Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler at Jewish Museum gala

On Saturday night, the National Museum of American Jewish History celebrated its opening with a gala, headlined by comedian Jerry Seinfeld and singer Bette Midler. Actors Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, Eagle’s owners Jeffrey and Christiana Lurie, Senator Arlen Specter, Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, CBS News anchor Pat Ciarrocchi, and radio personality Jerry Blavat were among the 998 people that paid up to $5000 a ticket to attend.

Jerry Seinfeld, the masters of ceremony for the night, opened the event by describing a recent visit to see his mother in south Florida, naturally. He wondered why she and her fellow old people lived in a minimum- security prison. “Who is going to steal them?” he asked. His mother, age 89, still drives so he installed a cataract corrected windshield on her car.

Seinfeld seemed to forget that he was performing for the opening of the National Museum of Jewish History because he talked mostly about toilets and marriage. He describes “being single at 45 as a Jesus Christ moment.” “Jesus Christ, you are still single,” quipped Seinfeld.

Seinfeld, whose hit television show revolved around the lives of 4 single people, now only hangs out with couples because he has nothing in common with bachelors. “When someone tells me that they have a girlfriend, I tell them you are playing wiffle ball or paint ball. I am in Iraq with fully loaded weapons,” he joked. “While I want to pick for $200 the Jeopardy Category of the last movie that my wife and I saw together, she chooses and places all her money on the topic of conversation that we had 8 years ago at 3 am in the morning.”

Seinfeld wondered, “Why do the ads for Viagra recommend that you see a doctor if your erection lasts more than 4 hours. I would be going to see the doctor by hour three. I would thrown on my poncho and get to the doctor’s office.”

When the comedy ended, Comcast-Spectacor CEO Ed Snider took the stage in all seriousness to talk about “Only in America,” the museum exhibit he conceived, funded for $5 million, and helped create. Snider explained his involvement, “I want to celebrate how good America has been in the Jews. It is a way of showing my appreciation.”

With votes on the internet from 56 countries, this exhibit honors 18 Jews in the first rotation. The honorees include Jonas Salk, the creator of vaccine for Polio, conductor Leonard Bernstein, baseball player Sandy Koufax, and singer/actress/director Barbra Streisand. Snider introduced Streisand by saying, “There are only 3 living people in the “Only in America” exhibit and we are honored to have one of them here tonight.”

While Streisand is an international star, the star of the evening was Jones Apparel Group founder Sidney Kimmel, who kicked off the fundraising drive for the museum with a donation of $25 million. Kimmel, called the quiet giant by the magazine Women’s Wear Daily, characteristically refused to speak during the dinner. Earlier, he said, “Freedom, which Jews have enjoyed at unprecedented levels in America, allows anything to possible.

His wife, Caroline Kimmel, made a speech in his honor. She said, “Sidney was raised at 4th and Mifflin during the Great Depression by his cab driver father. Sidney still lives by the values that his father, who pooled his tips with other cabbies, passed down to Sidney. Those preserved values inspired him to heed the call when Mayor Rendell was struggling to fund the Avenue of the Arts and led to the creation of the Kimmel Center.

She continued, “He is the largest individual donor to cancer in the United States with four Kimmel cancer centers in the United States including at Jefferson and Johns Hopkins. He has chosen to make a difference and I know that he is not finished.”

Bette Midler wrapped up the evening with performance that rocked the house. In opening, she asked the question that has been on everybody’s mind, “Why is there a Jewish Museum here? There are more Jews in my apartment building in New York than all of Philadelphia.”

She said, “She was very proud to being playing for her people and guessed she was there because Streisand said no.” Midler promised to only perform songs written by Jewish Americans in honor of the opening.

She had some ideas for the museum. She suggested, “It would be right on the nose if the museum had a rhinoplasty wing. Probably, there isn’t a sport icon hall in the museum. It is just a doorway. It is shame that accounting is not a sport.”

“This dinner is a good place to be exhausted,” joked Midler. “There are 100 doctors to take care of me and double that amount of lawyers capable of suing if there is something wrong.”

In the only serious moment of her performance, Midler told her audience the debt that Jewish singers owe to prolific composer Irving Berlin. “He allowed us to dream. He made it okay for us not to be a butcher or shopkeeper.” Then she sang Berlin’s God Bless American because “White Christmas” would not be appropriate.”

No performance of Midler’s would be complete without some bawdiness. She reprised the role of Soph. “The elderly man said that I would have been gentler with you if I had known that you were a virgin. My response to him was that I would have taken off my pantyhose if I had known that you could get it up.”

Midler reminded the audience of her Philly connection. She used to play for Larry Magid at the Bijou. She ended the evening with a medley of songs written by Jewish American composers such as Simon and Garfunkel, Neal Sedaka, and Steven Sondheim.

The museum was official opened at noon on Sunday, November 14. 2400 founding members of the museum along with dignitaries such as Senators Specter, Casey, and Lautenberg, and Congressman Gerlach attended.

50 shofars, the Jewish ceremonial ram’s horn, were sounded near the beginning of the ceremony. Andrea Mitchell, the NBC anchor, was the mistress of ceremonies. Mayor Nutter spoke first about his pride in this national museum being in Philadelphia on Independence Mall in the shadow of the President’s House and the African American museum. He stressed, “This is a museum for all Americans. It tells the story of all ethnic groups.”

Governor Rendell talked next about his lack of religious training but the request from his father not to forget he was Jewish. Then he credited George Ross, co-chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, with the state’s involvement. “The original contribution from the state came from Governor Schweiker. I could never refuse George Ross even when I was mayor of Philadelphia. The state, while I was governor, gave four separate donations to the museum.”

Vice President Biden said that there was no other city for this museum because of the 350 years of Jewish history here. He stirringly used the props at hand- the Liberty Bell. Biden said, “A Rabbi in Moldavia could not believe that the Liberty Bell was inscribed with words from the Jewish bible. He asked those that came to America to check it out for him. They reported to him that yes it was true about the biblical inscription, but the bell was cracked. Hearing this, he exhorted them to mend the bell. Jews, from that day forward, have been mending the bell by their thousands of acts of kindness.”

The ceremony ended with the nailing on the door of a Mezuzah, a object containing religious text, by Rabbi Irving Greenberg.

Actor and director James Brolin credited himself with bringing Barbra Streisand here. “When I was filming, “Standing Ovation”, the museum started talking to me about Barbra attending. She was really touched about being honored in the Only in America, so I put them in touch with her manager Marty Erlichman, who runs her life. I really like Philadelphia. The premier for Standing Ovations was the best party that Philadelphia had ever seen. I really want to see the historical parts of the city. George Rice and George Reed, two signers of the Declaration of Independence, are my relatives. I wanted to see their statues.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Catching up with Arlen Specter

I ran into Senator Specter at the opening of the Philadelphia Craft Show. In a sign of things to come, he paid for his own ticket. He acted as if he did not have a care in the world and was making jokes all night. Recalling his performance during the Clarence Thomas hearings, I marveled that this was the same man.

While Specter did not want to talk about his primary opponent Joe Sestak, he had plenty to say about his old adversary, Anita Hill. “While Ginny Thomas should not have called Anita Hill’s office at 7 30 in the morning, it was even stupider of Anita Hill to alert the press of the call,” he commented.

Specter is ready to retire yet. He said, “I am going back for the lame duck Congress to soak it the rich and raise tax rates. Don’t ask don’t tell is also a priority.”

Specter had no regrets about leaving the Republican Party and becoming a Democrat. “I was born a Democrat, he stated. “When I decided to run for office, I was forced to run on the Republican ticket because the city Democrat machine was so corrupt they would not consider me. I was still registered as a Democrat at the time.”

The Senator is coy about his future plans. “George Mitchell advised me to take my time in making a decision,” he mentioned. Like many a politician, he is considering become a pundit. His outlet of choice was a surprising one. It is the liberal bastion of NPR.

Lenfest gabs

Philadelphians, HF Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, were one of 40
billionaires that signed on to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’ charity
pledge. The pledge requires the signer to give more than half their
wealth away. Larry Ellison of Oracle and former Philadelphian Ron
Perelman also signed the pledge.

Gerry Lenfest, who took home $1.6 billion after the sale of his cable
company to Comcast, said, “When Warren called, it was very easy for us
to agree. Marguerite and I have already given away more than half of
our wealth.”

Marguerite Lenfest shook her head in agreement, "We think
it is bad to leave that much wealth to your children. All that money
would rob them of the incentive to do anything with their lives. It is
not surprise that the couple did a joint interview. They do almost
everything together including starting their cable empire.

Gerry Lenfest said, “We are having too much fun giving our wealth away
to save any for later.” Marguerite Lenfest added, “We also do not plan
to have our foundation last for perpetuity, only for the next 30
years. After that, the foundation could outlive its original purpose." Friends say that the
bitter fight over the Barnes foundation, which the Lenfests were
involved with, influenced their plans to give their foundation a
finite life.

Gerry Lenfest praised his wife, “Warren said that Marguerite had the
best plan. Marguerite told him that people should figure out what they
need; how many cars etc. Then, they should give the rest away." These billionaires
practice what they preach. They live without air conditioning in their original house that was purchased in 1965.

In bad news for Philadelphia, Gerry Lenfest said, "We are almost done
giving our money away. We have given away more than $800
million.”Marguerite Lenfest stressed, “We can only give to
organizations not individuals. It would be too hard to distribute the
money if we were giving to individuals.”

The couple, who have given the most in donations to this region except
for the Annenbergs, is actively involved in recruiting other
billionaires to sign the pledge and are planning to attend a strategy
dinner hosted by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Gerry Lenfest, who
simultaneously chairs the Board of Trustees for the Philadelphia
Museum of Art, the Curtis Center, and the American Revolution Center,
said, "We are always talking up the pledge."

National Museum of American Jewish History

The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), the only museum
dedicated to telling the story of American Jewish life, opened this
weekend on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The 100,000 square foot
museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, cost $150 million. James Stewart Polshek, the architect for the Clinton Library, designed the striking glass and terracotta building.

Thirteen thousand people from all fifty states have signed up to be founding
members of the museum. Major donors include computer giant Michael Dell, director Steven
Spielberg, builder Robert Toll, and Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider.
Prominent philanthropist Suzanne Cohn, who was hosting a Sabbath dinner for the board of trustees and dignitaries on opening weekend, evinced the pride of many Jews, “This is a triumph for the Jews.Today, being a Jew and an American is interchangeable.”

Josh Perelman, chief curator, maintains, “Independence Mall was the perfect place for this museum. This museum is a monument to what can be achieved with freedom.” NMAJH, which expects to draw 250,000 visitors annually, celebrates 350 years of Jewish life in America. While the museum presents an original telegram warning about the Nazis, NMAJH relegates the Holocaust as well as Israel and religion to a supporting role.

Steven Spielberg’s first camera, Barbra Streisand’s costume for “Yentl”, and a picture of Soviet Jewry leader Connie Smukler from Philadelphia are among the 1200 items currently displayed. Jewish gangsters such as Arnold Rothstein, featured in HBO’s "Boardwalk Empire", are mentioned but the story of Leo Frank, the only Jew ever lynched in the United States, is highlighted.

Interactive displays and films enrich the exhibits. Performances of stars such as Gilda Radner and Sarah Silverman are rolling continuously. In a retrospective of the Marx Brothers, Three Stooges and Eddie Cantor, Director Carl Reiner's narration inadvertently advertises the theme of the museum. He said, “In the 20’s and 30’s, you did not have to be a Jewish to be a comedian, but it surely helped.” While Hollywood is exhaustively portrayed, Wall Street and the fashion industry are curiously bypassed.

Bureaucratic red tape led to the creation of a national Jewish museum in Philadelphia and not in New York or Washington. Leon Levy, president of the Mikve Israel Synagogue, explained, “When the Independence Mall was being created, the Federal Government wanted to give land on the mall to Mikve Israel, the nation’s second oldest synagogue, The government could not give land to a religious institution so the board of directors created a museum. The possessions of former Mikve Israel members such as Rebecca Gratz, the inspiration for the Rebecca in Scott’s Ivanhoe, Haym Solomon, who financed the Revolutionary War, and Robert Morris, the first US Treasury Secretary, served as the basis of the museum.”

Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the museum, said, “The new museum could not have been built without former Philadelphian Sidney Kimmel and George Ross. Sidney Kimmel, the founder of Jones Apparel Group, gave $25 million when the museum was just an idea. His donation conferred credibility on the project. George Ross, a former partner at Goldman Sachs in Philadelphia, raised singlehandedly almost all of the $150 million needed for the museum." Friends of billionaire Kimmel said that he gave such a large donation because the museum told his story.

Rosenzweig, whose favorite item in the museum is prolific composer Irving Berlin’s piano, urged everyone to visit. “This is every immigrant’s story – be they Italian, Irish, or Asian.”


Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin experience

The Son Also Rises
When Jason Bonham, the son of legendary Led zeppelin drummer John Bonham, announced that he was going to tour with a reconstituted band, the blogosphere lit up with protests that he was capitalizing on his famous father.

Those fans could not have been more wrong. Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience performance at the Merriam Theatre, on November 6 was perfection. As one fan said, "When I closed my eyes, I thought I was listening to the real Zeppelin."

The four- stick duet of Zeppelin's “Moby Dick” that technology allowed Jason Bonham to play alongside with his father was the most emotional moment of many during the concert. The band performed Led Zeppelin classics such as "Stairway to Heaven", "Kashmir" and "Baby, I am going
to leave you."

Bonahm won the audience's heart by sharing his never before seen personal family photo album during the performance.The mostly male middle aged audience showed in its appreciation by standing for the last quarter of the concert.

The New Jewish Museum in Philly

I spent four hours in the new Jewish museum on Independence Mall. As a former Wall Streeter, I could not help notice that Wall Street was dissed. There is no mention of it. This is especially weird because the building is named in honor of a Goldman Sachs partner. Maybe the recent financial crisis play a role in that decision.
In touring the museum, I pondered another question. Can you really have a museum of American Jewish history without Bernie Madoff?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Vision 2020-ending gender inequality

Philadelphia was the birthplace of equality for men. Now it is the home of a movement to end gender inequality. A thousand women gathered in Philadelphia recently for Vision 2020, a conference about overcoming barriers to women’s equality. Spearheaded by the Drexel University College of Medicine, the congress features Oscar winner Geena Davis; Jane Seymour; the first black woman astronaut, Mae Jemison; Lisa Nutter, the mayor’s wife; and Sunoco CEO Lynn Elsehans.

Vision 2020 co-founder Lynn Yeakel, the director of Drexel University Medical School’s Institute of Women’s Health and Leadership, stressed the need for the gathering, “Women earn 80 cents for every dollar me earn. Women of color earn 62 cents. This wage gap costs the average working woman $700,000 to $2 million over her lifetime.”

Rosemary Greco, former Corestates CEO, stated that Vision 2020 plans a 10 -year effort to increase the amount of women in leadership positions. “3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Despite the influence of Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi, there are only 6 women governors and 17% of Congress is women,” said Greco, Vision 2020 co-founder.

The summit produced concrete ideas on how to advance women in leadership positions. Sunoco CEO Lynn Elsehans advocates programs for young girls that will promote self- confidence and end self -limitation. She recalled, "Often when I would approach a woman for a promotion, she would refuse the job because of a lack of confidence."

Elsehans continued, “Ideally, women in senior positions will promote other women. One of my first acts as CEO was to appoint 3 women to the board of Sunoco. Academic studies have shown that with three women on the board the dynamics of the company change."

Roberta Liebenberg, chairman of the American Bar Association's committee for the advancement of women, wants more companies to follow Microsoft's and Walmart's lead."Microsoft rewards law firms for diversification with bonuses. Conversely, they fire the firms that are not diversified enough. Walmart insists that one out of the five relationship managers of the law firm be on flex time," she said.

Jane Seymour, who spent her childhood working in her doctor father's office, was thrilled to come to Philadelphia for Drexel College of Medicine. She said, "My character Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman went to medical school at the predecessor school to Drexel- Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. Seymour, a former Bond Girl, is proud of playing Dr. Quinn and feels that it had a positive impact on women, She proudly mentioned, "Dr Quinn still plays on television every day in the United States and 98 countries. Women come up to me all the time and credit my character with convincing them to be a doctor."

In conjunction with this Congress, the National Constitutional Center has opened a new exhibit featuring milestones in women’s equality. It marks the date of the first female candidate as well as the first time a court refused to grant a woman a divorce. “This exhibition was created to inform the public about women’s history, which is often only a slim chapter in American history books,” Vision 2020 Co-Chair Lynn Yeakel said.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The new world order according to Durbin

On a recent campaign trip to Philadelphia, the self- effacing Senator Durbin fears that nothing will be accomplished in the next session of Congress. He said, “It was hard to get anything done when we had 60 Democratic votes in Congress,” he noted. “After Scott Brown’s election to the Senate from Massachusetts, we had to secure the vote of a moderate Republican such as Sue Collins and George Voinovich to pass any legislation. Looking at the Republicans that could be elected to Congress in November, the tea baggers in particular, I just do not know if we will be able to work with them.”

Durbin continued, “Maybe Lindsay Graham will work with us on climate change. John McCain, before he ran for the Senate this time, would have helped us with immigration reform. Let’s hope he will do so again.”

Could the next session of Congress boast of being the nothing accomplished Congress?