The Eulogizer: Restaurant impresario George Lang

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Read the previous column here.

George Lang, 86, restaurateur and Shoah survivor

George Lang, a New York restaurant owner, developer, consultant and food author who rose to prominence in modern gastronomy after a brutal Shoah experience, died July 5 at 86.

Lang reigned as manager of New York’s swanky Four Seasons restaurant, restored Cafe des Artistes “to one of the most distinctive eateries in the city,” and created restaurants for hotels, cruise ships, the 1964 World’s Fair and the Statue of Liberty. He wrote cookbooks that celebrated his native Hungarian cuisine, and published a memoir in 1998, "Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen," which described both his Shoah experience and his rise from dishwasher to restaurant dealmaker.

As a restaurant impresario, Lang “showed flair and ingenuity in a tough, competitive business” and had a “sense of showmanship and an innovative approach to menu creation” that brought him to corporate and high-profile restaurants, such as the Four Seasons.

”An artist friend once described my mind as a magic faucet from which the ideas would pour the minute I turn it on,” Lang said when his memoir was published.

Lang, born Gyorgy Deutsch, was the son of a tailor and grew up in Szekesfehervar, a town 35 miles from Budapest, “worshiping culture and practicing his violin obsessively.” After a prosperous and cultured childhood, Lang was sent to a labor camp in 1944. His parents died in Auschwitz, but he escaped from the camp.

Lang, hiding his identity, joined the notorious Hungarian Arrow Cross, but said in his memoir that he overlooked Jews’ forged identification papers before being discovered. Russian forces reached Budapest a day before his scheduled execution. He was tried for war crimes as an Arrow Cross member but was acquitted.

As a refugee in the United States, he worked as a janitor, garment worker and busboy while trying to establish a career as a violinist. But Lang said that after hearing Jascha Heifetz, he “realized that I would never play as well as him,” and decided to drop his music career to find something “at which I could be the best.” That turned out to be the restaurant business.

Lang was married three times: to Doe Caplow, an actress with whom he had two children; Karen Zehring, a venture capitalist; and Jenifer Lonergan Harvey.

In 2007, Lang told the Village Voice that his ideal final meal would include “some of the great dishes from his restaurant career but above all his Hungarian favorites: fisherman’s soup, stuffed goose neck, sour cherry soup, layered cabbage, stuffed peppers, plum dumplings, pancakes with apple meringue, and whipped-cream strudel.”

Jedwabne ceremony, seminar on Jewish beliefs on death 

The Eulogizer is primarily concerned with celebrating life, yet two recent items about death deserve notice.

On Sunday, Poland marked the 70th anniversary of a World War II massacre that was revealed only 11 years ago. In a ceremony in the town of Jedwabne, a letter from Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski begging forgiveness was read to the attendees: “The nation must understand that it also had an active role. Today, Poland can still hear the never-fading cry of its citizens.”

Moment magazine conducted a symposium recently on the question of how Jews view the afterlife with writers, theologians and scientists. Among the participants were authors Joshua Cohen (“A Heaven of Others”); Simcha Paull Raphael (“Jewish Views of the Afterlife,”); Leila Leah Bronner (“Journey to Heaven: Exploring Jewish Views of the Afterlife); and Professor Amy-Jill Levine of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

They discussed the question of “Is there life after death?” in ways as varied as only Jews can do.

Here’s a sample of one entry (but they are all worth reading), by Jerome Groopman of Harvard Medical School, author of “The Measure of Our Days: A Spiritual Exploration of Illness”:

“Four times a year I go to yizkor and I observe my parents’ yahrtzeit, so do they exist in some dimension as souls? I would like it to be true. Sometimes I believe it, sometimes I don’t. But I do know I feel their presence, and I feel their spirit within myself. I’m going to be 60 next year, so it’s the time of life when you think about these things. And I’m still torn.

“You’re confronted with mystery. In the same way you have the mystery and marvel of birth, where all of a sudden a life appears, here you have loved ones, parents, who have been part of your existence from the moment of awareness, and they disappear. It’s confounding, it’s perplexing, you strain to make sense of it.”
 

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