Leaden skies and inclement weather early in the day on Thursday put a slight damper on the annual Open House at Beit Hanassi in which President Moshe Katsav and his wife, Gila, welcome the social mosaic of the nation to the presidential succa.
The long queues of visitors that lined up outside Beit Hanassi in previous years were not in evidence this year. However, as the day wore on and became sunny, more people began to file through in a steady stream. Some used the opportunity to personally present letters and brochures to the president. Others complained about letters they had sent but for which they had not received a reply. Katsav promptly referred them to his bureau chief Edna Ben-Ari.
If the four species that are integral to the observance of Succot are meant to represent those who keep the Torah and also do good deeds; those who keep the Torah but don't do good deeds, those who do good deeds but don't keep the Torah and those who neither keep the Torah nor do good deeds, the variety of people who came to convey holiday greetings to the president and his wife was far greater in scope.
There were Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druse. There were residents of Israel and tourists from abroad. There were soldiers, border police and civilians. There were very senior citizens, and there were newborn babies. Of the more senior citizens, the oldest was feisty Jerusalemite, German-born Ellie Nussbaum, 99, who immigrated to Israel from New York two years ago after having previously lived in Switzerland and Holland. Nussbaum's straight back and magnificent mane of white hair attracted instant attention as she stood talking to the Katsavs.
Some visitors came in wheelchairs, on crutches, on canes and on walkers, including several young people who were physically challenged. The Jewish visitors ranged from haredi (among them Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski) to secular with all streams between. They included Sephardim and Ashkenazim and groups from the Yemenite and Ethiopian communities.
Among the non-Jewish visitors were Beduin leaders from the north of the country - the sheikhs clad in black, gold-trimmed robes and white keffiyehs; members of the Abu Ghosh council and a large contingent of Druse men and women. The Druse women brought with them a sheaf of enormous pomegranates and a huge decorative candle that stood half a meter high.
Katsav, who throughout his career has made a point of maintaining close relationships with the Arab and Druse communities, embraced several of his Arab and Druse guests and kissed them on both cheeks. He also made sure to greet each and every one of them by name. In fact, he had a cheery greeting for everyone who came into the succa, asking where they lived and asking children their names. Both the Katsavs are especially fond of toddlers and lifted several of them into their arms for a quick kiss and a cuddle.
Gila Katsav had an affectionate reunion with a group of tiny tots from one of the Amit facilities in Jerusalem where she regularly goes to read stories to them. As soon as they caught sight of her they stampeded in her direction and hugged her. She bent down spontaneously to kiss each on the cheek.
But the children who got the most enthusiastic kisses were the Katsav grandchildren, two of whom had visited the succa in previous years and two who were born earlier this year to their daughter Deganit and her husband.
The president willingly honored dozens of requests for autographs and the Katsavs posed cheerfully for endless photographs with families and individuals who wanted to enhance their living room displays. Beit Hanassi staff, particularly Akiva Tor, the president's adviser on Diaspora affairs, and Dudu Peretz, Beit Hanassi's head of maintenance, were recruited as photographers by visitors who handed them their digital cameras. "For this I went to the Kennedy School at Harvard," quipped Tor.