Working in a family business can be a blessing or a curse. Families that make it work are to be commended. Ones that make it work over four generations are rare indeed. This is a story about such a family and their office furniture business based in Omaha, Neb. Harry Ferer taught the business to his son-in-law, the late Lazier Kavich, who taught the business to his son, Larry Kavich, who in turn showed the ropes to his children, Jeff and Amee, who run it today. The piece originally appeared in the Jewish Press about six years ago.
Bedrock Values at the Core of Four-Generation All Makes Office Furniture Company
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Jewish Press
As Omaha family businesses go, All Makes Office Furniture Company is one of the oldest and largest still operating. The fourth generation family members running things today stick to the same core principals, values and philosophies that have guided the business since dapper Russian immigrant Harry Ferer founded it in 1918.
A go-getter, Ferer became a star agent for the Royal Typewriter Co. and the Ediphone, an early dictation machine patented by inventor Thomas Alva Edison, whom Ferer knew. Ferer built his own company through hustle and guile, traits his successors have shown in growing the family business. Son-in-law Lazier Kavich entered the fold in 1938 and helped move All Makes forward by adding new lines, earning a reputation for fairness along the way. Lazier taught the business to his son, Larry Kavich, whose energy, people skills and “do the right thing” motto drew in new business. Larry, in turn, taught his children the ropes and now they run things. Larry’s son, Jeff Kavich, is president/CEO of All Makes Omaha and Jeff’s sister, Amee Zetzman, is president/CEO of Lincoln, Neb. and Urbandale, Iowa. The legacy continues. Only time will tell if Jeff’s or Amy’s kids one day carry the torch.
All Makes evolved over these 88 years into a full-service center that outfits offices of every size, located virtually anywhere, with products that range from the latest in work station systems to used desks, chairs and files. The company does more than just sell stuff. It also designs and installs office spaces for all kinds of settings, offering expertise that makes today’s technology-rich environments user-friendly.
Any firm as long-lasting as this one adapts to meet the needs of customers in changing business climates. Through world wars, economic downturns and industry trends, All Makes stays the course, each generation adding fresh ideas to the mix.
Much has changed since Harry Ferer opened his downtown typewriter sales, rental and repair shop. When Lazier Kavich came aboard, the business added office furniture to complement the automated machines it carried. In 1950 All Makes moved to its present location at 2558 Farnam Street. By the 1960s the company added the first of its branch showrooms and stores. Once Larry Kavich joined in the mid-’60s, high end contract furniture became the staple. He expanded the business physically and enhanced its position as a multi-product, multi-service center. He continues as chairman today, wintering in Arizona.
Under Jeff’s and Amee’s watch from the late 1990s on, All Makes has added to its facilities, including new showrooms and warehouses, made a series of renovations, grown the company’s design division and expanded into international markets.
Yes, much has changed. Then again, people are still people and business is still business. Office furniture may be wired today, but getting repeat customers still comes down to treating folks right, qualities sorely missing from so many service providers today. Jeff and Amee keep alive All Makes’ service-first credo, drawing on lessons from two masters in the art of the deal — their grandfather and father.
“Certainly the products have changed and the industry has changed,” Jeff said, “but as far as learning the passion — and taking that home every night with you and always thinking about how to make things better and how to do the right thing — I got that every day from both my grandpa and my dad. It came so naturally, it would have been impossible, I think, for me to feel or act or do any differently.”
As kids, Jeff and Amee were always around the business, working there summers. He learned all facets — from stock and sales to delivery and installation. She applied her gift for number-crunching to the company books.
“Summers, when my friends were spending every day at the pool, I was here in the back room sweeping floors, fixing typewriters, working in the warehouse. I installed furniture, I delivered furniture, I drove the truck. I’ve done everything except billing,” he said. “I look back now and say it was fun and wouldn’t change a thing, Back then, when my buddies were going to the pool, I probably wished I was, too.”
But he knew where his destiny lay.
“I knew from an early age I was carving a path for me into the business and everything I was learning then would only come to benefit me later,” he said. “I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I went to the University of Kansas for a couple years and decided it was time to come home and go to work. You know, my career started in 1990 — 16 years ago, but I can say I’ve been here 30 years because I worked here summers from grade school through college. When I’d come home from college my father and I would talk about the business. Even in high school, if something big was happening here, we discussed things over the weekend. Growing up, dinner table conversations happened all the time. So, as long as I can remember I’ve kind of known and talked the language of All Makes.”
For the young Amee, the business wasn’t so much a career path to follow as a place she felt obligated to pitch in. Her math and computer skills were put to use.
“When I was in the 7th grade they’d bring me in a little desk to sit in the middle of my grandfather and Nancy Mudra, who’s been here over 30 years, and I learned how to compute commissions. When I was more high school age they gave me one of the first portable computers — a huge thing with a screen that popped down…They said, ‘There’s a new program called Lotus and we need you to figure out how we can get the commissions from this giant ledger book into the computer,’ and that was my project. Every time, they saved projects for me. Like one summer all I did was purge the bookkeeping files and make new folders.”
As a boy Jeff accompanied his dad on business trips. Trussed-up in a coat-and-tie, the little boy said little but absorbed much as Daddy made deals.
“I was there watching him do what he does best and that’s an education you won’t learn at Wharton School of Finance,” he said.
When Lazier, who passed in 1996, wasn’t playing cards or handicapping the ponies, he was striking bargains that brought in new business or that added to his overstuffed back office, which has been preserved intact as a kind of memorial. The walls and shelves are still filled with kitsch collectibles. He loved acquiring things in bulk in order to give them away, like the drawer of surplus watches he kept. True to his salvage roots, he built All Makes’ used office furniture segment, now called All Makes on Two, which still accounts for a robust volume of sales today. Sections of two floors, plus the basement, practically sag from all the used items on display.
At one time, three generations of Kaviches drew wages together. “It was something special that I’ll never forget and I know it’s so rare and something few people get to experience,” Jeff said. Lazier, the old-school wheeler-dealer who started in the junk business, was the elder statesman. He read the mail, saw a few old customers and played cards with his cronies in his office. “This is what he loved,” Jeff said. Larry was the dynamic leader closing deals in the showroom, on the phone or on the road. Jeff and Amee were the fresh-from-college upstarts soaking it all in.
The lessons learned from these old-school salesmen made a deep impression on the next generation. Much of what Lazier and Larry did still shapes the business.
“He loved a good deal,” Amy said of Lazier. “He did not like to leave money on the table. That was his mentality and that’s why we have all the used furniture. He taught my brother that end of the business. There are still people we do business with that will fly in here from somewhere in the South to come pick out all their used furniture. Then they’ll send trailers back for it. Because that’s how they and my grandpa did business. So, it still goes on.”
She utilizes some of the managerial tricks and rituals he taught her years ago.
“The entire pile of mail in the morning went to him. He used to say, ‘You can learn what’s going on in every part of the organization by reading the invoices.’ That’s how he kept in touch with what was going on — through the mail. And so now I read the mail every day and it does help me know what’s going on.”
More a benevolent figurehead by the time Amy and Jeff assumed titles and positions at All Makes, Lazier still came to the office every weekday, modeling the Golden Rule in his good works and in his high ethics. Years ago he befriended a blind black evangelist known for traversing the city on foot selling brooms. A tradition began that saw Lazier invite the Rev. into the store for a repast before driving him home at night. The preacher man still stops by on his circuit and Jeff and Amee, like Larry and Lazier before them, make sure he’s well taken care of.
“He was the most giving, caring person you could ever imagine,” Jeff said of Lazier. “Everything was as it is. He said it like it was. Just total honesty and integrity.”
Amee said her father, Larry, “took a lot of qualities from my grandfather. He’s very wanting to always do the right thing. Very honest, very charitable. But he also doesn’t like to be taken advantage of. He’s very passionate about everything he does. He’s proud of what we do. It’s been nice for him to be able to take a step back, but he is still absolutely involved in big deals going on. He misses being here full-time. As he explains to us, ‘This is all I’ve done. It’s hard to leave.’”
The siblings feel an obligation to maintain the family tradition in All Makes.
“It’s so important for me to make sure we do provide the best product at the best possible price, along with the best service, because our reputation means so much to us. We just always want to play cards up on the table and do the right thing for all of our great customers,” Jeff said.
“It is an awesome responsibility because our name is associated with this,” Amee said. “We had a situation where we needed the money up front on something and the customer asked, ‘Well, what if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do?’ And I said, ‘You know, we’ve been here 88 years doing what we say we’re going to do.’ And, so, we take it very personally…”
Satisfaction for her comes from knowing a customer’s been satisfied, no matter the size of the transaction. “It’s getting positive feedback from clients, not even on the big deals,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll get a phone call to say, ‘I bought a desk and your guys took great care of me.’ It’s just a feeling of pride that someone in the organization has represented us well.”
For Jeff, it’s” a sense of accomplishment when you meet somebody for the first time, you get to know them and get to know what their business needs are, and then our team puts together the right solution. I guess at the end it’s having a happy customer. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end to a transaction that’s definitive. When we walk away and they say, ‘We have our office furniture — you guys did a fantastic job’ — that’s the carrot. That’s what’s rewarding.”
Groomed as he was to take over as president from his father, Jeff said, “I always knew it was coming,” but added “it never really sunk in until it was on my business card. You always had Larry to fall back on before on making some decisions. But when now it’s my deal, I’m very cautious about what I’m going to do before I do it.” Easing the transition, he said, was the way he worked side by side with his father.
“I learned everything I know from him and I’m grateful to him for that. Even before I became president he would say, ‘You make the decision and if it’s wrong, you’ll learn from it, and if it’s right, way to go.’ In the 16 years I’ve never been sat down and screamed at. He’s let me learn by the mistakes and kind of relish in the good.”
Unlike her brother, Amee didn’t always see herself in the All Makes mold.
“When I left for college (University of Colorado) I was not coming back to Omaha and the store, whereas Jeff knew he was going to come back and be part of the business. So, it was definitely a different scenario.”
Straight from college she moved to Los Angeles in 1989 to work in public accounting. Her niche was small family businesses just like All Makes. “It was really good preparation,” she said. By 1994 she was married with kids. “My husband and I made a quality of life decision that Southern California was not where we wanted to be. And I sort of came to the realization this (All Makes and Omaha) isn’t such a bad thing to come back to.” Factoring into the decision was the chance for their kids to “have grandparents to hang out with. It’s part of Jeff’s and my own life stories. We got to have a life with our grandpa.”
The first order of business was making sure she and Jeff could share power. “I called my brother and we started talking about it. I asked him, ‘What do you think? Do you think we could make this work?’” He told her yes and in 1994 she joined the team. They’ve found a way to make it work for 12 years now.
“We both have our strengths and we know our strengths,” she said. “We try to stay out of each other’s various departments, but still have input. I think because we have separate responsibilities it makes it easier to get along. In certain situations I know he’s going to make the final decision and in certain situations he knows I’m going to make the final decision. And there’s some situations when we make decisions together. It just works out.”
Jeff said, “Well, I think there’s some good balance there. Amy’s got an accounting background and understands a lot better than I do the books and all that sort of thing. So, with her kind of keeping an eye on the pot and making sure everything is in line and in check, that allows me to be in front of the people from more of a sales standpoint. I’m involved with a lot of new business development.”
Just like his grandfather and father before him, Jeff kibitzes with customers to earn their trust and their business. When he isn’t pressing the flesh on the showroom floor, he’s trading jokes on the golf course. Amy trains her eye on the big picture, ever mindful of what her grandpa and dad would do. “There are definitely moments when we say, ‘Oh, Lazier’s rolling over in his grave on this one. What would Lazier have done?’ It’s part of the lore,” she said. Or she repeats one of her father’s credos — “Fast pay makes fast friends.” She added, “He doesn’t like owing anyone.”
The family “works hard to make it work right,” Amy said. “We had a consultant come in and help us separate everything so we had some type of framework to try to work within. Before, we didn’t have titles…everyone just did what needed to be done, which is still the case, but now we have a more clear definition of what our responsibilities are. I think so many times family businesses don’t have a plan and everyone thinks they’re in charge of everything” and it becomes a real mess.
The way Jeff sees it, “you can’t avoid the pitfalls” of a family business, “it’s how you handle the pitfalls. It’s maintaining respect for each other. It comes down to respect. We’re very, very lucky on that regard. I mean, I’m not going to say we don’t have our moments, but at the end of the day we really do have a good working relationship and we’re good friends through it. We’re very blessed.”
All Makes has won area recognition as a model family business and small business and industry-wide awards as a top dealer.
Among other things this next generation in business has taken from their elders is a commitment to downtown. “Yes, we are downtown to stay,” said Amee, who added all the development activity there, including a run-down apartment building converted to condos in back of All Makes, has only strengthened the family’s stake. She said All Makes acquisition of properties around its store realized a “Lazierism” that went — “always buy property near your business when it becomes available.” Lazier also taught her to “never be embarrassed by what you’re going to offer. And that’s how all these properties were acquired,” she said.
She and her brother have also remained committed to the loyal work force, whose average length of tenure is 12 years, Lazier and Larry built. “We have great people here. We like to think it’s a great place to work,” she said.
As a salesman at heart, Jeff’s keenly attuned to two Kavichisms passed on from his grandfather to his father to him that speak of never being too satisfied. When a big deal’s inked, he’s reminded of Lazier and Larry saying: “That’s great, now what are you going to sell ?” In other words, Jeff said, “get onto the next thing.” The other has to do with not repeating mistakes. As Lazier said, “Man who stumbles on rock wants to be forgiven. Man who stumbles on rock twice should break his neck.’”
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In the course of my work I meet folks I would ordinarily never meet if I were in some other profession, and one of those is the subject of this profile: Leo Geeenbaum. Even though we both share Omaha as a hometown, we are years apart in age and come from two very different backgrounds. I was born and raised here Catholic. The Jewish Greenbaum was born in Israel and lived there until his teens. I attended parochial school. He received traditional Jewish training and attended public school. We do share, however, the same alama mater for our undergraduate studies, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, though we were separated there by more than a decade. He long ago left Omaha for the east coast and for several years now he’s worked as an archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City, where he’s found an apt home for his scholarly interests and familial-cultural legacy. The story of the institute itself – it got its start in Europe – and how its founders, workers, and supporters took extraordinary measures to preserve its collections in the face of Nazi persecution is dramatic and heroic, is shared here. You’ll also learn some things about Greenbaum’s personal connection to the Holocaust.
Leo Greenbaum is Collector of Collectors of Jewish Artifacts at YIVO Institute
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
In early November the Jewish Press caught up with former Omaha resident Leo Greenbaum, accessioning archivist at the famed YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. Greenbaum was in town to visit friends and family. While here he stayed at the home of author Oliver Pollock, with whom he’s collaborated on articles about the Yiddish Theater and Workmen’s Circle in Omaha. Greenbaum’s mother, Mina, resides at the Blumkin Home. His father Joshua died last year.
Begun in 1925 in Vilna, Poland, YIVO is both a major repository and disseminator of Jewish culture through institute publications, exhibitions, classes, activities and programs. Individuals accessing the collections come from all over the world and all walks of life. The holdings are utilized by historians, authors, journalists, artists, filmmakers, scholars, educators, students and every day folks.
Filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver said that in “researching at YIVO” to inform her and Matthew Goodman’s new documentary on the bagel’s immigrant history in America, she met Greenbaum, whom she described as a “lovely guy, very bright and helpful.”
Inquiries about topics and materials are fielded every day and cover the gamut of Jewish life, as YIVO is well known for the wide scope of its vast archives and library. The collections encompass commerce, politics, religion, the arts, labor, education, family life…you name it. Nothing less than the totality of Jewish endeavor can be found there. Marketing materials refer to YIVO as “the world’s leading organization for the study of Eastern European Jewry and their descendants” around the globe. On shelves, in files and in store rooms lay books, official records, diaries, letters, posters, photos, films, recordings, art works, et cetera. Some are quite rare. Reading rooms and audio/video booths are available for perusing printed materials, listening to recordings or watching films. Walk-ins are welcome but a call ahead of time is advised. Select materials can only be accessed by appointment.
As chief collector for an archive that boasts some 25 million documents spanning the breadth of Jewish experience, Greenbaum is responsible for not only preserving and cataloging the history of a people, but adding to it. Always adding to it. He said the position is a good fit for someone like himself, who is ever curious about history and ever in search of treasures which help illuminate that history.
“It has become my specialty,” he said.
His being there is apt given the tumult that the institute and his own family experienced in the Holocaust. Some of the holdings in his charge today were rescued by brave YIVO staff members, volunteers and sympathizers at the height of the Shoah. Most YIVO artifacts, like most of its workers and supporters, were lost in the war and in the genocide, just as were the members of Greenbaum’s extended maternal and paternal family. His parents only made it out alive by luck and guile. Viewed in this light, his work at YIVO is a testament to all the people and history destroyed. Their legacy is in his hands. The extant articles represent an inheritance for him to safeguard for future generations.
“It’s our job, I suppose,” he said.
He acknowledges his work has perhaps even deeper meaning for him than for others. “I have sort of personal motivation for YIVO in this respect because I lost my family on both sides in the Holocaust. My father had a large family and they were all wiped out except for himself and one of his brothers. My mother’s family was entirely wiped out. So that’s a personal thing, you know.”
YIVO’s preservation of Yiddish culture resonates with the Greenbaums’ own Yiddish heritage, from the institute’s collection on the Yiddish Theater, which his mother was involved in, to its renowned summer classes that teach the Yiddish language, which his family spoke. “My mother was active in the Yiddish Theater in the Soviet Ukraine,” he said. “She performed with a semi-professional group. Also, my parents spoke Yiddish and I learned it from them. So I have a personal interest. Not all the staff members at YIVO have this background. In fact, some of our archives staff don’t have a Jewish background at all.”
Greenbaum came with his parents to the United States, by way of Israel, as a teen in 1961. The Omaha Central High School and University of Nebraska at Omaha grad was from an early age fascinated by current affairs and the currents of time. Until age 10 he lived in Poland, a bittersweet land for Jews, and the birthplace of YIVO. From ages 10 to 13 he and his family lived in Israel, the sanctuary for so many displaced Jews in search of an ancestral homeland and a new life. It’s no wonder then he pursued post-grad studies, at now defunct Dropsie University, in a field dedicated to archiving fragments of history that inform the past and the present.
YIVO’s Jewish scholarship mission was part of a larger heritage movement led by Jewish intellectuals, scholars and educators in Europe and elsewhere. The idea was to give the masses ownership of their own history. The academy model for YIVO was designed by Max Weinreich, a Yiddish linguist who became its first director. At the start, the fledgling institute was based in Weinreich’s apartment, but it soon grew to a set of rented rooms before constructing a permanent headquarters building in Vilna. Emblematic of Europe’s troubled history, Vilna was variously part of Poland and Lithuania during YIVO’s 20-year lifespan there.
Vilna was chosen as the base for YIVO, Greenbaum said, as its Jewish residents were not as assimilated as those in Warsaw or, for that matter, Berlin, where Jews looked down on Yiddish culture. Besides, he said, “the Vilna Jewish community was a highly developed cultural community. It had several Jewish libraries in it, some of them with quite old and valuable collections.”
Even early in its life, YIVO enjoyed prominent supporters. The original board of directors included Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Impressive names on a letterhead didn’t do much for YIVO’s perpetually short resources though. It largely depended on donations of time and money and materials from those sharing its ideals. Then, as now, YIVO could not afford to pay for acquisitions. Beyond Weinreich and the cadre of professionals he gathered to establish the aims of YIVO and to catalog, exhibit and publish its findings, the institute depended on an extensive network of volunteer zamlers or collectors, working in groups or circles throughout Eastern Europe, to do research and to collect artifacts.
In keeping with its egalitarian, grass roots philosophy, YIVO supplemented its small staff with this army of volunteers who scoured attics, basements, flea markets, antique shops, book stores, public records and all manner of sources and sites for historical finds. YIVO also trained university students in the methodologies of conducting Jewish studies. “The volunteers played a huge role,” Greenbaum said. “They were going around copying communal registers, interviewing folks.” Even today volunteers play a vital role in handling and cataloging YIVO’s huge collections.
He said until YIVO’s formation, Jewish studies tended to be limited to the elite and the old guard, focusing on the distant past, not modern times, and on religious, high-brow subjects rather than secular, working-class ones. Where things like communal registers, periodicals and contemporary Yiddish works of fiction, iwere ignored before, he said, YIVO made these prime areas of study. And where the entrenched old school paid scant attention to the new social sciences, YIVO embraced sociological studies, sending researchers out into the field to interview the proletariat for their impressions and memories and stories.
Special YIVO committees were formed in America, London, South America, Africa and Palestine. A steady stream of artifacts flowed in. The early 1930s were good to YIVO. Yet tempering this sense of pride and surge of interest in a shared Jewish consciousness was anti-Semitic tension. The threat of pogroms was always present for Jews in Europe. Adding to the unease was a post-World War I economic depression and the rise of political parties and social movements that targeted Jews as scapegoats and worked against Jewish coalitions.
Researchers in the YIVO reading room, Vilna, Poland, 1930. ©Yivo.org
By the late ‘30s the climate was poisonous. The Nazi-Communist pact made life miserable for Jews throughout Europe and the Soviet Union. Jewish institutions in places like Kiev and Minsk, where similar initiatives to YIVO had blossomed, were closed. When Poland was invaded by the Germans and Russians in 1940, YIVO’s “trouble started,” Greenbaum said. At first, Vilna was under Soviet occupation. Soviet officials incorporated YIVO into the Lithuanian Soviet Academy of Sciences. They replaced Weinreich with a hand-picked puppet. During the occupation Weinreich was on vacation with his family and ended up surviving the war and relocating to America, where he reestablished YIVO in New York City.
“They (Soviets) were looking for what they considered politically reliable people,” Greenbaum said. “They put somebody who was a fairly low level researcher at YIVO in charge. They changed the personnel. They brought into YIVO material from the Soviet institutions they’d closed. They dumped everything there.”
When the Nazis took over, YIVO was shut down as part of sweeping restrictions that stripped Jews of all enterprises, possessions and rights and isolated them into a ghetto. A special Nazi unit plundered YIVO and other Jewish cultural institutions of treasures for a planned Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt-am-Main. The remaining YIVO materials were removed and put aboard wagons to be shipped by train to sites where the precious cargo would be “turned to pulp,” Greenbaum said. To carry out this desecration, the Nazis selected a group of Jewish workers from the ghetto. However the Nazis did not realize the strong sentiments among the prisoners for the heritage bound up in these items. In acts of defiance and resistance right under their captors’ noses, the prisoners, who came to be known as the Paper Brigade, risked their lives to save and secret out YIVO materials for safekeeping in the ghetto and in the homes of sympathetic non-Jews. “Some of the stuff was literally buried underground,” Greenbaum said.
Eventually, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated and most of its inhabitants, including most YIVO staff, killed. Some in the resistance movement survived, escaping to the outlying forests, to continue their fight against the Nazis. In the fluid chaos of war, Vilna kept changing hands. Near the end, the city came back under the Red Army’s control. In the immediate post-war years, a salvage effort was undertaken by the U.S. Army on behalf of YIVO to locate as much of the confiscated treasure as possible. The few stashes unearthed and few train wagon loads discovered, some in Czechoslovakia and some in Germany, where the artifacts awaited disposal, recovered a portion of YIVO’s holdings. Other wagon loads were never found. “At least one wagon was still in Vilna after the war ended,” Greenbaum said, “and the people working at the train station did not know what it was. They thought it was junk paper and it was pulped. So that material was lost. I don’t think it was done intentionally. It was a mistake. Another wagon disappeared in Czechoslovakia and we don’t know what happened to the materials to this day,”
He said estimates put the amount of original YIVO materials that survived the war at 30 to 40 percent. Even long after the war, caches of scholarship from various Jewish sources continued to surface in the Soviet Union, Lithuania and Poland. part of the plundered YIVO collection was found in Paris, including copies of communal registers. After the Soviet Union fell YIVO negotiated with the new Lithuanian government to copy and catalog a large collection of records, some 100,000 pages worth. In the post-war years YIVO also acquired a host of materials, ranging from Nazi reports on the Jewish question to Nuremberg Trial documents.
Within YIVO’s own struggles are the stories of heroes who risked their lives to save artifacts. His parents did not save historical artifacts as such, but their survival meant life for Greenbaum and the birth of his interest in Jewish studies, which led him to YIVO and the work he does preserving history. It’s all intertwined.
The life undone his parents faced mirrored that of millions of refugees. Before the war his mother, Mina, acted part-time in the Yiddish Theater and worked part-time in a factory in Kremenchug, Ukriane. His father, Joshua, was from a family of bakers in Zawiercie, Poland. They did not know each other prior to the trouble. Each faced danger alone during the Holocaust, only meeting after the war.
“My mother jumped on the last train out of her hometown in the Ukraine,” Greenbaum said. “She saw people running and her instinct told her to jump the train. She ended up in Tashkent in Central Asia. My father ended up in Russia during the war. He was immediately arrested and put in a Siberian labor camp. It was a very tough camp. He barely survived it. When Russia was invaded by the Nazis he was released as a Polish citizen. He wanted to join the Polish Army but was denied. He worked in factories” the rest of the war and trained as a tailor after it.
The pair met in a refugee camp in Tashkent, Russua. The couple fulfilled Joshua’s wish to return to Poland, settling in the territories, where their only child, Leo, was born in Wroclaw (Breslau). His parents applied to go to America, where Leo’s uncle Jacob emigrated, working the ovens at Adler’s Bakery in Omaha, but a visa was refused. Poland’s Communist regime enforced strict emigration policies. Finally, in the late ‘50s, the restrictions eased enough to allow the family’s move to Israel.
The family settled in Beit Shenesh, then a small, undeveloped immigrant town thick with Moroccan and other North African refugees. History was all about. “Near our yard you could pick up these fragments, like jar handles and things, from Biblical times,” Greenbaum said. “There was an archeological dig done by an Englishman
in the 1920s. He found interesting things and he left all the shards” on the site.
Times were hard in Israel and so Greenbaum’s father left for America in 1960, joining his brother in Omaha. Here, Joshua Greenbaum found work as a tailor at Charles Asmann Clothing Company. A year later he sent for Mina and Leo to join him. Leo had a rough go of it his first full year of school at Central.
“I didn’t know very good English,” he said. “I think I was the only immigrant in the whole school. The teachers were not that sympathetic to me. They would not give me slack on the language thing. I was kind of isolated. But I got my grades and passed all the classes.”
Between school and television, he said, “I picked up the language. By the time I was a sophomore I was fluent in English. I was able to keep up with the other students.” As a history major at UNO he would have enjoyed Jewish studies, but none were offered then. A sleight young man, he was deferred from military service during the Vietnam War because he was under the minimum weight, which suited him fine. “I was very skinny and I was not very military-minded anyway,” he said.
His interest in Russian and Eastern European studies led him to Dropsie College in north Philadelphia. Once a leading Jewish studies institution, the nonsectarian Dropsie transformed into the Annenberg Research Institute and was later absorbed into the University of Pennsylvania. To pursue his interest in modern Jewish history he commuted to New York, where he was offered a job with the Bund Archives, the repository for the Jewish Labor Bund, a secular socialist party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He moved to New York in 1978 to work at the archives and in 1989 he was hired by YIVO. Eventually, the Bund Archives merged with Yivo.
Seventeen years into his YIVO career, Greenbaum said he is “now one of the veterans” on staff. He’s seen the institute’s impact continue to grow. Many books, films and exhibitions, for example, have drawn on YIVO’s archives. YIVO’s produced works of its own, notably Image Before My Eyes, an exhibition, a book and a documentary about Jewish life in Poland.
Since YIVOs reincarnation in New York, it’s focused more and more on Jews in America, compiling thousands of case history files of Jewish immigrant applicants, autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and home movies made by Jewish Americans touring Europe before and after WWII. As YIVO continues accumulating new finds, he said, “we’re running out of space. Every archive has the same dilemma — where to store stuff and how to preserve it.” Part of the challenge, he said, is that at YIVO “we collect pretty much everything. We have a pretty wide scope. I’m pretty liberal with what I keep.”
YIVO gets donated items from some unlikely sources. For example, it works with the New York State Insurance Department Liquidation Bureau to access the records of retiring Jewish mutual benefit societies, of which there are fewer and fewer. Serving insurance, charitable, social, even political functions for members, these societies offer a revealing window into various aspects of Jewish American life.
Greenbaum fields calls all the time from people who stumble upon old items and call to ask if he wants to see them. He almost always does. “You never know what you’ll find,” he said. Landlords who would otherwise junk stuff that tenants leave behind call. The same with employees from the public or private sector. “They notice something old and interesting and they call us and say, ‘Come over before I throw it out,’ and I come over and pick it up. At least once a passerby on the Lower East Side saw somebody throwing out these huge records on the street and called us, saying, ‘Better come before it’s trashed.’ We came over, along with people from the Museum of Broadcasting, and found these broadcast disks for recording old radio shows like Fibber Magee and Molly. They’re very fragile.”
He said a good proportion of the research done at YIVO today is by lay people digging into their family roots. “It’s third generation nostalgia,” he said. “The first generation is immigrants. The second generation wants to be Americanized. The third generation becomes nostalgic for grandpa’s culture.” He’s not so keen on genealogy himself, preferring instead to explore the arts or politics. He’s a devotee of ballet and opera. He reads a lot. But as he’s learned, you can’t dismiss any area of investigation. After all, you never know what you’ll find.
YIVO is located at 15 West 16th Street in New York. It is closed on Jewish holidays and most federal holidays. For details, call 212-246-6080 or visit www.yivo.org.
- The YIVO Conference on “Jews and the Left” (commentarymagazine.com)
- A New Home for an Endangered Yiddish Bookstore (cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Center for Jewish History and Routes to Roots Foundation Expand Online Access to Family History Research (eogn.com)
- ‘The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story’ – Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman Team Up for a New Documentary Film (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
You wouldn’t necessarily think of Omaha, Neb. as a place for an interfaith collaborative involving the three Abrahamic faith groups but that’s exactly what it is thanks to the Tri-Faith Initiative, a non-profit moving ever closer to its plan for a church, a synagogue, and a mosque on a single campus. Like most Midwest cities Omaha’s a decidedly Christian stronghold with quite small Jewish and Muslim populations. It’s also a place where diversity hasn’t always been celebrated or embraced. Yet the Tri-Faith is an impossible to ignore reality here that’s making waves near and far. My story below, which is to appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com), tries to get at how it is this partnership has been able to reach this point and find itself poised to realize something that perhaps has never been done before, anywhere. I’m proud it’s happening where I live. My blog contains a profile I did of Tri-Faith executive director Nancy Kirk, who like all the principals in this endeavor is a highly accomplished person of diverse interests. What unites them all is a sincere desire to do the right thing by moving past dialogue to action where interfaith relations are concerned. You’ll also find on this blog a story I did a few years ago on something called Project Interfaith and its director, Beth Katz, and a very long piece on the interfaith relationship forged by two famous figures, Rev. Edward Flangan, the founder of Boys Town, and his close friend and supporter, Henry Monsky. A smattering of other religious themed stories I’ve done are also on the blog.
©by Leo Adam Biga
To appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha’s not always embraced diversity but the local Tri-Faith Initiative may be a history-making model of interfaith cooperation. It’s proceeding with an audacious plan to locate a church, a synagogue, a mosque and an ecumenical center on a combined 35-acre campus.
Organizers say they’ve not found an equivalent gathering of the three Abrahamic faith groups – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – in a single dedicated setting. Not surprisingly, the project’s drawing much attention from media and scholarly attention. Observers are struck by how this partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture has gone from concept to dawning reality in only six years.
The initiative echoes local community engagement efforts from the past – Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties – and present – Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha Community Foundation, Building Bright Futures, Empowerment Network – that coalesce various partners to tackle social-cultural needs.
The Reader met with four “pioneers” behind the Tri-Faith experiment for their take on how the initiative has managed sustaining itself. They say one reason why this alliance has gotten so far so fast is that mere dialogue was never the end goal. Rather, it was a means to realize a brick-and-mortar sanctuary for promoting ongoing interfaith relationships.
“There are many wonderful dialogues going on across the country and around the world, and I’ve been involved in some of those, where people come together for great meetings to talk about interfaith issues,” says Nebraska Episcopal Diocese Canon for Tri-Faith Ministries Timothy Anderson, who will lead the unnamed Episcopal church slated for the campus. “But then you go back to your hotel, pack your bag, get on a plane and fly home. The uniqueness of this is that we are home. The next day we wake up and my neighbor to the right is still Jewish and my neighbor to the left is still Muslim and I have to learn each day how to live in my faith to love my neighbor as myself.”
“I think Muslims are in a way in America the Jews of the past,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel. “I think there is a tendency from time to time to select a new scapegoat. Jews are extremely aware of the ‘game’ that was played with their lives. We paid a price for being a scapegoat for many, many years.
“There is a level of understanding on the part of the Jew when the game is being played with other minority groups. Until the Obama presidency there were many opportunities for Americans to denigrate or to view Muslims as The Other, the stranger, the one that is not welcome, similar in a way to how Jews were treated.”
Azriel says progress between peoples of different faiths or cultures can only occur “when you’re able to step away from where you are and go to uncomfortable places.” Getting past surface niceties to deep interpersonal connections, he says, is what’s made the Jewish-Muslim relationship work in Omaha. Years before the Tri-Faith, he notes, Temple reached out to invite the Muslim community to celebrate Thanksgiving at the synagogue. Muslims have reciprocated by inviting the Jewish community to their celebrations.
“It’s mainly about relationships. If you don’t visit each other’s home, if you’re not in relationship with people, the dialogue becomes completely nebulous and artificial after awhile,” says Azriel.
It’s why, for him, meaningful interfaith exchanges must go beyond talk and tolerance to practice collaborative good works, such as creating a neighborhood where three faith groups co-exist in harmony.
He acknowledges some Temple members resist the partnership. The other groups report similar reluctance or skepticism. It’s meant less than 100 percent buy-in. But that’s where Azriel says leadership can make a difference.
“I really think a clergy that doesn’t challenge his congregation, doesn’t comfort those that are challenged, but also doesn’t disturb those that are comfortable should not lead a congregation. Sometimes you need to be stubborn and continue with the dreaming. So we continue walking on the bridge, even though at times it doesn’t look completely solid and safe. So what? There is a price to pay for daring and a price to pay for stagnation.
“You don’t just wait for something to happen but you mobilize all the resources together to accomplish this. That’s what’s so unique about this combination. All of us know dreams can only be achieved after hard work.”
Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, Islamic Institute president and co-founder and chair of the Department of Medicine at Creighton University, says the relationships hinge on mutual respect and trust. “That’s where it starts.”
In late 2011 the partners backed their words with financial stakes by announcing the purchase of adjoining parcels of land at the site of the former Ironwood Country Club, on the southeast corner of 132nd and Pacific, now part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The Tri-Faith vision took another major step to fruition when Temple, which completed its $25 million building campaign, broke ground April 15 on its new synagogue. It’s expected to open in August 2013. The other two partners are in the planning and fund-raising stages of their own buildings. A $2.5 million anonymous matching gift kick-started the Islamic Institute’s fund drive.
A fourth structure, the Tri-Faith Center, will be a shared, nondenominational facility for educational-cultural events and activities. It’s also in the planning stage.
The level of support shown for this faith-based collaborative defies the tensions and conflicts that keep different religious traditions apart.
Rendering of the new Temple Israel synagogue
The feel good story of the project’s formation is already becoming lore.
As the oldest and largest synagogue in town, Temple long ago outgrew its present facility. Whereas the reform Jewish congregation traces its history back to 1872 and serves 750-plus families, the Islamic Institute formed only in 2006 and counts but a fraction of Temple’s members. Still, the Institute needs a permanent home of its own to accommodate a growing Muslim population. Each cast its gaze out west, where most members live.
Temple already had the experience of a Christian neighbor in First United Methodist Church to the north and of a shared parking lot with the Omaha Community Playhouse to the east. The Jewish and Islamic communities already enjoyed a rapport strengthened when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel led Temple members in a cordon around the local mosque as a show of solidarity. He and his Tri-Faith bretheren describe it as “a pivotal moment” that “forged” the relationship.
Temple’s search for a new home took a collaborative turn when member and Tri-Faith board chair Bob Freeman broached the possibility of building with a faith partner. Not only would there be cost savings from a joint site selection and shared amenities, but opportunities to do interfaith programming.
Azriel says the congregation has “a history of being on the cutting edge of justice work,” which is a theme in his own career. He initiated a Black/Jewish dialogue series at Temple and his justice work has earned him various honors. He insists he’s hardly alone in tackling social issues. “The leadership of this congregation has been deeply involved in the daily life of this town. So many of our people are on the cutting edge of philanthropy, sit on nonprofit boards and are basically the bloodline of what this city is all about.”
It wasn’t long before Azriel and Mohiuddin spoke about partnering. After consulting with their boards they decided to pursue an interfaith project with a Christian participant. After the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha rejected the idea the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska was approached. It just happened to be considering a new church in West O on land held in reserve. Then-bishop Joe Burnett asked Anderson to explore joining the two other faith groups in a joint venture. Anderson met Freeman over a game of golf to discuss the possibilities.
Ironwood proved a symbolic spot for the Tri-Faith. It was founded as Jewish-only Highland Country Club in 1924 in response to Jews being barred from other clubs. Owing to Omaha’s declining Jewish population and a desire to be inclusive, Highland eventually opened to all who could afford it. Tri-Faith partners now refer to Hell Creek, which runs through the property, as Heaven’s Bridge.
All of it plays well in the press. But as the founders take great pains explaining, none of it would have happened without the deliberate efforts of people committed to putting aside differences to make tangible an interfaith community built from the ground up.
Azriel says, “Here is something we are doing intentionally. This is not haphazard. this is not by coincidence. We decided those three communities have to be together and then you bring them to a neighborhood to create it. So there’s a deep intentionality that emerges as a result of the comfort level of the relationships. You can’t get there by coincidence.”
At the end of the day, says Freeman, it’s not platitudes or mission statements or white papers that drive the Tri-Faith.
“As is often the case in collaborative projects it’s the people that make it work and we’ve had a group of amazing people committed to working on this. They’ve sustained that enthusiasm and commitment over five-six years. When I look at the people who have been around the table every one of them is very successful in their own walk of life. These are people who when they take something on they don’t fail, they lead it to a successful conclusion.”
Freeman, who’s worked on several Omaha collaboratives, says the Tri-Faith has been “an unequivocally positive experience.” An attorney by trade, he’s quick to point out that “we’ve had interactions that have been less than perfect but that’s life.”
“But life is about overcoming challenges and obstacles and recognizing different perspectives and being accommodating and continuing to move forward when you’re doing the right thing,” he says, “and we’ve had an uncommon aggregation of really strong, successful, goal-oriented people who’ve just willed this thing forward and been really good at problem solving.”
The Tri-Faith posed many potentially intractable, deal-breaker issues but Freeman says great care was taken to mitigate and mediate these.
“We did some things early on that probably helped contribute to success. We immediately talked about some of the harder issues and had a consensus on how we would address them, so we were able to take them off the table.”
Azriel concedes that when there’s an international flashpoint in Jewish-Muslim relations, fears, insecurities and resentments surface.
“Of course this comes up always as part of the discussion, issues of trust, of loyalty, of what-if scenarios. So you have definitely some of the Israeli-Arab conflict penetrating the conversation and people asking questions or suggesting that maybe its not the right way.
“You talk a lot, you try to respond, you try to bring the person who is asking to a level of comfort but the most important part is to invite them to a meeting with Muslims and Episcopalians.”
It’s in breaking bread and participating in celebrations with each other, he and his colleagues say, that people of divergent backgrounds and beliefs find their common humanity. That’s why the Tri-Faith sponsors events that bring people of different faiths together.
The Tri-Faith made its first big public splash in 2009 with the communal Dinner in Abraham’s Tent. An annual picnic is held. More events have followed, including workshops, panels, a children’s camp and high school programs.
“We were able to establish positive momentum and credibility through programs and projects we pulled off very successfully,” Freeman says.
Events outside its control become teachable moments. For example, the organization used the 2008 Gaza conflict to present a unified voice. Mohiuddin says, “We were able to come together and wrote a joint editorial in the World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”
“I think that was a crucial point in our relationships, that we could move through that and stay together and be of one voice against violence on any side,” says Anderson.
Freeman says the Tri-Faith was able to draft a statement because the partners had set a precedent for addressing the elephants in the room.
“If you’re going to put three houses of worship together in a neighborhood setting there’s some things about that that can be threatening to one another and we immediately got into that. We talked about how we’re not trying to influence each other in our intramural religious efforts.”
In other words, no prosleltyzing. A memorandum of understanding laid it all out.
“An understanding was reached not to go after each other’s congregations to recruit members,” Freeman says. “We recognized the need to be separate, the need to be autonomous. There has to be autonomy. If any of the three want to do something internally in their congregation, in their building, on their land they have to be able to do that and neither of the other two should have any say at all in what that is. Certainly there can be a sensitivity to the impact that might have on your neighbors but nobody should tell anybody else how to govern or operate within their congregational religious life.
“One of the byproducts of that was we don’t want anybody’s faith to be watered down. We’re not trying to make Judaism more Christian, we’re not trying to make Islam more Jewish. So the separateness has to make us independent and even stronger in our own faiths and we’ve seen how that can effectively work.”
Mohiuddin’s experience bears out Freeman’s words. “The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the beliefs we have and as a result we understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people and that actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it,” Mohiuddin says.
“I think we’ve become better Christians, Jews, Muslims by entering into this and trying to live out what our faith really says it’s about, and it’s not about politics, it’s not about power,” says Anderson.
Freeman points to other things the Tri-Faith’s done to solidify itself.
“We incorporated and formed a 501c organization early on (2006) so we would have an identity. We were then able to do some fundraising and get some money in, which enabled us to hire professional help along the way and get good consulting input, so it wasn’t entirely a volunteer-sustained effort. I think a lot of us felt expanding beyond just a bunch volunteers who met for coffee lent it credibility.”
Two key professionals brought in were Nancy Kirk and Vic Gutman, Omahans with long experience in arts administration, communications and public event planning. Kirk came on as executive director in 2008 and Gutman as media relations director soon after.
Freeman believes the city deserves credit, too, as “a nurturing, incubator environment for multi-group, creative, collaborative initiatives and projects.” He adds, “I think there’s a willingness to try and work together in recognition that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. There are amazing public-private partnerships that develop here. These models exist all over town and result in people working together and trusting each other.”
“The high level of trust people were willing to have in the Tri-Faith Initiative early on,” he says, “is a byproduct of a community spirit that fosters these kinds of things.”
Mohiuddin, who came from his native India to complete his medical studies at Creighton University decades ago, says, “Omaha has been my home for over 40 years and I’ve gotten to know the city, its culture, its style, and it’s just very welcoming.”
Azriel, a native of Israel by way of Baltimore, says the Tri-Faith is comprised of partners “not only predisposed to welcoming The Other but whose religious faith told them this is the way. It will be very hard to create this same scenario in people who are faithless. I think the right moment came and the right people assembled around the table, and then life has never been the same.”
Mohiuddin says, “If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns. It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”
Like his fellow pioneers Mohiuddin says the Tri-Faith could have easily disbanded by now “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices, if we did not have the courage of our own convictions.” Indeed, he attributes its survival to “the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”
On a more practical level, says Freeman, the partners are motivated to see the project through because it means a new house of worship for each faith group, plus an interfaith center. It’s the prospect of bringing these “homes” to completion, strengthening all three faith communities in the process, that supersedes everything else.
The Tri-Faith pioneers welcome the attention the initiative is generating and hope their work provides a framework for more interfaith collaboratives. But Mohiuddin speaks for his colleagues when he says, “I can’t be distracted” from the work at hand.
The partners have come too far now to be sidetracked and lose sight of the prize. Not when the campus Mohiuddin calls “our dream land” is so close at hand.
Faith without action is dead and the Tri-Faith is nothing if not an action-oriented movement. One with a life all its own and a promised land to be filled.
- Omaha temple breaks ground on its tri-faith campus building (jta.org)
- Interfaith, 70 years on… (thejc.com)
- Brotherhood of Faith (drbones.typepad.com)
- Omaha Corpus Christi Procession Draws Hundreds (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Whether you’re a regular or occasional visitor to this blog you have by now probably noticed that I like to write about Nebraskans in Film. That is a function of my being a Nebraskan, a film buff who just happens to be a journalist. Naturally, I seek every opportunity I can find to write about fellow natives of this place who have and are doing great things in the world of cinema. It’s not only filmmakers and actors I profile either. You’ll find pieces about many different aspects of the industry as well as about people who don’t make films but instead showcase them for our entertainment and education. Take the subject of this profile, Dena Krupinski, for example. When I wrote this article seven or eight years ago she was a producer at Turner Classic Movies in Atlanta, where she was one of the key figures behind those Private Screenings Q&A’s that host Robert Osborne does with legends. It was a dream job for her because she’s been in love with the movies for as long as she can remember and that gig put her in close contact with some of the biggest names in Hollywood history. She’s since moved on to teach at a university but her cinema obsession remains intact. I too have had the distinct pleasure of interviewing and in some cases meeting Hollywood royalty, past and present, including Robert Wise, Patricia Neal, Debbie Rynolds, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Danny Glover. I am hoping for an interview with Jane Fonda in the near future because she’s coming to Omaha for a July program at Film Streams that will have Alexander Payne interview her live on stage. Of course, Payne is someone I’ve interviewed dozens of times over the years and because of that relationship I’ve had the chance to interview Laura Dern, Matthew Broderick, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen, producers Michael London, Albert Berger, and Jim Burke, screenwriter Jim Taylor, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.
Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Orignally appeared in the Jewish Press
For most of us, childhood dreams remain just that — the unfulfilled musings of our starry-eyed youth. But for Omaha native Dena Krupinsky, an associate director with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in Atlanta, her long-harbored fantasy of working with Hollywood greats has become reality. Since joining TCM in 1994, the year the national cable network launched, Krupinsky has produced dozens of special programs featuring stars and other notables from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Even a cursory glance at her producing credits reveals a Who’s-Who of movie royalty she has worked with — from Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, James Garner and Rod Steiger to June Allyson, Leslie Caron and Liza Minnelli.
Whether in a digital editing suite or in a sound recording booth or in a television studio, she gets on intimate terms with some of the very luminaries she’s idolized. She might be producing a Private Screenings session in which James Garner recalls his career or she might be pruning a feature with Liza Minnelli discussing her father and his films or she might be recording a voice-over track in which Carol Burnett pays homage to Lucille Ball. “Do I wake up in the morning excited to go to work? Yeah,” Krupinsky said. “I feel like I’m doing exactly what I knew I’d be doing. It is a dream come true.” She has, in the course of putting together various programs, met dozens of Hollywood legends as well as many more obscure but no less significant film industry professionals. “I do feel lucky meeting these people. They were part of that Old Hollywood, which was an exclusive, elite world. And now that I’m part of it, I’m so excited. When I watch the Oscars I’ll see these people up there and go, ‘Yeah, know him, met him. Nice guy.’” That goes for screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a 2001 honorary Oscar recipient whom Krupinsky met while taping a program in which Lehman discussed how scenes from his script for North By Northwest were brought to inspired life by director Alfred Hitchcock.
Somehow, even as a little girl, Krupinsky knew she was destined to work in film or television. Growing up in the Rockbrook Park neighborhood, she was the oddball kid on her block who much preferred watching TV hour upon hour to playing outside with her friends. So enamored was she with whatever the magic box displayed that she would kvetch with her mother for extra viewing privileges. Although her parents, Jean Ann and Jerry Krupinsky, could not then see how such a steady diet of old movies, sitcoms, dramas, game shows, variety shows, soap operas and commercials could possibly benefit their daughter, it undoubtedtly has — embuing in her a deep affinity for popular entertainment that, if not a prerequisite for working at TCM, certainly helps. “It does. It definitely does,” said the perky Krupinsky during a June visit to Omaha for her 20th high school class reunion. She is a 1981 graduate of Westside High School and a former student at Temple Israel Synagogue. “I just always loved television and movies and I’ve just always known I wanted to be in them.”
During her recent visit from her home in Decatur, GA., a community near Atlanta, where she works, Krupinsky, who is single, wore a bright red dress that matched the burning intensity she has for her job. That job entails producing segments for the network’s (Channel 55 on Cox) Private Screenings, Star of the Month, Director of the Month and Spotlight features as well as producing special projects related to individual films, figures or themes, such as a new half-hour documentary, Memories of Oz, which has been well-reviewed in the national press for its informative and fun take on the making of The Wizard of Oz. She has worked with everyone from impish Mickey Rooney to serious method actor Rod Steiger and tackled themes from Religion in the Movies to the Art of the Con. Her work has been recognized in the industry with Telly awards for Private Screenings segments on Tony Curtis and Leslie Caron. a 1999 Gracie Allen Award for a Carol Burnett On Lucille Ball special and the 21st Annual American Women in Radio and Television Award for a series of interstitials (promotional links) on women in film.
Many of the stars that Krupinsky, a graduate of the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism, has worked with have since passed away, most recently Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. A Private Screenings installment she did with Lemmon and Matthau remains one of her favorites, if for no other reason than she was enchanted with the man who originated the role of Oscar Madison on stage and on screen. “That was something that I loved to do. Walter Matthau was the greatest, funniest guy I ever met. I loved him. At one point, I was walking with him to show him where the Green Room is and he grabbed my hand. He was so sweet. He called me Charlotte the whole time. I’d be like, ‘No, it’s Dena.’ And he’d go, ‘No, no, I had a girlfriend named Charlotte, and you’re just like her.’ When he died I remembered this line he said that I loved during our taping session: ‘Dear, oh dear, I have a queer feeling they’ll be a strange face in heaven in the morning.’ And I thought of him and that line. Bless his heart.” Krupinsky invited her parents to attend the Lemmon-Matthau taping. She said she often tries sharing her Insider’s position with less experienced co-workers by letting them listen in on phone interviews. “I always like to have people listen because it’s too great a learning experience not to have your co-workers there.”
On one occasion, Krupinsky gathered a phalanx of Liza Minnelli fans in her office for a scheduled phone interview with the star only to have the diva surprise everyone by inviting the producer up to her place instead. “She said, ‘I’d love it if you could come to my house — I really don’t like to do phone interviews.’ And I was like, ‘Well, Liza, I’m in Atlanta and you’re in New York.’ She goes, ‘I’ll fly you up.’ So, I checked with my bosses and they said, ‘Go for it.’ I went to her house in New York and hanging on the walls were these big Andy Warhol prints — one of her, one of her mother and one of her father. Staring at those prints reminded me I was with a member of Hollywood royalty, and that her mother really was Judy Garland and her father really was Vincente Minnelli. She was as easy as an old friend, but I was in awe the whole time. It was great.”
Not at all jaded even after hobnobbing with scores of celebrities, the star struck Krupinsky said she still gets butterflies every time she meets one. “I’m always a little nervous, but the minute they start talking you kind of forget you’re scared.”
She said the stars are real troopers who go out of their way to make her and her colleagues feel comfortable being around them. “So far, they’ve all been so easy to work with and I think it’s because they want to tell their stories. They’re proud. They don’t do it for the money. They do it because they want to do it.” She said stars are put through their paces on a typical Private Screenings production day, which entails a three to three-and-a-half hour taping session, promotional intros and press interviews. “It’s an exhausting process, but never have we had problems. I’ve never had anyone complaining that it’s taking too long or demanding star treatment. They’re totally professional. When we bring them on to the set, they’re not worried or anxious. They just say, ‘I got it. I know what to do.’ And they love it. I feel like they have as much fun with us as we do with them. I mean, they even sit with the crew and eat lunch.”
With stars flying in to Atlanta for the tapings, opportunities abound for Krupinsky to hang with the screen legends. “We usually take them out to dinner the night before. Tony Curtis, whom we’ve worked with a lot, came with his wife Jill. We took them to dinner and shopping. Tony is a lot of fun. This is a guy who doesn’t want to rest. He wants to go out at night. He has fun with his celebrity. He gladly signs autographs.” Following a Private Screenings session with Best Actor Oscar winner Rod Steiger, Krupinsky was asked to escort the actor to a Florida film festival in his honor and she witnessed first-hand the respect and adulation audiences feel for this “very intense and very passionate” man.
One of the toughest parts of her job, she said, is trying to whittle down the star interviews from several hours to the one hour or less allotted for airing. For several months now she has been working on the edit for an August 2 scheduled James Garner Private Screenings segment. “James Garner’s has been one of the hardest to cut because he told so many good stories. I cut and cut on paper first and when I went to edit I thought for sure I‘d be fine but it was still too long. Cutting stories is the hardest part. Editing is a long process.” In preparing to tape a Private Screenings or to produce a special project like the Memories of Oz documentary, Krupinsky immerses herself in the project, gathering and reviewing reams of materials on the subject, including published interviews, biographies, tapes of movies and archival photos, with the help of staff researchers. “I become totally absorbed in my subject. For three months I can tell you everything about Tony Curtis or James Garner because I study them and I learn about these guys. I’ll know everything — dates, times, movies — you name it. But then once a project’s done that information goes away as I move on to the next one. The thing I love about my job is that I’m learning all the time. I feel like I’m still in school. It’s like having advanced film classes with experts talking about how they approach screenwriting or directing or acting.”
Krupinsky followed a logical route to TCM, working in local television promotion before graduating to the network level. Once out of college — and with her sights dead set on a career in TV — she took an entry-level job, as a secretary, at CBS affiliate WAGA-TV in Atlanta, where she was soon promoted to associate producer status — developing image campaigns and teasers for the station’s news and entertainment divisions. Even with the new position, she said, it was hard to get by on her small salary. “I was broke. I ate a lot at Taco Bell.” After a brief stint with a station in Knoxville, TN, she landed a spot as a writer-producer with Turner Network Television Latin America, which equaled a step-up on her career path but which also presented a dead-end since she did not speak a word of Spanish or Portugese. Then, in 1994, she heard about the formation of TCM and promptly applied for and won her current post. When she began at TCM, media mogul Ted Turner was still taking a hands-on approach with the fledgling network unlike today, when various mergers have taken Ted’s folksy presence out of the picture and replaced it with corporate suits. “Ted would always come by. One day, we had a meeting with him and he was wearing a cartoon tie and he was just hilarious,” she recalled. “Other times, he’d walk by the office and say, ‘Hey guys, what are you doing?’ Everyone who worked for Ted has this feeling for him because he did a great job. Thank God I was there for that regime.”
Before joining the ranks of film buffs and cinephiles at TCM, Krupinsky acknowledges she was a bit out-of-step with her workmates because even though she loved movies, she lacked a deep knowledge of their history and lore. As an example, she points to Warner Brothers tough guy John Garfield, someone she was assigned to do a feature piece on and knew next to nothing about. “Before I did John Garfield I didn’t know who he was to be honest. I told my mom who I was profiling and she said, ‘Oh, John Garfield, he’s great. You’ll fall in love with him.’ I said, I will?’ And sure, enough, I did. You almost fall in love with all these people.”
The Garfield project led Krupinsky to the late actor’s daughter Julie Garfield, an actress, who provided personal insights into the man, and to former director Vincent Sherman, who directed Garfield in the 1943 drama Saturday’s Children and who worked with many other Warners greats in the 1930s and ‘40s. Krupinsky played matchmaker of sorts when she arranged for the two to meet. “I brought Julie and Vincent together for lunch and it was great to sit back and let him tell her stories about her dad that she didn’t know. I was kind of proud myself because I brought these two together.” Krupinsky feels privileged getting the inside scoop from veterans like Sherman, who at 95, is one of the last surviving directors from Hollywood’s classic studio era. Sherman knew everyone on the Warners lot and hearing him talk about the old days and the old stars is like getting the Holy Scripture from the prophet himself. “I had lunch with him and he was telling me stories about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’m sitting here with a man who worked with these legends.’ I mean, it is very cool. Vincent’s become a friend of our network’s.”
A large part of her producing chores involves developing scripts, which generally include narration read by a star or stars who have some relationship with or enthusiasm for the subject. For example, to promote a month-long salute to the late producer-director Stanley Kramer, Krupinsky hit upon the idea of having comic Jonathan Winters, who appeared in Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, wax nostalgic about the filmmaker, with whom he was quite close. She interviewed Winters by phone and developed a script from his comments that adhered very closely to his own words. The resulting Winters’ salute was a surprisingly sober, reflective and personal reminiscence. When it comes time for the star to record the narration, as in the case of Winters, leeway is given for the star to go off-script and improvise. “They’ll paraphrase and add their own little things,” Krupinsky said, “and so it almost sounds like it’s off-the-cuff, and a lot of times it is.”
Among new and proposed projects, Krupinsky is now brainstorming ideas to promote TCM’s scheduled Coming of Age theme in October. She would like to get a Matt Dillon or Diane Lane or Reese Witherspoon to host the Coming of Age festival. Another idea she has is to get Dustin Hoffman alone or as part of a reunion of the cast of The Graduate. Other projects she would like to see happen range from a special on the Marx Brothers (she recently interviewed Carl Reiner on that comedy team) to Private Screenings segments with Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Taylor, James Coburn and Jerry Lewis. She is also busy thinking of some project that would be a good fit for Steve Martin to host/narrate.
Pitching projects is part of what Krupinsky or any producer does. She feels fortunate having superiors who value her input. “The cool part about my job is that as producers we have a lot to say. It’s not like, ‘Hey, Dena, your next assignment is…’ It’s more like, ‘Hey, Dena, here’s the programming we’re thinking of doing and we want you to come up with ideas.’ I can come back and say, ‘Let’s try this,’ and they’ll say yes or no, but a lot of times they say yes. That’s why I love my job. Like the Lemmon-Matthau Private Screenings. That was mine. I wanted to do something on comedy teams and I thought of Lemmon-Matthau and I did it. And the cool thing is you get to do this stuff with people you’ve always admired and wanted to meet.”
For now, Krupinsky is content at TCM, but she can see herself moving on, perhaps to produce feature-length documentaries. “I think about it all the time and I do feel like I am making a slow progression towards it. I’m doing great stuff now but I always feel like there’s something else I could be doing out there. I don’t want to ever get away from this work. Even if I moved on I still want something to do with Older Hollywood. Right now, though, I’m happy where I am.”
- TCM fest calls film buffs and others (variety.com)
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- Penelope Andrew: TCM Fest 2012:Liza Minnelli, Kim Novak, Robert Wagner, Debbie Reynolds Walk Red Carpet (huffingtonpost.com)
- Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday celebrated (cbsnews.com)
- Que Sera Sera! Happy Belated Birthday Doris Day! (pbenjay.wordpress.com)
- Casablanca Again On The Silver Screen: 70th Anniversary (morningerection.wordpress.com)
Where there is a celebrity, there is an attorney, and in the case of the entertainment attorney profiled here, Ira Epstein, this Beverly Hills-based lawyer never lost the taste for show business he acquired as a kid growing up in Omaha, Neb. In a diverse life and career he’s touched many different aspects of the human condition, the legal profession, and the entertainment industry, working with some genuine legends along the way.
Entertainment Attorney Ira Epstein, Counsel to the Stars
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Veteran west coast entertainment attorney Ira Epstein, a counsel to high-profile clients in film and television, traces his show biz roots to growing-up in Omaha, where he and his brother, Arnold “Tuffy” Epstein, a well-known Omaha woodwind player, performed in area fairs and amateur shows during the Great Depression.
Born and raised here, the brothers, studied music at the prodding of their grocer parents, Harry and Jenny, the proprietors of their own mom-and-pop store, Epstein’s Grocery, originally located at 27th and Maple and later at 20th and Martha. The family lived above the stores. As kids, Ira and Tuffy were prevailed upon by their parents to entertain salesmen pitching wares. “Ira would play the accordion and I would sing,” Tuffy recalls, adding their stage mother booked them “wherever she could get us,” including two neighborhood movie theaters, the Roseland and Corby, where the boys were billed as Ruffy and Tuffy for amateur show performances. Their younger siblings, Allen and Gloria, also performed.
Graduating to the piano, Ira performed in music programs at his school, Central High, where he cut short his senior year in order to join a touring big band headed by Skippy Anderson. While he downplays his own musical talent, Ira was, in Tuffy’s estimation, “an excellent jazz pianist.” With the help of money his mother saved, Ira attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and took paying gigs to pay his tuition, room and board. “I worked my way through school playing in bands,” he says. Often, he and Tiffy found themselves jamming on the same stage.
By the time Ira started college, the Korean War erupted and the military draft loomed large. The then-social work major sought a field of study that would keep him in school. That’s when he and a pair of buddies decided “we’d take the law school exams. We didn’t have anything better to do.”
What began as “a lark” turned into a distinguished career nearing its half-century mark. But his frivolous attitude toward the exams nearly quashed his plans. Certain he’d failed, the silver-tongued Epstein proceeded to talk his way into law school with the personal chutzpah and charm that made him a natural for the courtroom.
As Epstein remembers, it happened this way: “The dean called me in and said, ‘Ira, you really didn’t do well on these tests.’ I told him why. That I left early every day to conduct cheerleading tryouts in my role as Yell King. That I was in every activity imaginable at Nebraska. I was a member of the gymnastics team, the student council, the Nebraska athletic board. I was active in Jewish activities, including AZA. I was president of the campus chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu. And the dean said, ‘Because of all your activities. we’re going to let you into law school.’ And that’s how I got started. I ended up enjoying the law and doing pretty well.”
In typical Epstein fashion, he ran with the opportunity, becoming editor of the campus law review and earning a law fellowship in trial procedure evidence. During his fellowship, Epstein got a chance to work with and learn under famous personal injury defense attorney Melvin Beli, who was trying a case in Omaha at the time. “He came into Omaha to try a medical malpractice case against a foot surgeon. Beli had a national reputation. He was the big man from the west coast up against a small town country lawyer, who was one of the best defense lawyers in the business. Beli took him to the cleaners…and back in those days you couldn’t easily recover against doctors. It was really tough. Beli brought me in to help do the research. He was a great scholar and a great guy. I was very impressed…I got some good experience and we got to be good friends.”
Coming out of college, Epstein harbored designs on working for one of Omaha’s prestige Gentile law firms, which he says then maintained an unspoken but nonetheless rigid country club policy barring Jews, regardless of their credentials. “When I graduated law school I was a pretty hot prospect with a lot of enthusiasm and I decided I wanted to break the barrier in Omaha and go into a non-Jewish law firm.” he says. “Well, I interviewed with most of the major non-Jewish firms…at least 10 of them…and I could not get hired. Here I was editor of the law review and, while I didn’t finish first or second in my class, I was in the top 20 percent, plus I was in all kinds of organizations, and yet I couldn’t break the barrier. That was anti-Semitism at its best. Now, it’s changed, of course.”
Then, in 1957, Epstein applied for and received a direct commission into the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General or JAG court. The recently married (to the former Noddy Schein of Omaha) JAG officer was first assigned to San Francisco, where he looked up Beli, who officed in the city on the hill, to see about joining the famed attorney’s practice and thereby supplement his low military salary. “I ended up working part-time for him while in the service. At that point I got a good flavor of personal injury law and decided that just was not my bag.” Meanwhile, his JAG duties helped him develop keen lawyering skills. “JAG was really a good experience for me. I tried a lot of cases…a lot of court martials. For being a closet introvert, I was a pretty good trial lawyer.”
He had no longer settled in his next station, cushy Long Beach, when a mid-air collision of Air Force and Navy planes over civilian air space caused severe property damage and personal injuries, resulting in a flood of claims he handled. This, too, proved a valuable training ground. “As a result of that very serious accident I spent a year settling claims for the government. It was a tremendous experience. By the time I joined a law firm in 1959 I was an experienced lawyer already.”
With his JAG commitment up, he interviewed with private L.A. law firms and got hired by an established entertainment law firm. It was familiar territory. “I felt comfortable from the very beginning,” he says. “I was always interested in entertainment. It was appealing to me.” Besides, as a former performer, he understood the fragile creative personality. “It’s not so much just temperamental artists, it’s temperamental producers, too. They’re all the same. They all have that mind set, which they’re entitled to. It’s an ego business. You have to have a particular kind of mentality to represent them. You have to be pretty patient. You have to be more of a psychologist, bordering on a psychiatrist, than a lawyer.”
Among his first clients was Larry Harmon Productions, whose stable of artists included TV’s Bozo the Clown. Another Harmon artist, animator Lou Scheimer, became one of Epstein’s closest friends. When Scheimer left Harmon to start his own animation shop, Epstein continued representing him. At the time, there were only a few independent animation companies, and when Epstein’s boss ordered him to drop Scheimer to avoid potential conflicts with competing animators, Epstein remained loyal to his friend. “I said, ‘Well, I’d just as well drop the firm than drop the client,’ which was a dumb thing on my part because the guy had nothing going. That was 1963. So, I went out on my own with this partner, and don’t ask me why, but we got a lot of clients. We were doing pretty well, only my friend Lou Scheimer was doing nothing.” That soon changed when CBS plunged into Saturday morning animation and a major player in comic books, National Periodical, sought somebody to animate their signature Superman franchise. Scheimer got the job and Epstein bought a piece of his studio, Filmation.
“Superman launched the company and really got me started in animation. After Superman we started doing all the action heroes. Batman. Aquaman. Captain Marvel. Then we branched into other animation series. We did Fat Albert. We did Masters of the Universe – that was a big series. We ended up selling the company in 1969 to a cable company called Teleprompter that was the predecessor of all the big cable companies. Teleprompter ended up selling to Westinghouse and as a result we made quite a bit of money for young guys at the time.”
Outside animation, a good share of Epstein’s early clients were in the music business. When he was still a law firm employee in the early ‘60s, he did work for Liberty Records, a kitsch pop label whose recording artists included Julie London, Bobby Vee and the Chipmonks. “I learned a little about the music industry, but I knew music anyway.” When he opened his own firm, he rode the wave of the soulful black music movement. “I set up the California corporation for Motown Records, which then moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. I worked with many Motown artists. My personal client from their stable was Hal Davis, who wrote and produced many Jackson 5 and Diana Ross hits.”
Then Cooper set about reinventing himself and his practice again. “In 1975 I left my then partner and went with another attorney, Jay Cooper, who was and still is the outstanding music lawyer in the country.” With the addition of a third partner, the firm of Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz became a player in the entertainment law arena for 20 years. “We started with about six lawyers and built it up to about 60. We had one of the best entertainment law firms in Los Angeles,” he says. “We had a lot of good lawyers. We had a lot of good clients, It was really a major firm.”
Although Epstein did select legal work for legendary stars Marlon Brando, Barbra Streisand and Mary Tyler Moore, his biggest client during this time was Carroll O’Connor, the late actor forever identified with the role of Archie Bunker on the classic, ground-breaking CBS series All in the Family. “I represented Carroll through All in the Family, and all his battles with its producer Norman Lear, and up through his last series, In the Heat of the Night. I also represented him throughout all his problems with his late son and the lawsuits that evolved from that.”
More than a client, O’Connor was a friend, Epstein says. “We had great rapport with each other. We became extremely close. I shared all his joys and sorrows. It was a lasting relationship. I still represent the O’Connor estate.” Bigoted Archie Bunker was far removed from the man Epstein knew. “He was not that character. He was the antithesis of Archie Bunker. He was an extreme liberal. A champion of human rights.” Given that Epstein is a self-described “extreme conservative,” their friendship made for “an interesting relationship.” He says as different as O’Connor was from A.B., the actor struggled escaping the persona he so indelibly fixed in people’s minds. “I represented him on Broadway, where he was never able to have a successful play. It just wouldn’t work. He got so closely tied to the role of Archie Bunker that the public just wouldn’t buy him as a legitimate stage actor, where he got his start. But he was a great actor and a wonderful guy.”
The television landscape Epstein and his clients knew in the ‘70s an ‘80s was vastly different than the one that’s emerged today. Back then, the medium centered around the Big Three networks, monolithic television-focused businesses which got most of their product from independent producers. Today, technology has created an expanded television pie sliced up among dozens of networks and hundreds of channels while at the same time economic forces have seen a consolidation of power, programming and production among a few major multimedia giants. “The television business has been considerably impacted by consolidation,” he says. “An independent television producer today doesn’t have a chance because the majors have taken over almost all of the production. It’s all pretty much integrated vertically. It’s all just controlled by a very small group of people.”
Making television deals for clients today requires Epstein know more than just what the U.S. television market will bear. He must also be well-versed in foreign distribution and in the home video and spin-off markets. “The business has changed a lot. There was no such thing as a foreign television market in the early years. Now, foreign markets produce about 50 percent of the income for television series. With the advent of home video and product merchandising, I have to know these aspects. If you do a major animated show like Masters of the Universe, your income is coming out of merchandising as much as it’s coming out of television. I made a deal a couple years ago bringing the Japanese animated series, Yu-gi-oh to this country and it made all its money in the merchandising area.”
Other forces impacting his work include the ever changing home entertainment market, which has seen VHS and laser disk formats supplanted by DVD, and the proliferation of cable TV and its ever expanding programming menu to serve an insatiable viewing habit. In this wide open environment, anyone or anything can be a hit, as evidenced by the Reality TV phenomenon that makes people from all walks of life instant celebrities. In his quest to stay current, Epstein represents a professional gambler trying to make it on the popular TV poker playing circuit. He also represents Peter Funt, producer of Candid Camera and the son of the show’s creator, the late Alan Funt, who did Reality TV before it had a name. The growth of televised sports and the birth of sports celebrities is another sea change, says Epstein, who’s “done deals” for such figures as George Foreman and Hulk Hogan.
So. what’s the next big thing? Epstein says a mass-market, user-friendly technology to download movies off the Internet is sure to one day replace DVDs by virtue of the ease, speed and convenience of select-and-click home movie viewing.
By 1994, Epstein resigned as managing partner of Cooper, Epstein and Hurewitz and went into a semi-retired mode that saw him work some 10 years at Weissmann Wolf. Then, in 2002, at the urging of his former partner, Jay Cooper, Epstein joined the huge international firm Greenberg Traurig and its growing entertainment practice, where he’s rejoined his old friend. Epstein, who’s recently represented producers and distributors of mini-series and features, operates autonomously there. At age 72, he thinks of retiring, but remains too much in the game to leave now. “When I went into semi-retirement the whole idea was I would phase out and quit soon. Well, I’m still phasing out. I hope to quite real soon, believe me, but I don’t know, I seem to stay with it. I do very little of what is called the traditional practice of law. I advise my clients far beyond the lawyering. It’s fun.”
He also is a senior member of the board of directors for Image Entertainment.
A new challenge occupying much of his time these days is his presidency of the North Coast Repertory Theater in Solana Beach, Calif., whose move to a planned facility in a neighboring community he’s spearheading. His association with this theater company fulfills a dream to be “involved in the legitimate theater.”
Two days a week find Epstein in Los Angeles, attending to his law clients, and the rest of the week at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, a short drive from the theater. He and his wife Noddy are the parents of three grown sons and the grandparents of six — four girls and two boys. He rarely gets back to Nebraska these days, although he was here last fall for the 50th reunion of his Innocents Society pledge class. “We had a wonderful reunion…a lot of fun.” He stays in contact with family and “a lot of good friends in Omaha,” including former schoolmate Ben Nachman.
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