If ever there was proof that power has nothing to do with size, Mikvah Chana’s annual gala showed it. Diminutive powerhouse Toba Grossbaum, who cochaired the event with Dara Orbach, had invited the almost-as-tiny entertainer Paula Abdul, who had the crowd of over 740 women in the palm of her child-sized hand.
“I’m five feet, one-and-three-quarters inches, but in my mind I’m seven feet tall,” Abdul told them.
She was the keynote speaker at the annual raffle dinner, held Feb. 6 at the Westminster Hotel in Livingston, to support the mikva opened in the town seven years ago. Previous speakers have included actress and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik, psychotherapist Rabbi M. Gary Euman, and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman.
The choreographer/dancer/singer shared the limelight with her spiritual adviser, Rabbi Chaim Mentz, who — like Abdul — lives in Bel Air, Calif. They met in 1990. “He asked me if I light candles, and I said, ‘I already do,’” she recalled. Though she said little about her Judaism, she made it clear just how much the rabbi means to her. “He’s a very special man who’s made a profound difference in my life,” she said.
He responded, “Becoming friends with Paula has been life-changing for me and my family.”
The title of her talk was “Dance, Pray, Live.” Perhaps the climax of the “pray” part was her visit to Israel last November, which Mentz helped orchestrate. “I cried when I left,” she said. It wasn’t your usual tourist visit. In addition to having a bat mitzva celebration, Abdul got to visit with Israeli President Shimon Peres at his residence.
Mentz said he is awed by what Abdul has managed to accomplish, and she accepted that accolade, supplying anecdotes with spontaneous enthusiasm. “I felt that singing and dancing were my destiny — my calling,” she explained, “but it was never an easy walk in the park.”
She had the unlikeliest of starts for a dancer and singer: She was born three months premature, with a broken windpipe and one leg two inches shorter than the other. “It was a medical miracle that I survived,” she said. “And from the start, I showed I was just as tenacious as can be.”
Until she was two, she fainted, repeatedly, every time she cried. Then, prodded by her older sister who was bored with this fragile playmate, she learned that the exhale of laughter was much more comfortable than the inhale of crying, which made her pass out. “So I stopped crying,” she proclaimed. Later, she scrubbed the bathroom floors at the dance school to pay for her first classes, and against all advice, went on to barter her choreography services in return for original songs, to kickstart that side of her career. “I always gravitated to the thing that was damn near impossible,” she said. “I believed in myself because I had nothing to lose.”
Abdul made it clear, however, that along the way she has had a lot of lucky breaks. “My sister’s boyfriend was the only white, Jewish drummer to play with the Jackson Five,” she recalled. “Ten years later, the first act I choreographed was for them.” She went on to work with other megastars, like Aretha Franklin and Prince. As a singer, she has won, among other awards, a Grammy, seven MTV Video Awards, two Emmys, and two People’s Choice awards. She also became known for her philanthropy, working with charitable causes, including guide-dog schools, Haiti relief, UNICEF, American Red Cross, and women’s health care.
Even after she’d become successful, Abdul had some unexpectedly rough times, like on American Idol, where she was a celebrity judge from 2002 to 2009. While she acknowledged that the hugely successful talent show raised her profile, the more she talked about it, the more intense she got — on her own behalf but even more so on behalf of the performers.
“It’s not about encouraging creativity; it’s a TV show,” she said. “It’s about shock value, about watching a train wreck.” Famously caustic fellow judge Simon Cowell delighted in mocking her, and it made her miserable, but — as she has done with so much in her life — she said she used that to build her resilience.
“I’m just one woman, and I know that being in this industry you have to be strong,” she said. “But I’m so tired of the boys’ club. Men know how to work together. We need to learn to stick together. You women are all so strong. If we stood together, we could rule the world!”
Samantha Stone, 22, of Morristown was attending the gala for the first time. “It was an amazing event,” she said afterward. “I can’t get over how many people came. And Paula Abdul was amazing. She’s so tiny — and so dynamic.”
Lisa Aflalo of Elizabeth has been to a number of the Mikvah Chana events. “My mother lives in Livingston, so I come. And the mikva is incredible. Have you seen it? It’s like a spa,” she said.
Grossbaum said that for her and her committee of around 60 women, working with the performer “has been an extraordinary experience.” She attributed the turnout — the largest yet for the annual galas — to Abdul’s appeal, and the draw of the huge array of raffle prizes, but also to the reputation these events have garnered for attracting a cross-section of community members. “The women really are from all backgrounds, and all denominations, and all ages,” she said. “And you can see they all feel welcome. I love that.”