Grapevine: The Russian evolution

For three generations and more, Soviet Jews had been cut off from their Jewish roots.

By
June 28, 2016 22:03
genesis prize

Itzhak Perlman (center) receives the 2016 Genesis Prize at a ceremony in Jerusalem, June 23, 2016. (photo credit: LIOR MIZRACHI)

Just over quarter of a century ago, Jews around the world were still engaged in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. For three generations and more, Soviet Jews had been cut off from their Jewish roots. They knew little about their heritage – much less practiced it, though in some places they did manage to preserve both Yiddish and Hebrew. After the Six Day War, many identified more as Jews and became secret Zionists. While religion was banned and assimilation was encouraged, Jews knew which universities they could not enter and which professions were denied them, said Mikhail Fridman, the co-founder of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, at the third annual award ceremony of the Genesis Prize at the Jerusalem Theater last week.

Fridman, reputed to be one of the wealthiest people in Russia, together with Stan Polovets and three fellow Russian Jewish billionaires, Alexander Knaster, Pyotr (aka Petr) Aven and German Khan, launched the Genesis Philanthropy Group for the purpose of developing and enhancing Jewish identity among Jews around the globe.

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The Genesis Prize, based on a permanent endowment of $100 million, is operated as a partnership between the Prime Minister’s Office of the State of Israel, the Genesis Prize Foundation and the office of the chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency. The chairman happens to be another successful Russian, arguably one of the best-known Russian Jews in the world – Natan Sharansky, who has come a long way since walking to freedom across the Glienicke Bridge in February 1986.

Likewise, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a former Prisoner of Zion and clandestine Hebrew teacher, is also involved with the Genesis Prize. Edelstein is married to Irina Nevzlin, whose father, Leonid Nevzlin, is yet another generous Russian billionaire.

Among the others is Roman Abramovich, who has twice contributed $1m. to enhance the Genesis Prize, first to previous laureate Michael Douglas, and this year to one of the world’s greatest violin virtuosos, Tel Aviv-born Itzhak Perlman. Len Blavatnik, another big-time Russian philanthropist, through the Blavatnik Family Foundation contributed to the stunning award ceremony.

Other Russian Jews who have made loads of money and have given substantial chunks of it away to Jewish causes and to Israel are Arkadi Gaydamak, Mikhail Chernoy (aka Michael Cherney), Vladimir Goussinsky and Moshe Kantor, to name a few. The bottom line is that the Jews of the world were in the forefront of the struggle for Soviet Jewry, and now that the battle has been won, many former Soviet Jews believe in paying back. Thus we have the Russian evolution, as distinct from the Russian Revolution.

■ SINCE DISCOVERING his Jewish heritage, Fridman has done a lot of Bible reading and his favorite story is that of the struggle of Jacob with the angel, which may explain why the Genesis statuette awarded to laureates depicts that struggle.

The sculptor was Grisha Bruskin, a wellknown Moscow-born painter and sculptor.

■ EARLIER IN the week, speaking at a press conference for Perlman, Polovets explained that the Genesis laureates are always wellknown people who don’t really need the prize money, but re-gift it to causes dear to their hearts. Together with the gift from Abramovich and a hoped-for additional $1m. to be raised through a matching grants program administered by the Jewish Funders Network, Perlman will have $3m.

for advocacy and action on behalf of people with limited mobility, and for talented string instrumentalists who, with a little extra help, can become highfliers in the world of music.

■ IN PRESENTING the award to Perlman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who together with his wife, Sara, had the pleasure earlier in the day of hosting Perlman and his wife, Toby, and three of their five children to lunch at their residence – said: “Genesis honors individuals who have attained excellence and renown in their field and inspire others through their dedication to Israel, the Jewish people and humanity as a whole. The prize is centered in Israel, but its impact is universal.

“Winning the prize is not the end but the beginning for many of the laureates. There are only two so far. There’ll be three. But I think it opens them up to a different, a new direction. And they dedicate the coming year to inspiring the next generation with their vision and their advocacy. Two years ago, Michael Bloomberg won; last year, Michael Douglas won. This year, Itzhak Perlman won.

“I asked Itzhak today in a wonderful lunch we had in our residence with Toby and Sara and their family – I asked him a question: Will a computer replace your music? And he thought for a while, and he said, ‘No, because it has no soul. It doesn’t have these peculiarities of the human heart – and that’s what comes out.’ So computers can do a lot of things, but they can’t replace the genius of the human heart. And I think this is what has made you one of the most accomplished musicians in the world. You embody excellence.

But it’s not just proficiency. It’s excellence of the spirit. It comes from inside you.

You couldn’t explain to me, because I asked you, what comes out from inside you – how does it come out from inside you? But you said it comes from inside me.

“But you nevertheless have tried to be a teacher and a role model to millions. You have been. You’re an advocate for those whose bodies are disabled but whose spirits never are, and you are deeply committed to the Jewish people’s heritage and you’re passionate about our future.

“Your music, Itzhak, exemplifies the profound human drive for creativity and beauty. It gives meaning to our lives. Last year, when you received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, you were called the ‘fiddler of the world.’ I think you should be called the fiddler of the roof of the world, but the point is clear: Your music has graced audiences on every continent for generations, and you’re a source of inspiration for those with special needs.

“I think you’re a source of inspiration for those without special needs, because it tells us what we can achieve if we choose to overcome our disabilities. We all have our disabilities and limitations. Some politicians don’t, but other than that, everybody has limitations, disabilities, and you have overcome tremendous challenges after having been stricken by polio at the age of four.

“Now virtually all of your free time goes to teaching young musicians and advocating for those with physical disabilities. Throughout this you’ve maintained this strong connection to Israel, the land of your birth. You return here annually to teach and to perform, and I think you inspire all of us.”

■ THE ENTERTAINMENT before and after the speeches was spectacular, and included rope dancers, tango exponents, klezmer, folk dancers and musicians, and students of the Perlman Music Program playing a Mozart composition. Perlman’s body language as he listened, with an almost ecstatic grin on his face, indicated how well the music spoke to him.

Multiple award-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren was a superb moderator, whose bearing, youthful figure and buoyant appearance in general belied her 70 years. No one referred to her title, possibly because of the American mix in the Genesis operations. “Dame” has a somewhat different connotation in American parlance than in British English.

True to form, Mirren spiced her serious remarks with humor, especially when talking about her first visit to Israel with her Jewish boy friend just after the Six Day War, and working as a volunteer at Kibbutz Ha’on at the foot of the Golan Heights. Initially she was asked to comb the grapes, which she did happily while hearing strange whistling noises around her and not realizing that she was in danger of being bombed, while almost everyone else at the kibbutz had taken shelter. After that, they assigned her to kitchen duty, where she had to clean huge greasy pots. She was so busy at her task that she did not notice that everyone else had disappeared – again taking shelter for fear of attack. The kibbutzniks called her “meshuggene shiksa,” which for a time she thought was a term of endearment, until she learned otherwise.

■ THE LOBBY of the Jerusalem Theater, before and after the ceremony, was a babble of languages – mostly Russian, followed by English, Hebrew, French and Spanish.

Seen mingling in the crowd were former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, Israel Bonds president designate Israel Maimon, who was in charge of getting the Genesis event on the road, Vera Golovensky, the longtime adviser to Sharansky, who brought his daughter Rachel, past and present national presidents of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America Marlene Post and Ellen Hershkin, consul designate in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg, executive director of the Pratt Foundation Sam Lipski and his wife, Aura, who is a professional singer, former ambassadors to the UN Danny Gillerman and Ron Prosor, director of the Israel Museum James Snyder, who lives next door to the Jerusalem Theater, international human rights activist Irwin Cotler and his wife, Ariella, Beit Avi Chai exective director David Rozenson, Italian-Israeli journalist, author and politician Fiamma Nirenstein and MK Elazar Stern, who had arrived late, but managed to find an aisle seat behind the VIP row, which enabled him to kiss Irina Edelstein on the cheek as she was exiting at the close of the ceremony.

■ OTHER THAN the late Yonatan Netanyahu, the name most identified with the audacious Entebbe rescue mission of Israelis and non-Israeli Jews who had been passengers on a hijacked Air France plane is that of Sorin Hershko, who was the most seriously wounded soldier to survive what Israel’s ninth president, Shimon Peres, who was defense minister at the time, calls “one of the most calculated and important military missions in Israeli history,” which he is convinced “raised the prestige of the IDF throughout the world.”

Hershko, who had been member of the elite commando unit that carried out the operation, became a quadriplegic, but this did not prevent him from getting on with his life. A co-founder of LOTEM, which is dedicated to helping people with special needs, he is also the director of a private software company. Never one to feel sorry for himself, Hershko, who is distinguished more by his ever present beatific smile than by his wheelchair, has over the years been present at numerous events marking the Entebbe rescue anniversary, and it was only natural for him to be invited to the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa this week for the 40th anniversary commemoration.

The children he had helped to rescue, who are now parents and grandparents themselves, told him that he will always be an inseparable part of their lives. Peres, in awarding him a special citation of appreciation for his bravery, could not help but kiss him.

■ ONLY THREE months after his previous visit to Israel, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who currently serves as chairman of cybersecurity at the eminent Greenberg Traurig law firm dealing in privacy and crisis management practice, was back to Israel visiting the firm’s Tel Aviv office.

While in Israel, he took the opportunity, as he had done during his previous visit, to put in a good word for presidential contender Donald Trump, and he also toured the new Leket food collection and redistribution plant, where Leket Israel founder and chairman Joseph Gitler, who is a former resident of the Big Apple, and Leket Israel CEO Gidi Kroch showed him around and discussed with him a recent Leket study on the quantity of food wasted in Israel and the benefits to the economy and society if unconsumed food is rescued and redistributed in low income communities.

The study indicated that every year, more than 2.5 million tons of edible food, worth around NIS 8 billion, is wasted in Israel.

The study was conducted with a view to demonstrating how Western governments can combat hunger and lack of nutrition.

■ AN AMERICA media scandal has been brewing around former high-ranking veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering, who was a leading lobbyist for the Iran deal and was frequently quoted in The New York Times and other US media. He was generally referred to as a former ambassador to the United Nations. What was omitted was the fact that he was also on the Boeing payroll and that Boeing had a keen interest in seeing the deal go through. Pickering was also a US ambassador to Israel from 1985 to 1988 and earlier in his career was ambassador to Jordan from 1974-1978. Other important postings included Russia and India.

■ ACTIONS SPEAK louder than words.

Although outgoing United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon has been given numerous compliments during his farewell visit to Israel toward the end of his 10-year term, Haim Shkedi, the general manager of the King David Hotel went a step further and a hosted a rooftop champagne and canapés cocktail party in Ban’s honor, with guests including the whole of the UN legation in Israel plus senior officers of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization and Meron Reuben, the chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry.

The rooftop venue offered a charming, night-time view of the lights of Jerusalem’s Old City, and guests lingered way beyond the intended time of departure. Ban was most appreciative of the gesture.

■ EVER SINCE he was a small boy, Netanel Klein, who lives in Singapore, was determined to celebrate his bar mitzva in Jerusalem, where his parents, Tammy, originally from Baltimore, and Yishai, originally from Melbourne, first met. Following their wedding 15 years ago, the Kleins moved to Singapore, where they quickly integrated into the Jewish community and are well known for their hospitality.

Their four children were born in Singapore but have traveled extensively throughout Asia with their parents as well as to the US to visit with their mother’s family and to Israel to visit with their father’s family.

Yishai Klein is a highly successful venture capitalist and investment consultant with clients throughout Asia, many of whom he has advised to invest in Israeli hi-tech companies. His brother Gideon, who is a hi-tech whiz, lives in the US with his family and works for Google, and their sister Nava is a financial management consultant who travels to different parts of the world to advise her clients.

Because the family has so many friends in Singapore, Netanel’s actual bar mitzva was celebrated there toward the end of May with four days of festivities that included a taekwando demonstration by Netanel’s taekwando group. Netanel himself has a black belt in taekwando.

While most of his family on both sides came to Singapore for the occasion, it was an even greater thrill for him to see them this week when he celebrated his bar mitzva the second time around at the Western Wall, followed by a luncheon at the King David Hotel.

His grandmother Sara Klein was absolutely thrilled to have all her children and grandchildren in Jerusalem at the same time – an extremely rare occurrence – and she was also thrilled that Netanel wanted to wear the tallit (prayer shawl) of his late grandfather Shmuel Klein and to use the silver Torah pointer that had also belonged to his grandfather. He had asked his grandmother to bring them to Singapore and asked to use them again in Jerusalem.

The guest list was international, with invitations going out to people in Israel, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, Indonesia, the USA and UK, and guests – including Netanel’s maternal grandparents, Ellen and Dr. Noah Lightman – coming from all those countries.

The situation at the Western Wall was as hectic as ever, with women from different groups fighting over acquisition of plastic chairs – not exactly the best advertisement for a supposedly holy place – and afterward there was so much confusion as groups of people tried to locate their private buses.

At the King David guests were greeted by a waiter dispensing oshibori, so that they could freshen up, plus cold drinks.

Standing in the sun for a long time and perspiring profusely had not drained the male guests of their energy, and they immediately began dancing with the bar mitzva boy for the best part of 15 minutes, before it was announced that the buffet was open.

During the meal there was a strolling guitarist. Guests were also treated to a video of life in Singapore, including the May bar mitzva festivities. In his speech Netanel talked about the importance of giving to others, a subject that he takes very seriously.

Ten percent of the money that he received in bar mitzva gifts is being donated for cancer research in Israel.

■ AMONG THE British citizens who did not cast a vote in the Brexit referendum last Thursday were Queen Elizabeth II and members of her immediate family. Theoretically, the royals are permitted to vote, but in an effort to remain neutral and above politics, they refrain from entering the ballot booth. If there is even the slightest hint of political interest, approval or disapproval by the queen or her closest kin, the British media goes wild, as does a large segment of the public. Neutrality on the part of the royals is supposed to be the name of the game.

However one can’t help wondering what Elizabeth, who in her lifetime has seen her country go from empire to commonwealth to member of the EU to divorcing itself from the EU, is thinking 63 years after her coronation, and in the year that she is celebrating her 90th birthday, and may yet see the dissolution of the United Kingdom, which at this moment in time appears to be disunited and all but minus a British prime minister.

During the period of her reign, the queen has consulted with 13 prime ministers, taking into account that Harold Wilson served both before and after Edward Heath.

As monarch, her first prime minister was Winston Churchill.

Despite the upheaval in her country, the queen was all smiles last Friday when she received the credentials of Mark Regev, Israel’s ambassador to the Court of St James, who looked resplendent in his formal attire of striped trousers, white shirt, black tie and silver-gray waistcoat topped by a black tailcoat.

In a press release issued by the Israel Embassy, Regev stated: “It was a great honor to present my credentials to Her Majesty the Queen. Israel and the United Kingdom are partners and allies. The strong cooperation between our two democracies serves to make both our peoples more prosperous and more secure.”

The last sentence was obviously written before the British pound took a nosedive.

One of the minor joys for Regev being in the UK is that he has returned to his educational roots. Born and raised in Australia, where spelling and definition of words are according to British rules and not American, he will be able to restore the letter “u” in words where Americans have removed it, and likewise will restore double consonants in words where the Americans make do with only one.

■ SOMETIMES WHEN an idea is floated before its time, it receives a series of thumbs-down reactions, before it is finally accepted. Former minister and MK Silvan Shalom for several years consistently but unsuccessfully floated the idea of a long weekend in Israel, which in fact is equivalent to regular weekends in most Western countries. What finally tipped the scale was Israel’s desire to conform to OECD standards. It’s still a long way from being implemented 52 times a year, but it looks as if the first step on the longest journey is about to be taken.

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