Grapevine: Devotion to duty

President' dedicated staff include director-general,Efrat Duvdevani, who left maternity ward 12 hour after giving birth to attend work meeting.

June 13, 2013 19:45
President Shimon Peres

President Shimon Peres 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Few people can boast as dedicated a staff as President Shimon Peres. Many of his staff members live outside Jerusalem and have to be up very early to be on time to greet his visitors and be present at his meetings, which sometimes start as early as 8 a.m. Moreover, the president often attends evening events that do not conclude until late at night, and several members of his staff remain with him until he is ready to return home. These events take place all over the country, as do many of the daytime events to which staff accompany him – not to mention his many trips abroad, during which they barely have a chance to sleep because they are working so hard.

But absolutely true devotion to duty was demonstrated this week by Efrat Duvdevani, the director-general of the President’s Office, who gave birth to a son on Saturday night, and 12 hours later snuck out of the maternity ward to attend an important meeting in Herzliya related to the final details of the President’s 90th birthday celebrations in Jerusalem next week.

Duvdevani, who was also director-general of the Development of the Negev and Galilee Ministry, which was the last ministry Peres headed before he became president, has been involved in planning the gala event since the very beginning – and she wasn’t about to miss out over a little thing like giving birth. In fact, Mother Nature was kind to her, because she was actually due this coming Tuesday, the date of the celebrity-studded festivities. She might well have upstaged not only the president, but singer Barbra Streisand, former US president Bill Clinton, Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and local singing stars Shlomo Artzi and Eyal Golan, by actually going into labor at the Jerusalem International Convention Center and giving her son a head start into the world of fame.

Everyone at the meeting, which she had been scheduled to chair, knew that she had given birth the previous evening – and therefore started the meeting without her.

They were amazed when she walked in.

Some two hours later one of the president’s drivers, who had brought her to the meeting, took her back to the hospital.

It’s rare for anyone on the president’s staff to defy him, but Duvdevani is going to do just that. When Peres reminded her that she was entitled to maternity leave, she said she was cutting it short because there were too many important things that required her attention. Peres told her to take time out, but she refused.

Although nothing quite beats the atmosphere of being at a gala event, any Israeli with a computer, television set or radio can watch and hear the celebration. In fact, almost anyone in the world who owns a computer can be a remote guest, since the gala will be broadcast live and transmitted around the globe.

In truth, anyone who watches the event on screen will get a better view than most of the 3,000-plus people in the auditorium, and the people at home will get a close-up of Streisand singing Avinu Malkeinu at the special request of the president – who still cherishes childhood memories of hearing it on Yom Kippur in his grandfather’s synagogue.

■ RUSSIA DAY, the national holiday of the Russian Federation, is arguably the largest annual diplomatic affair in Israel – with even greater attendance than festivities for the American Fourth of July, French Bastille Day, Italian Republic Day and British Queen’s Birthday. Part of the reason may well be that there are more Russian expatriates in Israel than in any other country, and that it has been a policy on the part of a series of Russian ambassadors to invite Russian immigrants from across the socioeconomic spectrum to celebrate the national holiday of the Motherland.

Not only that, but the generous and varied buffets include a good selection of traditional Russian cuisine, such as holishki, blini, pierogi and numerous fish dishes, which were again in evidence this week at the Tel Aviv Hilton – where Russian Ambassador Sergey Yakovlev and his wife hosted more than 1,000 people, of which at least 85 percent were Russian immigrants.

Every Russia Day celebration is also a cultural treat, replete with excellent musicians and wonderful singers. This year was no exception. A marvelous mezzo soprano and a superb tenor, who before relocating to Israel had sung with the Bolshoi Opera, performed Italian and German operas and operettas as well as Italian folksongs, while Russian folk music was provided by members of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, most of whose musicians are Russian émigrés.

Quite a large number of people actually stopped talking and eating to congregate in front of the stage to listen to them. Unfortunately, there were not enough culture vultures, but those who could appreciate this very special cultural offering did so with shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” Whoever wasn’t listening really missed out.

Anatoly Yurkov, Russia’s genial deputy head of mission – who is one of the longestserving foreign diplomats in Israel, having arrived in 1996 – was on-hand to make sure that everything went smoothly, but even he could not assist Yakovlev in quelling the noise during the official ceremony.

Yakovlev, speaking in both Russian and English, asked the crowd for their attention, but did not succeed in getting the response he wanted. In a corner to his right, the din rose to an almost deafening crescendo.

“I don’t know what to do with these people,” he said over the microphone. He then made another valiant but fruitless attempt: “Hello...!” His speech was very short, almost entirely devoid of politics or comments about trade, common values and cultural exchanges, which is the norm at most national day events. The only exception was at the end, when he wished “security and peace to this unstable region.” What he wanted to do, he said, was provide a Russian atmosphere with Russian cuisine, Russian music and of course, lots of Russian vodka.

Yakovlev had spoken softly and had not wasted any more effort in trying to get people to take a five-minute break from their own conversations. But Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver was obviously annoyed that the ambassador had not received the respect he deserved, and in a much stronger voice than she usually employs, demanded in Russian that the crowd applaud him – and they did. She then delivered an address in heavily accented Hebrew, and said that when she was at a Russia Day event, she felt the warmth of the relationship between Russia and Israel – noting particularly what the Red Army and the Russian partisans had done to liberate Jews from Nazi captivity.

She also spoke about the huge increase in bilateral tourism as a result of the cancellation of entry visas, but said the most important demonstration of the strength of the relationship was the high-level exchange of visits over the past 12 months. In that period, Russian President Vladimir Putin came to Israel for the inauguration of a monument to the Red Army, and both Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had been to Russia. Landver expressed her thanks to all those at every level who have contributed to the continuity of this bilateral relationship.

She then repeated in Russian much of she’d said in Hebrew, but with far more verve when speaking in her native tongue.

Conspicuous in his absence from the event was MK Avigdor Liberman, who is a firm favorite at receptions hosted by all of the ambassadors of the former Soviet Union.

The generosity of the Russian Embassy could be seen in the constant replenishment of platters of smoked salmon, an expensive luxury for many of the guests, who were more interested in filling their plates with salmon than their glasses with vodka. Something else that other embassies might care to emulate was the respect for senior citizens.

Many of the bemedaled and beribboned former heroes of the Red Army are in their 80s and 90s, and a special roped-off section was set aside for them, and for senior figures from the Eastern Church, where they could sit comfortably at set tables instead of having to stand or walk around like other guests.

■ FORMER DIPLOMAT and former MK Colette Avital is living proof of the ability to take on new challenges after distinguishing oneself in any given field. After a very long career at the Foreign Ministry, Avital switched to politics, during which time she also became the first Israeli woman to run for president.

When that attempt failed and when she also failed to regain reelection to the Knesset, she turned to education, becoming a member of the board of the Schechter Institute and director-general of the Ideological Educational Department at Beit Berl College.

As an MK, Avital led an inquiry to identify assets in Israel owned by European Jews who had perished in the Holocaust. She herself is a child Holocaust survivor. With the passing of Noah Flug, who headed the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors, an umbrella body that covers some 50 organizations, the natural choice for a successor fell on the deeply committed, energetic and articulate Avital – who can give an extemporaneous address in Hebrew, English, French, Romanian, Italian, German or Portuguese.

Avital still enjoys enormous popularity and success in diplomatic circles, and is frequently seen at diplomatic affairs – especially those hosted by ambassadors of countries in which she has served. Thus, it was not surprising to see her, as former ambassador to Portugal, at this week’s National Day reception at the Kfar Shmaryahu residence of Portuguese Ambassador Miguel de Almeida e Sousa. However, what was interesting was this time, Avital was singled out for honor and awarded the Grand Cross of Prince Henry the Navigator, in recognition of her contribution to Israeli-Portuguese relations during her years as ambassador from 1988 to 1992. In response, Avital spoke of the Jews’ contribution to the cultural, scientific and economic achievements of Portugal prior to their expulsion, and presented the ambassador with a facsimile of the Lisbon Bible.

The ambassador spoke warmly of the historic ties between Portugal and the Jewish people, and the growing economic and cultural ties between Portugal and Israel. He said he was interested in expanding the cultural ties through exchanges and cooperative research projects. He also spoke of a proposed amendment to Portuguese law that will enable people who can prove descent from the ancient Sephardi Portuguese Jews to receive a Portuguese passport.

Avital has also been honored by the French and Italian governments. The Israeli government was represented by Senior Citizens Minister Uri Orbach. Among the many diplomatic figures in attendance was Moshe Arens, who had been foreign minister when Avital served in Portugal.

■ DIPLOMATS COME and go, often losing track of people with whom they were in almost daily contact for two, three and sometimes more years, during their periods of service in any given country. Sometimes their paths cross again in another country, and occasionally friendships made in one country endure despite geographic distance thanks to the phone, email, Twitter and Skype.

Whether or not their husbands remain friends, members of the Israel branch of the International Women’s Club will. Such was noted this week by Miriam Ben-Haim, one of the IWC’s most veteran members, at a luncheon hosted by artist Sali Ariel for Sheila Kurtzer, the wife of Dan Kurtzer, a former US ambassador. Ben-Haim said that over the past two months, no less than five former members of the IWC, whose husbands had been the heads of foreign missions in Israel, had visited the country – some with their spouses. She said that such visits were very much to Israel’s credit, in that they demonstrate the positive effect that their stay in Israel had on them.

The Kurtzers, who have relatives in Israel, visit at least once a year. They also have many friends here, including Israeli diplomats with whom they forged friendships while serving in Egypt. Sheila Kurtzer said that she was truly delighted to be able to get together with her Israeli friends during her visits. She found it amusing that some people continued to treat her as an ambassador’s wife. “Diplomats are just regular people,” she explained. “When they go home they have to do their own shopping, their own laundry and their own cooking, and they have nothing like the household help that they have in the ambassador’s residence.”

Nor for that matter is the home they return to anywhere near the size of the residence they left in Israel. Her whole house could fit into the living room of the US ambassador’s residence, said Kurtzer. Considering that she does her own cleaning, Kurtzer was quite happy to be living in smaller premises.

One of the other guests at the luncheon recalled that Kurtzer; Linda Bell, wife of former Canadian ambassador Michael Bell; and Doris Weiser-Small, who among other things is active in Lions of Judah, a women’s group that helps women and girls in the Ethiopian community realize their potential, had all gotten together more than a decade ago to help paint the walls of Ariel’s living room, soon after Ariel and her husband, cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen, moved into their home in Herzliya Pituah. As they reminisced, Ariel brought out photographs as proof, and everyone had a good laugh.

■ US AMBASSADOR Dan Shapiro manages to combine work with play, or more accurately makes work look like play. On the night before leaving for his vacation, in the dual capacity of ambassador and honorary chairman of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce, he attended the chamber’s annual awards dinner at the Tel Aviv Hilton, where veteran industrialist Stef Wertheimer received a Lifetime Achievement Award and together with all his friends and colleagues, watched a video in which magnate Warren Buffett congratulated him.

Guests at the event were welcomed by chamber chairwoman Ofra Strauss, together with Shapiro. Among the guests were a large representation of the Strauss family and the Strauss Group; Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett; soft drink tycoons Mozi, Hassia and Drorit Wertheim; Bank Leumi CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach; Harel Insurance president Gideon Hamburger; Citibank Israel CEO Ralph Shaaya; and many other leading figures in Israel’s economy.

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