Grapevine: Bridge over troubled waters

Peres hails Gesher Theater, family and friends remember philanthropist Myra Kraft, and celebs boost spirits of kids with cancer.

August 30, 2011 21:30
Gesher Theater

Gesher Theater 311. (photo credit: Marc Neiman/GPO)

■ GESHER IS the Hebrew word for bridge. One of the possible anagrams for the word is “regesh,” meaning emotion or sensitivity, which in some ways sums up what the Gesher Theater – currently celebrating its 20th anniversary – is all about. Among its anniversary festivities was a memorable night this week at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, where some of the members of the company’s ensemble put on a scintillating variety show to demonstrate its versatility and its broad panorama of talent.

It was arguably one of the best events for which the President’s Residence has formed a ceremonial backdrop. The grounds were transformed to create the impressions of backstage, on-stage and beyond-stage areas. There were rounded billboards with posters in Russian and Hebrew; bits and pieces of scenery and props aesthetically displayed everywhere; costumes hanging on scenery or exhibited on wire stands; and food counters at which Russian delicacies were served. Strategically placed screens gave both the uninitiated and the nostalgic a glimpse of clips from some of the 65 productions Gesher has undertaken in its two decades of innovative theater

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The event was graced by President Shimon Peres, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, former immigrant absorption minister Yair Tzaban – who had been in office during the first waves of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union – and a host of other well-known personalities. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had also been scheduled to attend, but didn’t show in the final analysis.

The Gesher people, notwithstanding the incredible successes they have garnered in Israel and the rave reviews they have received throughout Europe and the US, have not forgotten the people who were with them from the beginning, either as part of the ensemble or as supporters. Though some have died, they remain with them in memory and in spirit when the curtain goes up for every new production – or when there is a special event such as this one.

Current CEO Lena Kreindin paid a moving tribute to these people, whose portraits and names were shown on a giant screen. Kreindin’s two predecessors were also enthusiastically remembered, called to the stage and embraced by the theater’s prize-winning founder, Yvgeny Arye. Also summoned to the stage to share in the glory were Zvi Zamir, who has been a source of support from day one; Gesher chairman Eli Zohar; Israel Makov, who is continuing the support given by his late wife Nira, former chairwoman of the Friends of Gesher; and Bob Freedman, a Miami-based fan who came especially from the US to attend the celebration.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent video-taped greetings, and Peres, Livnat and Huldai praised Gesher for its qualitative creativity, its bilingual repertoire and its ability to be a living cultural bridge and a cultural ambassador for Israel. Huldai noted that Gesher had not yet received the Israel Prize and added that the next best thing was to be invited to the President’s Residence to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Netanyahu, in his video message, described Gesher as a world class theater – “but it’s ours.”

Despite his 20 years in Israel, a command of Hebrew has eluded Arye. When directing a production, he still does so in Russian, and speaking at the finale of this week’s event, he naturally chose the language that came easiest to him. For all the difficulties that Gesher has encountered over the years, he said, the decision to come to Israel and to establish a theater here was the right one.

■ ONE OF the greatest tributes at the memorial ceremony in Jerusalem for international philanthropist Myra Kraft of Boston, who died just over a month ago after losing a battle with cancer, was that both Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky stayed until after the ceremony was over.

Both men are usually hit-and-run dignitaries: Because they have so much on their respective schedules, they show up for an event, deliver their speeches and go. The fact that both of them stayed on this occasion, and that former prime minister and Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert also came to pay his respects and deliver a eulogy, spoke volumes for the affection and esteem in which Kraft was held.

She loved Israel and Israel loved her. It was an ongoing love affair that started in the days when Teddy Kollek was mayor, and it kept on going. While almost every speaker referred to this love, as well as her spontaneous philanthropy, her prompting those who joined her on missions to spend as much money as possible here to help boost the economy, and her involvement with the Kraft Stadium, the Women’s National American Football League, the Jerusalem Foundation, the University of Haifa, the Joint Distribution Committee and numerous projects focusing on the underprivileged, education, children, new immigrants and the Beduin community, Olmert related two anecdotes about her from his term as prime minister.

On one of her visits, she came to the Prime Minister’s Residence, and in conversation with Aliza Olmert, who has long been engaged in various child-oriented projects, she heard about a new program in child development studies at the University of Haifa. “I think it’s a wonderful idea,” she said, and without being asked, promptly wrote a check for $50,000. This was not unusual for Kraft, who was both the daughter and wife of philanthropists, with strong intuitive reactions and a heart filled with compassion.

The other anecdote involved former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. One day, Olmert came home early from the office and told his wife that Rice was coming for dinner. His wife told him that she had already invited Kraft. Olmert didn’t see that as a problem and told her that she and Kraft could eat upstairs in the family dining room, and he and Rice would eat downstairs in the official dining room. Kraft arrived some 10 minutes before Rice, and Olmert asked her to sign the official guest book before going upstairs. He also asked Rice to sign the guest book, and when she saw the name and city of the person who had signed the book only a few minutes before, Rice – known to have ambitions to become the National Football League commissioner – asked if Myra Kraft was in any way related to Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots. Olmert told her that she was Robert’s wife, but that this was not her claim to fame. He then gave Rice a synopsis of the many and varied causes of which Myra Kraft was an engaged devotee.

The impact that she made was perhaps most poignant in the eulogy delivered by Shana Sprung, the quarterback of the Israeli Women’s American Football team, whom Steve Leibowitz, president of American Football in Israel, described as “the best quarterback in Europe.” Sprung, her voice breaking with emotion, recalled the interest that Kraft had taken in each member of the team and how she had made a point of coming to see them whenever she was in Israel.

JDC director-general Amnon Mantver noted Kraft’s passionate involvement with his organization and recalled how she had never stood on ceremony: When meeting an immigrant family from the Caucasus who had prepared a traditional meal in her honor, she’d sat on the floor with them to eat it.

Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who had worked closely with Kraft and had accompanied her on numerous missions to Israel, eulogized her in Boston following her death, but felt the need to come to Israel to pay tribute to her yet again at the Kraft Stadium. “Myra was in the West, but her heart was in the East,” he said, borrowing from the famous poem by Yehuda Halevi. Although she was a welcome guest in the homes of the rich and the powerful, said Shrage, she cared more about the poor and the needy and went wherever Jews were in danger or in need.

Leibowitz said that when he and Yona Mishan, the founder of the Women’s American Football team, had gone to Boston to pay their respects at the shiva, they had asked permission to have a memorial ceremony at the Kraft Stadium in Jerusalem, and Daniel Kraft, one of Myra’s four sons, immediately said that he and his wife Wendy would be there. Robert Kraft sent a video-taped message in Hebrew.

The outpouring of love, respect and support had gone a long way toward helping the family to deal with its loss, said Daniel Kraft, adding that he thought his mother loved Israel even more than she loved the US. Although she had been an upbeat, positive and energetic person, he said, she had an extra bounce in her step when she was in Israel. “You could feel the enthusiasm radiating out of her body.” Her last visit to Israel was this past March. Just before leaving Boston, she had received disturbing news about a blood test, and anyone would have excused her for bowing out, said her son, but she hadn’t, spending two weeks in the country.

He pledged to continue his mother’s work in Israel, and urged both the men’s and women’s American Football teams competing in Europe to bring home some championships. He also told the women’s team that if they needed an extra player, they could have his wife, who has Israeli citizenship.

■ APROPOS OLMERT, while he was prime minister, he wanted to advance an idea started by former prime minister Ariel Sharon to move the Prime Minister’s Residence and all the branches of the Prime Minister’s Office to one single location. Olmert realized the growing inconvenience of increasingly stringent security measures to people living in the immediate vicinity.

In hindsight, he could also see that whoever had planned the Prime Minister’s Office and residence, as well as those who had planned the President’s Residence, had not realized the extent to which the population would grow or how many large foreign delegations would visit Israel. As such, Olmert commissioned a grandiose, expensive architectural plan that would consolidate the residence and all the branches of the Prime Minister’s Office under one roof and would include a theater for large gatherings, underground offices as a security precaution, and a host of other amenities.

In conversation at the Kraft memorial ceremony with the writer of this column, Olmert said that the official residences of presidents and prime ministers should not be located in residential areas. He had tried to make things easier for his successor by getting the plan approved before he left office, he said, but when Netanyahu had entered office, he’d canceled Olmert’s plan.

Meanwhile, security precautions on the two streets that intersect on the corner of the Prime Minister’s Residence are constantly intensified. More hidden cameras have been installed at various points in both streets, and all traffic in the vicinity – including main roads – is stopped whenever the prime minister’s convoy goes past. What was once a choice real estate area has been made ugly by a series of barriers of different kinds that impede the passage of vehicles and at times block or at least slow down pedestrian traffic. Olmert may not have been everyone’s favorite politician or prime minister, but on this one he seems to have gotten it right.

■ AS FOR Netanyahu, it’s no secret that he and his wife Sara are movie buffs. Though he hasn’t made the rounds of the tent cities set up around the country, he did take his wife to Cinema City to catch up with the highly acclaimed, award winning Joseph Cedar film Footnotes. According to reports, the area was closed off for security reasons so that the prime minister and his wife could watch the movie undisturbed.

In a previous era, the Netanyahus used to enter the cinema when the lights were down, and leave just before they were turned on again. Some things do change.

■ CHILDREN WHO have been dealt a cruel blow by nature seem to touch people’s hearts more than anyone or anything else. During the July and August holiday period, there was a glut of events on behalf of such children, including inter alia a gala concert organized by Zichron Menachem at the Wohl Amphitheater in Tel Aviv’s Joshua Park, where numerous celebrities mingled with some 200 young cancer patients as well as some 500 other members of the audience.

Some of the youngsters also went on stage to perform, proving that regardless of their illness, they remained in high spirits. Among the celebs were television and stage personality Michal Amdurski, comedian, actor, writer and director Naor Zion, Master Chef contestant Aviva Piwko, and weatherman Danny Roup.

Larger than Life, another organization that works with children with cancer and their families, includes among its supporters the employees of PAZ Energy, who got together at the Tzahala Country Club to provide a fun day for some 400 of these children. The event included swimming and other sporting activities, competitions and attractions. One of the big thrills was the presence of basketball star Omri Casspi.

Entertainment was provided by Yuval Hamebulbal (Yuval the Confused), who has a huge following among the younger generation. In addition to performing, he distributed free CDs so the youngsters could laugh at him and with him at home as well. Larger than Life CEO Lior Shmueli said that if everyone in the country contributed only NIS 10, it would make the work of the organization much easier, and would enable it to help more kids and their families. Proceeds from a NIS 10-per-person fundraiser that the organization is currently conducting will be used to purchase medications not available through the health basket.

■ ALSO TREATED to the goodwill of celebrities were youngsters at risk who benefit from the Migdal Or rescue and rehabilitation program initiated by Israel Prize laureate Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman – also known as the disco rabbi. Despite his haredi garb, his long beard and his side curls, Grossman thinks nothing of wandering through bars and nightclubs to pick up wayward youth and to put them on the straight and narrow, tempering their treatment with care and affection. Some of these youngsters were on hand to help man the Migdal Or booth at the fourth Kosher Food Festival in Netanya, where food items prepared by Chef Leon Menahem of the Israel Chefs’ Club were sold to benefit the rehabilitation program.

Also present to lend a hand were five members of the local Survivor reality program: Roi Lulu, Etti Haliva, Ohed Alon, Ben Malha and Yaniv Rohan.

■ AMONG THE many Christians who came to Israel in conjunction with Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Courage” events that excited so much pro and con media coverage and comment, were Pastor John Hagee and his wife. Several days earlier, the newest of the six ambulances (Lachish 17) that Hagee Ministries, working in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, had donated to Magen David Adom arrived in the country. The ambulances were used to transport people wounded in recent terrorist attacks that took place in the South.

MDA and American Friends of MDA arranged to bring the latest ambulance to Jerusalem to present to the Hagees, along with detailed activity reports for each of the six vehicles. Since 2007, Hagee Ministry ambulances have been called into action nearly 11,000 times, literally helping tens of thousands of Israelis. While on duty in the Old City, the ambulance was called into action again, this time helping one of the participants at the “Restoring Courage” event.

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