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We also have to force administrations and use our alumni. Jews are the predominant [financial] givers in so many places. You hold back your money and say, “If you’re not going to provide security for events that also project another point of view, we won’t donate.”
We have the power to do that; we have major Jewish donors across the country. There are good people on campuses – good Jewish students and professors who basically mind their own business out of fear. They’re the quiet minority. We have to make them in the loud majority.
The Jewish Press: Switching topics: You’re the chairman of the board of the National Yiddish Theatre, which drew 50,000 people to its performances this past year – the most since 1962. To what do you attribute this increased attendance?
Wiesenfeld: Yiddish theater goes back to the tradition of Purim shpiels. That’s where Yiddish theater started a couple of hundred years ago. There would be no Broadway in New York, no American theater, and no comedians if not for Yiddish theater. So this Yiddish language is being revived primarily through the theater because it has such an expressiveness.
When I became chairman 10 years ago, I insisted that we had to adopt a technology that would give instant translation. It’s called supertitles – the translation appears above the stage like in the opera, and that changed everything. Even people who’ve never spoken the language can get their Ashkenazic culture.
We’re getting religious people and also people who aren’t even affiliated with a synagogue who are finding their roots through this 1,000-year-old Ashkenazic culture.
The Jewish Press: What kind of family did you grow up in?
Wiesenfeld: You could say we were raised – let’s call it Conservadox. My parents were Holocaust survivors. We observed Shabbos, we went to shul every Shabbos, but it became increasingly difficult to get kosher food and go to shul in the Bronx [as the area deteriorated in the 1960s and '70s]. It was a very difficult neighborhood.
I have very bad memories of the Bronx. When Co-op City opened in 1968, my father took ill. We were very poor, and we couldn’t even afford shares in Co-op City. The shuls had closed, and it was very difficult just to observe a holiday. We were in the Bronx about four or five years later than everyone else. We left in 1973, and already nobody was there by the late ’60s. We were in East Tremont – terrible neighborhood, really terrible place.
What saved my life, to be very honest with you, is that even though I was zoned for Roosevelt High School – which was then, and remains today, one of the five worst schools in the city – I managed to get into Bronx High School of Science.
From there I went to Queens College, then I was in the FBI.
The Jewish Press: What did you do for the FBI?
Wiesenfeld: I can’t be specific, but readers can extrapolate. I was in the counterintelligence division. It was still a high point of the Cold War – long before the fall of the Berlin Wall – and I was assigned to Eastern Europeans and Soviets. Those were what we called criteria countries at the time. It was 1979, 1980, the Soviet Union still existed, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, etc. were all colleague nations of the Soviet Union, so it was still a testy time.
The Jewish Press: Can you be a little more specific in terms of your responsibilities? Did you gather intelligence, write assessments?
Wiesenfeld: Readers will have to make their own interpretations. I’m not supposed to talk about it.
The Jewish Press: You worked as the traffic commissioner’s chief of staff under Mayor Ed Koch; the New York Metropolitan Area executive assistant to Senator Alfonse D’Amato; and executive assistant to Governor George Pataki for the New York Metropolitan Region. What can you say about these three politicians?
Wiesenfeld: I’ll give you a quick one on each person.
Koch was someone who, more than anyone in history, really personified the geographic area he represented. In other words, if the city of New York were a person, who would it be? It would be Ed Koch. Even more so than Giuliani and Bloomberg. He was fun to work with, competent, and did so much for the city in terms of restoring all the housing that was burned out in the riots of the ’60s, for example.
On D’Amato, I don’t have to tell Jewish Press readers, but it’s sad to say sometimes when you get a gentile like an Al D’Amato, he’s worth more than ten of the average Jews that we have in Congress – any ten of them.
Pataki was a very decent man and made tremendous changes in the state. The problem with New York is that it always gets sour in the third term because people get fatigued. Doesn’t matter if you’re Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, Al D’Amato, or Pataki. The third term never works. I love Pataki, but I think he would have left even stronger after two terms.
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