The Nanny in the Spotlight

PHOTO: Fran Drescher speaks at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland's Spotlight event Saturday, Dec. 2 at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton. (Andie Petkus Photography for The Jewish Review)

For The Jewish Review
Spotlight with Fran Drescher drew 325 people to the Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton for the Dec. 2 Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s campaign event.
The evening began with a festive gathering featuring wine and beer, a kosher nosh and plenty of space to socialize.
“The energy that was in that room was unbelievable; everybody was smiling and enjoying those delicious hors d’oeuvres,” said attendee Lidia Krivoy.
One woman shared that she came with her two adult daughters because they were so excited to hear Drescher speak. Another young woman convinced her mom to babysit so she could attend the event.
Applause and laughter interrupted Drescher throughout her keynote address and the fireside chat that followed with Jewish Review Editor Rockne Roll. 
Creator and star of “The Nanny,” Drescher spoke about the challenges and rewards of being Nanny Fine. 
With starring roles for Jewish characters virtually nonexistent during her early career, Drescher decided she needed to create her own character. When she unexpectedly saw the president of CBS on a transatlantic flight, Drescher pleaded her case for several hours until he agreed to set up a meeting for her with the network’s director of comedy development. 
She pitched a series like “The Sound of Music, but I come to the door (instead of Julie Andrews).” CBS bought the idea immediately. Drescher said that after she balked at an initial demand to make “The Nanny” Italian rather than Jewish, the network never asked her to tone down Nanny Fine’s Jewishness. 
However, during the fireside chat with Roll, Drescher said she did receive pushback early on from several Jewish organizations that objected to the “crass, uneducated” portrayal that they felt “did not represent our people well.” 
But Drescher said that Nanny Fine “brought her heart, her warmth, her Jewishness and Yiddishisms” into the house. “They were comforting to her.”
The show became a big hit around the globe, including surprisingly in Arab nations such as Egypt and Syria, inspiring Israel to honor Drescher in the Knesset. 
“I’m proud I stood my ground,” said Drescher, adding that Nanny Fine “normalized women like that to the world.”
Drescher stood up for herself again when doctors dismissed her symptoms when she knew her body was not healthy. After two years, the eighth doctor she visited finally did a simple procedure that diagnosed uterine cancer. A hysterectomy cured her completely. But the experience gave her a new mission in life.
She wrote the bestseller Cancer Schmancer, which evolved into an organization promoting early detection for all cancers. 
“Listen to your body,” said Drescher. “Challenge your doctors. If they aren’t listening, move on.”
She said that when she was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 2021, it was a highly partisan, dysfunctional union.
“It was a microcosm of Congress – very partisan and angry,” she said.
She shifted to a nonpartisan approach, and through optimism and listening, soon had people “coming together in a healthier way.”
That paid off when contract talks stalled, and the actors’ strike began earlier this year. 
“I was raised in a home where the working class and middle class were the backbone of America,” she told Roll when he asked about how her Jewish values affected SAG negotiations. “Respect hard-working people and treat them well with a lot of respect and never cross the picket line.”

Spotlight shines on Federation programs

For The Jewish Review
The spotlight may have been aimed at Fran Drescher, actor, author and union leader, but she and several other speakers at a Dec. 2 event highlighted the importance of standing up for what you believe in. 
Best known as the title character on the Emmy Award-winning series “The Nanny” (1993-99), Drescher stood up to CBS when they asked her to make the Jewish character Italian. She didn’t back down when eight doctors failed to diagnose her uterine cancer for two years. And as president of Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, she led the successful negotiations to end the actors’ strike earlier this year.  
“Once you make a big commitment in life, things begin to happen,” Drescher said. 
The theme started with the evening’s emcee, Max Forer, a Los Angeles native who played football at the University of Oregon before moving to Portland. 
“I soon realized living in Oregon and being Jewish meant being intentional,” he said. 
Forer joined PDX Pathways, a Federation program to integrate young Jewish professionals into the community, and then the Oregon Hillel board.
“The community in Portland embraced me tenfold,” he says. “My story is an example of what makes this community so special, so let’s celebrate and support our community. I invite each of you to step up and step in.”
Leslie Beard, who co-chairs the annual campaign with Jack Birnbach, said Federation makes her think of hope, compassion and courage. “But Federation is more than words – it is people.” Those people help build a safe and inclusive community “at home, in Israel and anywhere in the world someone wants to live Jewishly.”
Birnbach added that over its 103-year history, Federation has worked with nearly 50 Jewish agencies. “We collaborate to save and improve lives.”
Three speakers then shared moments when Federation had impacted their lives.
KGW News Director Greg Retsinas said being Jewish had been incidental in his life, and none of the Jewish communities he has served as a professional journalist had ever asked him to participate. Then when the news department met last winter with Federation staff members about local issues, they mentioned the March 2023 community trip to Israel. Loving global travel, Retsinas asked if he could join the trip. 
“It was transformative in many ways,” he said. “It was so powerful… which makes the current situation (the Israel-Hamas war and hostages) so heartbreaking.”
When the Community Study came out soon after, he read it cover to cover, discovering 60 percent of the area’s 57,000 Jews have never belonged to a congregation. “I found myself. I was not alone as an uninvolved Jew in Portland.”
Now Retsinas serves on the Federation Board. He focuses on two committees – climate change and geographic outreach to reach more people where they are.
“I saw an open door and I went through it,” he says of his newfound commitment to the community.
For Portland State University student Maya Mazor-Hoofien, the need for community support grew out of her decision to stand up to the rising antisemitism on campus after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the resulting war. After writing an article for the campus paper about feeling abandoned by her school, she was invited to speak to the student government, where “I was dehumanized to my face.”
Facing the tough Shakespearean question “to be or not to be” – to stand up in a public advocacy role or to step back – she turned to Hillel.
Greater Portland Hillel Executive Director Hannah Sherman said that her small staff of three has been overwhelmed by students in need of support. 
“The Jewish Federation’s critical financial support enables us to be there every day on the ground meeting those needs,” Sherman said.
Following the speakers, Birnbach said, “I am inspired by these incredible stories. This is our opportunity to make great things happen.” He encouraged attendees to give generously to take advantage of a matching gift from Scott and Elena Shleifer. The couple pledged to double match all increases of 20% or more and to match increases of 10%. In addition, they will match the full gift of all pledges by anyone attending a Federation event for the first time.
People listened. Twenty five percent of those donating took advantage of the match, with an average donation of $512 on the evening and a 28 percent average increase for previous donors. In total, the event raised nearly $51,000 for the Federation's annual campaign. 



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