Comedy Nite 2002 started out as a fundraising evening for Hillel at Pierce and Valley colleges on Saturday, Jan. 26. It quickly turned into a mutual admiration society meeting when Fyvush Finkel showed up. The evening's honoree gave as good as he got, praising Hillel for providing "a bissel of Yiddishkeit" and encouraging the parents in the audience to "tell these students never to give up."
Finkel's own life should be encouragement enough. "They call me the 'Last of the Mohicans,'" says the Brooklyn-born, Manhattan-based actor, referring to his cohorts from the Second Avenue Yiddish theaters he played with for more than 30 years, starting at age 9. "Not everybody from Second Avenue was lucky enough to get a television series," he adds, modestly neglecting to mention that he's been talented enough to get two television series roles, first in "Picket Fences" -- at age 70 -- and currently, at 79, in another David E. Kelley hit, "Boston Public."
As the professional comics entertained the sold-out audience of Hillel supporters, each trotted out their best Yiddish in deference to Finkel, who has made his career playing larger-than-life Jewish characters. After leaving the Yiddish theater at age 43, Finkel spent 12 years touring and on Broadway with "Fiddler on the Roof," playing first the innkeeper and eventually Tevye. In the controversial episode of "Picket Fences" for which he won his Emmy as lawyer Douglas Wambaugh, the character is called before a beit din (a Jewish court) for being a bad stereotype of a Jew. Kelley brought in a rabbi as a technical adviser for the episode. "I told him, 'You don't need it,'" says Finkel, no stranger to synagogue life himself, "I know all the rituals."
One of the rituals Finkel has been particularly familiar with is supporting Jewish charities. A regular on the Chabad telethon, he has hosted the annual fundraiser for the past five years. He even worked in a plug for his Manhattan synagogue.
And his appearance at the Hillel fundraiser helped ensure not only a sell-out crowd but an extra-appreciative audience, with Finkel himself, in his trademark three-piece suit and bow tie, watching the show and often laughing loudest. Sitting with his wife, Trudi, with whom he will celebrate a 55th anniversary in March, Finkel could be heard enjoying comics Phil Stellar, Wayne Federman, Robert Koch and Allan Murray. Perhaps because of a voice developed for the stage, or perhaps because of the evening's particularly good spirits, Finkel's distinctive laughter carried throughout the theater all evening.
Those good spirits carried over to the Pierce College's Theater on the Hill, where Comedy Nite 2002 broke records, raising over $13,000 for Hillel's programs serving the schools' 3,500 Jewish students.
Hillel Campus Council member Harvey Schechter, introducing the actor to a crowd filled with many college students, felt the need to offer "a brief history lesson. There was a time," he said, "when Jewish actors felt the need to change their names," and often wound up playing Italians or other "ethnics." Schechter noted Finkel's history of playing Jewish characters, and added with a smile, "He's always been Fyvush Finkel."