It remains an ongoing surprise that so vast a country as China, with ancient traditions that are at least as old as the Jewish people’s, is not only interested but eager to enhance its relationship with Israel on every level, not the least of which is in cultural exchanges. In the midst of completing his tour of duty, taking his leave of various high-ranking officials and preparing his gala farewell party for tonight, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jun had to busy himself with the visit of China’s Minister for Culture Cai Wu, who came with his delegation to renew the cultural exchange agreement between China and Israel and to participate in last week’s “Facing Tomorrow” Presidential Conference in Jerusalem.
It wasn’t just a matter of accompanying Cai at his various meetings, including one at the capital’s King David Hotel with Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat; Zhao also hosted a glittering reception in Cai’s honor in conjunction with Barry Swersky, founder and head of the China-Israel Cultural Exchange Society.
At both the reception and the meeting with Livnat, Cai emphasized the
importance of relations between the two countries and said that cultural
ties helped to strengthen relations in other spheres, especially when
the artists came from so many other cultural disciplines. Among those
attending the reception were actor Haim Topol, a good friend of Zhao’s;
conductor and pianist Gil Shohat, who is a regular on the Chinese guest
list; actress Idit Teperson; pianist and pedagogue Arie Vardi; Cameri
Theater director Noam Semel, who hopes to take the current production of
Fiddler on the Roof to China; Israeli Opera director-general Hanna
Munitz, who left a rehearsal of La Traviata in order to attend, and who
also hopes to take the country’s opera to China; tycoon Sheldon Adelson,
who has a casino empire in China, and his wife Miriam; Israel’s
Ambassador to China Amos Nadai; leading businessmen Idan Ofer; Chemi
Peres and Dori Manor; philanthropist Lynn Shusterman, who supports the
cultural exchanges between China and Israel; and singer Ahinoam Nini,
who together with Mira Awad recently completed a nine-city tour of
China, with a final performance at the Forbidden City. Cai heard her
sing at the opening of the Presidential Conference.
US Ambassador James Cunningham is combining his farewell party with
American Independence Day celebrations, which in essence means that the
30th of June will become the Fourth of July. Cunningham and his wife
Leslie will soon take up residence in his next posting in Kabul,
Afghanistan, where he actually arrived earlier this month.
Some of the guests will proceed from the American residence to that of
Austrian Ambassador Michael Rendi for another of the clubbing nights he
is hosting for young Israelis with Austrian ties. But most people who
want to be part of a diverse and exciting cultural happening will head
for Tel Aviv to join in the annual White Night, celebrating UNESCO’s
declaration of the city as a World Heritage Site.
White Night celebrations include dozens of open-air events in various
parts of the city, with street and theater performances continuing until
just before dawn. For those who don’t want to wander around the city,
there is ample entertainment just along Rothschild Boulevard.
For the more adventurous, some of the options include: Nini and Awad at
Jaffa Port; a sunrise concert on the beach with Mati Caspi, Shlomo
Gronich and Shem Tov Levi; sunrise yoga at the Tel Aviv Port; a marathon
of indie rock bands outside the Tel Aviv Museum; a sound and light show
on Bialik Street; Kobi Oz singing in Gan Hahashmal; a night market in
Jaffa; and new Jewish songs at the Great Synagogue and the Ohel Moed
historic synagogue. Special night tours will be offered by the Tourism
Association, and restaurants throughout town will feature innovative
Museums and galleries will stay open late, with many special exhibit openings.
Guests from abroad at the monthly Friday night dinner for lone soldiers,
hosted by the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, included Harvey Schwartz,
chairman of the America Israel Action Coalition; Malcolm Hoenlein,
executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major
American Jewish Organizations; Betty Ehrenberg, the United States and
North America executive director of the World Jewish Congress; and Tomer
Orni, executive vice president of the European Council of Jewish
Among the regulars was rapper Shyne – the Belize-born, Brooklyn-raised
ex-con who found religion and his Jewish roots and who studies in a
yeshiva in Jerusalem. Dressed in his Shabbat finery of white stockings, a
black and silver-patterned kapota, white shirt and a magnificent
shtreimel, the rapper, accompanied by a small entourage of similarly
dressed young men, went from table to table shaking hands.
The guests from abroad also mingled with soldiers, spending more time
talking to them than partaking of the meal, and came away not only
impressed but emotionally inspired that so many youngsters from
different countries had come to volunteer in the IDF.
“You are defending not only the State of Israel, but the Jewish people,” Hoenlein told them.
Noting that it was the fifth anniversary of the incarceration of
kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, synagogue Vice President Zalli Jaffe
asked everyone to join him in reciting a psalm for the safe return of
Schalit and all the other Israelis captured or missing in action. Tziki
Aud, who acts as a surrogate father to the lone soldiers, reminded the
gathering that Americanborn Ilan Grapel, currently imprisoned in Egypt
for alleged espionage, had been a lone soldier in the IDF just like
them, and that right now he was in need of their prayers.
While filmmakers tend to focus on the here and now, some prefer to use history as a springboard into the present.
Several important Holocaust-related documentaries were shown in
Jerusalem over the past week, and although feature films are usually
greater magnets than documentaries, two films – Torn at the Jerusalem
Cinematheque and The Last Flight of Petr Ginz at the Yad Vashem
Auditorium – each attracted a full house, partially because some of the
people seen in each film are still alive and are bridges between that
awful time and the present day.
Torn, a challenging and sensitive documentary written and brilliantly
directed by Ronit Kertsner, tells the story of Romuald Waszkinel, who,
12 years after becoming a Catholic priest in Lublin, Poland, was told by
his mother that he was Jewish – that his biological mother had handed
him to her through a window during the Holocaust years and that his real
name was Jakob Weksler. Now living in Jerusalem, were he has many
friends, Weksler is still Catholic, but is a regular congregant at the
Mizmor LeDavid Synagogue in Talpiot.
Initially, when he applied for citizenship, he encountered a brick wall
at the Interior Ministry, which, though sympathetic to his special
circumstances, noted that by law, a Jew who converts out of the faith is
ineligible to become a citizen under the Law of Return.
Apparently bureaucracy has a heart, however, and Weksler was recently
notified that he has been given permanent resident status and can apply
for citizenship in three years. As both a practicing Catholic and an
ethnic Jew, he sees no conflict between the two. In fact, he was
initially extremely opposed to the title of the film and still disagrees
with it, but understands why Kertsner chose it. Polish Chief Rabbi
Michael Shudrich, who was both in the film and in the audience, is a
close friend of Weksler’s.
The Last Flight of Petr Ginz is about a Czech Jewish child prodigy who
at age 14 was sent to Tereizenstadt and later to Auschwitz, where he was
murdered at 16. His parents and sister Chava Pressburger survived, and
waited in vain for his return. Ginz, a gifted writer and artist who
wrote his first novella at age 13, might have remained only in the
consciousness of his family were it not for Israel’s first astronaut,
Ilan Ramon, whose mother had survived Auschwitz. Prior to making his
ill-fated journey into space, Ramon asked Yad Vashem for some item from
the Holocaust to take with him.
He was given a copy of an extraordinarily accurate moonscape drawing done by Ginz in Terezeinstadt.
The drawing and other works by Ginz, as well as some of his short
stories and the underground newspaper he wrote, had been miraculously
preserved, and after Ramon’s fatal mission, the artist and his creative
legacy came to public attention. Film school students at Wake Forest
University in North Carolina took on a two-year project to make a film
about him, using cartoons, animation, stills, archive news footage and
live interviews with his sister, in a moving collage.
The film was directed by Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts, who with
Prof. Randall Rogan, associate dean of WFU, came to Israel for the
screening in the presence of Czech Minister of Culture Jiri Besser and
Czech Ambassador Tomas Pojar. Had he survived, Ginz would probably have
had a triple career as a writer, artist and astrophysicist. Besser said
he regarded it as a privilege to be able, on his visit to Israel, to
honor the memories of 78,000 Czech Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
Pressburger said her brother symbolized the 1.5 million Jewish children
killed in the Shoah.
Australian Ambassador Andrea Faulkner was in capital this week for the
opening of the eighth Australian Film Festival, the fifth to be launched
at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
The film festival, she said, enables Israelis to get the Australian
perspective on universal themes and also gives them the opportunity to
see something of Australia’s diversity. Albert Dadon, the initiator and
chairman of the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange – who came from Down
Under with his wife Debbie, AICE artistic director Keith Lawrence and
the film’s producer Nelson Woss – declared how pleased he was to see
that Lia Van Leer was still running the Cinematheque.
Kadima MK and former finance minister Ronnie Bar-On, a personal friend
of the Dadons’, spoke of the importance of the film industry in
immigrant societies such as Israel and Australia. Quite a few Australian
accents were heard in conversation among members of the audience. They
belonged not only to Australian expats, but also to Australians who had
come to Israel for various conferences, such as MP Michael Danby and
mega-philanthropists John and Pauline Gandel.
No music rings quite as sweet to anyone’s ear as praise from peers,
colleagues and admirers. On that premise, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, the
founding director of the Religious Action Center in Washington – where
he served for more than a decade and which he made available to Martin
Luther King as a Washington headquarters – and honorary life president
of the World Union for Progressive Judaism – of which he was the
executive director for more than quarter of a century – heard accolades
from WUPJ chairman Mike Grabiner, Jewish Agency chairman Natan
Sharansky, Arzenu chairwoman Joan Garson, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie,
president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
They had come together during the Jewish Agency Assembly in Jerusalem
this week for the launch of Hirsch’s book For the Sake of Zion, which
tells not only his story, but the story of the development of the Reform
Movement in Israel and its impact on the Zionist enterprise.
Individually and collectively, the speakers discussed Hirsch’s passion
for and commitment to civil rights, the struggle for Soviet Jewry, the
Reform spiritual, educational and cultural institutions that he
pioneered in Jerusalem, and the Reform kibbutzim in the Negev and the
Galilee. According to Sharansky, a lot of the people who have worked
closely with Hirsch are unaware of the magnitude of his achievements.
“He brought the Reform and progressive world into the Zionist Movement,” enthused Garson.
“This is a man who has changed the Zionist world,” declared Yoffie, who
noted that Hirsch gave himself equally to Zionism and the Reform
Movement. In response, Hirsch, who made no effort to hide his delight,
told the old Yiddish story about the hassidic rabbi who after Shabbat
lunch, surrounded by his disciples, dozed off. Each of the disciples
took it upon himself to sing the rabbi’s praises – his piety, his
wisdom, his knowledge – until they ran out of things to say. Whereupon
the rabbi opened an eye and commented: “And about my modesty you have
nothing to say?”
French Ambassador Christophe Bigot hosted a special reception last week
in honor of Alon Garbuz, director of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque; Katriel
Schory, the director of the Israel Film Foundation; and Sayed Kashua,
author, journalist and script-writer – all of whom were made French
Knights of Arts and Letters.
In making the presentation to Garbuz, Bigot said how pleased he was that
French culture had a special place in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, which
hosts the annual French Film Festival. He praised Schory’s integral role
in many French-Israeli co-productions, which helped give Israel
increased exposure in French cinemas, and he described Kashua as an
exceptional person who stood at the seam of two cultures and two
narratives – Muslim and Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian. Bigot had warm
words of praise for the generation of creative people Kashua represents,
saying they chose to conduct a dialogue using humor and intelligence as
It's a pity that the extremely important Anusim Conference on the
Worldwide Awakening of the Descendants of the Secret Jews took place at
the Netanya Academic College instead of at the Jerusalem International
Convention Center, where the “Facing Tomorrow” conference was held.
There are doubtless millions of descendants of these Jews, who were
outwardly Catholic but who practiced their true faith in secret during
the Spanish Inquisition. Many of those descendants, though no longer
halachically Jewish in the overwhelming majority of cases, continue to
practice certain Jewish rituals without being aware of what they are,
but know that they were handed down from generation to generation.
One of the driving forces for recognizing descendants of Anusim is
Gloria Mound, director of Casa Shalom, the Institute for Marrano-Anusim
Research Studies. She spoke at the conference, as did several academics
and diplomats, including Spanish Ambassador Alvaro Iranzo; Prof. Michael
Corinaldi, who heads the International Institute for Secret Jew
Studies; and Dr. Tzvika Shaick, historian and museologist at the Donna
Gracia Museum, Tiberias, among others.
It may be remembered that when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his
wife Sara recently hosted coalition members in the Galilee, they went
on tour to Tiberias, where they were photographed with several women in
period costume. These women were not identified in the press, but they
are part of the Donna Gracia team.
Last year was the 500th anniversary of the birth of Donna Gracia, a
great philanthropist who saved many Jews from certain death and
established a refuge for them in Tiberias.
Another vital topic missing from the Presidential Conference, according to Ya’acov Ben-Shaul, was longevity.
Interviewed on Reshet Bet, Ben-Shaul, who has written a book on that
subject, said that President Shimon Peres, at almost 88, serves as an
example of a person sound in mind and body, still active, energetic and
effective. Although there is a tendency to believe Peres is an exception
to the rule, said Ben-Shaul, this is a fallacy. There are hundreds of
people in Israel in his age group and older who are active and have much
to contribute to society. Well over a century ago, when Germany under
Chancellor Otto von Bismark adopted 65 as the retirement age, said
Ben-Shaul, it was because people were not living nearly as long as they
do today. Longevity will have an effect on almost everything in our
lives, and retirement age will have to be extended, he said.