Revisiting the Story of Purim at the Jewish Museum Purim Ball
As we approach Purim, the Jewish holiday that begins at sundown this Saturday, March 11, the Jewish Museum revisits four important speeches at our 31st Annual Purim Ball honoring Chairman Wang Jian, HNA Group, philanthropist Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, and Jewish Museum collection artist Deborah Kass. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg kicked off the night with these timely words:
I want to congratulate all of this year’s honorees. I also want to thank all of you for supporting the Jewish Museum. The Museum is one of the first boards I became involved with when I came to New York. The Museum has always been close to my heart and I’m glad that I named a gallery in the Museum after my Mother. The Museum has only gotten better and better over the years and more importantly, Jewish history has so many critical lessons to teach people of all backgrounds and the story of Purim is really a great example.
It is the story of an immigrant Queen, Esther, and a ruler who became convinced that Jews were responsible for all of the problems in his kingdom and had to be eliminated. Esther intervened, so the story goes, and convinced the King he was wrong and she saved the lives of the Jews. It’s an ancient story but the lesson, really, I think is timeless. Whenever a group of people is used as a scapegoat, whether it’s because of their race, their religion, their immigration status or anything else—we have a responsibility to speak up just like Esther did. I think that Jews have a special responsibility to fight intolerance because we’ve seen how incredibly dangerous it can be.
Sadly, as we all know, that danger never goes away and it’s very real and present in our world today. Over the last year, the number of hate crimes has risen in New York and around the country, including attacks on Jews and Muslims.
So, we owe thanks to the Jewish Museum for making sure that vigilance and fighting intolerance and other important lessons are never forgotten and I want to thank Claudia and everyone who works hard at the Museum day in and day out and I want to thank all of you for your support. It is one of the jewels in the crown of New York City, of our cultural institutions, and I can’t urge you enough to go and go often. The exhibitions constantly change and I, for one, am so proud to be affiliated with it. I was so honored to be asked to come tonight so, although it’s a little early, happy Purim!
Global corporate honoree Chairman Wang Jian of HNA Group, was recognized for his remarkable business acumen and philanthropic efforts:
As two of the oldest living cultures on the planet, both the Chinese and Jewish people have faced struggle and adversity over long histories — and yet preserved and maintained our holidays, our values, and pride in our history — all while remaining fully engaged in the world of today and looking toward the future.
One of many common themes between us is the recognition that success is accompanied by a responsibility to improve the lives of those who may be less fortunate.
While the value of family is a universal one, it is especially so in the Chinese and Jewish cultures — so it makes me happy to see many members of the Jewish Museum’s family here tonight. And from different generations as well.
Inter-generational bonds are also key to the success of our cultures. Elders provide the next generation with opportunity and wisdom while holding young people to the highest standards, which the younger generation honors by showing respect and making their very best effort to take advantage of the gift of opportunity they have been offered.
Generations stay connected in our cultures no matter the distance and no matter the differences. China just completed its New Year’s celebration, during which a record 800 million Chinese people, over 2.5 times the population of the United States, traveled to be with their families.
Like the Chinese New Year, just recently completed, the celebration of Purim, just beginning, is both serious and at the same time lighthearted.
This way of being in the world — to be serious about life and facing its hardships and responsibilities, but doing so with joy, color and celebration as well is something that both cultures share.
And both cultures highly value education. We know that education determines the ability of the younger generation to succeed and to contribute.
That’s why I’m so pleased to see so many younger people here tonight — and I know we will be joined by many more later, when the after-party begins.
Both cultures encourage their young people to learn, to engage, to seek new ideas, and to give back to their communities.
Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, recipient of the prestigious Mayer Sulzberger Award, was honored for her lifetime commitment to public service with her great-grandson by her side:
No one can tell me there was no Holocaust. I was there. I put a face to the suffering. I go around and I teach young people that hate breeds hate. That love conquers all. And my children and my grandchildren will know to love others. They teach this to all of us. I’m very honored to be with, now, my great grandson; he is not a stranger! He came to the Museum when we was two months old! At that time, the museum honored three women — I was one among them. His parents and grandparents brought him in a tuxedo! And the rest is history. He is here with me today, and I thank you for honoring me. Thank you, Claudia for honoring me.
Last but not least, artist Deborah Kass, our cultural honoree, gave a heartfelt acceptance speech as we honored her outstanding artistic achievements and more than twenty-year history with the Jewish Museum:
Some of you may know I don’t have a problem speaking in public. I am a ham. Last time I got an award I gave the fake Oscar speech I always wanted to give…
But right now the reality and cruelty of the new political regime, has left me speechless and heartbroken.
So how do I thank the Jewish Museum’s wonderful acknowledgement of my life’s work in light of current events?
It is an honor to be here along with Fanya Heller, a woman whose life of remarkable courage and generosity, reflects the story of both the worst of 20th century and the very very best of America.
It is the best of America that is in such grave danger in ways that are terrifying. As doors slam to immigrants and refugees like Fanya who, like my family and yours, fled violence and annihilation and arrived…to the land of opportunity.
Now these words chill us to the bone: desecrated cemeteries, bomb threats, deportation, swastikas, round ups…ROUND UPS. They should. We have heard them before. It never turns out well.
And BUILD THE WALL. What if there had been a wall to keep out our great grandparents and grandparents? Would anyone be sitting in this room?
The Jewish people’s gratitude lives in our irreplaceable contributions to science, medicine, culture, art, literature, music, politics — the very fabric of the country we helped weave.
In popular culture it is Jews who imagined an idealized version of America to other Americans by inventing Hollywood, Broadway, and TV. Who wrote God Bless America and White Christmas? A Jewish immigrant named Irving Berlin.
Countless Jewish names adorn hospitals, research centers, universities, theaters, concert halls, and museums, giving back a million fold to the place that welcomed us. I am grateful to the country that made my family part of the American dream.
My great grandparents and grandparents: the Zinks, Kornfelds, Kasses and Koufaxes, who fled Hungary, the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, who arrived in New York City with absolutely nothing, produced 3 generations of Americans: teachers, a dentist, 2 therapists, a lot of masters degrees, a PhD, a sports star, a few business owners, 2 writers, 2 wall streeters and one artist.
I am so proud to be part of this continuum and very grateful to have the freedom to keep a critical eye open and continue to make work that speaks truth to power.
I thank the Jewish Museum for this honor.