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Jews and New York: A Love Story

May 22, 2013
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Jews and New York, like bagels and lox—you could picture them apart, but why bother?

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon

If there’s a theme uniting the life and work of author Michael Chabon, conductor and university president Leon Bostein, historian Deborah Dash Moore, film producer and entrepreneur Scott Berrie, along the Lower East Side culinary institution Russ & Daughters – it’s the inextricable contribution of Jewish immigrants and their descendants to the city’s culture, economy, and politics.

All five will be honored with Jewish Cultural Achievement Awards at a gala on Monday, June 10th at the TimesCenter in New York City. (As part of the gala, the Foundation is running its first ever online auction.  Start bidding on fine art, signed books, and unique experiences donated by FJC’s honorees, fellows, and supporters from May 24th – June 7.)

Dash_Moore_Deborah 2012

Deborah Dash Moore

Maybe it’s because almost from the city’s very first days, Jews had emigrated to New York (or New Amsterdam) in a search of freedom, reinventing both themselves and their new city in the process. It’s a story told again most recently in City of Promises, the award-winning 2012 book series edited by Deborah Dash Moore. In a career spanning 35 years, the social historian has helped to reshape the field of American Jewish history, most especially in her work on Jewish women and the children of Eastern European immigrants.

Some of those children of immigrants could easily have ended up in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, an engrossing, sprawling, and affectionate look at Jewish artists during the “Golden Age” of New York’s comic book industry. The novel, which won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize, has been heralded as the author’s magnum opus.

In interviews, Chabon has noted in how many of the book’s events are based on the lives of some of the most influential comic book artists, nearly all Jewish, including Jack Kirby and Joe Simon (Captain American), and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Superman).

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein

Presenting Michael Chabon’s award will be prize-winning writer Nathan Englander, who has similarly plumbed recent Jewish history in his novels and short stories. Englander is a recipient of the foundation’s Goldberg Prize for Outstanding Debut Fiction.

Meanwhile, bridging the fields of scholarship and the arts—as well as being a child of Jewish New York—is Leon Botstein. In addition to being president of Bard College, Botstein’s unique position as a leading music scholar, performer, and founder and coartistic director of the Bard Music Festival have enabled him to have a major impact on both music scholarship and performance.

As music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestry, Botstein focuses the ASO’s programming on the performance of infrequently-performed works by major composers, and has helped to champion Jewish composers. Additionally, it is for his efforts in helping to revitalize the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra that the foundation is awarded him a 2013 Jewish Cultural Achievement Award.

In honor of Leon Bostein, the 2013 gala will feature world-renowned clarinet player David Krakauer performing Russian composer Alexander Krein’s early 20th century Judaica music. Krakauer helped to start the FJC’s New Jewish Culture Network and also teaches at Bard College.

Scott Berrie

Scott Berrie

In a similar vein, another lifelong New Yorker, Scott Berrie, juggles multiple roles and projects. In a previous incarnation Berrie was an entrepreneur with a particular interest in socially conscious businesses. Most recently, Berrie founded Impulse Creative Productions, a company that produces independent films. Berrie had a hand in New York, I Love You a 2009 romantic comedy starring Natalie Portman and Ethan Hawke, while his new film, Jerusalem, I Love You, is currently in production.

Berrie also serves as vice president of the Russell Berrie Foundation, which invests in projects that promote religious understanding and pluralism in the Jewish world and beyond. The Russell Berrie Foundation supports the foundation’s American Academy in Jerusalem.

If there’s one place that you could imagine this diverse group of four meeting, it might be Russ & Daughters, which for over a hundred years has specialized in Jewish soul food – lox, creamed herring, cream cheese and more. Once merely one of dozens of shops that catered to Jewish appetites, Russ & Daughters is now a stalwart institution and a favorite destination – “the touchstone,” as a sweet recollection published last year in The New York Times had it – for Jews seeking to connect to some culinary roots.

Lower East Side institution Russ & Daughters.

Lower East Side institution Russ & Daughters.

Russ & Daughters is now run by a fourth generation of Russes—an immigrant story if ever there was one. “It gives us great joy that Russ & Daughters, and the appetizing tradition we represent, have served as a cultural expression of Jewishness and as a vehicle for marking important life events and a piece of iconic New York,” say Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper.

“If Joel Russ, our great-grandfather, could see what has become of the legacy he started from a barrel of herring, he would be kvelling.”

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