It’s a rare sight to see a 90-year-old man kicking a football, but that didn’t seem to pose any problem this week for President Shimon Peres. Ninety years young, Peres kicked the ball to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi at the start of a friendly football game at Bloomfield Stadium.
The Israeli side was headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who proved to be in good form and earned the admiration of soccer commentators, despite the fact that he will celebrate his 65th birthday in October.
The presence of the Barca team at the President’s Residence on Monday afternoon caused a lot of traffic congestion in the street outside, and on the following afternoon, there was even greater congestion. This did not have anything to do with the president, who was hosting 200 outstanding IDF reservists, but as can happen in Jerusalem, there was a dedication of a Torah scroll going on – replete with a street procession under a huppa, with a “mitzva truck” with blaring lights and music in front and a procession of people alongside and behind. Some were dancing under the bridal canopy, but most were wheeling baby carriages. The procession in the middle of the road held up traffic, though most drivers didn’t seem to mind – as it was indeed something different, despite the fact that Torah dedication ceremonies are not exactly uncommon in Jerusalem.
■ WHILE ON the subject of something different, Jerusalem this week took over from Safed as the capital of klezmer. Although the three-night annual Safed Klezmer Festival opened as usual on Tuesday for the 26th consecutive year, it couldn’t quite compete with what was happening in Jerusalem, at the amphitheater in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; the Lecha Dodi Shabbat celebration at the Great Synagogue this coming Friday night; the melave malka at Beit Avi Chai on Saturday night; the concert at YUNG YiDiSH, also on Saturday night; or the Jewish Soul Music concert at Yad Vashem’s Valley of the Communities on Sunday.
All of these events are meaningful and exciting, but none more so than the two-night festival that took place in the Old City on Sunday and Monday night under the auspices of the Jerusalem Klezmer Association, most of whose members belong to the haredi community. The JKA was founded close to 20 years ago by Avrom Leib Burstein from Mea She’arim.
The amphitheater in the Jewish Quarter, with its ancient walls and open sky, somehow conveyed the ambience of the shtetl. There were lots of men in white shirts with black pants and vests, looking as if they’d just stepped out of a production of Fiddler on the Roof – the difference being that this is their regular mode of attire. A few, like klezmer virtuoso Nachman Zucker, who specializes in Breslov and Karlin melodies, wore black kapotas.
Zucker is not only a great exponent of wind instruments; he also sings and dances. There was a lot of spontaneous dancing and displays of calisthenics, and to add to the atmosphere, plates of kugel did the rounds.
The two klezmer variety concerts, with numerous performers, were free of charge and therefore drew an enormous crowd, largely from the religiously observant community that dominates the Jewish Quarter.
Most of the families are blessed with many children, and for them it was a joy for whole families to be able to walk to the concert – and not to have to pay bus fare or have to decide who would not be going in because tickets for all the children were unaffordable.
So the audience ranged from senior citizens to babes in arms – just like in the shtetl. The vast majority of women wore long skirts or dresses and covered their hair with head scarves knotted in simple to intricate ways. It was almost like stepping back in time.
■ DESPITE THE similarities in protocols of different countries with regard to state visits, there is always that element of surprise that distinguishes one visit from another. It might be the personalities of the leadership, the preservation of traditional architecture, the type of entertainment provided, the natural beauty of the landscape, or as happened in the case of Peres’s recent visit to Lithuania, the closing of a circle.
It wasn’t his circle that closed, but that of his deputy director-general, Yona Bartal. She was born in Vilna, which she left as a three-year-old child under her original name of Tatyana Gilinskiya Grigorniya. It was impossible at that time for Lithuanian Jews or even Lithuanian non- Jews to receive exit permits for Israel or anywhere in the Western world.
However, they could go to other Communist countries. So in 1956, her father took the family to Poland, where they remained for only one month – long enough for her father to apply for and receive Polish passports, which enabled them to sail to Marseilles and from there to Israel.
Both of Bartal’s parents, Gregory and Leah, were born in Vilna. They escaped the Ponar massacre, because they happened to be absent from the ghetto. Her father had fled with his cousin on a bike to Russia and joined the Red Army, earning a decoration for bravery. Her mother, who was still a schoolgirl at the time, had gone away for the summer with others from her school. It was customary for schoolchildren to spend the vacation period in camps in villages and forests. As a result of the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, the youngsters were taken from the camps to Russia, where they spent two years before returning to Vilna. When the train pulled in at the station, the parents of all the non-Jewish youngsters were waiting to welcome them home.
There were no parents waiting for the Jewish youngsters. All their parents had been murdered, along with other members of their families. Leah Bukshinsky was left alone in the world. Her nearest and dearest had all been slaughtered.
Leah managed to find a job in a shop. When Gregory Gilinski returned to Vilna, he found that with the exception of his brother, Aharon, a fervent Zionist who had left for the Holy Land just before the war, his parents and all of his siblings were dead. Simply by chance, he entered the store where Leah was working and heard someone call her by name, which was the same as his mother’s name. This immediately kindled something in him, and it was not long before Gregory and Leah were married.
The trauma of their combined loss never left them, and throughout the years in Israel until their deaths, they refused to return to Lithuania.
Although her sister, Esther, and her brother, David, had both been to Lithuania to trace the family background, Bartal could never bring herself to go – notwithstanding the fact that she received plenty of encouragement to visit from her family, and from outside sources such as former Lithuanian ambassador Asta Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene, to whom she told her family’s story. Current Ambassador Darius Degutis also urged her to visit, as did Liuthuanian Foreign Minister Linus Linkevicius when he visited Israel in May.
Bartal accompanies Peres on nearly all of his trips abroad, and it was only because Peres was going to Lithuania that she finally agreed to confront her past. It was a strange coincidence, since she had always told people that she would never go back until she was 60 – and she turned 60 this year.
Now, there was a certain in triumph in returning as a senior member of the entourage of the president of Israel. When Peres introduced her as a native Litvak to Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, his Lithuanian counterpart replied that she already knew. It seems that Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry, aided by the Israeli Embassy, had prepared an extensive file on Bartal and her family.
But there were further surprises in store. At the state dinner that Grybauskaite hosted in honor of Peres, Bartal was placed at the head table.
While there, she was approached by Hagit Ben-Yaakov, Israel’s ambassador to Lithuania, who presented her with copies of her birth certificate and the marriage certificate of her parents. The following day, the deputy head of the Jewish community took her to what had been the main Jewish area of Vilna, including the apartment house in which her family had lived. Bartal had doubted that she would remember anything, but instantly recognized the building.
The most emotionally difficult part of the presidential visit for Bartal was going to the Ponar forest, where so many members of her family had met their deaths at the hands of Nazi murderers and their Lithuanian collaborators.
She listened to Peres recite Kaddish and could not contain her tears. She had collected stones at the President’s Residence and inscribed them with the names of her grandparents, aunts and uncles, and placed them in the forest together with memorial candles.
But that was still not the end of the story for Bartal. The president’s guide in the forest was 92-year-old Holocaust survivor Fania Kalinski. Bartal does not speak Lithuanian, but she is fluent in Yiddish – the language she used to converse with Kalinski.
When she told Kalinski that she had been born in Vilna and lived there until age three, Kalinski asked where.
It transpired that they had lived at the same address, and more importantly, Kalinski’s maiden name was Gilinski, so there was a good chance they were related.
Kalinski gave her a booklet that contains the genealogy of the Gilinski family. This is something she can share with one of her relatives, Colombia’s former ambassador to Israel Isaac Gilinski, who continues to visit Israel quite frequently.
■ MEMBERS OF the public who may be wondering when new Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau will be sworn in, can rest easy. They will be officially installed well in time to publish Rosh Hashana greetings in their new official capacities. Their swearing-in ceremony will take place at the President’s Residence a week from today, on Wednesday, August 14 – unless there is some kind of eruption related to the disclosure this week that Rabbi Lau cheated in his ordination exam the first time around, and had to sit for it again. Of course, it would be very difficult to find any public figure who is entirely free of blemish.
■ DESPITE THE fact that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has stated that he does not want any Jews living in the future state of Palestine, there are Jews willing to accept Palestinian citizenship if they are allowed to remain in or return to what will be officially recognized as Palestinian territory.Avi Farhan, who has twice been evicted from places he called home, is quite willing to exchange his blue Israeli ID card for a yellow Palestinian ID card.
In 1982, the former right-wing political activist was one of the Israelis dragged by IDF soldiers from Yamit, following the signing of a peace treaty with Egypt. One of the defenders of Yamit, who chained himself to the top of a 28-meter monument, was a young firebrand with a mop of dark curls by the name of Tzachi Hanegbi– who 14 years later, was appointed justice minister.
Farhan and other Yamit evacuees subsequently founded settlements in the Gaza Strip. With Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Farhan was again evacuated and now lives in a caravan.
If United Arab List-Ta’al MK Ahmed Tibi can act as an adviser to the PA and defend Palestinian interests in the Knesset, Farhan told Israel Radio’s Arieh Golan, then he, Farhan, should be allowed to serve in the Palestinian parliament and defend Israel’s interests. Farhan is angry not so much on his own behalf, but with regard to other evacuees from Gaza who have not yet found a permanent home. They have been harmed emotionally, psychologically and economically, he says.
■ NOTWITHSTANDING THE $134 million diamond heist he suffered in Cannes towards the end of last month, Lev Leviev is still ranked among the top 10 wealthiest diamond dealers in the world. In fact, he is one of three Israelis listed by CNBC in a list published last week. The wealthiest Israeli diamond dealer is Benny Steinmetz. Next is Leviev and the third is Dan Gertler, who at 39 is the youngest person on the list.
■ IT’S NOT often these days that people stay in the same job for more than 10 years. In fact, it’s quite common for people to change jobs every three or four years. Sara Malka, who heads the international arts and crafts fair that opened this week at Hutzot Hayotzer, is an exception to the rule. She has been with the fair almost since day one – with this fair being the 38th one, as it is held in Jerusalem every August.
Over the years, the fair has developed and become increasingly larger, not only in terms of the number of exhibitors, but also in variety. What is particularly significant, considering all the Israel bashing that goes on in the world, is the growth in the number of foreign countries participating.
Every January, Malka, aided by Libi Bergstein, who worked in an executive capacity with a series of mayors from Teddy Kollek onward, does the rounds of the various embassies to drum up interest and enlist cooperation in bringing crafts from different countries to Israel.
These are always a big hit with visitors to the fair, because they provide an opportunity to see items that are indeed different and very often part of the folklore of the various exhibiting countries. Sometimes the artisans, particularly those from Asian countries, will demonstrate the techniques of their traditional crafts that have been handed down for centuries.
The South American countries are more inclined to send musicians to play their folk music.
■ WHILE ON the subject of Jerusalem, Moshe Lion, the chief contender against incumbent Nir Barkat in the upcoming mayoral elections in October, has already found an apartment in the capital’s Keren Hayesod Street, and moved in last week. For a religiously observant person like Lion, it’s a perfect location.
There are more than a dozen synagogues located within easy walking distance of his new home. For his first Shabbat in Jerusalem, he chose the Hazvi Yisrael congregation, which is also favored by Peres on the High Holy Days and occasionally by Netanyahu. It is also the regular place of worship for former justice minister Yaakov Neeman. Though warmly welcomed by Rabbi Avigdor Burstein, Lion was not asked to lead the service, though he is perfectly capable of doing so. During his army days, he was a member of the IDF Rabbinical Choir.
■ APROPOS OF the Jerusalem mayoral elections, Zohir Hamdan, the mukhtar of the east Jerusalem village of Tzur Baher, has thrown his cap into the mayoral ring. Hamdan previously announced his candidacy in 2008, but dropped out in the final analysis.
He is not the first Arab to put his name forward in the mayoral stakes since the establishment of the state.
In 1989, publisher and editor Hanna Siniora, a resident of Beit Hanina, decided to enter the mayoral race, but was pressured by the PLO to withdraw. In 1998, Moosa Allan, a Beit Safafa businessman, entered the fray, but did not score sufficient votes to win a seat on the council.
Hamdan, who was born in Jordan and studied engineering in Beirut, is an advocate for coexistence and has Jewish friends all over the country. If he stays in the race and is elected to the city council, since it’s not very likely that he’ll get enough votes to become mayor, he will dedicate himself to promoting legislation that will retroactively legalize most – if not all – of the illegal housing in Jerusalem.
The residents of east Jerusalem cannot deal with Israeli bureaucracy, he says, because all applications for construction are refused – and since the population is growing, there is no option but to build illegally.
■ TODAY IS the first day of the month of Elul, which means that attention will once more be focused on the Western Wall and the women who pray there. There’s a big difference between the two women’s organizations that congregate there – Women of the Wall, and Women for the Wall.
The first, led by Anat Hoffman, a former Jerusalem City Council member and current executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, is made up of women of various streams of Judaism – including modern Orthodox – who come together each month to pray at the Western Wall. The latter consists of women from various Orthodox streams of Judaism, who feel that Women of the Wall are not all that interested in religion, but are trying to advance a political agenda.
Yeshiva World News reports that today, the first day of Elul, which is a month of introspection and penitence, thousands of Women for the Wall will congregate in prayer at the Western Wall, but not for the purpose of creating yet another media event by aggressively opposing the activities of Women of the Wall.
According to the report, Women for the Wall have called upon everyone visiting the Western Wall to abstain from confrontation, raucous behavior and political theater.
The request was made well in advance of today’s gathering, following an announcement by Women of the Wall that they intend to bring a Torah scroll which they will hold up outside the Dung Gate, in protest of the way that they have been treated.
They also intend to blow a shofar as a clarion call to “stand up against bullying and injustice.”
“We are deeply saddened that the Reform-led Women of the Wall would use a holy site and holy articles and disrespectfully use a sacred Torah scroll to advance their political agenda,” said Ronit Peskin, cofounder of Women for the Wall, who urged the Women of the Wall to refrain from provocation.
“It is shocking that Women of the Wall would use a Torah scroll in a protest,” said fellow co-founder of Women for the Wall, Leah Aharoni, who declared that such action represents a lack of respect for the Torah and those who have treasured it for thousands of years. She also urged Women of the Wall to reverse what she termed “a terribly misguided decision.” In addition, she asked world Jewish leaders to speak out against what Women of the Wall are doing in this regard.
For all their objections, Women for the Wall are acting with far greater responsibility and rationale than other women and men, who have resorted to violence in their objection to Women of the Wall donning tallitot and kippot, and raising their voices in singing the prayers.
Women for the Wall, which is a grassroots movement, has requested that everyone coming to the Western Wall act with dignity and respect, and neither create nor respond to provocative acts. This request is particularly directed at young men and boys, who have been in the forefront of violent disruption of services.
Women for the Wall have asked that these hotheaded males stay home.
“These foolish boys are the unwitting allies of Women of the Wall and their best PR tool,” said Aharoni.
“Screaming and violence do not belong at the holy site. The Wall is not the place for a media circus or standoffs between Jews.”