As we hunker down, each sequestered with our families, we offer an appreciation of two luminaries on the anniversary of their births, both on April 11th – one still with us and the other whom we have lost but remember fondly.
Singer, actor, dancer, director Joel Grey (born Joel David Katz in Cleveland in 1932 to singer/clarinetist/Yiddish satirist Mickey Katz and wife Goldie) is known most familiarly for the role that won him both a Tony and an Oscar, the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret. Mr. Grey began singing in his father’s Borscht Capades, performing “Romania, Romania”
(one of your correspondent’s favorites) as his first public song at the age of ten. Soon Eddie Cantor caught his act, and put him on the Colgate Comedy Hour on television, which then launched his night club career. He has performed in numerous roles on and off Broadway, in film, and on television through the years, has directed in various media, and has won numerous awards. He has also produced several books of his own photography. He is the father of actress Jennifer Grey. As we sit home, we can look up his work and enjoy it anew, along with that of the members of his illustrious family. (How much is “That Pickle in the Window”? What is the “Yiddish Mambo”? Where is “Schvitzburgh, Pa.”?)
Leo Rosten was born in 1908 in Łódź, Poland, to Samuel & Ida Freundlich Rosten, and passed away on 2/19/1997 in New York. He was a writer known for his humor in scripts, stories, novels, journalism, and lexicography. He also wrote under the name Leonard Q. Ross. Arriving in this country with his parents at the age of three, Mr. Rosten graduated from the University of Chicago in 1930, and earned his Ph.D. in 1937. He also studied post-doc at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and later would lecture at Columbia University, Yale, and the New School for Social Research, not to mention serving as a visiting professor of political science at UC Berkeley.
In 1937, drawing upon his own teaching experiences, he published The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, a great laugh-out-loud and insightful book. After working as a screenwriter and in wartime government information, in 1949 he joined the staff of Look magazine, remaining there until 1971. Mr. Rosten went on to publish yet another Hyman Kaplan book in 1959 and a third in 1976. (Great reads especially during social distancing, and they would be delightful after listening to Joel Grey singing “Romania, Romania.”)
Meanwhile, Mr. Rosten was the author of the series of articles which became A Guide to the Religions of America (1955), The Story Behind the Painting (1962, art history), his biggest hit, The Joys of Yiddish (1968), and numerous other books. He later also put together a humor collection, Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit, in 1994.
Meanwhile also, Mr. Rosten was writing films, including All Through the Night (1942), Sleep, My Love (1948), Double Dynamite (1951), and Walk East on Beacon (1952). (Let’s consider the sequel, “Face East on Beacon”!) He also wrote the novel Captain Newman, M.D., made into an award-winning film in 1962, another of our favorites – watch it without the kids.
Mr. Rosten wrote “Where was it ever promised us that life on this earth can ever be easy, free from conflict and uncertainty, devoid of anguish and wonder and pain? … The purpose of life is to matter, to be productive, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.” He also wrote “Everyone, in some small sacred sanctuary of the self, is nuts.”