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Joan Rivers' Manager's Surprising Second Act

February 21, 2021 | by Judy Gruen

Dorothy Melvin's life was upended by a shocking phone call.

This wasn’t your typical Passover seder. It took place at a non-kosher 5-star restaurant in South Carolina, hours before sundown. Joan Rivers had a show to perform that night, but didn’t want Passover to begin unobserved. So early in the day, she called the restaurant and asked them to please rustle up a seder for five, including a shank bone, some matzah, and a Manischewitz hagaddah.

Joan's manager, Dorothy Melvin, was right with her, as always when the comedienne was on the road.

“Joan had a strong Jewish identity,” Dorothy recalled. “Her parents were Russian immigrants. Her father was a doctor, and her mother was her best friend. Though she wasn’t religiously observant, she felt very connected. And after the seder, Joan went on stage and did her show.”

Dorothy and Joan Rivers

Dorothy’s early career was spent in the entertainment industry, first as a paralegal for major record companies, including Motown and Capitol Records. She moved to a major entertainment management company, becoming Joan Rivers’ road manager and later, manager. She traveled all over the world with Rivers, ensuring that conditions of contracts were honored during those engagements.

Dorothy wasn’t just Rivers’ manager; she became a close friend. “Joan was very real, very funny, a very caring person,” Dorothy said. “She was a friend to the underdog and had empathy for people who were struggling, because she struggled so hard in her career. When she learned that a freelance writer who wrote her material on a major television program wasn’t being paid, she made sure it was taken care of.”

It was while Dorothy was on a yacht with Rivers in the Caribbean that she got a call that irrevocably changed her life. Her mother was in the hospital, and the ovarian cancer that had been thought to be in remission was now back with a vengeance. Doctors gave her mother only a few weeks to live.

“I knew I had to cut all ties with my job to be with my mother,” she said. “Joan loved my mother and understood, but she assumed I’d be back to work soon. However, I sold my New York co-op within 24 hours and moved back to L.A. At the airport, I saw the book Judaism for Dummies by Rabbi Benjamin Blech. I bought it and began reading. I knew I needed more Jewishness in my life.”

Dorothy’s parents grew up as observant Jews in Salonica, and both were trapped by the Nazis. Dorothy’s mother was on a death march from Auschwitz when the Americans arrived to liberate the concentration camps. Her father had been in hiding. Her parents met shortly after the war ended and married immediately, “because that’s what you did,” Dorothy explained. “After the losses and the horrors, you needed someone to cling to. They became the loves of each other’s lives.”

Dorothy’s parents. Mark and Celia Tiano

In her parents’ generation, Salonica had been a nearly entirely Jewish city, with the port closed on Shabbat, and everybody Shabbat-observant. Dorothy’s maternal great-grandfather had been a noted rabbi; her maternal grandfather a chazan and businessman. Dorothy’s parents moved to Los Angeles and settled into a community of Ladino-speaking survivors. Over time, the community became more assimilated, particularly Dorothy’s generation.

Back in Los Angeles, Dorothy had more time than she had imagined because her mother far outlasted the doctor’s grim estimate, living seven months and not just three weeks. During that time, Dorothy was becoming more inspired by Jewish teachings, attending classes, going to shul, and beginning to learn Hebrew.

As her mother’s life ebbed away, Dorothy saw the unmistakable spiritual transition that was in process. Her mother looked up at the ceiling, talking to relatives who had passed away long before, calling them by name in Greek and Ladino. She blessed Dorothy and her siblings before falling into a coma and eventually passing to the next world.

Dorothy stayed all night alone in the mortuary with her mother, waiting for the shomer to arrive. “I had seen there was another world and another side,” she recalled, “and I knew this was important.”

After her mother passed away, Dorothy fell into a depression. One night she attended a Torah class that focused on Moses being instructed by God to take the Jews out of slavery. “When I heard that, I realized that I had become enslaved to my depression and had to break those chains.”

Soon after, she attended a funeral of a celebrity she had known, and to her surprise, met several Jews in the industry who had become more religiously observant. Her shul attendance picked up, and though she was living in a gorgeous apartment in Beverly Hills, Dorothy was happiest in the ER, where she had become a full-time volunteer. Eventually, she needed a paying job and asked to be considered for a paid position as a patient liaison. She knew she was done working in entertainment and a life of being on call 24-7.

“As I learned more about Judaism, my life became infused with greater meaning and purpose. Even though I worked for a good person, I came from an industry where you care about yourself primarily. Working in the hospital gave me an opportunity to comfort people’s worries. I was there when people were dying, giving support. I felt I had something to offer to the world.”

When she asked for the job, Dorothy had no idea that so many letters had come in from patients praising her volunteer efforts that the hospital already planned to offer it to her. Dorothy began her second career, working at the hospital for twenty years, until her retirement in November 2020.

In 2004, during Dorothy’s first trip to Israel with an Aish HaTorah mission, there was a bus bombing. Despite this, “We all insisted on going to Rachel's Tomb that morning. After that trip, I couldn’t wait to come back. I had traveled the world, flown on the Concord, stayed at the world’s finest hotels. But Israel was home, and I knew I’d want to retire here.”

Dorothy, center, with ER co-workers, holding her award from Cedars Sinai

On another trip to Israel in early 2016, Dorothy had just finished praying at the Kotel, the Western Wall, and had begun walking away. She suddenly stopped and said to herself, "I know we are not supposed to ask for signs, but I really need a sign that my ancestors know I am in Jerusalem, praying close to where the Holy of Holies once was.” A few seconds later, a woman turned to her from the crowded women’s section and said, "Your ancestors are proud of you."

“My knees gave out,” Dorothy recalled. “I told her of my silent prayer, and we both started crying.” Dorothy and that woman, Daniella Goldberg, have remained good friends ever since. “And I am so grateful to the Almighty for giving me such an amazing sign!” Dorothy added.

On November 24, 2020, Dorothy achieved her long-term dream of making aliyah, and she now has relatively easy proximity to the Kotel for her prayers. I knew Dorothy in Los Angeles where we were neighbors and attended the same shul for some years. She was also the person I was so grateful to have seen during a few visits to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, when I was there as a patient or accompanying a family member. I knew first-hand how reassuring Dorothy’s manner could be, how empathetic, as well as helping you get practical information and even something to eat. Dorothy’s care was the best medicine we could have had in those moments.

Dorothy had planned to move to Israel in August 2019, but on an instinct, decided to get a thorough physical beforehand. She learned that she had the same cancer that took her mother’s life. Active on Facebook, Dorothy announced her diagnosis and asked friends and family to take on a mitzvah in the merit of her recovery. A Jewish friend who practices Buddhism began to wrap tefillin. Other friends began lighting Shabbat candles; some began giving charity.

“I was miserable during chemo but still woke up every day saying, ‘Thank You God for another day.’ I was able to connect people to their Jewish roots through my cancer, and others struggling through chemo reached out to me for support. I know my cancer was a vehicle to help others come closer to God.”

Making aliyah during the limitations of Covid-19 has been challenging. She is learning to navigate a new medical system and banking system without being fluent in Hebrew and has yet to find an apartment.

“But since moving to Israel I find that I am less judgmental and more tolerant of many situations and people,” she said. “I find that my faith and trust has grown tremendously. My soul is at peace.”

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