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Author and Publisher

February 21, 2011

The topics treated in David Bruce Smith’s books include his mother’s evocative paintings and the intriguing lifestory of his grandfather, who was one of DC’s most-inspired Jewish visionaries.

David Bruce Smith was both the author and the publisher of Conversations with Papa Charlie, a charming and succinct account of the life, career and beliefs of his grandfather, Charles E. Smith, who lived from 1901 to 1995.

Published in 2005, the book also chronicles the strong and sweet relationship that existed between the two of them.  The following quote from Lewis Mumford appears at the front of the volume and may partially explain the intensity of their bond:  “The commonest axiom of history is that every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”

After a childhood on a Russian farm, Charles Smith went on to become a DC-area real-estate tycoon who was one of the local Jewish community’s most influential leaders as well as one of its most-inspired visionaries.

So, why hasn’t there yet been a major motion picture made about this man’s highly intriguing life?

Some of the events of his 94 years would seem to be ideal for the silver screen.

Consider, for instance, two pivotal developments that occurred when Charles was five years old and living with his family on a farm outside of Lipnick, a shtetl in western Russia.  The episodes are recounted in his autobiography, Building My Life.  This 1985 work was the first book published by David Bruce Smith, who also played a key role in helping his grandfather to write it.

Being stricken by diphtheria was the first of the developments.  Two of Charles’ older brothers had the deadly disease at the same time as he did, and although they both tragically succumbed to it in their sleep, he was able to recover from it.

This brush with mortal danger was reminiscent of another health emergency that had befallen him when he was only six months old.  One night he awoke in pain, holding his ear and crying loudly.  He was taken by a horse-drawn wagon to a neighboring town, where a doctor, without anesthetics, performed an emergency operation involving the removal of his mastoid.

In his autobiography, after first posing the question of why he had been able to survive these health emergencies, he gave the following answer:  “In later years I realized that God had guided my destiny.  These instances and others that came later led me to believe that I was intended by Him for some special purpose in life.”

The second key occurrence of his fifth year of life pertained to the Jewish education that was provided to him — he was sent away for most of the week to study with and live with a rabbi in a neighboring village.

Every Sunday he would be taken by a horse-drawn wagon to the rabbi’s home.  He would reside there, along with some other boys, until Friday, when he’d be taken home so that he could spend Shabbat with his family.

He didn’t discuss in his memoirs the nature of the rabbi’s classes, but it seems safe to assume that he was being introduced to a form of Jewish education that presumably had changed very little in that geographical area over many years.

The difference in his case was that at the age of ten he’d be emigrating to the United States — meaning that the seeds of traditional Jewish wisdom that were planted in him by that rabbi would be growing to maturity in an American setting.  This gave the arc of his life an almost paradigmatic resonance for a wide swath of American Jewry, it seems to me.  He somehow seems to be symbolic of the early-twentieth-century migration of Eastern European Jews to the United States — and of their subsequent success on these shores.  The metaphor that pops into my mind is that this was an individual whose personal story involved the straddling of two continents, with one foot in Europe and one in North America.

It’s easy to envision what a couple of talented screenwriters and a top-notch director could do with the raw material of this rather staggering life.

Imagine, for instance, a scene in which the rabbi is teaching a class while five-year-old Charlie sits there and soaks it all in.  The viewer would be feeling highly sympathetic towards the little guy, considering the illness he had recovered from and the trauma he had sustained in losing his brothers.  It seems to me that the rabbi should be portrayed as someone who’s overflowing with kavanna and charisma — a first-rate teacher who inspires Charlie to believe in God and feel a commitment to his fellow Jews.  In later parts of the movie, the adult Charles would periodically have flashbacks in which he remembers sitting in class and being introduced to the key principles that would guide him for the rest of his years.

And what about a scene in which Charlie is shown saying good-by to his family on Sunday morning?  We would see him sitting beside the wagon’s driver — his father’s farmhand — as his eyes look out onto the road.  First he has a flashback to the previous day’s Shabbat observances.  Then he has a flashforward to the studies that await him in the upcoming week.

These and other scenes from his childhood would periodically pop into Charles’ mind as the movie goes on to relate the progress of his life.  In this way, the film would make clear that he never could have evolved into the real-estate titan that he eventually became if he hadn’t first had that emotion-charged rural childhood in the “old country” that gave him the foundation of his Jewish beliefs.

Remembering a Kindred Soul

In an interview, David Bruce Smith notes that helping with his grandfather’s memoirs had the effect of strengthening the already-tight bonds between them.  “I was always close to my grandfather, but it was a way of getting close to him in a different way, because it was a collaboration,” he says.

One of the most intriguing parts of Conversations with Papa Charlie is the author’s description of a striking similarity between his grandfather’s infancy and his own.  David Bruce Smith, who is now 51, was born two months prematurely in DC.  His lungs were “obstructed by phlegm,” he writes, and the “prognostications for my survival were as remote as they had been for Papa Charlie when he had diptheria.”  Charles, who visited him in the hospital daily, was convinced that he would pull through the crisis.  “He believed God would save me, as he had been spared, because he saw ‘fire in my eyes’ and a desperate struggle to live.”

Charles’ instincts about his tiny grandson’s survival turned out to be golden, of course.  And over the years that followed, the fact that each of them had survived a near-death experience seems to have given both of them an overpowering sense that their destinies were somehow linked in a special if indefinable way.

“He was such a magnificent person to be with and go to for advice,” David Bruce Smith tells me.  “My father was even better, by the way, but Papa Charlie was great.  He was very ahead of his time.  He was very intuitive and curious.  He was very into messages from God, and signs, and interpretations of dreams, and healthy living, nutrition, and exercise.  These were just not things people thought about fifty years ago, especially a man.”

He adds that his grandfather was “one of my greatest encouragers,” always trying to find ways to give a boost to his self-confidence.

He writes that Charles once told him:  “I’ve watched after you every single day of your life, and I’ll look after you every single day for the rest of your life from the Other Side.  And don’t ever forget it.

Back to Charles’ Childhood

In Building My Life, Charles gave credit for his early Jewish education not only to the rabbi who taught him, but to his father as well.  “Although our farm was far from the nearest synagogue, the religion remained strong in our home,” wrote the man who was the eighth of his family’s nine children.

His father’s name was Reuven Schmidoff.  Born in 1873, Reuven had prepared to become a rabbi, but six months before his ordination, his father died.  The practical effect of this was that he had to step into his father’s shoes and become a farmer instead of joining the rabbinate.

He was the overseer of a large leased farm.  “The actual farming was done by about 50 Russian and Polish peasant women who tended the cows and vegetables.  Potatoes were the principal crop,” Charles wrote.  Corn was also grown.  “While my father oversaw the workers all day, my mother labored also, carrying water, feeding the chickens, and keeping house.”

“They were a little better off than poor,” David Bruce Smith tells me.

Things began taking an ominous turn for the family in 1907 after the nobleman who owned the farm died.  David Bruce Smith writes that “an anti-Semitic heir expelled the family from their home.”  With his savings, Reuven was able to buy a windmill.  But a short time later, the windmill was burned in a mysterious fire.  When Reuven went to a local Jewish sage for advice, he was told, according to Charles’ memoirs, “Reuven, you have had two signs from heaven.  Pick up and go to America.”

In 1908 Reuven left the family behind and sailed to New York.  With his departure, seven-year-old Charlie had to stop living and studying with the rabbi after only two years of doing so.  His education was forced to take a backseat to the more pressing concern of pitching in at home.  “I tried hard to take his place and be as much help to my mother as I could,” he wrote.  “I remember taking two large buckets to the well each morning, filling them, and struggling to carry them during the long walk back.”

Reuven had two siblings living in Brooklyn, and went to work — first as a carpenter and then as a carpenter-contractor — in a building business run by his brother.  By 1911 he had saved up enough money to enable his wife and children to sail to America with second-class tickets.

“From our deck we could look down on the mass of people in steerage,” Charles wrote regarding the four-week crossing.  “We ran around the decks and stuffed ourselves because we had never seen so much food,” he’s quoted as saying in Conversations.  “We’d never eaten like that in our lives.  I got sick from it, the weather and the smell of garlic….In those days Jews wore garlands of garlic to ward off the evil spirits and seasickness.”

From Schmidoff to Smith

After settling in Brownsville, an area of Brooklyn largely populated by lower-class Jews, the family changed its name from Schmidoff to Smith.

Reuven’s appearance also was modified.  His “rabbi-length beard” was replaced by a Vandyke, David Bruce Smith writes.

And there was another change, as well.  “Although we observed the Sabbath, my father had to work a half day on Saturdays,” Charles wrote in his memoirs.  “This went against custom, but it was a compromise that he made to the non-Jewish business world in order to make his living.”

Young Charlie, who had pitched in on the farm so admirably in his father’s absence, began learning the value of working for wages at a tender age in his new country.  He “took a number of jobs such as movie usher, Cracker Jack factory worker who put the prize in each box, Western Union delivery boy, and machinist,” David Bruce Smith writes.  (Imagine the gold that the film’s screenwriters could mine out of those positions.)

Mr. Smith also writes that his grandfather told him the following:  “I was no different from the hundreds of other immigrants around me….But I had confidence that I would succeed by learning the language and making many friends — and I did.”

After getting an accounting degree from the City College of New York, Charles went to work with his cousin in what was by then a thriving building business.

“By the time he was in his middle twenties he had become a successful builder of home and strip centers in Brooklyn,” his grandson writes.  “”He lost almost everything in the Great Depression and spent twenty years reconstructing his financial success by starting a second career as a builder of apartments, and later office buildings, in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.”

Charles’ first wife, Leah, gave birth in 1928 to a son, Robert.  In 1934 the couple had a daughter, Arlene, whose eventual husband, Robert Kogod, is a partner in the Smith family’s real estate empire.

Robert Hilton Smith

When Robert H. Smith grew up, he became his father’s business partner.  A savvy and extremely successful real estate developer, he was also a major philanthropist and art collector.

A member of DC’s Anacostia High School class of 1946, he attended the University of Maryland and graduated in 1950.  His degree was in accounting, just like his father’s had been.  After graduation, he joined Charles’ building company.

In 1952 he married DC native Clarice Chasen, who would go on to become the mother of David, Steven and Michelle, as well as an accomplished painter.  (For an overview of her career, please see my September 2010 post titled “Painter and Philanthropist.”)

An article in Philanthropy magazine’s summer 2010 issue pays tribute to the philanthropic legacy left behind by Robert Smith following his passing in December 2009.  The article states that he and his wife made such extensive donations to the University of Maryland from 1997 to 2005 that they became “the largest benefactors of public education in Maryland’s history.”

Written by Christopher Levenick, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, the article surveys the array of educational, research, artistic, and historical organizations that the couple supported, including Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.  “Just as he managed the properties he built, so too did Smith sustain the charitable institutions he created,” Levenick writes.  “His method was to build and hold.  Create and commit.  Look to the future.  Think long term.”

The Rockville “Campus”

After Charles retired in 1967, he began focussing his energies on a mission that was very close to his heart — pursuing philanthropical efforts that would benefit the DC-area Jewish community.

His first big undertaking in this regard was being the catalyst of what became the Rockville “campus” that’s home to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, and the Jewish Social Services Agency.

It all began with his belief that these entities should be located alongside of each other on a single plot of land.  At first, some of the organizations’ leaders balked at the idea, but eventually he persuaded them of its wisdom.  Then he led a fund-raising campaign, the speedy success of which was surprising even to himself.  And he picked out the site in Rockville, Maryland, on which the buildings would be constructed.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine Montgomery County’s Jewish community untethered from the campus.

Without Charles’ vision, tenacity, and myriad contacts, it may never have been created.  And in its absence, the community would almost certainly be less vibrant and unified than it is today.

One has to wonder:  What if five-year-old Charlie Schmidoff hadn’t been educated by an old-school rabbi who poured into him an ancient, passionate approach to Judaism that would animate him for the ensuing nine decades?

It’s easily conceivable that without that childhood experience he wouldn’t have had, as an adult, the same intense commitment to enriching the area’s Jewish communal life that he did in fact have — in which case, the campus may never have even been conceived of, let alone been midwifed into a reality.

The process by which it evolved from a vision in Charles’ head to an actuality is recounted in a 2008 book titled 13 Young Men: How Charles E. Smith Influenced a Community, which also was written and published by David Bruce Smith.

The volume — which includes documentary photographs and reproductions of documents, and draws upon materials in the Charles E. Smith archives — apparently was prompted by a letter that Charles wrote to his grandson in 1995.  Appearing at the front of the book, the letter refers to David Bruce Smith as “the family historian” and asks him to document “the story of how I and others raised the necessary funds” to build the campus — and requests that he tell “the story about how I became interested in Jewish education for Jewish survival.”

The book provides an easy-to-digest narrative of the conception and construction of the Rockville campus, which, David Bruce Smith writes, was “the biggest undertaking in the Washington Jewish community — ever.”  He also writes:  “My grandfather believed the Jewish Community Complex should be a tour de force, and because of that philosophy, every single detail was pondered and planned — with precision.”

The book includes a telling comment that was made to Charles during the complex’s dedication in 1969.  Vivian Rabineau, who had been perhaps his closest colleague in raising funds and doing everything else that was required to bring the complex into existence, said the following to him:  “Charles, everyone knows that without you, this could never have been achieved.  You taught the community how to give.”

Elsewhere in the book, Charles shares with his grandson an insight into his fundraising prowess.  “Most people are not born givers,” he said.  “You have to cultivate them along.”

A Jewish Day School

Despite all of the wonderful benefits that have flowed into the community as a result of the campus’ creation, David Bruce Smith says that he doesn’t think that his grandfather considered it to be his most outstanding accomplishment.

“The crowning achievement of his life was probably the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School,” he tells me.  “There were two things that were very important to him — education and Jewish continuity.  Jewish survival, in Papa Charlie’s mind, could best be ensured by a good Jewish education.”

Just like he led the fund-raising drive for the campus, so too did Charles later spearhead the campaign to raise the funds that were needed to create the school that would eventually bear his name.

In 1972, according to 13 Young Men, “the United Jewish Appeal asked my grandfather if he had interest in helping to establish a Jewish Day School for grades K-12.”  His response?  “He told them he would participate on the condition that the new school welcomed all Jews:  Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, unaffiliated, and non-practicing.”

After the UJA agreed to those terms, Charles began raising the funds needed for the project, with Vivian Rabineau again working as his top lieutenant.  13 Young Men relates that at the first fundraising dinner he stated the following:  “I believe that the survival of the Jews will not depend on Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Judaism, but on Judaism or no Judaism.  A people without tradition is a people without hope.”

The campaign raised over two million dollars, and the Jewish Day School of Greater Washington was built across the  street from the JCC in Rockville.  The school opened in 1977.

Three years later, the school’s board of directors changed its name to the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School of Greater Washington.

David Bruce Smith writes that his grandfather later said to him the following:  “I was overwhelmed when the Board decided to name the school after me.  When I first heard about it, I had tears in my eyes — and they stayed there when I had private moments with myself.”

Always trying to give a boost to his grandson’s confidence, Charles used the occasion of that reminiscent conversation with him to pass along some words of encouragement.

“So many of my dreams have come true and this is because I never lacked confidence in myself,” he said.  “I have also had a strong belief in G-d, which has carried me through many difficult and joyous events.  I want you to always believe in yourself, my Grandson.  You must have self-confidence.  You should have confidence!  This will enable you to make the miracles you imagine in your mind to come true.  I wish this for you more than anything.”

After the school began operations, Charles “didn’t just go away,” his grandson tells me.  “He wanted to make sure that this school had the best of the best in terms of curriculum.”

To that end, Charles’ family foundation gave a $180,000 grant to the Jewish Theological Seminary to develop a groundbreaking,  multi-pronged curriculum for the school.  It proved to be so successful that the New York-based Conservative seminary proceeded to implement it in other Jewish day schools around the country.

His grandson writes that once the innovative curriculum was in place, Charles began to dream that the school might one day “breed another Maimonides.”

He also writes in the 2008 book that The Jerusalem Post has deemed the school to be “one of the top five Jewish schools in the world.”  Originally expected to handle a maximum of 500 students, the school now has over 1,400 students on two campuses, with the Upper School having opened at a different Rockville location in 1999.

David Bruce Smith’s two children are in the Upper School, and he profusely praises the extraordinary course offerings that are available to them.  The school, he says, “just continues to improve.”

From Real Estate Executive to Writer and Publisher

David Bruce Smith graduated from Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School in 1976.  After graduating from George Washington University with a degree in American literature, he interned at National Journal, the well-respected, non-partisan DC-based weekly that covers politics and policy.  The editors were impressed enough by his talent that they told him that he would get a permanent staff position if he first went to journalism school.  So, he attended New York University and acquired a master’s degree in journalism.

But after getting the degree, he had a change of heart, and instead of returning to National Journal, he decided to work alongside his father at the Charles E. Smith Companies.

He started out as a property manager in the company’s residential real estate division.  Then he was a property manager in its commercial division.  Finally he became senior vice president in that division.  In addition, from 1990 to 2004 he was the publisher, editor-in-chief, and a contributor to the company’s Crystal City Magazine.

After the commercial division of the company went public in 2002, he was less than pleased with the changes that ensued.  “I didn’t like the things that were happening,” he says in the interview.  So he left the company in 2003 and founded David Bruce Smith Publications.

The motivation behind starting the company, he says, was “to make fine limited-edition books that people would remember.”  Asked to assess the status of that aspiration, he says that he feels like he’s “in the process of attaining it.”

To date, he has published nine books, most of which he also authored.  Information about the books is available at the company’s website, which is located at www.davidbrucesmith.com

An Exhibit at Montgomery College

He and his mother were the subjects of a thoughtful exhibition that was shown in the fall of 2010 at Montgomery College.

On view at the college’s sleek and elegant new Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring, the show was called “Continuum:  Mother and Son.  Artist and Author.”

Its purpose was to shine a spotlight on the collaboration that’s been going on for more than twenty years between the mother who paints and draws and the son who writes and publishes.

The show focused on four book projects and a 2005 art show.

In addition to being the name of the exhibition, Continuum is also the title of one of the books that was featured in it.  Commissioned by DC’s National Museum of Women in the Arts as a way of raising funds, only a hundred copies of this 1989 volume were printed.  In it, Mr. Smith’s text about the Italian travels of his mother provides the context and counterpoint to color reproductions of her low-key oil paintings of autumnal Venice.  Five of the book’s paintings were included in the exhibition.

Tennessee is the name of a large-sized, three-volume collection of Tennessee Williams plays.  It also includes a text, written by Mr. Smith, that’s a fictitious Williams autobiography.  There was a limited-edition printing of 1,500 sets.  His mother’s contribution to the project was to create six illustrations of the plays’ female characters.  The exhibition had a selection of those illustrations on view.

Three Miles from Providence:  A Tale of Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home was written by Mr. Smith and illustrated by his mother.   It’s a historically-based, fictitious diary that gets started by one of Lincoln’s guards in 1861 and then is continued by the guard’s descendants until it’s completed with e-mail messages in 2008.

The exhibition also featured ten small colored drawings in which Ms. Smith depicts famous Jews who immigrated to the United States.  They were part of an exhibition of her artwork that was called “Faces and Places” and shown in 2005 at DC’s Adas Israel Congregation, the synagogue that the Smiths belong to and have generously supported over the years.  The best of the ten, in my view, is the depiction of Albert Einstein, who comes across as warmer and more down to earth than he usually does in photographs.

A Surprise Present and a “Perfect Painting”

The other book featured in the exhibition was Afternoon Tea with Mom:  Conversations with Clarice Smith about Her Art.  It was published in 1988 by her son as a surprise present for her.

The exhibition displayed five of her oil paintings that are reproduced in the book.  Two of them — “Artist in Studio,” a very large piece that shows her son standing in a high-ceilinged room surrounded by paintings, and “Acropolis,” which shows a bunch of casually clad tourists climbing the steps of that august monument in Athens — belong to the artist herself.

“Afternoon Tea,” a highly atmospheric work in which numerous individuals are shown conversing in clusters while having a spot of tea in what appears to be a large hotel lobby, was lent by Ryna and Melvin Cohen.  (Mr. Cohen died in January at the age of 87.)

The other two paintings depict the same woman in the same setting, but in different poses.  “Orient Express II” was lent by Judie and Harry Linowes, and “Orient Express III” was lent by Steve Kay.  Each is dated 1984 and shows a well-dressed, attractive woman sitting alone at a white-tablecloth-covered table in the dining car of the luxurious Orient Express train.  The woman is Michelle Smith, the painter’s daughter and Mr. Smith’s sister.

In the Linowes painting, she’s drinking from a glass, which prevents us from seeing what her face really looks like.

In the Kay painting, though, there’s fortunately no such interference, and we can look directly into a beautiful face that communicates a concoction of complicated messages.  This scintillating portrait, in my opinion, was far and away the most outstanding artwork in the show.

In an informative half-hour video that was made by the college’s television station to supplement the exhibition, Mr. Smith states that his mother once referred to this portrait as “a perfect painting.”

When I ask him to explain what she may have meant by that phrase, he says, “It’s her way of saying that the composition works well.”

The Backstory of the Exhibition

The original idea for the exhibition was that it would only focus on his mother’s art, he says.

That was the concept that was proposed to him last winter by Dr. Amy A. Gumaer, the college’s acting instructional dean of the arts, humanities and social sciences.  Her duties include running the classy art gallery that’s located on the main floor of the Cultural Arts Center.  She also interviewed Mr. Smith and his mother for the video, which includes an illuminating segment in which Ms. Smith is shown in her Crystal City studio discussing aspects of her creative process.

The arts center is located on Georgia Avenue near the DC line, across from the former location of the long-departed Hot Shoppes — the mere mention of which brings back a flood of memories for a lot of us baby boomers and senior-citizen types who fondly remember a hangout that was both a sit-down restaurant and  a drive-in where you sat in your car and placed your order through an intercom.

“She asked me if my mother would be interesed in having a show there,” he says.  “We came out in May and looked at the space, and she was very impressed with it.”

He adds:  “I think the building is beautiful.  Not only is it open with a lot of light, but when you hang art, you want it to be in a place where it hangs well, and that place serves that purpose.”

“The show was supposed to be just her work, but my mother said to me, ‘I want this to be a joint show.’  I said, ‘Mom, I don’t think that’s necessary.’  She said, ‘No, that’s how I want it.’  I said, ‘All right, that’s fine.'”

He explains that “the show curated itself, because as soon as we decided on the books, then the works followed naturally.”  As for the ten drawings of immigrants, he says that they were included because of his fondness for them.

Childhoods Surrounded by Beauty

David, Steven and Michelle had childhoods that were greatly enhanced by the fact that they were able to live among the beautiful objects that their parents had acquired in the course of their avid art collecting.

“They always surrounded themselves and us with nice things,” Mr. Smith says.

The areas that his parents concentrated on included 17th century Dutch portrait paintings, English clocks, barometers, 18th century silver, and Faberge pieces.

But their greatest renown as collectors derives from a group of more than 70 Italian Renaissance bronzes dating from 1500 to 1650.  According to an article in the November 2009 issue of Apollo, a prestigious art magazine, theirs is considered to be “the finest private collection” of Italian Renaissance bronzes.

While it’s easy to grasp how the family’s collection of high-quality objects was able to pay lovely dividends when it came to Ms. Smith’s growth as a painter, the connection between their artistic holdings and her husband’s success as a builder isn’t nearly as obvious — until, that is, their son explains it.

“He was an artistic builder.  He had very good taste and a good eye,” he says.  “If you’re collecting 17th century Dutch paintings, which is fine Old Master art, you have to know what you’re looking at.  And that was reflected in his buildings.”

When I ask what it was like as a child to have a mother who was an artist, he says “it was very convenient,” since she was able to provide him with first-rate assistance on his school projects.

“I loved to watch her paint,” he adds.  “I didn’t have the ability to make things that way, but I could watch her do it.”

As an adult, he continues to be highly susceptible to the beauty that she’s able to impart to a canvas.

“When she paints a room or a landscape, I want to be there,” he says.  “Her compositions exude warmth, and they’re memorable.”

He readily acknowledges that it’s impossible for him to render an objective assessment of her creative output.  “Yes, it’s partially because she’s my mother,” he says regarding his fondness for her work.

But with that disclaimer out of the way, he’s ready to praise her to the hilt, saying, “She’s my favorite artist in the entire world.”

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A Natural Eye

October 6, 2010

Art Collector Steve Krensky’s Quest for Beauty

Steve Krensky is an avid art collector whose Rockville home is filled with hundreds of works that range in mood from the enchanting to the troubling.

While most of the works in the collection are paintings, there are also a variety of other media represented, including drawings, prints, photographs, and three-dimensional pieces.

The human figure plays a key role in a majority of the artworks.  It’s a subject that “fascinates me,” he says.

His emotional reaction is the determinative factor when considering whether or not to buy a new piece.  “I have to have a connection to it,” he says.  “It has to draw me in.  Excite me.”

It also helps if the piece is “surprising” and “unusual” and “something that I’ve never seen before.”

From Covering Walls to Going Into Debt

His interest in buying art started in 1987, when, after moving into the house, he needed to do something about all of its bare walls.

“I started going to Washington-area galleries to find pieces that would cover the walls,” he says.  He was surprised to find that “there was so much talent in the area.”  The galleries, he says, offered high-quality art at reasonable prices.

Even though he had never taken a course in art history or art appreciation, he discovered that he had confidence in his aesthetic taste right off the bat.  Asked where he thinks that confidence came from, he says simply, “I can’t explain it.”

About ten years ago, he and his wife Linda reached the point where their collection covered virtually all of the available wall space.  As a result, there was a rise in the criteria for new acquisitions.

“Now, whenever we purchase a work of art, it has to be at least as good as what we own because we’ll have to take something off of the walls to make room for it,” he says.

So, when he’s in a gallery contemplating making a purchase, his mind travels back to his house and tries to settle on a piece that could be replaced by the new one.

But if he’s totally bowled over by a piece and it’s within his budget, he’ll go ahead and buy it without resolving the question of where he’s going to put it.  “If I like it, I will find a place,” he says.

Sometimes an artwork will be so irresistible that even budgetary issues have to take a back seat.  “Linda and I have often said that we will go into debt if there’s a piece of art we like,” he says, adding that this is something that they’ve done more than once.

The collection has grown so large that a number of the artworks can’t even be displayed and have to be kept in a storage room.  Asked if he sells pieces from the collection, he answers in the negative.  “I collect because I collect.  I don’t collect to sell.”

Continuity in the Family Business

Krensky was born in D.C., attended public schools in suburban Maryland, and had his Bar Mitzvah at Beth Sholom Congregation, which was then located on Eastern Avenue in Northwest Washington.

He graduated from Montgomery County’s Walter Johnson High School in 1966.  Then he spent four years in the Navy, stationed in Florida.  Following his stint in the military, he attended the University of Maryland.  After graduation, he went to work for his parents, who had been running Country Squire Cleaners at the main intersection in Potomac, Maryland, since 1957.

He remembers when River Road was just a dirt road and Potomac had “more horses than people.”  It was a time in which “the majority of  Jews in Potomac ran the shops and services.”  How things have changed.

Around ten years ago, he bought the business from his parents and since then has been running it successfully enough to support six children as well as his appetite for art.

A Gallery and a Website

About six years ago, he and Linda opened the Light Street Gallery in Baltimore.  A key motivation was the desire to have a venue in which they could show the work of artists whom they admire.

The more one talks with Krensky, the more it becomes apparent that one of the reasons he collects art is because it’s such an important way of supporting local artists.  The gallery was intended to be an additional way of giving their careers a boost.

While the gallery hasn’t done as well in its bricks-and-mortar location as had been anticipated and presently is open only by appointment, Linda has been having a nice run of success in selling pieces off of  the gallery’s website, which is at:  www.lightstreetgallery.com

It’s a pleasant site that’s easy to navigate and filled with the work of numerous talented artists.

Catching Up with Selma Hurwitz

One of them is Selma Hurwitz, a Potomac-based Jewish artist whose work was presented in a one-woman show at the gallery.

She works in a medium that she invented.  She calls it hadbakah, from the Hebrew word meaning “to adhere” or “to glue.”  It involves meticulously gluing metal-covered threads onto a surface to create images that have a shimmering quality to them.  She demonstrated it to me in her studio ten years ago, and her enthusiasm for it was compelling.  She works in a realistic style, and Judaic subjects constitute a large portion of her oeuvre.

“I have a great respect and regard for her work,” says Krensky.  “She’s unique, and takes a different spin on every subject matter she engages in.  And quite frankly, I’ve never found anyone who does work like her.”

Ms. Hurwitz has pleasant things to say about the Krenskys, too.  “They’re absolutely wonderful people,” she says.  “To have my artwork there was an honor for me because I think they both have excellent taste.”

Asked to provide an update on how her career is going, she says, “I’m 83 years old, but my art career is exactly as it was when I was 40.  I continue to have one-person shows.  I just had one at Syracuse University, and I was very honored because my medium is unique, and they asked me if I would teach a class.  And to have been a student there and suddenly teaching a class was absolutely wonderful.”

After graduating from Syracuse in the late 1940s, she says she went on to become “the first female disc jockey in New Jersey.”  That experience may have set the stage, in one way or another, for the successful career of one of her sons, Seth Hurwitz, a local musical entrepreneur who owns D.C.’s 9:30 Club.  “Maybe he got it from me,” she says.

She notes that of the 535 hadbakah pieces that she’s created in her career, fewer than 50 remain unsold.  The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., Israel’s Yad Vashem, and the Knesset building in Jerusalem are among the institutions that own her work, which often addresses themes pertaining to the Holocaust.

A nice selection of her work is permanently on display at Rockville’s B’nai Israel Congregation.  Her father was the executive director of the congregation back when it was located on 16th Street in Northwest D.C., and she says that this is one reason why “it gives me great pleasure to have my work hanging on the walls there.”

The Krenskys’ website features 28 reproductions of her hadbakah works.  To view them, go directly to www.lightstreetgallery.com/ArtistGallery/Selma%20Hurwitz/original%20Artwork

The Benefits of Being a Collector

Krensky says that collecting gives him “satisfaction and excitement.”

Besides the actual content of the pieces, there are some additional factors that enhance the art-collecting experience for him.

One is the thrill that comes with discovering something special.  As a result of having longstanding relationships with gallery owners, he’s often allowed to visit a show before it opens to the public.  This gives him the opportunity, he says, to be “the first to realize” that a piece of art has a quality that sets it apart from all of the others in the show — and he’ll quickly snatch it up before any other collector has even had a chance to see it.

Another benefit is the chance to become friends with some of the artists whose work he collects.  “That enhances the enjoyment of collecting the art,” he says.

In addition, he gets a kick out of showing his collection to people who are lucky enough to visit his house.

And then there’s the enjoyment that he derives from remembering the backstories of how he added pieces to the collection.  “There’s a story to every piece I collect,” he says.  “Every time you see that piece of art, you may remember who you were with, how much you paid for it, and where you were when you bought it.”

As for how the collection affects his mood, he says, “Almost everything I look at that I purchased puts a smile on my face.”  He also notes, though, that some of the pieces have themes that “make you think, make you react” in not entirely pleasant ways.  So, the key issue for him isn’t whether a work of art puts an added bounce in his step, but whether it affects him in one way or another.

“If an art piece doesn’t make you smile or frown or feel angry or happy, it’s not doing its job.  It has to do something.  Otherwise, it’s wallpaper.”

Painter and Philanthropist

September 8, 2010

Clarice Smith’s Works to be Shown at Cosmos Club

Paintings by local Jewish artist Clarice Smith will be shown this fall at the Cosmos Club, a private club near D.C.’s Dupont Circle.

The upcoming show provides a good opportunity to consider the strengths of a painter who happens to be more famous in the local Jewish community for her family’s philanthropy than for her output as an artist.  Her work generally can be characterized as realistic depictions of people, still lifes, horses, and exterior scenes.

Few, if any, families have made more financial contributions to the local Jewish community than the Smiths.  Their fortune, which has been estimated to be in the upper nine figures, derives from the commercial real estate empire founded by their late patriarch, Charles E. Smith.  In addition to being the namesake of the highly regarded Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, his charitable endeavors included being the driving force behind the Rockville “campus” that includes the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington and  the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington.

Ms. Smith, a native Washingtonian, was married to “Papa Charlie’s” son, the late real estate developer and philanthropist Robert H. Smith, for over fifty-five years.

The family — which includes Charles Smith’s daughter Arlene Kogod, her husband Robert Kogod, and Ms. Smith’s daughter Michelle and son David — also has been extremely generous in their support of local educational institutions.  The University of Maryland’s College Park campus, for instance, is the home of the Robert H. Smith School of Business and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Has the munificence of Ms. Smith’s family somehow had the effect of obscuring the impressiveness of her accomplishments as a painter?  Very possibly so.  Critics and other taste-makers in the art world may find it difficult to wrap their brains around the notion that someone who’s a fabulously wealthy philanthropist can also be capable of producing important paintings.

Another possible explanation for why Ms. Smith hasn’t received the local acclaim that she arguably deserves is the fact that she isn’t represented by an area gallery.  If art lovers were able to visit, for instance, a Dupont Circle gallery whenever they felt like looking at examples of her work — or whenever they just wanted to schmooze with her dealer about the latest paintings she’s working on or about upcoming exhibitions of her work — then the number of her admirers and collectors could be expected to grow in tandem with her reputation.

But ever since the Rockville JCC’s Goldman Fine Arts Gallery in 1984 mounted her first one-woman show, she’s been affiliated with galleries based in Manhattan.

Her first New York show was at Wildenstein & Co. in 1986.  Around thirty-five of the nearly 40 paintings in that show were sold, she once told me.

She also recounted to me how the show was visited by Leah Rabin, who happened to be in New York during the show’s run.  At the time, her husband Yithak was the former prime minister of Israel, having been in office from 1974 to 1977.  (His second stint as prime minister lasted from 1992 until his murder in 1995.)  Mrs. Rabin was so impressed by the show that she set the wheels in motion that led to an exhibition of thirty-one of Ms. Smith’s paintings at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum in 1988.

After the Wildenstein show, Kennedy Galleries in New York began representing her, and continued to do so for over a decade.  Now she’s repped by New York’s Gerald Peters Gallery.

The Need for a Book

The fact that a book on Ms. Smith’s oeuvre has never been published explains to some extent why her body of work hasn’t received the local or national attention it would seem to merit.  While a number of modestly sized catalogs have been published in conjunction with the one-woman exhibitions she’s had over the years, there’s no single volume that provides critics, collectors, curators and plain art lovers with an overview of her entire career.

If one were to be published, it wouldn’t necessarily need to be a catalogue raisonne that documents every single painting she’s ever produced — although such a publication would be welcome.  It would just have to provide lots of large, high-quality reproductions of her paintings.  Even a coffee-table book, despite the fact that this publishing genre is often mocked for lacking substance, would do the trick.

The bottom line is that her best paintings are easy to embrace and can put a smile on your face.  They’re pleasing to the eye, nourishing to the brain, and stimulating to the emotions.  A book that reproduces them would provide lots of pleasurable experiences to those who peruse it — and do wonders for her career.

Last Year’s D.C. Show

Her one-woman exhibition last fall at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in downtown D.C. showed just how impressive her best work can be.

“Elements of Nature:  Equines and Still Lifes by Clarice Smith”  consisted of nineteen oil paintings that primarily focused on either horses or floral arrangements.  An explosion of colors and positive feelings, it was the kind of show that could please anyone ranging from children to veteran art connoisseurs.  You left it feeling uplifted and refreshed.  Exposure to intense beauty can do that.

Two types of beauty were on display — the contemplative and the kinetic.

A painting titled “Dark Floral” exemplified the contemplative.  Two feet high and three feet wide, and painted in 2008, it depicted a luxurious arrangement of lavender, pink, and white flowers.  Painted against a black background, the flowers seemed to “pop up” off of the surface in such a dramatic way that one was tempted to praise Smith as much for her ability to create an optical illusion as for the point she was making about how pleasurable an act it can be to savor the details of a beautiful thing.

One reason why the flowers’ three-dimensionality seemed so pronounced was the expert way in which the painting was illuminated by Greg Angelone, the museum’s chief preparator.  He performed his lighting legerdemain under the supervision of the woman who selected the paintings for the show, its curator, Jordana Pomeroy, the museum’s chief curator.

The painting was displayed by itself outside the entrance to the exhibition, and this isolation seemed to augment its stunning beauty.  When I first saw it, I was stopped in my tracks.  My first thought was that I might want to spend all of my time at the show looking at just that one painting, since it seemed to contain as much beauty as I could take in for that day.  Of course, curiosity got the better of me and I finally went in to the exhibition proper, and was glad that I did.

A Communicative Horse

A painting titled “Dead Heat” exemplified the kinetic beauty in the show.  Nearly five feet high and about a yard wide, and painted in 1999, it deserved the blue ribbon for being the exhibition’s most outstanding painting.

If you stood five feet or so in front of it, you’d get the full effect of the optical illusion that was taking place — the sense that three racehorses were charging off of the canvas and right into your face.  It almost gave you sensory overload.  You felt like you weren’t just seeing the horses but hearing them too.

It didn’t take long to realize that the painting was about more than a fiercely competitive horse race.  It was also about the compelling, human-like personality of the brown horse on the right that was winning the race and taking up about half of the painting’s forefront.

This animal’s psyche was rendered with astonishing sympathy and complexity.  It was as though we could see the thoughts that were racing through its brain.  And the thoughts seemed to be an intriguing mixture of things.  On one hand, the horse  was obviously extremely determined to do everything possible to win the race.  But at the same time, there seemed to be something faintly contemplative about its mindset, as though it was thinking about the fact that ultimately this was only a race and there are lots of other more important things in life to worry about.

Deep down inside, this seemed to be an animal at peace with both itself and the world — even while running at full-tilt.  Or maybe the point was that in order for it to be truly contented, it HAD to be running all-out like that — because that’s the only way that it could give full expression to its highest self, and thereby live up to its fullest potential.  In which case, the message for viewers was clear — that each one of us should similarly be pursuing our own contentment by striving with the highest possible intensity to fulfill our individualized potential.

Ms. Smith was employing a sophisticated one-two punch of action and thought to get the painting’s messages across to us.  The first step was to capture our attention with the dramatic action of the race.  Then, once she had us hooked by the adrenaline-pumping excitement of the scene, she apparently calculated that it would be an easy, natural progression for us to be so transfixed by the lead horse’s expressive face that we’d begin to ponder the multitude of thoughts pulsating through its mind.

In addition, she seems to have anticipated that while we’d be engaged in the delicious process of trying to figure out what this magnificent animal was thinking, we’d unconsciously be letting down our guard and opening ourselves up to absorbing the philosophical points — about such themes as the path to fulfilling one’s potential and the bonds that exist between people and animals — that she wished to communicate to us.  The best teachers are often those who use the lightest of hands to teach their lessons.

An Enigmatic Woman

None of Ms. Smith’s portraits were included in the exhibition, which meant that one of the most intellectually intense categories of her work was missing.  Her best portraits are able to do for people what “Dead Heat” does for that dignified horse — capture their personalities and evoke their thoughts.

One of her finest works is a charming, perhaps even haunting, portrait of  a woman that was included in her 1988 show at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Twenty-six inches high and twenty inches wide, and painted in 1984, its title is “Orient Express.”  According to the show’s catalog, it’s owned by Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Kay.  (This painting shouldn’t be confused with another painting with the same title, and featuring the same woman, that was included in the 1984 show at the JCC.  In that painting, the woman’s face gets partially obscured while she drinks from a glass.  In the one under discussion, her face is, fortunately, visible in its entirety.)

The attractive, well-dressed woman, who has brown hair and brown eyes and seems to be in her thirties, is sitting behind a table that’s covered by a white tablecloth.  One might be inclined to think that the scene is taking place inside  of a restaurant, except for the fact that the painting’s title informs us that the setting is actually a dining car of the luxurious Orient Express train.

A napkin is on her lap, and although we can’t see her right hand, we can sense that it’s resting upon the napkin.  Behind the napkin, we can see the top part of a black skirt.  Above that, she’s wearing a purple top.  A violet, lavender, and black scarf hangs around her neck, falling down her front torso to her waist.

Resting on her shoulders is a dark-brown fur that has so much presence that it almost seems to be cast as a secondary character.  Its texture expertly rendered, the fur both heightens the gravitas of the scene and underscores the formidable personality of the woman — who’s confidently looking into our eyes and allowing us to peer into hers.

This is a painting that’s all about personality, attitude, and mystery.

There’s a hint that the woman is smug, but be careful about coming to that conclusion.  After all, you might be mistaking self-sufficiency for smugness.  You can’t really be sure.

At first you might be telling yourself that you don’t want to cut this woman any slack because you don’t imagine her to be the type of person who would be cutting you any if the roles were reversed.  But despite the opportunity to interpret her persona in an unflattering light, you finally may be forced to admit that her beguiling qualities compel you to give her the benefit of the doubt on any close calls involving her character.

She seems like she’s always been able to get off the hook in the past by virtue of her looks and charm — and unless you’re unusually daring, you’re probably not going to want to be the first person to ever declare that her cockiness isn’t warranted by her gifts.

Sure, she won’t come out of the painting and seek vengeance on you if you do.  But, still, you might want to err on the side of caution and heed that little voice in the back of your head that’s advising you not to get on her bad side.

Ultimately, it’s very hard to decide what’s going on here.  Is she somehow subtly putting you down — the way she subtly puts down everyone else who looks at her?  There’s evidence to be found for that intepretation.  Or are you just imagining that there’s a negative side to her personality because you’re somehow intimidated by her beauty?  There’s evidence for that view as well.

Do you detect a hint of decadence?  Maybe.  You can’t say for sure, but speculating about it is a guilty pleasure, like reading a gossip column.  You sense that you shouldn’t be doing it, but you can’t help yourself.

All of this uncertainty works to the painting’s advantage, turning it into something that’s far more than just the likeness of a real-life woman, who happens to be Ms. Smith’s daughter, Michelle.

It takes guts and talent to paint a picture like this.

FOR MORE INFORMATION,VISIT THE FOLLOWING WEBSITES

1.  Ms. Smith’s website, which is called “Clarice Smith: A World Through Paint,” is at www.claricesmith.com

2.  The website of the Manhattan gallery that represents her, the Gerald Peters Gallery, is at www.gpgallery.com

The site includes reproductions of fourteen paintings from a show titled “Diversity: Paintings and Painted Screens by Clarice Smith,” which was on view at the gallery from Feb. 12 to March 13, 2009.

To see these reproductions, go directly to www.gpgallery.com/exhibitions/view/104

One of the best of these works is “Serenity,” a highly atmospheric 2008 oil painting, measuring 38 by 48 inches, of a charming riverscape.

Also notable is a 2007 oil painting, measuring 33 by 48 inches, titled “Jewish Cemetery, Prague,” a somber study of tombstones in that cemetery.

Fashion Profile — Aviva LeKuch

April 26, 2010

Former broadcaster Aviva LeKuch agreed to answer the six questions that constitute DC Jewish Style’s Fashion Profile Questionnaire.

(For more information about Ms. LeKuch, please see the previous post.)

How would you describe your personal style?

My personal style is classical with pizzazz.

If you work, what do you wear for that?

I work in an office, so I wear appropriate clothes for an office.  Usually darker colors in the winter.  I stay away from any flower pattern.  I stay away from bright colors, and I don’t like flowers or paisley.  I prefer one-color outfits.  Maybe black pants and a beige sweater, or a one-color suit.

How about social functions?

It depends what kind of a function.  If I meet friends and maybe go out to dinner and dancing, in the winter I prefer black.  Maybe a little bit of sequins.  A cocktail dress or pants with a little bit of a fancy top.

However, in summer I go for bright colors.  I love orange-red.  I love yellow.  Not lemon yellow, but yolk yellow.  And also I go very much for light blue.  I’m a blonde — that’s why. I stay away from flowers and paisley. I like bold colors.

For evening wear, I prefer St. John because it’s very elegant — that’s number one.  And number two, it’s made of knit fabric, so it stretches, and not having a perfect figure, clothes that stretch work out for me.

How do you feel about jewelry?

I love jewelry.  I wear a lot of jewelry.  I like big pieces.  For necklaces, I like short ones usually, but in a bigger size.

I like earrings.  If it’s custom jewelry, it has to be very original and unusual.

I love amber, because I come from the Baltic area.  Usually amber and silver.

 As any girl does, I love diamonds.  The bigger the better.

I prefer two-toned jewelry — meaning yellow gold combined with white gold.  I also like sapphires and diamonds together.  And I love turquoise in combination with pearls, in combination with diamonds, and in combination with amber.

What about accessories?

I’m pretty big on shoes and bags.  I prefer designer shoes.  I love Dolce & Gabbana bags and shoes.  I love Versace bags.  Of course, I love Chanel, but their bags and shoes are very expensive.  My absolutely favorite shoes are Manolo Blahnik.

I’m not very big on scarves, I must say.  I think I have maybe one Chanel and one Versace and I can wear them with everything.

What do you like to wear when you’re feeling quirky?

When I go out, I always want to do something out of the ordinary.  When I go out, as I mentioned, I like bright colors — hopefully red.  I guess I’m a quirky person.

Meet Aviva LeKuch

April 23, 2010

She Used to Have the Most Popular Show on Voice of America

Interviewing Aviva LeKuch is a breeze.

Which isn’t the least bit surprising, considering that she interviewed over 350 people herself while hosting a Russian-language radio program in D.C. in the 1980s that was broadcast into the Soviet Union by the Voice of America.

The stylish and effervescent LeKuch, who lives in McLean, grew up in Latvia when it was under Soviet rule.  After her family emigrated to the United States in 1966, she went to high school in Saratoga, New York, and then graduated from Albany State.

Following graduate school in Slavic linguistics, she became a teacher.  Then in 1976 she moved to Washington and began working for VOA’s Russian Service.

“I started with pop and rock shows — youth shows,” she says, adding that as a young person herself, she knew what young people in the Soviet Union wanted to hear — “American pop music.”

Eventually, though, her subject matter became more substantive.

“I ended up with a political show, which was called The Nightowl.  It was the most popular show on Voice of America.  It was geared for the intelligentsia in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  It was broadcast at midnight their time, four p.m. our time.

“I did that show for a very long time.  It consisted of fifteen minutes of news, and then some political-cultural material, and some music — because the intelligentsia liked American jazz.”

The show ended after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

A Latvian Childhood

Recalling her recitation of the Four Questions at the seders of her youth in Riga, Latvia’s capital, she says, “I remember mah-neesh-tanna, ha-lilah hazeh meekole ha laylot — I was the youngest one, so I still remember that.”

But seders and other Jewish observances were “not allowed under the Soviet government,” she says.  “It was looked down upon.  There was no religion, for that matter — neither Jewish nor Christian nor Muslim.  No religion.

“I was brought up as an atheist in the Soviet school, but my parents and my grandmother — we had a synagogue.  Actually we lived not far from the synagogue, and I had to go to the synagogue so nobody would see it, really, because if my school principal would see it, I’d get in trouble.”

“Everybody had to practice Judaism in the Soviet Union in secrecy, because, you know, ‘religion is the opium of the people,’ as Karl Marx said.  And that’s how we were brought up.  There was no religion.  I wouldn’t say that we were very, very religious — no.  But it was a tradition that we tried to keep.  We always had seder, we had Pesach, we celebrated Rosh Hashannah — the way we knew it, you know.”

I pose the following query:  “When you live in a system that prohibits practicing Judaism, does it a) make you more determined to be Jewish just to rebel against the authorities, or b) does it discourage you from being Jewish?”

“Basically, neither,” she responds.  “My rebellion, and my parents’ rebellion, was that we wanted to leave the Soviet Union.  That was the definite idea.  In those days — and we left in 1966 — the only way you could leave legally would be to unite a family.  You could not just say to the Soviet government, ‘I’m buying a ticket and I want to leave.’  It did not exist.  You couldn’t do that.  You couldn’t travel abroad.

“But you could unite a family.  And my grandmother happened to live in New York — that was my father’s mother.  All other relatives perished during the war.  Nazis killed them.  So we basically had no brothers, no sisters, no uncles, no more aunts, no cousins.  Forty-eight people died in the family.  I was born after the war, but they died without my ever seeing them.

“So, our only rebellion was we wanted to get out.  I knew as a kid that ‘I do not want to live in this country.’  That’s the way my dad brought me up.  He would not allow me to be a Red Pioneer.  And, of course, he would die if I would enter Komsomol, which is the Young Communist League.  He would not allow me to do that.  And that was not easy.

“There were only two kids in the class who were not in Komsomol, and I was the only one who was not a Pioneer.  And you could not say, ‘I don’t want to be a Pioneer.’  You just can’t say that.  I would say — my dad taught me — ‘I don’t deserve to be.  I don’t have all A’s, I have some B’s, and I don’t deserve the honor.’  And they told me, ‘Hey, come on, we have failing Ivanoff, who is a Pioneer.’  So, I’d say, ‘Well, that’s his problem.  I believe that a Pioneer should be an example for everybody.  It should be a person who has all A’s and I don’t have all A’s.’  So, they kind of let me go.”‘

It’s easy to see why she was such a successful broadcaster.  She has a friendly personality, tons of energy, and an optimistic disposition that the Soviet Union’s religious intolerance was unable to dampen.

Fashion Profile — Tina Wasserman

April 21, 2010

Cookbook author Tina Wasserman agreed to answer the six questions that constitute DC Jewish Style’s Fashion Profile Questionnaire.

(For information about Ms. Wasserman, please see the previous post.)

How would you describe your personal style?

 Tailored elegant.

 If you work, what do you wear for that?

When I am lecturing or book-signing, I always wear an Armani Collezioni suit.  If I’m working in the kitchen, all bets are off.  (Laughs.)  Tee shirt and shorts or jeans.

What do you wear for social functions?

I tend to wear tailored clothes.  If I do anything that’s funky or wild prints or something that’s au courant, it’s always in something that’s very inexpensive, because I don’t go with trends.  If I’m going to go with a trend, I go with inexpensive trends, so I’m not spending hundreds of dollars on scarves and things like that.

How do you feel about jewelry?

I like jewelry very much.  I have beautiful jewelry.  My husband picked them all out without my seeing them, and he did a great job.  I have some very good pieces that I don’t wear often.  When I get dressed up, I like a simple but elegant dress — and good jewelry is what dresses it up.

I’m always wearing earrings.  I almost always just wear diamond studs and don’t wear anything else.  I keep it simple.

And what about accessories?

I wear scarves occasionally.  I have about five purses — a black, a green, a tan.  One year I used the black purse all year.  One year I used the green purse all year.  I’ve had them for a while.  I used to buy nice bags.  I think that the price of bags got ridiculous, and I will not buy those bags anymore.

And, oh, very important about me — I absolutely do not wear anybody’s initials.  I used to say, when they first came out with jeans that had labels on them, I was going to have labels made up that said “Tina’s Tush” and put them on my jeans.

Finally, what do you like to wear when you’re feeling quirky?

I like to wear something that’s a little bit more revealing.  You know, maybe low-cut or off-the-shoulder. 

Crazy prints — I have that in my closet, too.  Usually with black pants.

In my stage of life, the clothes they’re showing now are exactly what I wore in the sixties, and not necessarily appropriate for me — even though I like the style — and I don’t want to look like one of my daughters’ friends.  I don’t try to compete.  I want to look good at my age.

Neiman-Marcus Hosts Tina Wasserman, Author of a New Jewish Cookbook

April 21, 2010

You’re probably not inclined to think of the Neiman-Marcus store in Chevy Chase as a place where Jewish education takes place.  But that’s exactly what occurred there one evening last week.

Now, don’t let be misled.  It’s not like there was a full-length, formal class being taught.  Rather, it was an approximately fifteen-minute-long informal talk given in the home-furnishings section on the third floor by Tina Wasserman, who, like the other fifteen or so of us, was standing up.

Who’s Tina Wasserman?  She’s a Dallas-based cooking instructor who writes a food column for Reform Judaism magazine and has just released an intriguing cookbook titled Entree to Judaism:  A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora.  It’s published by the URJ Press, contains more than 275 recipes over the course of 472 pages, and is priced at $39.95.

She was in town to promote the book, and after signing a number of copies of it while people munched on the rugelach and cappuccino brownies that she had baked before leaving Dallas, she announced in a soft voice that she was going to give a little talk.  She proceeded to speak non-stop and without notes about the book’s two primary themes —  how Jews adapted their culinary habits to the regions of the world they had moved into over the centuries, and how they had also taken their cooking traditions with them to their new lands and in so doing had sustained their continuity with the past.

As she gave us a history lesson that was also a pep talk about Jewish adaptability and creativity, she had the aura of a dynamic leader.  Her compelling speaking style, personal charisma, and extensive knowledge were all being employed to inspire in her listeners an interest in the complex and fascinating relationship that has existed between Jews and their cuisine throughout the centuries.

Discussing the Book’s Mission 

Earlier in the day, she had given me an interview, which began with the following exchange.

I’d like to start by asking you to explain the title, Entree to Judaism.  Do you intend the book, or Jewish cooking in general, to function as a portal to Judaism?  Or is the title simply a play on words?

“It’s both, actually.  A play on words because the ‘entree’ is referring to the main course — you know, the ‘entree’ to Judaism.  But I really looked at this book as a way to give people an entree into understanding their heritage as it is expressed through food.  Because it’s one thing to learn historical dates, and it’s another thing to know that your grandparents came from such and such a place — but there needs to be a connection.  There needs to be a hook.  Not everybody is an affiliated Jew, but they affiliate themselves with Judaism because they say, Well, my grandparents came from here, there and the other.  We’re getting into generations where ‘my grandparents’ could be coming from upstate New York, or ‘my grandparents’ could be coming from Illinois — and I really, really wanted people to have a connection.

“The olfactory sense is the closest link in the brain to memory, and I wanted to be able to re-create memory.  I have literally had experiences with people that have brought tears to their eyes when they’ve tasted something that I made that they remembered their mother making, or their grandmother making.  Literally.”  

What was your motivation for writing the book?

“My motivation for writing the book actually came about seven or eight years ago.  I was giving a program for my synagogue’s Sisterhood, and we went to a major supermarket chain in Dallas.  I pulled foods from the shelf and from their take-out that represented foods with which Jews had had a direct contact with their development, with their cultivation, with their sale or trade throughout history.

“When I got finished with the talk and the tasting, people said to me, ‘This was the best program.  Why didn’t anybody ever teach us any of this?’  And I joked with them and said, ‘Because they had enough to teach you in the three hours of the week that you came to Hebrew school — to teach you Hebrew and get you ready for your Bar Mitzvah, et cetera, et cetera.’

“And I realized that, especially living in the southwest, not everybody is inundated with Jewish culture the way people on the East Coast are.  And not everybody on the East Coast is inundated with the Jewish culture.  So I really wanted to give the experience of understanding the connection to people’s past — and to the stories behind the recipes.  The recipes are stories, and the stories are recipes.  So, that’s why I wrote the book.”         

How the Book Is Arranged

Entree to Judaism is divided into three parts.

The first part is titled “Cooking in the Diaspora:  Adaptation and Reclamation.”  It has thirteen sections, ten of which are devoted to geographical regions, including Spain, India, Western Europe, and “The New World and Latin America.”  The other three sections are devoted to themes such as “Jewish Traders on the Spice Route” and “Jews and the Vanilla and Cacao Trade.”

Each of the thirteen sections begins with a brief historical overview of the region or theme being addressed.  Then come recipes that have a connection to the region or theme.  And at the conclusion of each recipe there’s a box titled “Tina’s Tidbits” in which she provides tips and pertinent insider information relating to the recipe.  (This basic format of  brief introductory comments that are followed by recipes and telling “tidbits” is followed in the book’s other two parts as well.)

The second part is called “Celebration of the Jewish Holidays Throughout the World.”  Its eight sections are devoted to Shabbat,  Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, Tu BiSh’vat, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot.

The third part, titled “Icons of Jewish Cooking,” has eight sections featuring such culinary standards as chicken soup, gefilte fish, and cheesecake.

Jews and the Orange Trade

A section in part one is called “Jews and the Orange Trade.” 

In the section’s introductory comments, Wasserman presents a brief overview of Jewish cultivation of oranges in the Mediterranean region from the Roman era to the 12th century, and then writes the following:

“The Jews were involved in orange agriculture because they had been involved, since ancient times, with the cultivation of another citrus fruit, the etrog, or citron. The etrog looks like a large (five or more inches), knobby lemon.  It is very fragrant but contains little or no juice.  It is prized for its fragrance and for its thick rind, which can be candied and is widely popular in baked goods to this day. 

“The Jews cultivated the etrog to fulfill the commandment, on Sukkot, in Leviticus 23:40, ‘On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees,  branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God seven days.’  These are the four species that form the lulav and etrog.” 

The section includes a recipe for Moroccan Orange and Olive Salad. 

At the end of the recipe, the following useful “tidbit” is provided:  “The best way to tell if a citrus fruit has a good flavor is to scratch the peel with your fingernail.  Even if the fruit is tart, the scent should be sweet and full-bodied;  a lemon will smell like a lemon lollipop if good.” 

Quoting Rabbi Heschel

In the section on Shabbat in part two, she states:

“Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that God could have made a mountain or a spring that he created holy, but he didn’t, he made time holy:  ‘The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals;  and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn.'”

The Science of Chicken Soup

In part three’s section on chicken soup, Wasserman’s introductory comments range in time from the Middle Ages to the present day.

The soup “has been an icon of the Jewish table since early medieval times,” she writes.  “Its presence defined the Shabbat table,” and at a Jewish wedding feast “chicken soup was served to draw the parallel between the fecundity of chicken and the wish that the new couple be fruitful and multiply.”

She also draws the reader’s attention to research into the curative powers of chicken soup that has been conducted by scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.  The researchers, she says, have “identified some properties in chicken soup with vegetables that suggests it has an anti-inflammatory effect on our bodies that helps lessen the symptoms of the commond cold.”

She includes the medical center’s URL in case anyone wants to learn more about the research —

 www.unmc.edu/chickensoup/article.htm

I checked it out, and the information there is both fascinating and extensive.

What Her Rabbi Says About Her

Ms. Wasserman, who is married and has a son and a daughter, is a very active member of Temple Emanu-el, a large Reform congregation in Dallas.

One of the temple’s four rabbis is Rabbi Debra Robbins, who wrote the foreword to Entree to Judaism.

“This book is a little bit like the Talmud,” Rabbi Robbins writes.  “It is a compilation of rules and stories, with real life examples and illustrations, a guide not only for preparing certain recipes but for living Jewish life.” 

Rabbi Robbins has been a student in the classes that Wasserman teaches in the large kitchen in her Dallas home.

The kitchen is so expansive that it can accommodate up to twenty students, according to Wasserman’s daughter, Leslie, who was able to attend the Neiman-Marcus book-signing reception thanks to the fact that she’s in her senior year at  D.C.’s American University.  (After she graduates this spring with an expertise in public communications strategies, she’s planning to move to Hollywood to start a career in either the entertainment industry or public relations.)     

In the foreword, Rabbi Robbins states:

“In Tina’s recipes each ingredient tells a story.  Each recipe expresses an ethical value, explores an historical event, evokes a memory.  To study in Tina’s kitchen-classroom is to be in a place of challenges and paradoxes, and this book brings that experience to its readers.  To cook with Tina, in her kitchen or in our own, is to encounter the place where precision in technique intersects with culinary creativity, intense concentration gives way to laughter, and our personal lives blend with the historic stories of our ancestors…. These are recipes that will nourish and nurture not only our bodies but our hearts and minds and souls. ”

Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

Ms. Wasserman grew up on Long Island in the 1950s.

“From the time I was twelve, I knew that I wanted to teach people about food and cooking technique,” she writes in the book’s preface.

She also states the following:

“Although most of my parents’ relatives got out before the start of the war, news from Eastern Europe and the popularity of Molly Goldberg on television rekindled the family’s interest in traditional Jewish cooking, for food was the connection to the cousins left behind.”

Molly Goldberg was the main character in the groundbreaking 1950s TV sit-com “The Goldbergs,” which prior to its launch in 1949 had been a radio show for seventeen years.  I had never heard of either Molly or the show before last year’s release of “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” — the documentary film by Washington’s own Aviva Kempner about Gertrude Berg, the creator, star, and primary writer of the sit-com.

I didn’t get to see the movie during its run at the classy Avalon Theater in Chevy Chase, but thanks to Kempner’s information-filled website that’s devoted to the film, I was able to see some clips of the show.  You can see them as well, if you go to www.mollygoldbergfilm.org/home.php

In the interview, I asked Wasserman to expand on the point she made in the preface about Molly Goldberg’s influence on her.

“It had to have had a different effect on me than my parents.  My parents had cousins that got out just before it got really tough, and that’s how my mother learned how to speak Yiddish.  My father learned how to speak Yiddish from HIS family.  I mean, I grew up in a household where my parents spoke Yiddish when they didn’t want me to understand something.  I mean, literally….

“Molly Goldberg, with the Yiddish intonation, (when I was) growing up in the New York metropolitan area — she was like one of my relatives.  She was like a member of the family.  But at a time that was before I was born.  Essentially it was supposed to be in the fifties, but I was little then, so it felt like it was the forties — you know, when people lived in apartment buildings.  You kinow, I was already of the generation that the parents moved out to the island and had their first little house, their little bungalow house.  So, Molly Goldberg and the cooking and the intonation and everything was what I was used to, so it was like an extension of the family.”

What She Was Wearing

When I mentioned that I wanted to shift to the topic of fashion, she said, “I have a masters in fashion merchandising, so go for it.” 

“What are you wearing?” I asked.

“Actually, I’m so glad that you asked, because I got most of it here.  I wear Armani Collezioni. ”  She said that most of her suits and jackets are from that line.

She had on black slacks, a dark navy blue jacket, and a dark navy blue satin tuxedo shirt.

“I buy classic, tailored, basic clothes.  And I have them for years.”

Her Jewelry

“I’m wearing David Yurman earrings,” she said.  They were dangling and elliptically shaped, and made out of what she called “his classic rope and smooth-gold surface.” 

On her right wrist was a “very old” French bangle bracelet about a quarter-inch wide, made out of gold and “dark navy to green” marbleized enamel — with “gold swirls with little diamonds.”

She was wearing two necklaces.  One was of pearls — and was given to her by her husband for their thirtieth anniversary.  “I don’t know who they are, but they’re good.”

When discussing the other one, she first touched it and then said,  “It’s a Jewish star, with seed pearls in it, on a gold chain that has spaced-out, little seed pearls as well.  The gold Jewish star was given to my mother for singing in the choir sixty years ago.  And the chain is from my Bat Mitzvah, and that was almost fifty years ago.  So, I put them together.  And I wear them whenever I give a talk about the book.”

The ring on her right hand was a half-inch gold band with diagonal rows of pave diamonds and small dark sapphires. Her husband had it custom-designed for her, and gave it to her as a present for her fortieth birthday.

On her left hand she wore a quarter-inch, diamond-braided band, which she said was “probably filled with dough at this point.”  And on her left wrist she had a dark, stainless-steel watch.

Comments from a Couple of Guests

At the evening reception, I asked Aviva LeKuch of McLean what had prompted her to attend.

She said that she hadn’t planned on doing so.  She had simply been passing through Neiman-Marcus on the way to a film festival in Mazza Gallerie’s movie theater, when “suddenly I saw a Jewish cookbook.  And I said, ‘Wow!  That sounds very interesting.’  I looked through the book and I remembered some of the things that my grandmother used to cook.”

While the memories of her grandmother’s dishes were undoubtedly pleasant ones, the trip down memory lane inspired by the recipes probably had some dark undertones for her as well, considering that her childhood was spent in Latvia when it was part of the Soviet Union and Jewish observances (along with other religious practices) were not permitted.

During the afternoon’s book-signing session, Bethesda’s Phyllis Meyers was among the individuals who purchased a copy of the book and then had it inscribed by the personable Wasserman.

“I’m looking forward to trying the recipes,” said Meyers, who told several of us a story about the time when she and two of her friends received a private cooking lesson from Joan Nathan, the highly acclaimed Jewish cookbook author who happens to live in the D.C. area.  The private lesson, which Meyers had acquired through making the winning bid at a charity auction, took place in Nathan’s home kitchen. Incidentally, Nathan has called Entree to Judaism “a delicious tour de force” and “a treasure for us all.” 

Backstory — The Neiman-Marcus Connection

Since 1982, Wasserman has been living with her family in Dallas, which also happens to be  where the headquarters of Neiman-Marcus is located.

When I asked her to explain how she came to be promoting her book at the famed fashion emporium, she said:

“For twenty years, I was involved in a non-profit organization that had a child-care center for homeless children, and Neiman-Marcus was always, always very helpful.  Their employees once did a fund-raiser that raised over a hundred thousand dollars for our organization.  The current CEO, the past CEO, and Mr. Stanley Marcus himself were co-chairs of our big event, where I coordinated the dinner for eleven hundred people at the Symphony Hall — so I had a chance to work directly with all of them.  I also had a chance to work directly with the head of special events for Neiman-Marcus.  I knew the quality of Neiman-Marcus.  I was grateful for what they did for my organization and for the children.

“I sent Karen Katz, who’s the president and CEO of Neiman, an e-mail.  I said, I have written a book and I know it’s of Neiman’s quality, but I don’t know whether you can use it in the store.  I’d like the opportunity to at least show it to somebody.” 

The company’s executives eventually “decided to take a chance” on it, she said.  A book-signing event was held in the Dallas store, and it turned out to be “very successful.” 

Because of the gratitude that she feels for the company’s support of the book, “I try very, very hard to go out of my way to get all the publicity I can for Neiman,” she said.  “I believe in giving back.”

To learn more about Ms. Wasserman, please visit her website at CookingandMore.com

Rabbi Avis Miller’s Photographic Eye

March 8, 2010

Rabbi Avis Miller is one of the most admired leaders of the Washington-area Jewish community.

She’s also a trail-blazer.  When Adas Israel Congregation, the city’s second-oldest synagogue, made her one of its rabbis in 1986, it marked the first time that a woman had become a pulpit rabbi at a major Conservative synagogue in the USA. 

She left Adas Israel in June 2008.  The twenty-two years she spent there is the longest tenure in a pulpit of any woman rabbi in the Conservative movement.

Since 2008 she has been president of the Open Dor Foundation Inc., a 501 (c)3 non-profit, which has the mission of reaching out through educational programming and counseling to unaffiliated or minimally active Jews as well as non-Jews who are connected to Judaism through marriage or Jewish ancestry.  One would be hard-pressed to find someone else who is more perfectly suited —through knowledge, experience and personal charisma — for this calling. 

The foundation’s website is located at opendor.org and the rabbi’s email address is rabbi@opendor.org

She attended Wellesley College, received a masters degree from Georgetown University, and received her rabbinical training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Among her numerous activities, she conducts High Holy Days services at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, the exciting, youth-oriented shul that occupies the blissfully beautiful building in downtown D.C. that housed Adas Israel in the first half of the 1900s.

She’s also a talented photographer, and spoke with me on the phone about it today.

How are things going at the Open Dor Foundation?

I am currently teaching a number of courses in synagogues around the community, including an adult bat mitzvah class at Tiffereth Israel, open to unaffiliated women as well as TI members, as well as a class in Shabbat liturgy at Tifereth Israel and a seder workshop at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda.  I have also taught classes at Sixth and I, including a free crash course in Hebrew and introduction-to-Judaism classes.  I also offer counseling, including for conversion without charging a fee, though I do welcome donations to the Open Dor Foundation.   

Now let’s talk about your photography.  What subjects do you tend to photograph most frequently — and what explains your interest in that subject matter?

Outside of family photographs, I take almost exclusively photographs of scenery, including wildlife —  though perhaps our grandchildren could be considered wildlife.

Photography is a way of appreciating God’s creativity and artwork.

There have been a few notable exceptions to my focus on scenery and landscapes.  When I was sent to Ethiopia late in 1989 to secure the release of Ethiopian Jews, I took many photographs of their lives in Addis Ababa.  My photographs are among the few visual witnesses to that era.

One of those photographs, of six Ethiopian children crouching against a wall, was later made into a large triptych, an oil painting, which hangs in the library of Tel Aviv University.  When I commented to the artist that she had repaired tears in the children’s tattered clothing, she told me that she did so purposely so that people would focus their attention on the faces of the children.

When did you first start taking photographs, and how has your interest in photography developed over the years since then?

I first started taking photographs in high school when I won a national competition in the German language.  There were two prizes.  One was a trip to Washington.  The other was a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super Camera.

I began taking photographs the week I was in Washington being hosted by the German Embassy.

On Friday evening, the embassy asked what I wanted to do that evening.  I replied that I wanted to attend synagogue services.  So the embassy chauffeur tranported me to Adas Israel Congregation.  If anyone had told me then that I would one day be a rabbi on that very same pulpit, I would certainly have considered it some kind of a joke.  There were no female rabbis anywhere then in the United States, nor were there any women in any rabbinical schools.  

My interest in photography developed as I traveled to what must certainly be some of the most beautiful places on earth — our American national parks, all of the continents, and beyond both the Arctic and the Antarctic circles.   

Is there a connection between your photography and your personal sense of Judaism?

I believe that one thing that  Judaism does very well is to encourage us to focus on images and moments in time.  The very concept of a bracha, a blessing, is to make us focus.  It’s interesting to me that we use the word “focus” to speak about both photography and spiritual matters. 

According to the Torah, we are created in the image of God, Who is the ultimate creator.  In that sense, artists are expressing a divine aspect of human nature when we create art.

 

Lee C. White — Writer, Lawyer and Role Model

March 1, 2010

The year 2010 marks the 60th anniversary of Lee C. White becoming a member of the bar.  For a somewhat shorter period of time than that, he has been my father.

As a Jew in his 86th year, he has lived a life that has given concrete expression to two major Jewish values:  modesty and the obligation to perform tikkun olam, to heal the world.

It is not as widely known as it should be that he was President Lyndon Johnson’s closest adviser on civil rights.  One reason for why this historical fact isn’t common knowledge is that he doesn’t have the kind of ego that’s obsessed with getting attention.

Both when he was in the White House as LBJ’s special counsel in the mid-1960s and after he had left it, he was disinclined to toot his own horn about the key role that he played in helping America take a major legislative step toward healing the biggest wound she has ever had.  It’s a textbook example of modesty and tikkun olam occurring simultaneously. 

If you ever get the chance, be sure to ask him about the experiences he had in dealing with Martin Luther King Jr. and the other titans of the civil rights movement.  The behind-the-scenes stories he can tell are absolutely riveting.

In 1966 he left the White House in order to become chairman of the Federal Power Commission (the precursor agency to today’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission).  That experience gave him irrefutable gravitas when he became the Consumer Federation of America’s top advocate on energy policy in 1973.  In that position, he did his best to persuade Congress and industry to implement wise energy policies that would protect and heal our environment.

So, a third of a century ago, he was already engaged in performing green-oriented tikkun olam.

Today he continues to work in the energy field, serving as of counsel to Spiegel & McDiarmid, an energy law firm in Washington.

In 2008 he published his memoirs, Government for the People:  Reflections of a White House Counsel to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson

Writing in Legal Times in 2008, Debra Bruno called the book “an anecdotal romp through political Washington of the 1950s and 60s.”  Now the features editor of Roll Call, Bruno stated that my father “was at the center of power during some of the 20th century’s most tumultuous times.”

She also reported on a March 2008 book talk he gave in which he “regaled a packed house at the Politics & Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington with fleeting but fascinating glimpses into his life and times.”

Bruno wrote:  “As he notes in his book, it was White who suggested to Johnson that he address a joint session of Congress to lobby for the Voting Rights Act instead of sending over a mimeographed message.  Johnson, said White, ‘made a wonderful speech’ and ‘the place went bananas.’  Less than five months later, White notes in his book, the act was signed into law.’ ”

She observed that his memoir reveals a “gentle yet quick” sense of humor.  She also stated the following:  “White seems modest about his role in great events  and grateful for the chances he had.  He sums it up in his usual offhand way:  ‘I happened to be in the right place at the right time.’  ”

Government for the People isn’t only concerned with my father’s career.  It also discusses his personal life.

For instance, he touches upon how his father came from a shtetl in what is today Ukraine and how his mother came from a small town in the same area. 

That their son, who was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, would grow up to be whispering into the ears of two presidents is a terrific Jewish-American success story — and a tale that’s tailor-made to inspire others to live lives that also mix modesty and tikkun olam.

 (Some parts of this article first appeared in the Feb. 21, 2008 edition of Washington Jewish Week.)

A White House Experience From My Childhood

February 22, 2010

After You’ve Played the White House, Where Else Is There to Go?

In the fall of 1965, I had an experience that could have happened only in Washington.  At the ripe age of 11, I appeared in a musical revue that was put on by LBJ’s White House staff to honor Congress for the landmark civil rights and Great Society legislation it had just passed in the 89th Congress.

My role was a nonspeaking one, but it was nevertheless enough to give me the shakes.

I got the role the old-fashioned way — through nepotism.

My father, Lee C. White, was LBJ’s lawyer at the time.  He had originally become a White House staffer when John Kennedy became president, serving as an assistant to JFK’s White House Counsel Theodore Sorensen.  (He and Sorensen had been friends and law school classmates at the University of Nebraska, and in 1954 Sorensen had hired him onto then-Sen. Kennedy’s Senate staff.)  

When Johnson became president, he not only promoted him to White House counsel but also made him his point man on civil rights.

Now 86 and with his sparkling sense of humor and irrepressible optimism still intact, he’s of counsel at Spiegel & McDiarmid, an energy law firm in Washington.

In 2008 he published his memoirs, Government for the People: Reflections of a White House Counsel to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.  One reviewer called it “an anecdotal romp through political Washington of the 1950s and 60s.”  (The book is discussed in greater detail in the post that follows this one.)

In any event, one day in ’65 the White House social secretary, Bess Abell, asked him whether any of his three sons happened to be about 13 and, if so, whether he might be interested in playing the role of  a poor Jewish boy from New York City’s Lower East Side.  He said that one of them was in that age range, and he would inquire about his interest in participating.

Soon afterwards I took a bus downtown by myself, walked up to the White House’s East Gate, and, after a phone call by a uniformed Secret Service agent, was admitted to the building and escorted to my first business meeting — with Abell and the show’s stage manager, Lloyd Battista.  It was his call as to whether I was right for the role, and fortunately, after spending some time talking with me, he decided to give me my first big break in show biz.  (Many years later, I saw him onscreen in a supporting role in a Woody Allen movie.)         

The Perks of Having a Powerful Father

While the chance to appear in the show was a one-of-a-kind opportunity, some of the perks that came with being the offspring of a White House insider had already been experienced by my siblings and me.  (At the time I had two brothers and a sister, and since then have acquired another sister.)

One of  the most exciting  activities was visiting my father in his West Wing office and then accompanying him to the White House mess for lunch.  I remember oil paintings of ships hanging on the walls of the Navy-run and nautically-themed dining room, which was located on a lower level of the building.  I also recall the ridiculously low prices.  A large hamburger with fries and all the trimmings was something like sixty-five cents.  I mean, I could have paid for that out of my weekly allowance.

Another thrill came when my brothers and I were able to ride with our father in one of the limousines  in the presidential motorcade that went from the White House to D.C. Stadium (now RFK) one year for the Washington Senators’ opening day game.  Even though my brothers and I were big Senators fans, the highlight of our day wasn’t sitting in the box seats with the presidential entourage, but rather the insuperable feeling of having our limo go through numerous red lights as the motorcade zipped through the city and all the traffic came to a standstill until we had passed.  Now, that’s power.  And even as kids, we got a shot of adrenaline from it.  

One of the best perks of all was going to Camp David for our vacations.  One on occasion, our family was invited into the presidential lodge to watch a night-time screening of the Rat Pack movie “Robin and the Seven Hoods.”  Since President Johnson wasn’t at the resort at the time, his lodge was being occupied by Secretary of State Dean Rusk.  My siblings and I sat on the living-room carpet while our parents and Rusk sat in comfy chairs as the movie was shown with a 16 mm. projector.

On another visit to the rustic resort in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, I remember playing in a touch football game in which each team had both adults and kids.  During a kickoff return, it was my responsibility to block LBJ’s National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy.  Here was this big, athletic guy running down the field full-tilt.  And there was me, a little kid, who was supposed to impede him.  I made a very quick calculation and decided that it was highly unlikely that he would choose to run me over.  So I stood my ground in front of him, leaving him with only two options — to decimate me or to slow down and avoid me.  Fortunately he chose the latter, and he emitted a curse while putting on the brakes.  (The encounter turned out to be good preparation for the other times in my life when I had to calculate the odds of being squashed like a bug before deciding to stand up to power.)

The Show Must Go On

Called “A Salute to Congress” and performed only once, the production was staged at the State Department’s auditorium on the night of Oct. 7 before a small audience that included President Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, some members of Congress and of the Cabinet, and their spouses.  (I think some members of the Supreme Court were there, too.)

When it was over, the president came up on stage and spoke to the assembled cast.  He said he had loved the show so much that he wished every American could see it.  Then he left the State Department and checked into Bethesda’s Naval Hospital in order to undergo his famous gall bladder operation, the scar from which he proudly displayed to photographers who shared the image with millions of Americans (most of whom probably wished they’d never seen it).

The production featured such famous entertainers as gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, actors Fredric March and Hugh O’Brian, opera star Robert Merrill, singer/actress Sheila MacRae, the Bitter End Singers, and the then-uncontroversial singer Anita Bryant.  The U.S. Marine Corps Band, seated in the orchestra pit, not only played the original score that had been written for the show, but also provided accompaniment to the wide range of songs that were performed.

In a phone call, Abell recalls that the show almost did not go on.  Republicans on the Hill prevented the Democrats from adjourning in time for everyone to get over to the State Department.  Ironically, the legislation under discussion was the beautification program that was one of first lady Lady Bird Johnson’s favorite causes, says Abell, whose son is named Lyndon.  The decision was made to cancel the performance, since it would not make sense to present a show honoring Congress when most of its members were tied up on the Hill, she says.

Perhaps as something of a consolation for all the hard work that had gone into preparing for the production, the cast and crew were put on buses and taken through the rainy night to the White House to meet the president and have our pictures taken with him.

The photo session was held in the Yellow Oval Room in the family quarters on the second floor of the White House.   When it was over, one of the musical groups in the show sang a song for the president — a surprisingly stirring anthem called “The Great 89th,” which had recently been penned to pay homage to that legislative session’s notable accomplishments.  Its chorus is easy for me to remember all these years later:  “Oh, the great 89th will always be remembered.  Yes, the great 89th has left its mark.  No Congress before ever opened the door to the future like the great 89th!”

President Johnson liked the rousing song so much, Abell says, that when the group finished it, he asked them to sing it again.  At the end of the second rendition, she says, the president asked, “Why can’t I see the play?”  And with that simple question, the production was suddenly back on.

“It was chaotic,” Abell says.  “I jumped into the president’s car with Fredric March and Hugh O’Brian.  We were all just rushing to get over there.”

A Salute to Congress

Back at the State Department, the production opened with an inspirational prologue that was read slowly and in wonderfully sonorous tones by actor March.  At the conclusion of the show, he reappeared to provide an even more emotional epilogue.

The original score was composed by Ferde Grofe, the American composer, then 73, whose best-known work is “Grand Canyon Suite.”  “Everyone thought he was dead, but we found him in California,” Abell says.

The script was drawn from a lushly lyrical passage in Thomas Wolfe’s renowned novel You Can’t Go Home Again that discusses different archtypal activities going on at one point in time all across America.  Playing the key role of the onstage narrator was actor O’Brian.  He was one of the cast’s few performers that I was familiar with, thanks to his portrayal of Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp in the 1950s television show of that name.  O’Brian would intone portions of Wolfe’s luscious prose as a way of setting up musical numbers that had a connection to the city or region being referenced.

For instance, a passage about a Louisiana boy practicing to become a big-league pitcher was followed by a performance by a New Orleans ragtime band called Your Father’s Mustache.  A passage on the Midwest set the stage for Sheila MacRae’s frisky version of “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City.”  O’Brian’s references to California set up a performance of the song “San Francisco,” while his comments about the Second City led up to a rousing rendition of “Chicago.”  And a passage about the Great Plains provided the setup to Robert Merrill’s thunderous version of “Oklahoma.”  (As a cast member, I was privy to the secret that the large cowboy hat he held as a prop had a sheet of lyrics taped onto it to help him get through it and/or the other song that he performed, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”)

Passages about New York City provided the context for two songs.  The first was by Anita Bryant, who, dressed in a slinky, sparkling gown, delivered a sultry version of “Manhattan,” with its great line of “I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, too.”

Then, near the end of the production, as O’Brian recited Wolfe’s words about a bespectacled young Jewish boy who sits at night reading on a Lower East Side fire escape driven by the aspiration of attaining “the world distinction of an Einstein name,” the audience saw me downstage left doing exactly that.  When he stopped talking, a single spotlight came down on Mahalia Jackson upstage right.  She proceeded to sing a slow, crystal-clear, palpably religious version of the spiritual “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” that mesmerized  the audience with its sweet purity and musical mastery — and brought the house down.

Schmoozing With Merrill and March 

One of the great benefits of being in the show was the opportunity to hang out with some of the world-class performers in the cast.

For instance, I had an amusing exchange with opera legend Merrill that took place at a reception at the State Department while the show was in rehearsals.  An exhibition of small paintings was on view in the reception room, and I was standing in front of one of the paintings sipping on a 7-Up when Merrill sidled up to me with a real drink in his hand.  He looked at the painting and saw that it was an abstract depiction of a naked woman.  There was no head, only the voluptuous contours of her torso and breasts.  He looked down at me and smiled, then looked back at the painting.  “Hmmm,” he said, “anyone I know?”

I also fondly remember an exhange with actor March in which he steeled my nerves.  At the time, all I knew about March (1897-1975) was that he was an old, legendary movie star who had a superb voice and an aura of extraordinary dignity.  Only later in life did I see his superb film performances.  Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, the exemplary cable tv network that has given me so many peak experiences, now I get to see him all the time.

He might be playing opposite Greta Garbo in “Anna Karenina” of 1935.  Or opposite Humphrey Bogart in “The Desperate Hours” of 1955.  Or playing one of the central roles in the 1946 classic “The Best Years of Our Lives.”  Or giving a thoroughly convincing performance as the U.S. president in 1964’s “Seven Days in May.”

After returning to the State Department from the White House on the night of the performance, he and I spent a few minutes together backstage a short time before the curtain was due to rise.  He was calm and steady, but I was a different story.  I was so nervous that my knees were shaking.

I said to him, “You know, I always thought that the old expression about being so scared that your knees shake was just an expression.  But now I see that it’s really true.”

He smiled at me reassuringly.  “Don’t worry,” he said softly.  “I’ve seen much worse cases than that.”

His words had their intended effect.  I was able to fulfill my meager responsibilities of walking out onto the fake fire escape and sitting with my back against one of its supports while pretending to be deeply engrossed in the book that I held.  In all honesty, I wasn’t much more than a living, breathing piece of scenery for Mahalia Jackson’s astonishing performance.  But receiving the comforting comments from the big-hearted March gave my confidence enough of a boost that I was able to pull it off.  Not many children get the opportunity to share thoughts about stage fright with someone who starred with Bogie and Garbo.

 The Unforgettable Mahalia Jackson —  With “One Foot in Heaven”

While I’ll always be grateful for March’s words of encouragement, the most extraordinary backstage moments that I had were probably those that were shared with songstress Jackson.  I was familiar with her from having watched her weekday TV program, on which she’d sing her signature version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” which always got me singing along.  But seeing her in person backstage was much different from watching her on the tube.  For one thing, she was surprisingly frail.  She was only 54 years old and would live another six-plus years until January 1972, but she had been hospitalized with heart problems in 1964.  (She later regained her vigor and returned to performing up to 200 concerts a year, according to Ebony.)  

Her presence was extremely powerful.  It was as if piety were oozing out of every pore.  On her face was a contented glow that I could tell, even at my young age, was the manifestation of an inner peace.  Something about her made me think that she had sensed her fate and had reconciled with it.  I remember thinking that she seemed like she already had one foot in heaven.

Her entourage consisted of one quiet, gentle man who was always with her, tending to her needs.  The other cast members seemed to sense her special aura and left her alone.  As the only child in the cast, I was able to interact with her without really invading the zone of privacy that seemed to surround her like an invisible cloud.

I asked her to sign my program, and she cheerfully obliged.  In addition to her name, she wrote two sweet, simple words that spoke, and continue to speak, volumes:  Keep smilin’.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the arts section of the Sept. 1, 2003 edition of Legal Times, a now-defunct weekly publication that was based in Washington, D.C.)