■ AS BIRTHDAYS go, a 62nd birthday is no big deal, except that it happens to be the current retirement age for women in Israel.

For men, it doesn’t mean much – with the notable exception of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who gave himself the most memorable birthday present he’s ever had: the release and homecoming of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. Netanyahu will celebrate his 62nd birthday this coming Friday, October 21.

Netanyahu has stated both privately and publicly what a difficult decision he had to make, but knew that he must make before every window of opportunity closed. As difficult as it was for him to agree to Hamas demands, it must have been no less difficult psychologically to be aware that while he was taking political risks to free Schalit, the soldier’s parents and supporters were continuing with their weekly demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s Office.

It doesn’t matter whether one agrees or disagrees with Netanyahu’s policy or general performance as prime minister. On the Schalit issue, no one can take away his moment of glory or the imprint his decision has made on the country’s history. Just as Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich reacted to the news of the Schalit deal by saying that on this subject there was no opposition or coalition, Netanyahu’s critics should put hostilities aside and congratulate him on both his courage and his 62nd birthday.

■ WHILE IT’S often their job to pry into the private lives of public figures, it is extraordinary to what lengths some journalists will go to keep their own private lives intensely private.

A good example of this was seen last week at the wedding of Channel 2 news anchor Yonit Levy and Ido Rosenblum, who is the driver of the quiz show Monit Hakesef (Cash Cab).

The two have been sharing a penthouse on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street for a couple of years now, but were evasive about institutionalizing their relationship. Finally Rosenblum popped the question, and Levy replied in the affirmative. Even then, the wedding plans and date remained classified. When they finally decided that October 11 was a suitable wedding date, they swore all the invitees to secrecy.

Nonetheless, word got out that the wedding was taking place on their rooftop patio.

They put down faux grass and trees and created a pastoral atmosphere. Fearful of the paparazzi and any privacy invasion by media or fans, they hired a double-digit number of security guards to keep the curious at bay.

As fate would have it, only minutes after Rabbi Naftali Rotenberg sanctified their union, word came through that Schalit was to be released. Levy had been waiting for five years to make the announcement, but was upstaged by Danny Kushmaro. The few news hounds who had been invited to the wedding made a quick exit to chase up details on the dramatic development in the Schalit saga.

Levy couldn’t very well walk out on her own wedding, but it was some consolation that Israel has a surfeit of dramatic stories, and as such, there will be other opportunities to be the first to broadcast.

■ EVEN BEFORE he once again set foot on Israeli soil, Schalit was somehow worked into the programs of almost every event hosted by an organization. On Monday night, in the special “Israel – a Light to the Nations” night of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem’s Feast of Tabernacles, Vesna Buhler, the wife of ICEJ Executive Director Jurgen Buhler, dedicated a song of praise to the soldier’s homecoming.

Anyone who doubts that Israel has incalculable Christian support in at least 70 countries should have heard the cheers and loud, long blowing of shofars each time MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), chairman of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, mentioned Jerusalem as “the undivided city of David, the undivided capital of the State of Israel.”

Rotem said that all over the world there were people trying to take part of Jerusalem away from Israel, “but your presence here is because you know that the covenant between God and Abraham is real and no one can work against this covenant.”

Rotem also mentioned Schalit, saying to more cheers that the exchange rate for one Israeli was 1,200 fundamentalist Palestinian criminals.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the Bible is always invoked at ICEJ events, but it was somewhat amusing to hear Juha Katola, the chairman of the ICEJ Board of Trustees, refer several times to Israelis in the audience as “Israelites.”

■ THE ICEJ often puts the Israeli authorities to shame with the support it provides for Holocaust survivors. What began with assistance to Yad Ezer L’Haver (Helping Hand to a Friend), headed by Shimon Sabag, to purchase a property in Haifa that would enable the expansion of a hostel for survivors, has evolved into the whole street becoming a home for some 150 Holocaust survivors.

Sabag brought some of them to Jerusalem on Monday night as an expression of appreciation.

Jurgen Buhler disclosed that soon after he had agreed to provide the additional funds, the ICEJ had also been called upon to channel some of its resources toward the victims of the Haiti disaster. He had considered putting the Holocaust survivors’ project on hold, but within a few weeks, Christians from around the world had sent in money for both.

■ WITH THE notable exception of Zubin Mehta, who spends so much time in Israel that he can almost be regarded as a permanent resident, the Israel Prize is awarded only to Israeli citizens, though not necessarily to Jews. Non-Jewish recipients, aside from Mehta, have included actor Makram Khouri, diplomat Ali Yahya, writer Emile Habib, industrialist Eldin Khatukai, Druse spiritual leader Amin Tarif, Druse and other minorities liaison officer Kamal Mansour and theologian Father Marcel Dubois.

But earlier this year, President Shimon Peres announced the inauguration of the President’s Award of Distinction to be conferred upon individuals or organizations that have made outstanding contributions to Israel, whether they are Israeli or not. Similar awards, such as the Wolf Prize, the Emet Prize and the Dan David Prize, already exist, but the president’s award offers an additional level of prestige.

The lacuna in recognizing exceptional service and commitment to the Jewish people was amended in 2009 by the NADAV foundation, initiated by philanthropist Leonid Nevzlin and presided over by his daughter Irina Nevzlin Kogan. The NADAV Peoplehood Award reflects and enhances the foundation’s agenda, which is to create a vibrant Jewish present and future in which Jews, wherever they live, feel connected and committed to one another through their shared history and common destiny – what the Nadav Foundation calls Jewish Peoplehood. The first recipient of the annual NADAV award was Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, for his pivotal role in securing belated justice for victims of the Holocaust and other survivors of Nazi tyranny.

In 2010, the recipients were Angelica Berrie – for enhancing new and diverse voices within Jewish tradition and creating dialogue among Jews of different backgrounds through philanthropy – and media production “We Con the World” by Latma (the editor- in-chief of which is Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick), for making many Jews feel proud in a time of conflict and tension.

This year’s award will be announced Sunday, October 23, at a gala dinner at Bayit al Hayam in Old Jaffa.

■ BELARUS AMBASSADOR Igor Leshchenya tells people that Israel is the biggest country in the world. He bases this not on the geographic size of the country, but on the number of unusual and varied conversations one can have with the most extraordinary people in the most unlikely locations. Leshchenya was one of several diplomats who were guests at the home of Rabbi Matityahu Cheshin and his wife Hinda, in the haredi section of Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood.

It’s an annual tradition for the Cheshins to bring together diplomats and haredim from a number of different streams in their succa for a Simhat Beit Hashoeva (the water-drawing celebration on Succot).

This year’s diplomatic guests included Deputy Foreign Minister and former ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon; US Ambassador Dan Shapiro; US charge d’affaires Thomas Goldberger and his daughter Emily, who is about to begin studies for a master’s degree in government at the IDC, Herzliya; US political affairs counselor Bob Silverman; newly installed US Consul-General in Tel Aviv Lawrence Mire; Political Officer at the US Consulate General in Jerusalem Cheryl Igiri; and First Secretary of the Canadian Embassy Melissa Adler.

Cheshin is frequently referred to as the “haredi consul,” a title acknowledged by Ayalon, who stated in English that the rabbi was the epitome of diplomacy because he practiced the teachings of Hillel to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Noting that Cheshin had introduced numerous diplomats from many countries to the local haredi world, Ayalon – his head covered by a well-worn brown velvet skullcap with the imprint of Aish HaTorah – predicted that the haredi community, which he said had tremendous potential, would grow in influence.

Shapiro, who spoke in both Hebrew and English, said that one of the mitzvot of Succot was to welcome guests. He and his wife Julie had been happy to welcome Cheshin in their succa in Herzliya Pituah, he said, and he was delighted now to be in Cheshin’s succa in Jerusalem. The diplomats and the locals joined hands for dancing, singing along to the music provided by one of the capital’s leading klezmer clarinetists, Avraham Leib Burstein. Both Ayalon and Shapiro raised their voices to sing “V’samahta B’hagecha” (And You Will Rejoice in Your Festivals).

■ THE VISIT to the Cheshin succa was not the only time Shapiro was in Jerusalem for nonpolitical reasons during the month of Tishrei.

Both he and British Ambassador Matthew Gould, who had also been invited to Cheshin’s but had guests in his own succa in Ramat Gan, participated in services in Jerusalem synagogues during the High Holy Day period.

■ IT’S A well-known fact in Tel Aviv and in religious circles around the country that Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and his immediate predecessor, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, do not get along. It’s rare for both to attend the same function. However there are exceptions to every rule, and one such exception was the circumcision ceremony for the son of Eldad Mizrahi, the head of the Tel Aviv Religious Council.

Mizrahi has close ties with both rabbis, as Lau is the city’s current chief rabbi and Metzger was previously regional rabbi for north Tel Aviv. Both duly showed up at D Mall banquet halls to celebrate Mizrahi’s new son’s induction into the faith, with Metzger holding the baby while Lau recited the blessings. It was the right time of the year for making peace, and what better joyful reason than the arrival of a new life? ■ WHILE ON the subject of new babies, Jerusalemites Zev Natan and Giselle Jaffe hosted a kiddush at the capital’s Leonardo Plaza Hotel last Saturday to celebrate the birth of their second daughter Batsheva, sister to Miriam, who is barely a toddler. With the inclusion of the infants, there were four generations of the Jaffe family present: the everelegant great-grandmother, Ella Jaffe, whose late husband Maurice Jaffe was the guiding spirit in the construction of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue; grandparents conductor and composer Elli Jaffe and his wife Jacqueline; and of course the proud parents.

A kiddush usually consists of liquid refreshments and some light snacks. A more sumptuous kiddush may include gefilte fish, chopped liver and cold cuts. But this was a magnificent feast with a huge variety of salads, fish, poultry, meat dishes, cholent and desserts. When a kiddush is held at the Great Synagogue, which is directly across the road from the Leonardo Hotel, the blessing over the wine is usually recited by Cantor Chaim Adler, whose magnificent voice transcends the noise of the crowd. But Adler was late in arriving in the hotel succa, and guests were impatient to drink and eat, so the blessing was recited by Elli Jaffe, whose voice is almost as powerful. Adler, when he arrived, on learning that he did not have a function to perform, declared good-naturedly that if that was the case, he could go home. But other guests wouldn’t hear of it and prevailed on him to stay.

Great Synagogue director Rabbi George Finkelstein and his wife Freda could not stay to enjoy the culinary delights because they were invited to another kiddush before going home to welcome several guests they had invited for Shabbat lunch in their succa.

The Leonardo Plaza Hotel, in its previous incarnation as the Sheraton Jerusalem Plaza, was always a magnet for the religiously observant, including well-to-do haredim. To this day, its lounge is a meeting place for young haredi men and women seeking marriage.

Besides Hebrew, English and French are frequently heard in the lounge – and now, as more affluent Russian Jews are becoming increasingly involved with religion, Russian has become one of the common languages of the lounge as well. Who would have believed it 25 years ago, when the struggle for Soviet Jewry was one of the unifying factors that brought Jews from all streams together?

■ A FEW days prior to Succot, journalists were invited to come to the President’s Residence to report on the decorating being done at Peres’s succa with the help of a group of Jerusalem tots. The succa, which was smaller than usual and built in a more traditional style, was located near the front of the compound and was photographed, televised and the subject of print media reports. However when the president held his open house on Monday, that succa was nowhere in sight.

The considerably larger succa on the back patio was where it has always been and included a marvelous color-coded display of fruit and vegetables artistically laid out in huge planters. When a spokeswoman from the President’s Office was asked to explain, she replied airily: “Oh, that was just a promo.”

■ A FEMALE congregant who was a relative newcomer to Jerusalem’s Hazvi Yisrael synagogue found her path to the staircase leading to the women’s gallery blocked by a security guard.

“Is there always security here?” she asked in amazement. She was even more astonished when told that the security was not for the congregation, but for one of its members – Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who had come to Succot services draped in his prayer shawl and carrying his lulav and etrog while his security guard walked a couple of paces behind. Neeman, who lives only a few meters from the synagogue, had stopped in the doorway to exchange greetings with another congregant, which was why the security guard was blocking access to the staircase.

■ SOME OF the major Ashkenazi cantors whose remarkable voices have captivated their listeners held important positions in Anglo Jewry. Dr. David Prager, who has considerable knowledge of great British cantors of the 20th century, will share some anecdotes about them with members and friends of the Israel Branch of the Jewish Historical Society of England at Beit Avi Hai, Jerusalem, this coming Sunday, October 23.

Prager will talk about the biographies and voices of these cantors, and will also play some of their recordings.

greerfc@gmail.com

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