, including “Malcolm in the Middle” star Jane Kaczmarek; her husband, Bradley Whitford of “The West Wing”; and his co-star, Janel Moloney. The project encourages celebrities to donate the gowns, tuxedos and accessories that they wear at award shows to an online auction (www.clothesoffourback.org). They have given $350,000 to various children’s charities in the past three years.

They raised $130,000 following the Golden Globes in support of the UNICEF Tsunami Fund. The highest bid was $31,000 for “Desperate Housewives” star Teri Hatcher’s gown. Their Grammy auction, which is taking place online until March 1, includes dresses donated by such celebrities as Beyonce.

They will continue their fundraising efforts with the Oscars. Kaczmarek described the group’s purpose so eloquently: “The idea behind the auction is all about what you can do to give back.”

It is a sentiment all of us can take to heart, especially at this time. As Maurice Sendak once said, “There must be more to life than having everything.”

Gloria Baran develops social action and community service programs for children, including a variety of tzedakah projects for Camp Ramah.

 

‘Almost’ a Beginning in Paris


Most boy-meets-girl movies end when the happy pair stands under the chuppah. After all, it’s not terribly dramatic what happens when they pick up the routine of daily married life.

It’s a bit like that with Holocaust films: The protagonists are either killed or liberated, but if they survive, we do not see how they get back to "normalcy" and cope anew with everyday life.

The modest, low-key French import "Almost Peaceful" ("Un Monde Presque Paisible") remedies this omission.

The year is 1946 and the setting is the old Jewish quarter of Paris, where Monsieur Albert and his wife Lea have re-established their pre-war ladies tailor shop.

They employ seven men and women, all scarred in one way or another by the war years and the Holocaust, but almost content with their steady jobs and harmonious workplace.

At first, the talk about customers and problems with the kids is quite normal, laced with a few Yiddish expressions. Only occasionally is there an almost inadvertent allusion to past experiences.

Leon, who is studying to become an actor, remembers that on the day Paris was liberated, he heard among the jubilation a few French patriots yelling, "Kill the Jews."

"The fascists are still here," Leon remarks, and young Joseph, the official shlimazel of the shop, confirms the observation when he goes to the police for a residence permit. He recognizes the inspector, as imperious as ever, as the same man who arrested and deported his parents.

The most deeply wounded worker is Charles (superbly portrayed by veteran actor Dennis Podalydes), who is still hoping for the return of his wife and children from concentration camps.

When a woman declares her love for him, Charles can only say, "Love is dead. It can no longer be spoken or experienced."

Director Michel Deville concludes the film with a picnic for all of Albert’s employees and their spouses and children, complete with sack races, laughter and much feasting.

The scene is as rustic and carefree as a Monet painting, but on the side sits a little boy obsessively playing with a vest pocket watch. Explains a guest, "That’s the watch his father left him when he was deported."

"Almost Peaceful" opens Oct. 1 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. For information, call (310) 274-6869.

Merit and Mazel


I’ll be 54 this weekend. Not for me the modesty of hidden age. I’ll take my years, gladly, as I’m given them.

My mother’s age was 29 for more than a dozen years. My brother was amazed when he overheard her tell a friend that her upcoming birthday party was to celebrate her 50th.

But I am jubilant, if not victorious, with the passing of another 365. This time last year, I had just completed chemotherapy, and lots of us gathered to mark my "rebirth."

Now there is cause to celebrate, and many new meanings of the word "survive." Another year spent fighting lung cancer. Nothing heroic here. Only anger and gratitude.

Of course, I get angry. I’m angry at seeing the Promised Land too early, that being the Land of Hope. Medical hope is an aphrodisiac and all the patients are the Children of Israel. Every scientist Moses, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, at least as long as the clinical trials work.

None of us should think of this, including me. I shouldn’t have to think about the end until the end. As it is, I am compelled to sneak into the land with the spies, and report back about milk and honey.

But if sometimes I’m angry, I’m grateful, too.

I’m grateful when the hair comes back, grateful when the side effects of treatment are not too strong. Grateful for energy, for geraniums and begonias, when the day arrives that memory dulls and red symbolizes not the pain of a surgical scar and a vial of blood but the throbbing of life force; when another day goes by in which no one has mentioned illness. Grateful when I don’t think of cancer for 10 minutes at a time.

This birthday. No cake (can’t swallow); no singing (can’t speak.) A miracle of opportunity — and chance. Thankful for it.

"Length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit but rather on mazel," say the sages. I’m here to say they are right.

"Good times and bum times,

I’ve seen them all and, my dear,

I’m still here."

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics from "Follies" were intended for some really old broads, but I’ll sing them anyway, however premature that may seem. Being an old broad sounds like a good idea — one day.

It’s not lung cancer alone that compels me to claim my time. Disease merely makes me more sensitive to the whiplash people everywhere are enduring all around me.

The dot-com bubble, the pension crumble. Enron, Worldcom and on and on. Plans are pleasures, so long as you can jump the hurdle into reality, when conditions change.

The generation that was counting the days to retirement is revising its plans. And those who aren’t forced to downsize are acting as if they are, taking their travel today, since who knows about tomorrow?

What a psychic shift. From a generation of silence to one that truly lives one day at a time.

Cancer switches the magnetic field. The future and the past squeeze into focus, and there is now, now, now.

I am asked what I would do with the time. Do I have lots of unfinished business? I smile with the memory. I was raised never to take a day for granted, to knit while I watch TV and read while I eat.

But I do not believe in a deity who makes a special place for those who keep busy, and punishes those who watch "Six Feet Under." For me, God understands that the victory is in living, and doing no harm.

"Between 52 and 60, death is by the hand of heaven," say the sages. Knowing that Rashi died at 60, they declared this to be "a ripe age." Even so, many lived to 80, "the age of strength." A sudden death at 80, divine.

What is life beyond a number? The rabbis stopped at 80, but by now that seems quite young.

I know more than a few in their 90s. What would the sages say of them? Joe Shubb died last week at 97, with hearing and memory in tact. Leo Cohen turns 95, the model gentleman, surrounded by family. For others of the same age, the crowd has fallen quiet, and the memory has failed. Genes, not years alone, make a destiny.

Living well takes luck.

For my birthday, I will play "Night and Day" on the living room piano.

Life seems so sweet, however rare.

A Nightmare on Wedding Street


As a little girl, Anna* always dreamed of a perfect wedding. Then, at 32, after a three-and-a-half-year engagement, she was ready to realize that dream. But recently, what she thought was going to be a dream, turned into a nightmare.

First, there were the fights with her mother over the menu. Anna wanted her wedding reception to consist only of a large Viennese dessert table and no main course. But her mother declared that this was not proper, demanding a more conventional sit-down meal.

She and her mother spent the next couple of weeks fighting and sobbing about how much to feed their guests. At one point, Anna called her mother and uninvited her to the wedding.

But that was only the beginning.

Anna says that her future machatanim (in-laws) did not like her, nor did they hide their feelings. She says that just months before the wedding, her in-laws called their son to beg him to date other people. Anna says she declared war.

"I will never forgive them, and will never let them see our future children," she promised her future husband.

Anna’s experience in planning her Jewish wedding might be more typical than the blissful experience portrayed in most wedding magazines. In today’s world, with fractured and fractious families, the wedding simcha can be marred by hundreds of details that only the bride, groom, rabbis, photographers and wedding planners can understand.

"There are never really any two families with exactly the same values or traditions, or with the perfect satisfaction over their child’s choice for a mate," said Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am. "On top of that, as with any other elaborate occasion, the wedding generates its own life — its own problems, anxieties and frustrations." Pressman said that all brides and grooms in this situation should sit down with their future in-laws and try to soften any harsh feelings. "It is much easier to go on fighting and hating your in-laws than trying to go forward on good terms," he said.

Like Anna, Rachel* and Ben* are also marrying in the fall. Yet, the tone of their wedding differs considerably. Both have raised families (this is Ben’s third marriage and Rachel’s second) and both sets of parents have passed away.

The wedding will be simple, yet elegant. But in a way, it will be more emotionally difficult than Anna’s wedding. "I only wish that I could hear the voices of my parents bickering about the ceremony," Rachel said.

But many couples are not like Ben and Rachel when it comes to their parents. Pressman said he has witnessed numerous absurd arguments, such as parents insisting that they decide on the seating arrangements. He said that he tries to intervene to discover the underlying issue. "Does it really make that big of a difference where you sit? Is it worth damaging the lives of your children?" he might ask the parents.

To the couple, he might say, "Perhaps the real issue for your parents is not the seating arrangement. It is really about their feelings of loss and desperation to … control their children one more time."

Pressman recalled one disastrous wedding: "One time, I officiated at a marriage in which the groom’s father and mother were divorced. His mother was an alcoholic and the father had remarried.

"The groom’s mother called me and said, ‘If you let that b—h [the father’s new wife] stand under the chuppah with him, I will shout my head off and destroy the wedding.’ The father’s wife then called me and threatened, ‘If you let that drunk come to this wedding, I will leave,’" Pressman said.

It turned out, the rabbi said, continuing the story, that both women came to the wedding. The bride and groom were suffering from the flu and had to sit on chairs under the chuppah. The drunken mother screamed her head off. The groom fainted, fell off his chair and his wine spilled all over the bride’s gown. The bridesmaid and usher were knocked off their feet. "Wheelchairs were carrying people back and forth…. It was crazy!" said Pressman with a laugh.

He said this was certainly an exception. "Out of the hundreds of weddings that I have officiated at, only one was ever called off."

Yet, most Jewish weddings are not like those in the movies. Brides tend not to run from the altar, since they are too focused on other things.

Professional videographer David Stern agreed: "Many times, the bride, groom or parents come to me after the wedding in shock. They swear that their minds went blank, and they completely forgot what happened during the ceremony … they were too wrapped up in their emotions."

Wedding photographer Darryl Temkin added, "As the saying goes, if a couple can make it through the wedding, then they certainly can survive anything else."

Birth of a Jewish Nation


I have been asked by the Hillel Foundation at Dartmouth College to meet with them on the occasion of Israel’s 54th birthday. There aren’t too many of us still around who were there at its birth, and they would like to hear, from the perspective of a participant, what made it possible for the Jewish state to survive while the Palestinian state, also created by the United Nations, crashed in flames.

I’ll save you a trip to Hanover, N.H.

In 1948, we fought a war of survival for which we had been well-prepared. The Jewish state lived because its people had, over the decades, formed an army, created a democratic form of national government, established a viable economic base, set up a system of social services, built a modern educational structure including universities and evolved a western legal framework, so that when the moment arrived on May 15, 1948, all of these necessary institutions were in place.

The Palestinian Arab state died as it was being born. Its political organizations and its society were tribal and village-centered. Its leaders never thought in terms of a national movement. Its economy was largely agrarian and its people too often illiterate and technologically unskilled. In war, it relied on neighboring Arab states to protect it, and their interests were not necessarily those of the Palestinians. Little was in place on May 15, 1948, to enable the Palestinian state to survive.

As for the war itself, it was a close thing. We had the advantage of trained manpower, but they had those Arab armies, better equipment, long borders across which assistance could flow freely, the heights (Jews tended to live in the valleys of Palestine, Arabs in the mountains) and a cohesive population. At least they all spoke Arabic, whereas our soldiers spoke a dozen languages and often couldn’t make themselves understood, quite a handicap under conditions of combat.

We had, in addition to our sense of purpose, short lines of supply, a democratically elected government and advanced technological skills. Perhaps most important, we had the assistance of that eminent Zionist, Joseph Stalin, who early on decided that a Jewish state created in the midst of the Arab world would cause problems for the Western powers, thus giving the Soviet Union an opportunity to benefit. Beginning in June, an airlift from Prague brought us much badly needed equipment, manufactured originally for Hitler’s armies. By the end of the war, we were flying Messerschmit fighters, using Spandau machine guns and firing rifles with swastikas emblazoned on their stocks.

I am certain that I will be asked how it is possible that Israel, having won its War of Independence in 1948, the Sinai Campaign in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967, the War of Attrition in 1970 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, is still fighting what appears to be an unending conflict. The answer is that Israel did not win a war, it won a series of brief — but bloody — battles separated by years of uneasy truce. Never once did Israel destroy the enemy’s capability of renewing the conflict at a time of its choice.

Israel won as the Allies won World War I; 15 years later, along came Hitler, and the war started up again. Israel has never totally crushed its enemies as the Allies did in World War II, nor can it. Israel is too small, too vulnerable and too lacking in the kind of totalitarian ethos that might make such a victory over the Palestinians acceptable. The Palestinians, different in so many ways from what we were in 1948, are on the verge of creating their own state, and when the present bloodbath has ended in mutual exhaustion, will some day point to their intifada as the start of it all, as Israelis refer to the War of Independence.

In all honesty, I cannot state that my being there at the time did much for Israel, which would have gained its independence without my presence. But, as they tell us on election day, every vote counts, so get out of the house and follow your conscience. Unencumbered by family responsibilities, I did.

Looking back from this distant vantage point, I don’t regret a moment of it.

Preserving History


Some five miles outside of Amsterdam, there is a site where a miracle took place during the Holocaust.

Here, in this tiny town with quaint, pretty houses and narrow streets, the Nazis allowed Jewish history to survive. At a time when they were desecrating Jewish burial places all over Europe, they left this one alone.

“No, the Germans didn’t destroy the Beth Haim Cemetery. Jews who were already dead were of no use to them,” said Rabbi Rodrigues Pereira, administrator of Beth Haim for the past decade.

“What they did do was reduce the 5,000-strong Portuguese Jewish community to several families who were, of course, unable to meet the financial burden of preserving the cemetery,” said Pereira. The maintenance costs alone are more than $75,000 each year, he added.

Now, however, what the Nazis did not destroy is being ravaged by time and neglect, and the cemetery administrator is trying to raise the money to restore it.

The Portuguese Jewish community, which settled in Amsterdam in 1590, purchased an estate to bury their dead. The first burial at Beth Haim took place April 11, 1614, of a child named Joseph, son of David Senior. The memorial stone is inscribed with a poem in Hebrew and is still quite legible.

Two years later, the cemetery was in official use and could be accessed by road as well as by boat via a nearby river. The cemetery was extended in 1663 — and twice more over the years.

It was originally estimated that the space would be depleted by 1963, but the ravages of World War II ensured it will last for another 80 years. Eight hundred spaces are still available.

Beth Haim, however, is a victim of time. Many of its stones are damaged or missing. Thanks to the diligent work in 1866 of David Henriques de Castro, much is known about stones that had, for instance, sunk into the marshy ground.

Those of special historical or artistic merit were raised on brick bases to prevent further submersion, while the remaining ones were covered with earth. De Castro’s findings were published in his 1883 book, “Keur van Grafsteenen, A Selection of Gravestones,” which is being reissued.

Many famous people have been buried in Beth Haim. Perhaps the most famous is Rabbi Menashe ben Israel, a friend of artist Rembrandt van Rijn, who, apart from making etchings of his friend, also illustrated many of his books. Rabbi Menashe, together with Rabbi Jacob Sasportes, was able to persuade Oliver Cromwell to allow the Jews to resettle in England in the 17th century, said Pereira.

Other well-known Jews reposed here include Dr. Eliahu Montalto, Maria de Medici’s personal physician, as well as the parents of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

Many visitors to Beth Haim leave notes on the tomb of Rabbi Sasportes, renowned in his time for battling false messiahs. Indeed, the grounds provide a fascinating look at the culture of the day.

Engraved upon some of the stones is art that is at once macabre, whimsical and poignant. This is in stark contrast to the latter-day section, featuring bleak, modern stones for deceased Jews like Salomon Nunes Nabarro, son of Rebecca and Jacob Nabarro, inscribed “in Auschwitz did the Nazis murder [his parents].”

The Holocaust is recalled in a small memorial area, commemorating the thousands of community members who perished at the Westerbork camp or were murdered elsewhere during World War II.

A fund bearing the name of David Henriques de Castro has been set up to restore and preserve the cemetery. They’re looking to raise $3.5 million.

“Beth Haim must not be allowed to just fade away,” Pereira said, “even if it is just to give those people who lost parents and grandparents during the war a place where they can find their ancestral roots.”

Inquiries or donations may be made to the David Henriques de Castrofonds Foundation, Kerkstraat 7, 1191 JB Ouderkerk a/d Amstel, or e-mail: bethaim@wxs.nl.

Insult to Injury


Only justice can set them free.

When Gerhard and Ursula Maschkowski met at the Deggendorf displaced persons camp in Bavaria soon after liberation, Gert weighed 70 pounds. He had survived not only four years in youth labor camps and two years in Auschwitz, but five months of a Nazi death march through the snow in Poland. Ursula endured two years of “slave labor” in a Siemens factory, followed by two years in Theresienstadt, where only 6 percent of the internees came out alive.

For years, the Maschkowskis told themselves that they were the lucky ones. Though Ursula’s father died in Auschwitz, most of their small family survived.

“We can’t complain,” Ursula likes to say, with a bright, steely smile and a look that pierces through nonsense. She seems as surprised as anyone that her urge toward justice started to rage late in the day.

“I didn’t think much about the past until the Reagan years,” Ursula says. “But during the Iran hostage crisis, when I saw the way America came to the aid of her hostages, I felt something had gone wrong. No one had come to save us.”

I’d stopped by their West Los Angeles home last Saturday, joining their family and friends (most of them fellow survivors) in wishing her and the dapper Gert a happy 50th wedding anniversary. They wanted my help.

In 1993, the Maschkowskis filed a claim against Siemens on behalf of Ursula, seeking compensation for wages owed her not only for her two years of “slave labor” at the company but, specifically, for the work she did the last week before she was transported to Theresienstadt, for which she did not receive any payment.

“It was slave labor,” she says in a calm, firm voice. “They only paid us half the wages we were owed. They waived all the child-labor laws for the Jews. I had to be up at 4 to be at work at 6. Some days, I had to work until 11:30, and walk home in the blackout. I was 15, a child.” She pauses, then repeats: “The last week, we got paid nothing at all.”

The debt is 50 years old, but the wounds are fresh. While the Maschkowskis were pursuing their claim, Siemens beat back a lawsuit for damages filed by another survivor; the court ruled that Jewish workers submitted voluntarily to their labor as a way of postponing transit to the camps.

Soon, insult was added to injury. The company wrote the couple, stating that it had already paid 7 million Deutschmarks to the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference to settle all cases from Jewish “slave laborers.” And the Jewish Claims Conference itself wrote the Maschkowskis, saying, yes, the Siemens money had been received, but it was all spent.

“This agreement was reached in May of 1962,” Saul Kagan, the Conference executive vice president, wrote Gert in August 1993. “The [distribution] program was closed over 20 years ago.”

The Maschkowskis, who knew nothing about the Claims Conference until 1992, are outraged. A little acorn of injustice has grown into a sturdy oak of pain. They have joined an increasingly vocal group of Holocaust survivors who now are focusing their rage on the secret workings of the Claims Conference.

They want to know, how can a reparations program end? Nothing less than a full accounting will satisfy Gert, who says that his efforts to prod the IRS into auditing the Claims Conference have come to nothing.

“We want to know who got the money,” says Gert Maschkowski.

Last week, The Jerusalem Report published an extraordinary investigative report, “Cheated Out of Their Legacy?” raising questions about the business practices of the 44-year-old Claims Conference in regard to properties once owned by Jews in Germany. The Report described the Claims Conference, the very group charged with handling survivor property rights, as suspicious of heirs. It quoted one memo that referred to the claimants as “inheritance chasers.” The Claims Conference operates in secrecy, with no oversight.

All of a sudden, Gert and Ursula’s pursuit doesn’t seem so lonely.

“Nearly all survivors who have contacts with the Conference have been dealt with in a most demeaning and insulting manner,” Leon Stabinsky, co-chair of the Holocaust Child Survivors’ group of Los Angeles, recently wrote The Journal. In January, the group picketed the Jewish Federation Building while Kagan was meeting inside with Los Angeles leaders. The survivors demanded fuller disclosure of Conference operations.

“It’s not the money; it’s the justice,” Ursula tells me. “I would give all the money — it’s probably not more than $5,000, compounding the interest — to the attorney or to Israel. But what’s happening here is wrong.”

Only justice can set them free.


Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wvoice@aol.com.

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