Three men who collectively represent almost a quarter of a millennium of history
came together this week at Zionist Confederation House in Jerusalem, to launch a
novel that had been written by one of them.
A fourth, who was also an
adult when the State of Israel came into being and had documented its
development on many fronts, had been scheduled to participate in the launch, but
was unexpectedly called abroad. However, David Rubinger, whose historic photos
continue to grace the walls of the Knesset, sent a message that was read out by
Steve Linde, editor-in chief of The Jerusalem Post and moderator of the Wednesday
Several people came late, not realizing, despite the
clarity of the invitation and the newspaper advertisement, that this was not a
canapés and wine affair. Rather, it was the coming together of three
intellectuals: one from Britain, one from South Africa and one from Canada, who
have each, in their own way, left their mark on the Israeli landscape. Diplomat
Yehuda Avner, educator Avraham Infeld and academic and Jewish world activist
Avraham Avi-hai joined in celebrating the launch of Avi-hai’s novel A Tale of
Earlier in the evening, the three – who have known each
other for more than half a century – dined together and reminisced about their
experiences of working with legends of contemporary Jewish history, such as
David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Teddy Kollek, Uzi Narkiss and others
whose names are inextricably woven into the fabric of Israel’s birth and growth.
Small wonder then that Avner, who was the first speaker, began his address by
saying that for him, the evening had a certain degree of emotional nostalgia
going back to the 1950s.
Linde, who met Avi-hai for the first time only a
few months ago, said he had been immediately captivated by Avi-hai’s charm and
intellect. On learning that the activist’s first job in Israel in 1952 had been
as a journalist with his paper – the then-Palestine Post – Linde promptly
offered him a column, which Avi-hai has headlined “The POSTman Knocks
Avner has also written many columns for the Post, and is the
author of the highly successful book The Prime Ministers, which has been adapted
for both documentary and feature films. In introducing him, Linde – a voracious
reader – said it was one of the best books he’d ever read.
analyzing Avi-hai’s book, Avner credited him with paving the way for Avner to
join the Foreign Ministry. In the 1950s, he said, they both were living in what
is now Kiryat Hayovel. Avi-hai had by then begun working for Israel Bonds, and
as a result he was one of the few people in the neighborhood with a car and a
telephone. These two privileges – rare in the Jerusalem of those days –
contributed to his popularity with the English-speaking residents of the
neighborhood, many of whom used his phone for urgent
Avi-hai was also an unpaid driver for pregnant women who
went into labor, driving them to hospital when their babies were
Both Avner and Infeld found a certain symbolism pertaining to the
biblical Avraham in Avi-hai’s novel, and it was interesting to hear these two
eloquent and erudite men, who had not previously compared notes, voice similar
impressions and opinions of the book.
While at dinner, Linde had asked
the two who wanted to speak first.
Infeld had persuaded Avner to speak
ahead of him, but after listening to his gripping oratory, declared he had no
idea why he had persuaded him to do so – in that Avner was a hard act to
Infeld found the book riveting – so much so that he read it
twice. He was taken by the mystery, research and ability of the author to
describe places he had never been to, yet was able to see so clearly now as a
The first time around, he had found the book so absorbing he
couldn’t put it down, and finished reading it in a single session. His only
disappointment was that it finished so abruptly, because he would have enjoyed
reading more. However, he was nonplussed by the footnotes, as before this he had
never come across a novel with them. In fact, Infeld found the book sufficiently
inspiring as to be used as an educational text.
When introducing Avi-hai,
Linde described him as “a Renaissance man” and said he felt privileged to be the
one who had given him the platform to facilitate his return to the
It’s great to write a book and be eulogized when you’re still
alive, quipped the octogenarian Avi-hai.
Relating to Infeld’s opening
remark, Avi-hai said it was bad enough to follow Avner, but he had once had to
follow Abba Eban.
Harking back to the days when he worked for Gershon
Agron, the founding editor of the Post, Avi-hai said Agron, who was a great
Hebraist, was once challenged as to why he produced a paper in English – to
which replied that the Post is “a Hebrew paper in English.”
his novel over a period of years and in choosing its title, Avi-hai said that
the name Avraham made certain demands on him, in addition to which he wanted to
show Jews as humans, ready to fight against fundamentalism.
tribute to his wife, Henrietta, and other members of his family for putting up
with him, particularly when he lost his temper.
Just as the name Avraham
evokes many connotations, so too does the name Henrietta. Avi-hai’s wife was
born to ultra-Zionist parents three days after the death of Henrietta Szold, the
founder of Hadassah – which is how she came by her name.
Asked by a
member of the large audience about his next book, Avihai said it would probably
not be fiction, nor would it be an autobiography.
More than that he was
not prepared to say. In keeping the subject under wraps, he quoted the late
Moshe Pearlman, a well-known British-born author who was the first official
spokesman of the IDF, the founder and first director of the Government Press
Office, and one of the early directors of Israel Radio, who was fond of saying
“If you talk your book, you won’t write it.”
In the audience was one of
Pearlman’s GPO successors, Meron Medzini, a prolific writer himself, whose
byline has frequently appeared in the Post – and may soon do so again. Medzini’s
father was a prominent journalist, his mother a childhood friend of Golda
Medzini actually spent many of his younger years in Meir’s
At the end of the evening there was a long line of people
queuing up to buy signed copies of the book – not just one each, but in several
cases two or three copies at the specially reduced price of NIS 50. Aside from
natural curiosity about the book and the desire to buy it as a gift for others
who might know the author, they wanted to contribute to a good cause. Avi-hai
had announced that not a single shekel of the proceeds was going into his own
pocket; all the money gleaned from sales that night would be directed towards
the Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Theater at Confederation House.
one man stood aside.
When friends tried to persuade him to join the line,
he explained he already had a copy, but didn’t think Avi-hai could sign it –
because it was on his Kindle.
■ AMONG THE last of some 40 events that
were part of Israel’s first Polish Culinary Festival, last week’s night of wine
and vodka songs took place at Jerusalem’s literati hangout Tmol Shilshom, the
restaurant owned by writer David Ehrlich and named for the famous work by
“Come early, because the place will fill up quickly,”
said Erlich, and that indeed proved true. By 7 p.m. the restaurant was almost
entirely full, and the event was not due to start until 8 p.m. The patio was
also full, as was another section on the other side that was totally separate
from the Polish event.
The difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was
immediately obvious in terms of table talk. In Tel Aviv, most of the patrons
would have been conversing in Polish. In Jerusalem, the conversations were in
Also, there wasn’t much in the way of Polish fare on the menu –
just herring with sour cream, beetroot borscht with cream and potato kreplach
with fried onions and sour cream. this journalist wasn’t the only patron who was
disappointed. The kreplach were by far the most expensive, but the other two
items are available in many restaurants all year round. Though tasty, the
kreplach were a little too soft and a lot too cold, and were not even vaguely
reminiscent of those that emanated from my mother’s Polish kitchen.
came the program, with singer Ofer Golani, historian David Assaf and playwright,
translator, adaptor and raconteur Dan Almagor. Golani did a warm-up with some
Hebrew songs that had not been borrowed from any Polish melody. Then he went
into Russian and hassidic drinking songs, including one in Yiddish – but nothing
in Polish. Assaf devoted most of his talk to the background of the songs, saying
that Polish Jews didn’t know much about winemaking, because there were no grapes
in Poland – so the only wine they made was sweet raisin wine; otherwise they
drank vodka. Almagor, the son of a father from Warsaw and a mother from Lublin,
said he could not remember ever eating good Polish cuisine. That, of course, may
have been a reflection on his mother’s cooking.
By the time the program
reached its halfway mark, Almagor was able to bring in some Polish content, by
telling his audience that Natan Alterman, one of Israel’s most celebrated poets,
was from Poland. He said his father, Yitzhak Alterman, was also a poet who had
opened one of the first two Hebrew kindergartens in Warsaw in 1910. The tragedy
was that both father and son were alcoholics, which explains why so many of the
younger Alterman’s poems were about drink.
■ IT HAS become commonplace
for members of ZAKA, the Israeli search and rescue organization, to rush to
disaster areas around the globe to work as paramedics, and to aid in the
recovery and identification of the remains of disaster victims. A fourmember
ZAKA team from Israel and the US is currently in the Philippines, providing
medical and humanitarian aid in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.
the UN as an international humanitarian volunteer organization, ZAKA – which was
founded by haredim – is a member of the UN Global Disaster Alert and
Coordination System. The organization coordinated its arrival in the Philippines
and its subsequent recovery efforts with the International Federation of the Red
Cross, the IDF delegation and other international humanitarian agencies working
in the area; this is not the first time ZAKA has worked alongside members of the
IDF Medical Corps.
Generoso D.G. Calonge, the Philippine ambassador to
Israel, assisted in connecting ZAKA with the relevant emergency services on the
ground in the disaster area. The organization’s experience proved useful in
helping the local Red Cross reallocate relief zones from geographical boundaries
and focus instead on care priorities, the level of damage and the extent to
which response was needed.
ZAKA chief officer Mati Goldstein, who is
heading the delegation, is a veteran of international disasters. Yet even with
all he has seen in the past, he found it emotionally difficult to cope with the
nature and volume of the devastation, and the number of individuals and families
who have lost their homes and have nowhere to go.
Only a day after its
arrival, the ZAKA team went to three islands where rescue operations had not yet
been initiated. ZAKA’s mode of travel was via a broken-down, raftlike boat. The
team did its best to help those injured individuals who were in the greatest
need of attention.
Later the team went to outlying islands, where it
assessed the situation on the ground and with the help of the local sheriff,
established an operations base and a makeshift morgue.
Zvi Glick noted that ZAKA is ready to participate in humanitarian efforts
anywhere in the world, and has participated in relief projects in Thailand,
Haiti, Japan and elsewhere. The ZAKA volunteers are being hosted by Rabbi Yossi
Levy, who runs the Chabad House in the Philippines.email@example.com