THE PREMIER screening in Israel of the prize-winning documentary film, "A Torah Returns to Poland," brought together to the Tel Aviv Cinematheque such people as former Mossad chief MK Danny Yatom, former national security chief Uzi Dayan, former media adviser to Ariel Sharon, Ra'anan Gissin , and Knesset Education Committee chairman Rabbi Michael Melchior. There they were greeted by the nostalgic melodies of Bernie Marinbach's Klezmer trio, which added an aura of shtetl authenticity to the occasion. This was augmented by the spontaneous and vibrant renditions in Yiddish by singer and song writer Ros Grossman.
Harley and Marie Lippman of New York had wanted to do something more meaningful than having a splashy party for their daughter Juliet's bat mitzvah, so they brought a Torah that originated in Strasbourg, found its way to Poland when the Jewish community of Alsace was deported to Auschwitz and then somehow arrived in the store of Zelig Blumenthal on New York's Lower East Side. The Lippman family had no inkling when they decided to take the Torah to Poland - to give something to the emerging Jewish community there - that they would encounter a 170-member contingent of the Israel Defense Forces who would join in the celebration. Nor did they imagine that they would have a grand and emotional reunion with a large representation of that contingent in Israel.
But that's exactly what happened last Sunday amid great excitement on the part of both the Americans and the Israelis. Lippman is a prominent member of the American Jewish Congress, whose local representative, Danny Grossman, when he heard about the film and what motivated it, insisted on doing everything possible to give it a boost in Israel. It has already been widely screened on cable television in America.
"I'm so happy to see faces here that I saw in Warsaw," said Lippman. "They came in from Nahariya and Eilat."
His family, he said, is not very religious. Lippman's grandmother was from Poland, and in the 1970s he spent two years there as a Fulbright scholar. Bringing a Torah back to Poland was neither a religious nor a political statement, but rather one of Jewish connectivity.
"Nothing was rehearsed, nothing was planned," he said. "We all met in the rain and we danced through the streets of Poland celebrating the restoration of this Torah. It was an amazing thing. Who would have imagined that we would be dancing through the streets of Warsaw? I tell it to people in America and they can't believe it."
Yair Livnoni, speaking on behalf of the IDF delegation, said that participating in the celebration had given him a feeling of victory.
Generally, one talks about the physical destruction of the Jewish people, he said, but few talk of the spiritual destruction. The bringing back of a Torah with the participation of the IDF was like the closing of a circle. Livnoni recalled that in the synagogue in Warsaw Lippman had warned of the potential of another Holocaust, which he said would be prevented only by a strong Israeli army.
Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel, who made the film, have been documenting the revival of Jewish life in Poland for the past decade, and when they decided to get married, they chose to have the August 2000 wedding ceremony in the partially reconstructed White Stork Synagogue in Wroclaw, the southwestern Polish town, which has Poland's second largest Jewish community outside Warsaw. For Fissel, the occasion was doubly meaningful in that he crossed a seven generation divide to return to his Jewish roots. Theirs was the first wedding in the synagogue in 36 years. While most people documenting Jewish Poland dwell on the demise of what was once the largest Jewish community in Europe, they focus on Jewish rebirth.
IN A semi-related story about Poland, President Lech Kaczynski has sent his special envoy, Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, to Israel to lobby for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to Irena Sendler, 96, a Polish social worker who during the Holocaust saved some 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
For years, Sendler was an unsung heroine, living a modest existence in Warsaw. Her story came to light only as recently as 2000, when a group of Kansas high school students wrote a play, "Life in a Jar," based on her heroism. The play won many awards and created awareness of just how much one woman can do. Sendler registered the children as Christians and passed them on to Christian families who adopted them. Some of these children, now well into their sixties, have in the past few years discovered their Jewish backgrounds.
Junczyk-Ziomecka, who is the minister of state in the Presidential Chancellery responsible for social affairs, will speak to Israeli Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres and to Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev to enlist their support in nominating Sendler for the Nobel Peace Prize. She will also talk to other prominent Israelis some of whom she will meet tomorrow at a reception hosted for her by Polish Ambassador Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska. It is quite possible that some of the children saved by Sendler found their way to Israel. If this is so, the Polish Embassy is eager to get the names and brief biographies of such people. Anyone who remembers being saved by Sendler or who knows someone saved by Sendler is asked to contact Piotr Drobniak at the Polish Embassy, (03) 725-3107.
EVEN JUDGES can make mistakes, as was the case with National Labor Court President Judge Steve Adler, who as master of ceremonies at the National Convention in Jerusalem of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel last week talked of the contribution which native born Americans and Canadians have made to the country in terms of understanding democracy, working experience and civil behavior. People whom he mentioned included Shimon Agranat, who was chief justice of the Supreme Court, Moshe Arens, who though not born in America, was raised there, and Golda Meir, whom he said was born in America. There was an instant murmur of protest from the audience, most of whom were fully aware that Israel's only female prime minister was not born in the US, and quickly corrected Adler's misconception.
"Well, she talked liked an American," retorted Adler. "She talked Hebrew like an American." Adler confessed that he was somewhat shocked when looking around at the audience to see how many people he didn't know. "When I came on aliya in the 1960s, we all knew each other," he said.
KEYNOTE SPEAKER at the AACI National Convention was Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, who quipped that outgoing AACI president Evelyn Grossberg had asked whether his hair - silver going white - was that color when he arrived in Israel. Fischer acknowledged that talks on economics don't really inspire dramatic reactions one way or the other. The usual sum total of reaction he said is that someone will say "You were very optimistic" or "You very pessimistic." He chose to be optimistic, declaring that it was extraordinary how far the Israeli economy has come over the past 20 years.
"It will be even better when people come here and don't have to take a cut in income," he said, alluding to the huge cut he took in his salary when he decided to accept the invitation to become central bank governor. A challenge that obviously bothers him a great deal, given the number of times that he mentioned it, is closing the social gap and reducing poverty. Fischer's solution is greater emphasis on education. Economic growth enables people to buy more, he said, but it doesn't close social gaps.
TWO OF the other distinguished figures on the podium were Canadian Ambassador Jon Allen, whose sister made aliya from Winnipeg 40 years ago and lives on Kibbutz Kfar Blum, and US Ambassador Richard Jones, who 20 years ago was a member of the American team that negotiated the Free Trade Agreement between the US and Canada.
"If the AACI were not here to help Canadians, they'd probably be on my doorstep," said Allen.
Recalling the Free Trade negotiating period, Jones related the following anecdote. The negotiating teams used to meet in either Washington or Ottawa. The meeting room in Ottawa featured on one wall a huge black and white photograph of the back view of a little girl and an elephant at the circus. Each was perched on the kind of stand on which a circus elephant does its tricks. The photograph was flanked by the flags of the two countries - the Canadian flag alongside the little girl and the American flag alongside the elephant. At one particular meeting in Ottawa when the Canadian team left the room so that the Americans could discourse amongst themselves, the prankish Jones decided to switch the flags, placing the Canadian flag alongside the elephant and the American flag alongside the little girl. The Americans wondered how long it would take the Canadians to notice. They didn't have to wait long. The first remark made by the Canadians as they re-entered the room was: "The flags aren't right."
The new president installed towards the end of the AACI convention was Deborah Millgram. The Volunteer of the Year Award did not go to any specific person, but to the group of volunteers who go out at all times of the day and night and in all kinds of weather to welcome new immigrants who have just landed in the country. They steer them through the red tape, translate when necessary, answer pertinent questions and stay with the new immigrants until they are ready to leave the airport. For those new immigrants who have no family in Israel, there is no more welcome sight than someone waiting to greet them.
FUNCTIONS HOSTED by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Tel Aviv do not have the kind of diplomatic attendance seen at events hosted by representatives of countries that have full diplomatic relations with Israel. It's rare for ambassadors, even those whose countries may have strong ties with Taiwan, to come to these affairs, and many of them had the excuse last week that they were going to a farewell for Brazilian Ambassador Sergio Lima, who is leaving this month, but who has been enjoying a round of farewells ever since the summer. Nonetheless, it was somewhat surprising to see fellow Latin Americans Noemy Baruch, the ambassador of Costa Rica, and Suzana Gan de Hasenson, the ambassador of El Salvador, at a reception last Thursday welcoming Terry Ting, the new representative of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in Israel.
Actually Ting and his wife Cygnet are not strangers to Israel and have many friends in the country. Ting previously served a six-year term in Israel. In introducing Ting, Ray Chao, head of TECO's political department, referred to him as "ambassador," as did MK Michael Eitan, who heads the Israel-Taiwan Parliamentary Friendship League.
"We, the intimate friends, like to call him the ambassador," said Eitan, apologizing for his inability to be reciprocal in his greetings. Ting began his address in Hebrew. "I can't start my speech in Chinese," declared Eitan, "but sometimes English is like Chinese for me."
Before 1993, there were no official relations between Israel and Taiwan, said Eitan, but 14 years ago, the first Taipei trade office opened, and since then ties between the two countries have improved in all directions despite the diplomatic limitations.
Ting, who in his previous round of duty in Israel headed the political department, spoke of similarities between his country and Israel, including the fact that Chinese, like Hebrew, is written from right to left. He was happy to report a significant increase in bilateral trade, the volume of which in 2005 was $1.5 billion.. He was also delighted with the increase in cultural exchanges and said that before leaving Taiwan to come to come to Israel, he had attended a wonderful concert featuring Israeli singer David D'Or.
BOUNDING INTO the headquarters of Hitachdut Olei Hungaria in Jerusalem, Hungarian Education and Culture Minister Dr. Istvan Hiller, his eyes beaming with mischief and his mouth stretched into a huge grin, worked the floor introducing himself and Katalin Bogyay, Hungarian state secretary for international affairs, to a group of eager Hungarian expatriates, most of them Holocaust survivors, who despite more than half a century in Israel, maintain a hunger for Hungarian culture and an abiding interest in Hungarian politics.
Hiller was able to satisfy them on both counts, but left himself wide open for remarks by Honorary Hungarian Consul Yossi Weiss and Hebrew University historian Dr. Michael Silber that Hungary should establish a cultural center in Israel, just as it has done in 19 cities around the world, including Cairo and New Delhi.
Hiller didn't want to make any promises that he might not be able to keep, but said that the matter was close to his heart and that he would bring it up with the relevant authorities in Hungary. The current chairman of the International Holocaust Task Force, Hiller is engaged in a number of projects designed to teach Holocaust history and to perpetuate the names of all Hungarian victims of the Holocaust. This was important, he said, if Hungary was to recreate the milieu that existed before the Holocaust.
Hiller was born in Sopron, which once had a very large, totally integrated Jewish community. Most of his grandmother's friends at school were Jewish he said - "and I know all their names."
During a visit to Washington, he related, it was very important to him to meet with Elie Wiesel, who though born in Transylvania, which was partially Hungarian at the time but is Romanian today, is not particularly well disposed to Hungarians nor to the Hungarian language. Hiller called Wiesel on the phone and received a rather cold reception. Then he explained that he needed Wiesel's help in imbuing the proper spirit into teaching the Holocaust and initiating Holocaust memorial projects. Wiesel listened, but said little. When he hung up the phone at the end of the conversation, Hiller presumed that he gone as far as he could go with Wiesel. But the following day, Wiesel left his address at the Hungarian Embassy, which Hiller took as an invitation. He went to visit him and they talked for three hours in Hungarian. It was one of the most memorable conversations in Hiller's life.
This was Hiller's second visit to Israel, and also his second visit to Yad Vashem with which he signed an agreement on bilateral cooperation in education and the recovery of names of Holocaust victims. He also signed an agreement with Education Minister Yuli Tamir, met with Labor Party leader Amir Peretz and in a round-about fashion got to meet Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, who hosted a new year's reception for the diplomatic corps on Monday.
Hungarian Ambassador Andras Gyenge was invited to the reception, took Hiller with him and introduced him to Itzik. On a much more serious note, Hiller, who is president of the Hungarian Socialist Party, insisted on visiting the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, who was not only prime minister but leader of the Labor Party that helped the Hungarian Socialist Party to become a member of the Socialist International after the fall of Communism. Hiller also insisted on visiting two other graves - those of Theodor Herzl and Teddy Kollek, who were both born in Hungary.
TEN OF Israel's leading photographers participated in the opening of an exciting and intriguing photographic exhibition at the Israel Museum - Engagement, Israeli Photography Now. The participants and some of the spectators were caught on the other side of the camera by photographer Roni Naaman, who was excited to get three Israel Prize laureates into the frame. The three were David Rubinger, Micha Bar Am and Alex Livak.
Also in one of the frames captured by Naaman was Pia Gidal, whose late husband Tim Gidal was one of the pioneers of photojournalism, and celebrated Newsweek photographer Shlomo Arad, who in all likelihood will be the next photographer to be awarded the Israel Prize. Museum director James Snyder, in opening the exhibition, paid tribute to the museum's founder Teddy Kollek, who regarded photography as an important asset to the museum.
HER MANY fans are dismayed that Israel Radio veteran announcer Jeanette Amid has retired from reading the news in English. At a farewell tea party which the department held for her at Beit Ticho last week, Amid, who hails from England, told the story of how, when she first began reading the news in 1988, she hadn't realized that she was supposed to stop after two-and-a-half minutes to allow the French news to follow in the next two-and-a-half minutes, and so she continued to read the bulletin until she had completed all the news items she had been given by the editor. She had noticed the French announcer waving his hands at her through the glass of the studio, and thought how rude it was of him to interrupt her during her first broadcast. In the end, she left him enough time to say only: "That was the English news!" Over the next 19 years, she became one of the most beloved voices on the radio, with her beautiful BBC-style diction, calm approach, and British sense of humor.
"I'll really miss you all," she tearfully told the eight staff members who attended her goodbye tea. "I loved working at the radio."
Amid is the last of Kol Yisrael's English News presenters to leave, and not be replaced due to ongoing budget cuts. Now the editors all have to read their own newscasts, instead of handing them over to professional announcers who have included some wonderful voices and personalities over the years such as Freda Keet, Reuven David Miller, Ilona Hahn, Linda Epstein and, of course, Jeanette Amid herself.