LOS ANGELES (Jan. 31)
“We’re here to honor a short Jew,” said “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander to open a gag-filled evening with a serious purpose.
The vertically challenged honoree was Hollywood star Billy Crystal, who, surrounded by fellow Hollywood stars and close to 900 fans, accepted the National Scopus Award of the American Friends of the Hebrew University.
The dinner at a Beverly Hills hotel raised $1.5 million, most of it earmarked for the Billy Crystal Endowment for Peace Through Performing Arts program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The event also produced a cascade of non-stop jokes and one-liners — mostly on Jewish themes and most of them unprintable — by the likes of stars Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Garry Shandling and Alexander.
The newly announced endowment program will bring together Jewish and Arab theater arts students at the Hebrew University for a year of classes. The program’s graduates will go out and bring together Israeli and Palestinian school children and teach them about coexistence through theater, music and dance.
“These are just baby steps, and the road will be difficult,” said Crystal. “But we’re not going to talk about tolerance; we’re just going to do it.”
Earlier, Crystal told a reporter that “Starting with kids, that’s your best chance. If they’re going to throw rocks, it might as well be at critics.”
There was no confirmation of Robin Williams’ deadpan announcement that the first Israeli-Palestinian co-production will be “The West Bank Story.”
Crystal also announced that he is sponsoring a scholarship for jazz students at the Hebrew University in the name of his late father, Jack, a pioneer New York jazz promoter.
In a separate financial initiative, AFHU President Keith Sachs announced that Ned and Annette Lerner of Washington had pledged $5.5 million to erect a new sports and aquatic center on the Hebrew University campus.
Sachs also said the group is committed to raising $350 million to help cover the university’s annual deficits.
In a long, applause-filled evening, the biggest hands went to three participants: Helen Greenfield, Crystal’s mother, who gave the Motzi, the blessing of the bread, over a giant-sized challah; boxing great Muhammad Ali, Crystal’s personal hero, who served as honorary chairman of the event; and Kirk Douglas, the veteran actor and former Scopus recipient, recently slowed by a stroke, who conferred the Scopus Award on Crystal.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Jewish Journal a few days before the dinner, the 50-year old Crystal spoke about his Jewish identity.
He and Janice, his wife of 28 years, are longtime members of a Reconstructionist congregation, where their two daughters celebrated their Bat Mitzvahs.
“I’m not a religious man, (but) it’s in your gut, it’s your heritage,” he said.
In the interview, Crystal also recalled his stint as master of ceremonies at last year’s Oscar awards. An Orthodox rabbinical group had earlier denounced the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism as not Jewish, and in a throw- away line most of the global TV audience probably missed, he declared, “I just found out I’m a gentile.”
Crystal said he does not regret the remark or going public with his concerns about developments in Israel and world Jewry.
“We should mind our own business?” he asked. “If you go to the Hebrew University, look at the names you’re going to see. People who have donated their time and millions of dollars: non-Jews and Jews. It’s everybody’s business. When that happened last year” with the Orthodox Rabbinate, it was “insulting to say we’re not Jews. It was insulting to deny our heritage, our parents and how we were taught.”