Grapevine: A birthday on the roof

For people who work closely with the president and the prime minister, there’s no such thing as an eight-hour workday.

June 4, 2013 21:19
Presdient Peres and Ambassador Gould toast Britain's queen

Ambassador Matthew Gould and Israeli President Shimon Peres . (photo credit: Mati Milstein, courtesy of the British Embassy in )

For people who work closely with the president and the prime minister, there’s no such thing as an eight-hour workday.

Too many events in the professional life of each require careful consultation and planning, and even after all that, there are often unexpected national and international developments that demand a reshuffling of priorities and more time.

Under such circumstances, it was little short of a miracle that Yona Bartal, the deputy bureau chief for President Shimon Peres, found time to celebrate her own milestone birthday. Fortunately, sculptor and designer Ilana Goor is one of her good friends and together with Bartal’s husband, Dudi, planned a wonderful lunch on the rooftop patio of the Ilana Goor Museum overlooking the sea in Jaffa. Passersby who saw the presidential limousine parked outside must have wondered what event could be so special as to bring the country’s No. 1 citizen to Jaffa on a Friday morning. Peres, who is part of Bartal’s extended family, and who for the past two decades has been at all the major celebrations in her family, would certainly not miss her milestone.

There’s no point in revealing her age, because even people who have known Bartal for years would not believe that this petite woman, with the unlined face and exquisite figure, who runs around in ultra-high spikeheeled shoes, is much older than 35 or maybe 40. As it happens, she’s already a grandmother and somewhat older than 35.

Peres paid her a genuine – rather than gentlemanly – compliment, after she rose to join her daughter Shiri at the top of the stairs leading to the patio. “You look just like sisters,” he said – and he was absolutely right.

The mother and daughter were wearing similarly styled dresses in the same shade of creamy beige, and the age difference between them appeared to be minimal.

Although it was definitely Bartal’s celebration, a stranger could be forgiven for thinking that Peres was celebrating his 90th birthday – just over two months ahead of time. The president spent quite a lot of time shaking hands and kissing cheeks before he was able to sit down, and even then, he had to keep getting up to pose for photographs with a coterie of women who wanted to be photographed with him separately and together.

Among the people sharing his table were his favorite singers, Rita and David D’or. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who came in after the speeches started, joined the presidential table and spent a lot of tête-à-tête time with Peres.

Among the other guests were former ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman and his wife, Janice; businessman Alfred Akirov; lawyers Tami Raveh and Ram Caspi; public relations executive Hila Rahav; music man Zvika Pik and his companion Shira Manor; and Shanti House founder for runaway and abandoned youth Mariuma Ben-Yosef. Also present were some of Bartal’s closest friends and colleagues from work, including President’s Office head Efrat Duvdevani; spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch; strategist and international liaison Ofra Eshed; and military secretary Brig.-Gen. Hasson Hasson, who came in civilian attire.

Bartal’s daughter Shiri compared her mother to the State of Israel, in that she is small, beautiful, strong and exudes a great deal of caring. Although she worked hard and spent long hours away from home, she has always been available to give her family advice and an encouraging word – and often, when she comes home late at night, she rearranges all the closets in the house. Turning to her mother, Shiri said: “Don’t forget to keep on meeting the world, and keep on being the person you are.”

Peres declared that he agreed with everything Shiri said, adding: “Yona is like the state. She has extraordinary energy. She is the only woman I know who can be in four different places at the one time. But wherever she is, she knows her way home. She has friends and admirers all over the world, and knows how to talk to all of them. She is constantly SMSing or on the phone. She is always in an upbeat mood and very savvy.

She does great service to the state, but she is also a warm, family person. When she’s abroad, she suddenly starts to worry about her grandson.”

Echoing Shiri, Peres told Bartal to keep on conquering the world..

Bartal said that when people reach midlife, they suddenly become more aware of the people around them – and of friendship, love, loyalty and devotion. She wanted to be an example to her children, she said, and was eternally grateful to have Dudi as her husband and life partner. No matter how many palaces or corridors of power she might wander through, the bottom line was that to her, nothing is more important than family. It has been a great privilege, she said, to serve the state as someone working with Peres, and to benefit from his wisdom and his vision.

Bartal was also grateful that her colleagues had become like a second family to her. She did not forget to deliver accolades to Goor, who had made a huge breakthrough with the establishment of her museum, but above all was a valued friend; and she was full of admiration for Ben-Yosef, who had done so much to give Israel’s lost youth the opportunity to rebuild their lives and become productive citizens.

Ben-Yosef, who had literally just arrived from Los Angeles, said how proud she had been when Peres opened the Desert Shanti Youth Village, which is the second haven she established for troubled youth who come from all strata of society. In the 29 years in which she has been operating Shanti homes, she said, 31,000 youth have come under her wing. For many, this was their last chance to become empowered as independent human beings. Many have been persuaded to return to their parents, but there were others who stayed for more than a month because they had been abandoned by their parents.

She had opened the Desert Shanti, Ben- Yosef said, when she learned of the dearth of social services in the South. She was greatly helped in this by Eli Alalouf of the Rashi Foundation, as well as by Caspi. Most runaways, she said, automatically head for Tel Aviv, but now those in the South have a place that’s closer to home. None of them can be forced to come to her, Ben-Yosef noted. They have to choose to do so of their own free will, because making this decision is the first step towards empowerment.

One of the highlights of the lunch was Rita singing Happy Birthday to Bartal. Goor, while keeping an eye on everything, managed to stay in the background – but it was impossible not to notice the distinctive sculptured jewelry that is her hallmark, which she and several other women were wearing.

■ WITH ALL the hoo-hah surrounding the gala dinner at the Peres Academic Center and the $500,000 being paid to former US president Bill Clinton’s foundation in return for a 45-minute speech, plus the NIS 3,000-perhead initially requested of invitees, it should be remembered that the decision not to charge was made after Peres – acting on the opinion of his legal adviser Udit Corinaldi- Sirkis – declared that he would not attend if money was being collected for or at the event.

Criticisms of the whole affair have extended beyond the event itself, with some critics querying why an educational institution was named in honor of Peres in his lifetime.

There is a precedent for such things, as both Teddy Stadium and Teddy Hall were named for legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek while he was still alive. Kollek didn’t like the idea, but the donor who provided most of the funding for the stadium stipulated that the money would not be forthcoming unless the stadium bore Kollek’s name. Peres also has plenty of affluent admirers, and it’s possible that his academic center was contingent upon a similar condition.

■ AGE IS not an impediment for Peres, who manages to combine business with pleasure – in that even when he takes on official engagements, he often meets up with old friends and colleagues. This was the case when he attended the Italian National Day reception hosted by Italian Ambassador Francesco Maria Talo in his Ramat Gan residence.

There, Peres met up with an old friend Piero Fassino, the mayor of Turin, who led a delegation to Israel to participate in an international conference on brain research, dedicated to the memory of Italian-Jewish Nobel Prize laureate and internationally celebrated neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, who died last December at age 103. Fassino is a veteran Italian politician who Peres has met in a variety of capacities – though the president admitted he never expected to see him as Turin mayor.

In welcoming Peres and Fassino, Talo also welcomed Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, who has been the friend and neighbor of a series of Italian ambassadors. In the crowd below the balcony that overlooks the residence’s huge expanse of garden was Silvia Baracchi, the celebrity chef from Tuscany who came to Israel for an Italian food promotion at the Tel Aviv Hilton. One of her specialties is the popular Italian dessert tiramisu, of which there were liberal trays on all the buffet tables at the National Day reception. But these were not the product of her hand, she said. Her tiramisu is available at the Hilton, she said, and she has taught Hilton chefs how to prepare it – and it will remain on the menu until at least the end of the month.

Talo told Peres that his presence was a sign of the friendship between Italy and Israel, something that he had personally witnessed during the president’s recent visits to Rome and Assisi, the city of peace. Italians admire Peres as a man who seeks peace, said Talo, who also praised Israel as an example for the world, in that “its greatest resource is in its human capital.” Among the things that Israel and Italy have in common, he said, is innovation: “What is important is to start and to dare.” Both countries individually and in cooperative projects have shown what can be done with entrepreneurship in energy, telecommunications, advanced technologies and aerospace, he said, adding that Fassino – who comes from the capital of Italy’s car industry – could attest to the strength of bilateral relations between the two countries.

Alluding to the playing the hymn of the European Union in addition to the national anthems of Italy and Israel at the start of the ceremony, Peres – in paying tribute to the founders of the EU – said it was better to have an incomplete united Europe than a terrible war going on for years. As he spoke, video screens around the garden showed scenes of Peres with famous Italians including Levi- Montalcini, who Peres said represented “not only the best of Italy, but the future of humanity.” Peres described the late neurologist as an electrifying personality, and one of four Nobel Prize laureates from the small Jewish community of Italy.

Peres, who has a great fascination with brain research, declared the brain to be the most brilliant instrument. “It enables us to build an artificial brain, but not to understand our own brain.”

■ ON THE following day, Peres was at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot to join British Ambassador Matthew Gould in celebrating the Queen’s Birthday – but not before first travelling to Kibbutz Kfar Menahem in the South-Central region of the country to participate in the cornerstone-laying ceremony for a natural gas power station.

The Queen’s Birthday reception took place in the gardens surrounding Weizmann House – the official residence of president Chaim Weizmann – which Gould said was a symbol of the great partnership that the UK and Israel have developed in science. “We can do more together than we can apart, and by working together in science, we can benefit all of humanity,” he said.

Gould opened his address in Hebrew, struggling gamely through several pages and breathing a heartfelt sigh of relief when he could switch to English. In his Hebrew introduction, he said to the amusement of some 800 guests: “Each year my Hebrew is a bit better, my family is a bit bigger, the ambassador is a bit fatter and bilateral relations are a lot stronger.”

One of his goals as ambassador, said Gould, was to enhance the scientific cooperation between the UK and Israel, which was why the UK had founded the British-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership, which is currently working on seven joint projects in the field of regenerative medicine. For this reason it was appropriate to have the Queen’s Birthday celebration at the Weizmann Institute, which Gould said is a powerful symbol of excellence in science – of which Chaim Weizmann was the embodiment.

Gould recalled how Weizmann, as a research scientist at the University of Manchester, helped Britain towards victory in World War I, and of his role in the Balfour Declaration.

Moving into the current era, Gould said that the UK is Israel’s biggest export market after the US, and affirmed the UK’s support for Israel in matters pertaining to Iran. He said the UK would do everything possible to help bring peace to the region, because, as he quoted Peres, it was urgent, necessary, crucial and possible.

Although Britain’s policy on the territories is well-known, Gould continued. “We disagree as friends, and will stand alongside Israel as friends. In the past year, we have not made the progress towards peace with the Palestinians that we would wanted to see, but Britain will do everything it can to support the efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry to turn this around,” he said, adding that the British government opposes the boycott of Israel.

Turning to his guest of honor, the British ambassador noted that in a few weeks, the world will come to Jerusalem to celebrate the president’s birthday. He was therefore profoundly grateful to have Peres come to celebrate the birthday of Her Majesty with her representatives in Israel.

Peres, who in 2008 was knighted by the queen, said he had been profoundly affected by her personality and dedication. He then quoted something she said in 1947 as the heiress presumptive to the throne, in an address broadcast to the commonwealth: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service…” She has fulfilled this pledge without failure, said Peres, who for 14 years of his life was a subject of the British Empire under the British Mandate. People were angry when Britain became an empire, said Peres, and they were angry again when Britain stopped being an empire.

One of the most important things that England gave to the world is a unifying language, said Peres. “Nothing unites Indians except the English language,” he said, and then quoted British prime minister Winston Churchill, who had observed that Britain and America were divided by a common language.

Peres echoed Gould’s lauding of Weizmann, not only as a great scientist but also a great statesman “who helped us pass through the corridor from the British Mandate to the Jewish state.”

The media was extremely well-represented at the festivities, and Arieh O’Sullivan of IBA News had a great time asking people if they knew the queen’s age. Everyone he asked knew that she was in her 80s, but actress Aviva Marks, whose peaches-andcream complexion and British accent remain pure, was one of the few who actually got it right – and said she was 87.

■ AFTER SIX years in Israel, Romanian Ambassador Edward Iosiper and his wife Tatiana are among the diplomats who are completing their tenure and leaving Israel in the summer. They will depart in August to spend a couple of years in Bucharest and work in Romania’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. Their two daughters have already been enrolled in Bucharest’s only Jewish day school.

■ BY CONTRAST, Gould and his wife Celia will be staying in Israel for another two-and-a-half years, bringing their posting to a five-year term. Like the Iosipers, they received an extension on their original posting. By the time they have to return home, said Gould, he hopes to be able to make a speech in Hebrew with ease.

Actually, he didn’t do too badly at the Queen’s Birthday reception. With the time they have left in Israel, the Goulds could be returning to England not with two little Sabras, but possibly three and even four.

Asked whether he would still remain if there is a change in the British government, Gould replied: “My contract is with Her Majesty the Queen.”

■ STAFF AT The Jerusalem Post had planned to celebrate the birthday of Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde in April, but unfortunately his father died that same week and the birthday celebration was deferred. This week, Linde was suitably surprised when entering the paper’s conference room to see colored balloons, pizza galore, several containers of ice cream and a chocolate cake that made sinning a pleasure.

The event had largely been organized by his personal assistant Sapir Sharvit, who lives up to her last name. Sharvit has several meanings in Hebrew, one of which is “wand.” Aside from having a slight, wandlike figure, Sharvit magically gets things done. On the morning of the party, she broke her arm, and proved that she could be just as effective using one arm as both. Linde kept trying to persuade her to go home, and could not understand why she stubbornly remained at her desk. The penny dropped at the party, where staff had crowded into the room to wish Linde well.

Poems of appreciation – which praised him not only as an editor but as a decent human being who cares for his staff, and as someone who manages to maintain good humor under the most trying of circumstances and get an amazing number of things done on any given day – were composed and read by Ruth Beloff in English and Sharvit in Hebrew. Managing editor David Brinn put together a humorous piece, based on both factual and fictitious information that he had allegedly gleaned from Linde’s diary. The chocolate cake had been baked by Tovah Lazaroff, who was told several times over that if she ever decided to give up her career as a journalist, her future was assured as a baker of such cakes. Lazaroff always gets of loads of compliments whenever and wherever she produces the cake, but wisely refuses to divulge the recipe.

■ ANYONE WHO enters the Tel Aviv premises of YUNG YiDiSH, on the fifth floor of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, cannot help but be charmed by the old-world ambience that manages to camouflage the raw ugliness of an unfinished section of the bus terminal.

One of the initial priorities of YUNG YiDiSH was to collect Yiddish books and magazines and to preserve them for posterity. Many of these volumes are stored in bookcases throughout the premises, but others are still in boxes behind an enormous pile of stacked books – which form a backdrop on the stage on which weekly performances in Yiddish take place. YUNG YiDiSH founder Mendy Cahan refers to these books as the “wall of wisdom,” which is certainly a more positive concept than a security barrier, and certainly less controversial than the arguments as to the forms of worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

■ YUNG YiDiSH is a nonprofit organization which depends entirely on donations, but its status is of no concern to the Tel Aviv Municipality, which sent a bailiff to confiscate some of the organization’s assets for non-payment of the arnona (municipal tax) bill – which is now arrears to the tune of some NIS 20,000, money that the organization simply does not have. What was confiscated was a Yiddish typewriter, which is almost 100-years-old and of great historic value. Cahan hasn’t the slightest idea what happened to it, but hopes that if and when he can get together the money for the arnona, the typewriter can be reclaimed.

What is the difference between a Hebrew and a Yiddish typewriter? In Yiddish the letter vav is written with two symbols, whereas in Hebrew it has only one. The Yiddish keyboard also has the kometz under-vowel, which is lacking on the Hebrew keyboard.

■ PRIME MINISTER Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to address the final session today of a two-day conference for 33 directors- general of government offices – some of whom are first-timers in their respective jobs. The conference was initiated by Harel Locker, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, with the aim of those in the position the tools to be as effective as possible, so that their work will reflect positively on the 33rd government as a whole.

There have been various training workshops over the past two days to help fill in the blanks about what participants did not know but were afraid to ask.

In his address to the participants, Netanyahu is set to outline his vision of the government’s work program over the next three-and-a-half years.

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