I was saddened to hear yesterday about the passing of Mrs. Leah Adler at the age of 97. She was somewhat of a legend in my circles. Not only because her son is Steven Spielberg, but also because she was one of the great Jewish personalities in the Los Angeles Jewish community.
In addition to her philanthropy, she owned a kosher, dairy restaurant called Milky Way, where she would walk around shmoozing with astonished customers. The combo was irresistible – where guests could treat themselves to some excellent cheese blintzes, while kvelling with the mother of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Everyone left feeling like they’d become her best friend.
One time in 2013, my friends Dovid Taub, Dovber Naiditch and I were in LA for a Shmideo trip, and we paid a visit to Mrs. Adler’s restaurant. She caught Dovid playing with a camel puppet that had been left on a table, and asked if he often plays with random puppets he finds in restaurants.
He replied, “Yes, ma’am! I’m a puppeteer!”
I added, “Actually, Mrs. Adler, he’s been called the Chasidic Jim Henson by the Forward.”
Her eyes lit up. She exclaimed, “You know, I’m Chasidic! I might not look like it, but I’m Lubavitch!”
She took my arm and walked me over to the front door, where there were several photographs of her meeting the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I asked what the meeting was like, and her clear, blue eyes watered up. She said while the Rebbe spoke with her, she was distracted by his beautiful, blue eyes, and couldn’t help thinking how much they reminded her of her own father’s.
The Rebbe stopped speaking, and asked, “And where is your father from?”
Stunned, she replied, “Odessa.”
The Rebbe smiled and said: “The finest people in the world are from Odessa.”
As she wiped her eyes, I told her that her son was my hero from ages 5 to 22, and the Rebbe’s been my hero since. She said, “That’s a good progression!”
“No, seriously. No two people have influenced me more in my life,” I replied.
She smiled and said, “Me, too.”
I will cherish that conversation forever.
* * * *
Leah “Lee” (Adler) Posner was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Cincinnati in 1920. Adler went on to become a restaurateur, painter and concert pianist, as well as the mother of Steven and his sisters, Nancy, Anne, and Sue. Nancy and Sue went on to found traditional Jewish homes of their own, with Nancy marrying the son of an Orthodox Rabbi and living a modern frum life in Riverdale.
When her children were small, Leah kept Shabbos every Friday night, according to daughter Anne, “She was bringing the family together, lighting the candles, saying the Hebrew prayers and serving her famous Shabbos Chicken.” Nancy relates, “We always had Shabbos meals… We were devout about that. ” After Arnold Spielberg and Leah divorced, she remarried Bernie Adler and reconnected more to the Orthodoxy with which she grew up. Eventually they moved to LA, where they opened The Milky Way.
She was a baalas tzedaka, honored by Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl Foundation and even served as a chair of its events. Leah and Bernie Adler were founding members of Bais Bezalel, a Chabad shul on Pico, more than 40 years ago. According to shul president Yonatan Hambourger, “We were in a space across the street from where we are now. On Erev Yom Kippur 1995, Bernie passed away. The next day, Lee was walking to shul and saw this building. She came to us and said ‘There’s a carpet store for sale and Bernie wants you to have it.’ A year later, she had facilitated getting the building.” It was named Bezalel in honor of her husband. Since that time, she has been intimately involved with the shul. “She loved the kids. She was constantly reaching into her pocket to help pay for things. It’s a huge loss for us.”