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The Jewish violinist who saved Carnegie Hall from the brink of destruction



(New York Jewish Week) — Violinist Isaac Stern made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1943, but it would hardly be his last performance at the famed concert venue: He performed there more than 200 times between then and his death in 2001 at the age of 81.

Carnegie Hall was “part of his DNA,” his daughter, Rabbi Shira Stern, told the New York Jewish Week.

The opposite is likely true as well: As the person who fought to save the famed concert hall from demolition in the 1950s, and then served as the president of Carnegie Hall Corporation for 41 years, Stern’s “DNA,” if you will, is all over the iconic institution at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street. 

Carnegie Hall, built by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1891, isn’t just the punchline of an old joke (“practice, practice, practice”). It’s a bonafide cultural colossus, having hosted performances by musicians as varied and famous as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and The Beatles. 

And though it seems inconceivable today, by the late 1950s the hall had fallen into disrepair and was set to be demolished. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was being built and Carnegie Hall’s primary tenant, the New York Philharmonic, had plans to make Lincoln Center its new home. It declined an offer to buy Carnegie Hall for $4 million. 

Stern, however —  who, beginning in 1944,  had performed with the New York Philharmonic more than 100 times —  could not allow Carnegie Hall to simply disappear. He organized the Citizens’ Committee to Save Carnegie Hall, a group of musicians and philanthropists — and his efforts led to legislation that allowed the City of New York to purchase the venue and save it from the wrecking ball. 

The young people of this country are demanding more and more music and producing more and more first-rate musicians,” Stern was quoted as saying in his New York Times obituary. “How dare we take away from them, the music, and the audiences of the future, one of the great music rooms of the world?” 

Stern was elected the first president of the Carnegie Hall Corporation, the entity that was formed to operate the venue, at its founding in 1960. It was a positions he held until his death in 2001. As president, Stern pursued a vision that Carnegie Hall could become a major center for music education and training. Under his leadership, the hall underwent major renovations in 1986 and celebrated its centennial in 1991, according to the Carnegie Hall’s Rose Archives.

Additionally, under Stern’s leadership, Carnegie Hall began to establish itself as a global cultural institution, bringing in various international ensembles and branching out into other genres of music besides classical. In 1997, the main hall was named the Isaac Stern Hall in his honor.

For all of these reasons, on May 16, 2003 —  two years after he died and exactly 43 years after the founding of The Carnegie Hall Corporation — the corner of West 57th Street and Seventh Avenue was renamed “Isaac Stern Place.”

“To me Carnegie Hall is nothing less than an affirmation of the human spirit,” the violinist was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story about the street co-naming.  

Stern had undying support for the Hall and for what it could do for others, specifically “opening it up to young musicians so that they would be able to have access to consummate musicians,” Shira Stern said. She told the New York Jewish Week about “the red phone” — a direct line to Carnegie Hall that rang in her father’s study in case of an emergency.

“There was a certain idealism in Isaac Stern that had to do with music, with art, with politics, with culture, with not accepting when someone would say this is impossible,” violinist Philip Setzer of the Emerson String Quartet told JTA in 2001.  

“He was grounded in music before he was born,” his daughter said.

Isaac Stern in 1979. (Bogaerts, Rob/Anefo; Dutch National Archives)

The family immigrated to San Francisco when Stern was an infant, and at a young age it “was clear that he was gifted” in music, according to his daughter. Stern dropped out of public school after second grade and began a life dedicated to violin. He enrolled at the San Francisco Conservatory at 8, where he studied under Naoum Blinder — who he later regarded as his main influence — and played his first concert at age 15 with the San Francisco Symphony. 

In 1949, under impresario Sol Hurok, Stern played 120 concerts over a seven-month tour of the United States, Europe and South America. “By 1950, Mr. Stern had established himself as one of the best young violinists on the concert circuit, and the first American-trained violinist to gain so great a measure of international respect,” having performed with every major orchestra by that point, Stern’s New York Times obituary noted. 

Stern was also known for helping to establish young talent, particularly cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Israeli-born violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman. “He found people who had talent, he nurtured them, he mentored them,” said Shira Stern. “Teaching was his delight.” 

“He wasn’t religiously Jewish, but he was extraordinarily spiritual,” said Shira Stern about her father. “[He] realized that his spiritual language wasn’t Hebrew, his spiritual language was music.”

She recalled the time Stern was supposed to play a concert right after former President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. “He asked that the orchestra not play, and he played 45 minutes to an hour of unaccompanied Bach, because he said that this was the highest form of prayer for him.”

Though he may not have been religious, Stern was a Zionist who regularly performed in Israel. He rushed there during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 in order to play at the bedsides of wounded soldiers and for troops in the Negev. Shira Stern said her father would weave “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem, into these performances, because he knew “that it was a comfort to people,” she said. 

That same year, Stern founded the Jerusalem Music Center, “which still is vibrant and continues to provide masterclasses and training for young musicians in Israel,” said Shira Stern, adding that her father was the chairman of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation alongside his second wife, Vera. 

In 1991, Stern was playing a concert in Jerusalem when a Scud missile attack interrupted his performance. While other musicians left the stage, he donned a gas mask and continued playing. 

Shira Stern described her father as an “activist.” Beyond his role in saving Carnegie Hall, Stern was passionate that the U.S. government play a role in funding the arts and held an advisory role in the creation of the National Endowment of the Arts in the 1960s. He organized a musicians’ boycott in 1974 when UNESCO suspended its programs in Israel, and would not perform in Germany because of the Holocaust, although he did urge Israeli artists to perform there in order to establish an artistic presence. 

“He would have been 103 this year and people are still talking about what he has done for them,” Shira Stern. In addition to the musically inclined rabbi, both of Stern’s sons, Michael and David, are composers, helping to realize their father’s long held dream. “He just wanted to make sure that there was a solid next generation of musicians and music lovers,” she said. 

The post The Jewish violinist who saved Carnegie Hall from the brink of destruction appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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A Jewish-owned hot dog empire began on this Coney Island street corner




(New York Jewish Week) — For many generations of New Yorkers, eating a Nathan’s Famous hot dog from their Coney Island flagship location is a staple of summer. The iconic hot dog stand just celebrated its 107th season at the city’s iconic beachside destination. 

Nathan’s Famous — which started as a nickel hot dog stand and grew to a franchised business that today has over 350 locations in 12 countries — may be most famous today for its annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. It is named for its founder, Nathan Handwerker, a Polish Jewish immigrant who, along with his wife, Ida, opened Nathan’s Famous in 1916, when he was 19.

“It was his life,” Handwerker’s grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, who made a 2014 documentary and wrote an accompanying book about his family history, both titled “Famous Nathan,” told the New York Jewish Week

“He had brilliant instincts about running a business — basic ideas which seem simple, but they work well,” Lloyd said. “Which is keeping the price low, having the quality be great, being a stickler, paying people well and caring about the customer.”

On Sept. 24, 2016, the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nathan’s Famous, New York City co-named the corner of the Surf and Stillwell Avenues Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way. 

“Nathan and Ida Handwerker worked together for over 50 years and were part of the few generations who formed the rich Coney Island culture that is now renowned throughout the nation and all over the world,” Lloyd Handwerker’s cousin, William, said at the unveiling event. “It is an honor to celebrate their legacy by memorializing their names on the street corner that houses the original Nathan’s.”

(Lloyd was supposed to give a speech alongside his family, but his father, Sol, died just days before the ceremony.) 

Also present that day was Eric Adams, who at the time was Brooklyn Borough President, and Mark Treyger, the Jewish city council member for District 47, which includes Coney Island. “The corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island is now known as Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way, after the husband and wife team who grew a hot dog food cart into a brand that is known worldwide,” Treyger said at the ceremony. 

“The inspiring story of these two immigrants, who came to this country facing an uncertain future, working hard to create a product that means so much to so many, is what the American Dream is all about,” he added.

Handwerker arrived in the United States from Poland in 1912 and took a job as a delivery boy during the week. On the weekends, he sliced rolls at Feltman’s German Gardens, a restaurant in Coney Island — where he met a waitress who would become his wife. 

By 1916, the couple had saved $300, enough to open their own, competing hot dog restaurant. They used Ida’s secret spice recipe to make their hot dogs, for which they charged 5 cents — half the price of a dog at Feltman’s. 

Considering the low price of the product, customers were skeptical at first, so Handwerker allegedly hired men to wear white coats while eating his hot dogs. The image would lend his business credibility, as customers figured that if doctors were eating the hot dogs, they could, too. 

The business grew steadily over the next half century, with Handwerker working 18-20 hours a day cooking food, selling it and running the business. When the company went public in 1968, Handwerker was elected chairman of the board.

“As a grandfather, he was a very sweet, soft guy. I had no idea what kind of boss he was,” said Lloyd. “It’s different for different people, but I found out he was pretty tough. He was a stickler, and he was clearly a perfectionist about everything — about the quality, about the workers.”

As for Ida Handwerker, in addition to creating the recipe for the hot dogs, she was often in the back kitchen, peeling and chopping onions, garlic and potatoes, Lloyd said. “My grandmother, too, my dad said, was also pretty tough in her own way,” he said. “She worked in the business for many, many years alongside [Nathan], especially in the early days. She was a great grandmother, warm and wonderful. But I guess they both came up hard and tough.”

By the time Nathan Handwerker died in 1974 at 81, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs was a household name. Over the years, the hot dog stand became a favorite for celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Regis Philbin. In 1936, the hot dogs were served at a lawn party hosted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in honor of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. 

The Coney Island location was also an essential stop for politicians from City Council members to the president of the United States. “No one can hope to be elected to public office in New York without having his picture taken eating a hot dog at Nathan’s,” former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller once told Handwerker during a campaign visit to Coney Island, according to the New York Times. 

Handwerker retired to Florida in 1972, with his son Murray taking over and expanding the business. Nathan’s first hot dog eating contest was that same year.

Lloyd Handwerker, grandson of Nathan Handwerker, founder of ‘Nathan’s’, standing in front of ‘Nathan’s’ restaurant in Coney Island, New York, NY, June 29, 2016. (Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Lloyd Handwerker, who was 17 when his grandfather died, began working on his film in the 1980s, and over the course of 30 years he interviewed some 75 friends, family members and associates of Nathan’s Famous. “My grandfather was always telling stories around the dining room table at the holidays and dinners,” he said. “By the time I took a video class and had access to a camera, my grandfather and my grandmother had passed away, but I still thought ‘we should be preserving this history.’”

Though he never worked at Nathan’s Famous, Lloyd, who grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Long Island, said that he has fond memories of visiting his grandparents’ office in Coney Island, as well as celebrating Jewish holidays at their house in Florida. “My grandmother cooked amazingly, so I have a lot of great memories of Passover in particular,” he recalled. Lloyd said that though his grandfather grew up traditionally religious in Poland, he didn’t keep many traditional customs by the time he came to the United States. 

And yet, some tenets of Judaism were deeply ingrained in the entrepreneur: Though he didn’t hire a rabbi to certify the kitchen, Handwerker coined the term “kosher-style” for his restaurant, because his hot dogs were made with 100% beef and therefore could be kosher. 

Plus, “the one day that the restaurant was closed out of the whole year was Yom Kippur, so it still obviously meant something to him,” Lloyd said of his grandfather. 

Nathan’s Famous is now owned by Smithfield, a subsidiary of the Chinese meat and food processing company WH Group. However, the family still owns the original Coney Island building and is the landlord for Nathan’s Famous there.  

“As far as his legacy, he was obviously very proud of what he created,” Lloyd said of Nathan. “He was a pretty humble guy, but look at what he did: He came from starvation in Poland, without an education. He didn’t know how to read or write, he was basically illiterate and he built this institution that  everyone has a story about. It’s amazing.”

The post A Jewish-owned hot dog empire began on this Coney Island street corner appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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​​Biden’s new book ban czar is a longtime progressive Jewish leader




(JTA) – The Biden Administration’s new point person for combating book bans at school districts and public libraries across the country is a gay, Jewish progressive activist who has served as a government liaison to the Jewish and LGBTQ communities.

The appointment of Matt Nosanchuk comes as the thousands of book challenges nationwide have focused on books with LGBTQ as well as Jewish themes, in addition to works about race. Nosanchuk was named a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education’s civil rights office earlier this month. In that role, he will lead training sessions for schools and libraries on how to deal with book bans — and warn districts that the department believes book bans can violate civil rights laws.

An Education Department official recently told the 74, an education news site, that the bans “are a threat to students’ rights and freedoms.”

“I am excited to return to public service to work on behalf of the American people,” Nosanchuk posted to LinkedIn earlier this month. “There is a lot of important work to do!”

The Education Department declined to make Nosanchuk available for an interview. He has already taken heat from conservative outlets, which have pushed the narrative that the books being removed from schools and libraries are too sexually explicit for children. Kayleigh McEnany, the Fox News host who served as Donald Trump’s press secretary, called him a “porn enforcer” on-air.

But his appointment has been celebrated by librarians and book access activists. “This is a step forward for the Biden Administration, who has heard the concerns of parents and taken action, but it is just the beginning,” the National Parents Union, a progressive parental education activist group, said in a statement.

Nosanchuk’s career has largely focused on working with the LGBTQ and Jewish communities. In 2009, after serving in a number of roles in Washington, D.C., Nosanchuk was appointed as the Department of Justice’s liaison to the LGBTQ community — a position he held while Obama was still publicly opposed to same-sex marriage. He later worked on the Obama administration’s opposition to a law barring same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.

He subsequently served as the White House liaison to the Jewish community during Obama’s second term, and in 2020 was the Democratic National Committee’s political organizer for Jewish outreach and LGBTQ engagement. That same year, he cofounded the New York Jewish Agenda, a progressive policy group that he led until earlier this year.

Nosanchuk’s first webinar in his new role was held Tuesday in partnership with the American Library Association, an organization with which a number of Republican-led states have recently cut ties. He begins his work after a year that has seen several school districts take aim at books focused on Jewish experiences or the Holocaust.

Two weeks ago, a Texas school district fired a middle school teacher reportedly for reading a passage from an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary to eighth-grade students. Other schools’ removals of “The Fixer,” a Jodi Picoult novel about the Holocaust and other texts have been likened to Nazi and Stalinist book burnings —  comparisons that proponents of the book restrictions reject.

Democratic politicians, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, have accused Republicans of wanting “to ban books on the Holocaust.” A recent Senate hearing on book bans included testimony from Cameron Samuels, a Jewish advocate for access to books, along with numerous references to “Maus,” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust that was pulled from a Tennessee middle school curriculum last year.

PEN America, a literary free-speech advocacy group, welcomed Nosanchuk’s appointment.

“Book removals and restrictions continue apace across the country, as the tactics to silence certain voices and identities are sharpened,” the group said in a statement. “Empowering the coordinator to address this ongoing movement is critical.”

The post ​​Biden’s new book ban czar is a longtime progressive Jewish leader appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Ohio high school football coach resigns after players use ‘Nazi’ in play calls




(JTA) — A high school football coach in suburban Cleveland has resigned after his team used the word “Nazi” in addition to racial slurs in its play calling during a game on Friday against a team in a heavily Jewish town.

Tim McFarland, the coach of Brooklyn High School in Brooklyn, Ohio, submitted his resignation Monday and apologized via a statement written by the district, the Cleveland Jewish News reported. Local Jewish groups have also reached out to district officials, who have indicated a willingness to work with them.

Brooklyn was playing the team from Beachwood, a suburb with the second-highest rate of Jewish residents in the country.

The offensive play calls were first flagged by Beachwood’s head coach, Scott Fischer, at halftime, the school’s athletic director told parents in an email after the game.

“During my discussion with Coach Fischer at halftime, we agreed that if these actions continued we would pull our team off the field,” wrote the school’s athletic director, Ryan Peters, as reported by the Cleveland Jewish News. Peters said that McFarland admitted to using the “Nazi” play and agreed to change the name of the play for the game’s second half. The mother of a Beachwood cheerleader told the Cleveland Jewish News they couldn’t hear the offensive language in the stands.

The language was also condemned by the mayor and city council of Beachwood.

It was not the first time in recent memory a high school football team employed antisemitic language in its play calling. In 2021 a Boston-area school was found to have used terms including “Auschwitz,” “yarmulke” and “rabbi” in its own plays for at least a decade, part of what an investigation revealed was a long history of antisemitic and homophobic behavior. That school’s football coach was also fired, and the state of Massachusetts soon passed new laws to require genocide education in high schools in response to that and other antisemitic school sports incidents in the state.

In recent months, Jewish high school sporting events in Miami and Los Angeles were home to alleged antisemitic taunts. Both were alleged to have come in response to antagonistic or even racist behavior by Jewish students, according to local reports. Another high school in the Sacramento area is investigating reports that four students made Nazi salutes on social media earlier this month.

The post Ohio high school football coach resigns after players use ‘Nazi’ in play calls appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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