GRAPEVINE: Jewish garb is cool in Poland

Warsaw-based Polish fashion firm – in which one of the partners is Jewish – is out to prove that being Jewish is cool and sexy.

February 4, 2014 21:53
Shtetl in Poland

Shtetl in Poland 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

At the same time that boycotts and threats of boycott are being aimed at Israel, and anti-Semitism is yet again on the rise in Europe, a Warsaw-based Polish fashion firm – in which one of the partners is Jewish – is out to prove that being Jewish is cool and sexy.

In a country where close to 75 years ago, Jews were forced to wear the yellow star that set them apart from non-Jews, both Jews and non-Jews now think it is hip to sport garments bearing Jewish symbols, along with Hebrew or Yiddish words or Jewish expressions. What’s more, the enterprise where these garments are designed and produced is in Szpitalna Street, an area that was once part of the Warsaw Ghetto.

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The brand, RISK OY, is a subsidiary of Risk Made in Warsaw and owes its inspiration to Taglit-Birthright, which some 10 years ago hosted Antonina Samecka, the daughter of a Jewish mother and an atheist father.

Her business partner, Klara Kowtun, is not Jewish, but went with the flow, as have many Polish non-Jews –male and female – who are walking around in gear that spells “Shalom,” or has a bold Star of David or menorah print. Now that they’ve done so well on the homefront, Samecka and Kowtun want to go global.

In parallel with the success of the venture, Samecka has strengthened her sense of Jewish identity. When she initially came home from Israel wearing a Star of David pendant, her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who knew the dangers of being identified as Jewish under the Nazi and Communist regimes, told her to take it off, fearful that it was too dangerous for her to wear in public. Although Poland was far less anti-Semitic 10 years ago than it had been in previous years, it still took a certain amount of courage to be a walking advertisement for one’s Jewishness. Samecka knew she had to conquer the fear that her grandmother tried to instill in her, rather than allow it to conquer her.

The popularity of her creations, with their staunchly Jewish motifs, is proof of her triumph.

■ WAR HERO, businessman, actor, male model, pilot, lecturer, print journalist and broadcaster are only some of the descriptions that apply to Walter Bingham, who is best-known to listeners of Arutz Sheva, where he has a regular program, Walter’s World, in which he covers any and every topic related to Israel and the Jewish people. His interviewees include some of the most famous names in the Jewish world, as well as prominent non-Jewish personalities. Somehow, no one says no to Walter.

Born in Germany to Polish parents, he was fortunate just days before the outbreak of World War II to be placed, with the help of a Zionist youth movement, on one of the last Kindertransports to Britain. At that time his name was Wolfgang Billig, which he anglicized for obvious reasons.

The war was not yet over when Walter was old enough to enlist. He joined the British Army, and went to Normandy as an ambulance driver. He was subsequently awarded the Military Medal for Bravery in the Field.

The Nazis had deported his father to the Warsaw Ghetto. He did not survive, but Walter’s mother did; like many other survivors who were liberated, she went to Sweden.

Mother and son traced each other via the Red Cross, and were reunited.

While still living in London in 1971, Walter piloted a small plane and flew solo to Israel, to realize his cherished dream to fly over Jerusalem. The flight took 13 hours.

These and several other aspects of his life were revealed last Thursday, at a 90th birthday celebration organized by his daughter Sonja Kent and one of his grandsons, Oliver Kent, at Lara restaurant in the capital.

The birthday cake that Sonja ordered was topped by a model of the plane Walter had flown to Israel.

Walter, who actually turned 90 on January 5, did not look anywhere near his age. A tall, straight-backed, energetic figure, who according to Oliver “is always ready for a challenge,” he looked very dapper in his pinstriped, cream-colored, double-breasted suit, with a cream-colored shirt and smoky blue tie, white socks and yes, cream-colored shoes. Always a master of chivalry, he greeted each guest warmly and made sure they were comfortable, also mingling with them between courses.

He was thrilled that his other grandson, Alistair, had flown in from London with his wife and two gorgeous little girls, who Walter called “my treasures.” There were also several members of the Billig family, and when making his speech, Walter admonished anyone who thought that the translation of Billig is “cheap.” Insisting on the semantic difference, he said it meant “inexpensive.”

There were also friends who came in from abroad, among them: Alexander Manolis from Athens, Ilse Poser from South Africa, and photographer Max Richardson, who lives in Israel but was working in America. Naturally, there were people from Arutz Sheva, who have become part of his extended family. The genuine affection and admiration in the room was almost palpable.

Sonja and Oliver had spent weeks going through family documents, photographs and films to prepare a wonderful video presentation of Walter’s life, but they had to discard so much, said Oliver, that they’ll have to prepare a sequel for his 100th birthday.

Background music to the video was Frank Sinatra’s rendition of My Way, which was entirely appropriate to the subject.

Music throughout the rest of the evening was provided by Lenny Solomon, creator, writer, lead singer and keyboard player of Shlock Rock, a genre that Walter absolutely loves, to the extent that he actually did the bunny hop to one of the melodies to riotous applause. His agility surprised even his daughter, who recalled that at her wedding, he had the equivalent of two left feet, and was worried he would not be able to execute the traditional dance around the floor with the bride. She had advised him not to look at his feet, and everything would be fine – and indeed it was. But the performance he gave at Lara was beyond her ken; she wondered aloud where he had learned to dance so well.

There are people who see Walter Bingham and are not quite sure who he is. They just know that there’s a radio man walking around with earphones clamped to his head. If he’s speaking English rather than Hebrew, it’s probably him.

He’s been living in Israel since August 2004, and is proof of the fact that one can’t keep a good man down. After all, he was 80 when he got his present job.

Even when partying, Walter’s mind was on current affairs, and he asked everyone present “not to forget our brother, [convicted and imprisoned Israeli agent] Jonathan Pollard,” even while they were having so much fun. He also said that the only thing he missed at the party was the presence of his wife, Leah, who died 24 years ago.

■ HA’ARETZ MAY be shrinking with regard to its number of pages, and the elimination in its English edition of the magazine supplement that used to accompany the Friday paper. It also no longer delivers the local Hebrew supplement with its regular Friday Hebrew edition, which may, sooner or later, cause a number of subscribers to cancel.

But then, Hebrew readers can be consoled in the knowledge that Russian oligarch Leonid Nevzlin, who has a 20-percent stake in Haaretz, is making good on his decision to launch a new magazine, which already has a name – Liberal – and is likely to hit the streets come spring. Nevzlin had previously announced the appointment of former Channel 2 senior editor Rotem Danon as editor-in-chief, and this week let it be known that on the business side of the publication, the CEO will be Inbal Zaltzman, who has held diverse positions in marketing, advertising and management.

She was also a member of the Better Place start-up team, working in the company’s communications and marketing divisions from 2008 until last year, when she took up a position as deputy head of marketing for an international start-up company.

Nevzlin is currently putting together what he hopes will be a dream team. The aim of the magazine is to take a different in-depth approach to that of mainstream journalists on topics such as politics, journalism and culture, with the idea of promoting democratic, liberal debate.

■ ALTHOUGH IT is the Knesset, not the public, who votes in the president of the state, various publications have seen fit to test the public pulse with regard to both potential candidates and those who have already announced their candidature. If it was up to the public, the law relating to the president would be either amended or reversed, so that instead of one seven-year term, the president would be elected for a five-year term with an option to serve a second term – as was the case when Ezer Weizman initially came into office.

The law was changed in a face -saving operation for Weizman, to enable him to step down gracefully without tainting the office of the presidency, after it was learned that he had failed to report large monetary gifts received prior to becoming president.

As the statute of limitations had already expired, he could not be prosecuted, but because of his crime, all future presidents were limited to one seven-year term – because Weizman was into the second year of his second term when forced to leave.

A large segment of the public would like to see President Shimon Peres continue in office, while others contend that he is too political and has overstepped the bounds of a ceremonial position. However, Weizman was also political and in the hope of accelerating the peace process, invited Yasser Arafat to visit him privately at his home in Caesarea.

Other than Peres, the public’s frontrunner is Reuven Rivlin, who had hoped to be Israel’s ninth president, but withdrew after the first round of voting. Now, he’s hoping to be Israel’s 10th president. Though popular in many quarters, Rivlin has been unlucky when running for elections. In 1993, he had hoped to be the Likud candidate for mayor of Jerusalem, but was beaten by Ehud Olmert in the primaries of the Jerusalem branch of the party. Then, when he wanted to be president, he was beaten in the first round of elections by Peres. After that, when he wanted another term as speaker of the Knesset, he lost out to Yuli Edelstein.

Now aged 74, this may be Rivlin’s last chance to run for the office on which he has set his heart – and not necessarily because he will be too old the next time around, if he misses out again this time. Rather, it would be because of the voices calling for the abolition of the presidency, which may succeed in that ambition in the future. Peres was, himself, 83 when he became president.

Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Dan Shechtman, who told The Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman that he could unite the people and that although he is secular, he is the great-grandson of a Karlin-Stolin Hassid, does not have quite as illustrious a pedigree as Rivlin, who is a descendant of the Vilna Gaon. Also, unlike Rivlin, he does not have Likud strongman and Transportation Minister Israel Katz in his corner.

■ NOTWITHSTANDING DIVESTMENTS and economic boycotts, Israel continues to reap prizes abroad. Among the most recent is an award for plant innovation won last week by Hishtil, one of the world’s leading plant nurseries, which is this year celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Headquartered at Moshav Nehalim near Petah Tikva, Hishtil was founded by Yehezkel Dagan and is today a global nursery corporation specializing in the production, development, marketing and sales of flowers, vegetables and spices, as well as seedlings and cuttings for agriculture and horticulture for professional and hobby purposes.

The prize won by Hishtil at the Essen International Horticulture Trade Fair, which is believed to be the largest trade fair of its kind in the world, was for a Long Foot Bonsai Basil Tree. This is a new strain of basil that was developed around two years ago, by grafting two different kinds of basil plants together to produce a tree, as well as a flavor that gourmet palates will find appealing.

Recognition is a balm for the ego of any prize winner, but in the case of Dagan, it was even more so – because he was born in Essen, and fled from there to the Land of Israel when the Nazis came to power. Dagan and his wife, Batsheva, who was also born in Essen, proudly posed for photos with their son Amit, who is now the CEO of Hishtil.

■ SOMETIMES THE connections of people who are not part of the establishment are more valuable than those of politicians. The Hamas government in Gaza refuses to speak or officially recognize the Israeli government in Jerusalem, and the Israeli government refuses to speak to Hamas. But there are people on both sides who do speak to each other and unofficially act as couriers, in the hope that one day something positive may evolve from such relationships.

One such person is longtime peace activist and Post columnist Gershon Baskin, who for seven-and-a-half years has maintained frequent contact with Hamas Spokesman and Deputy Foreign Minister Razi Hamed.

The introduction to Hamed was facilitated by an academic from the Islamic University of Gaza, who Baskin met at a conference in Cairo. The academic had never met an Israeli before, but was curious to hear the Israeli side of the story. They talked for several hours after their first meeting, and then talked again, not agreeing on anything yet maintaining a curiosity about what the other had to say.

Baskin spoke of this and his connection with Hamed at the launch this week of his book, The Negotiator, based on his efforts to secure the release of Gilad Schalit, the soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas and held in captivity for more than five years.

Baskin got involved in the campaign to free Schalit as a result of a tragedy in his own family. He had been at a conference in Switzerland when he received a phone call from his wife that her cousin had disappeared.

The man had gone with one of his workers to Ramallah, and had not been heard from since. Baskin called Hanna Sinior, who was his co-CEO at the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, and asked him to go to Ramallah and see what he could find out. Siniora went, but was unable to glean any information.

No one had heard of the man who disappeared, but a few days later, Hamas showed a video of him blindfolded, handcuffed and tortured, asking in Arabic that Israel release Palestinian prisoners. A few days later, the man was found dead.

Baskin, with all his Palestinian contacts, had been unable to help him. But the tragedy caused him to pledge that if anyone else asked for help, he would do everything in his power to assist. Thus, when the Schalit family asked for help, Baskin remained true to his promise. Later, when Palestinian prisoners were released in return for Schalit’s freedom, they included the murderers of Baskin’s wife’s cousin, whose widow bitterly turned to Baskin and said: “They’re going home, but Sasson will not come home.”

Because each side is so preoccupied with its own narrative and its own pain, it is generally unwilling to listen to the narrative or understand the pain of the other side.

Baskin termed it “the competition of suffering and victimhood,” and said that far too much blood has been shed on both sides.

As for release of prisoners, when there is a peace deal, he said, nearly all Palestinian prisoners, whether citizens of Israel or not, will be granted amnesty, because that’s what happens when peace treaties are made. He suggested to the Palestinians that the quickest way to get all the prisoners home was to make peace.

He also advised the general public not to react to statements taken of context. These statements are not important, he said.

What is important is what is said behind closed doors, not what is reported in the media.

Among the people in the audience at Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel were Dutch Ambassador Caspar Veldkamp and Mordechai Vanunu, who revealed details of Israel’s nuclear operations to the British press in 1986.

■ WHEN HIS tour of duty expires in around two to three years time, Hungarian Ambassador Andor Nagy will be taking a Sabra home with him. No, not the fruit, but an Israeli-born infant. Nagy and his wife are expecting their first Israeli child and fourth daughter some time next week.

Nagy spoke of this to President Peres this week, after presenting his credentials and apologizing that he didn’t know how to make boys. “Keep trying,” advised Peres, who has two sons and a daughter.

■ ONE OF the most important names in Israel’s hotel industry is that of David Fattal, the Haifa-born head of Israel’s largest hotel management company. Unlike the Federmann cousins, who inherited the Dan chain from their fathers, David Fattal started with one hotel, Le Meridien in Eilat, and from there spread out to Europe and many parts of Israel.

He entered the hotel industry at age 27, after focusing on business management, sociology and educational theory at the University of Haifa and the Tadmor School of Hotel Management in Herzliya. As assistant general manager of the Dan Accadia in Herzliya, Fattal developed a hands-on appreciation for what it takes to run a good hotel. From there, he worked as general manager in a succession of hotels around the country, learning about different levels and types of tourism, until his appointment in 1996 as managing director of Africa Israel Hotels & Resorts Ltd., a subsidiary of Africa Israel Investments. In this capacity, he successfully launched the Holiday Inn franchising and management network in Israel.

Two years later, at age 41, he decided to do his own thing in Eilat. Now, 15 years later, his company manages more than 60 hotels in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Hungary, and Switzerland as well as in Israel, where it manages some 30 hotels, with another on the way.

Fattal Hotels, from budget to boutique to luxury under the Leonardo, Herod, Meridien, Magic and U brand names, can be found from the South to the North of the country, stretching from Eilat to Haifa, at the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Beersheba, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Bat Yam, Rehovot and Tiberias. The newest addition will be a business hotel for those passing through Tel Aviv, and will be located in the former Clal Insurance building on the Menachem Begin Highway, which last August was sold to Amot for NIS 97 million.

Part of the building is now being converted into a hotel that will be managed by Fattal, which has taken out a 10-year contract with Amot with an option for renewal. The existing tenants in what was previously an office and coffee shop building are due to vacate by the end of May, after which Amot will begin to convert the premises. Fattal will run the hotel, and will pay a rental fee to Amot in the realm of NIS 11m. per annum.

■ HIS OVERACTIVE libido may cost popular singer Eyal Golan his career. Ever since it became public knowledge that he was allegedly fornicating with minors, he was suspended from Rising Star, the TV talent show in which he was one of the judges. Keshet, which produces the show, also announced that it was suspending production of the next season of Golan’s own show in search of new talents, Eyal Golan Is Calling You.

Because some of the minors involved told conflicting stories that cast doubt on their credibility, and because one of the potential witnesses admitted she had been lying and apologized to the police for wasting their time, Golan will not have to face trial for statutory rape, but he will have to face trial for tax evasion.

Meanwhile, part of Golan’s recent American tour was canceled. He had been scheduled to perform at the Jewish Community Center in San Diego, but after all the negative publicity he received at home, the powers-that-be in San Diego said thanks, but no thanks.

Then, on his way home to Israel, Golan, who wanted to be upgraded from business class to first class, discovered that his smile no longer earned him special perks, and was told the upgrade would cost him $2,000. He tried to trick the head steward into believing that the person to whom he was speaking on his cellphone was the new CEO of El Al.

The steward was not about to fall into any trap, and checked if it was true. It wasn’t, and Golan and his money were soon parted.

Then, when he landed in Israel, he was stopped by Customs as he was leaving the arrivals section at Ben-Gurion Airport.

But that wasn’t all. TV morning show stars Orly Vilnai and Guy Meroz withdrew from the upcoming Women’s Festival in Eilat because Golan was also appearing there, in addition to which the Rape Crisis Center has urged all performing artists to boycott any event in which Golan is appearing.

To top it off, one of the teachers’ unions that used to feature his concerts on its Facebook page has removed all reference to him and will no longer subsidize tickets for his concerts.

Golan still has a large number of devotees, but if his problems begin to weigh on him too heavily, the effect will impact on his talent – and after that, it’s a slippery slope.

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