In the slightly more than half a year period she’s been in Israel, Canadian Ambassador Vivian Bercovici has picked up sufficient Hebrew to conduct a simple conversation.
When she arrived at the President’s Residence this week with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, she exchanged a few words in Hebrew with President Reuven Rivlin. Later, after Rivlin and Baird had posed for photographs, Rivlin told all those present that they could be seated. “Bevakasha,” said Baird, using the Hebrew word for please, which was quickly followed by the comment that his Hebrew was not as good as Bercovici’s. “Don’t worry,” said Rivlin. “You’re still young.”
Perhaps his youthful spirit, good humor and boundless energy prompted Baird the following day to veer away from protocol and get a taste of Israeli street food. Instead of having lunch in his hotel or going to a fancy restaurant, Baird chose to visit Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda, where he personally approached a vendor and ordered falafel with all the trimmings. He also paid for it out of his own pocket, not waiting for someone from the Canadian Embassy to come forward with the required sum. Obviously enjoying the local fare and the opportunity to mingle briefly with the masses, there’s little doubt that if Baird comes to Israel again, he’ll opt for street food rather than gourmet.
Just in case another visit is not too far away, the people at the Canadian Embassy should know that one of the best times to catch the color of the market is on a Thursday night – when in addition to a myriad of dining options and the hustle and bustle of Shabbat shoppers, there are musical events and lectures.
■ STAFF AT the Japanese Embassy were literally burning the midnight oil in advance of the visit to Israel this week by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The invitation to his press conference was sent out at midnight on Saturday night, with a near-midnight update on Monday night.
At his meeting with Rivlin on Monday, Abe said his visit was a timely one in view of the fact that this is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. “I’m determined that such a tragedy will never happen again,” he said of the Holocaust, citing this as the reason that Japan is working towards world peace – in hopes of creating a society free of war and discrimination.
There is a longstanding bond between Japan and the Jewish people, he noted, recalling that Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who was vice consul in Lithuania during World War II, had saved the lives of some 6,000 Jews by issuing visas that enabled them to enter Japanese territory.
■ BEFORE HIS meeting with the Japanese prime minister, Rivlin met with some 30 of his nearest neighbors.
He and his wife, Nechama, had written to the neighbors explaining that they had moved into the President’s Residence several months ago, but due to circumstances and a very heavy schedule had been unable to get to know the people next door and across the road. Because they believe in better late than never, they wrote, they were now taking the opportunity to invite the neighbors for morning coffee and cake.
Rivlin opened the conversation by saying that as a Jerusalemite who was the son of a Jerusalemite, he had grown up with the tradition that wherever people lived in the capital, neighbors were important components of their lives. This did not apply to Jews alone, but to Arabs as well, including those who lived alongside each other. He recalled that as a child, he had encountered Yiddish-speaking Arabs, and Jews who spoke fluent Arabic without an accent.
Rivlin told his guests that it was important for him and his wife to meet them, because the President’s Residence was not only the place where he and his wife will spend the next few years, but also the residence of every citizen of Israel.
Nechama Rivlin said they had come from a completely different neighborhood and although the house was very comfortable and the garden a delight, she hadn’t been meeting up with people on the street the way she used to in her former neighborhood – where she got to know residents through their children who played in the garden, or in taking the dog for a walk. Today she lives under different conditions and can barely meet the neighbors, so she was very pleased to have them come over. “You can come and knock on the door if you need a cup of sugar,” she said with a smile, knowing full well that the security detail might open a window at the entrance to the complex, but is unlikely to open the door.
The president was curious to know how many students were among his guests, and approximately half raised their hands. Rivlin was also interested in the rent they pay, and the students explained that they couldn’t answer because their landlords was also present. The students also said that the security people who guard the complex are always ready to lend a hand when necessary, such as when a bicycle is stolen or the wheel of a car falls off, and are also quick to come to the rescue when an elderly neighbor falls over in the street.
Rivlin also wanted to know if the neighbors found it inconvenient to live on the same street as the president, and was told they generally don’t have a problem, except during the Succot open house. They do have a problem, they said, with a neighbor who lives a little further away – meaning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose convoy sounds a loud siren whenever he is coming or going, regardless of the time of night or day.
Before his guests left, Rivlin the eternal soccer enthusiast asked if they knew where in the area he could purchase super goal cards for his grandchildren. The grandparents in the group were happy to oblige.
■ AS 2015 marks not only the 70th anniversary year of the liberation of Auschwitz, but also the end of the Second World War and the victory of the Allied forces, many organizations and institutions are initiating special remembrance projects – one of which, 70 Days For 70 Years, was launched on Sunday night at Jerusalem’s Begin Heritage Center by Yad Vashem Council chairman and Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, together with United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. The project, sponsored by the Ziff family of London, is by and large an initiative of Britain’s United Synagogue and the brainchild of Rabbi Andrew Shaw, whose grandfather was among those who perished, and did not live long enough to see the birth of Shaw’s mother.
Shaw has been initiating Holocaust remembrance projects for some 30 years now. The essence of the project is to read a variety of Jewish essays over a 70-day period, in memory of someone lost during the Holocaust; each book of essays is accompanied by a card that bears the name and brief biographical details of a victim.
Yad Vashem has in excess of 4 million names, half of which were recorded through pages of testimony and others through memorial plaques in synagogues and cemeteries, said Lau. The list will never be complete, he noted, because so many families were murdered in their entirety – and there was no one left to record their names.
In this context, he told of having met a teacher, an immigrant from Ukraine, who wanted to show him a photograph. It was of a most beautiful child, a five-year-old orphan who had met her death under the most tragic circumstances in Babi Yar. The woman told Lau that the child was her mother’s cousin, and her name was Etti Asch; there was no one to remember that name other than the woman clutching the photograph.
“When I’m gone,” she said, “there will be no one to remember her name. You go to so many places and you talk so often about the Holocaust,” she entreated, “you could mention her name.” Lau took the task upon himself, yet confessed this was only the third time he had invoked the memory of Etti Asch – but the launch of 70 Days For 70 years seemed a most appropriate reason for him to do so.
■ JUST FOR once, it was good to see students scoring point over their teachers. Gal Yosef, 17, who chairs the National Students Council and organized a nationwide student strike in protest of teachers’ decision to no longer accompany high-schoolers on field trips, is a third-generation Holocaust survivor who last year lit the Independence Day beacon on Mount Herzl together with Geula Cohen. During the student strike, the perky but level-headed Yosef proved her leadership qualities by creating a situation in which the teachers reached an agreement with the Education Ministry much faster than in any previous dispute. (A group of high school teachers had decided to stop accompanying their students on field trips unless it was guaranteed that if anything happened to one of the students, their parents would not sue the teachers.) Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, who initiated the all-women beacon-lighting ceremony for Independence Day, knows Yosef from that period, and was so delighted with her determination and abilities in relation to the strike that she hugged her and told her not to give up. Not only that, Livnat – a former education minister who has had many a run-in with Ran Erez, head of the Secondary School Teachers Association – warned Yosef about him.
But this time it was the students who triumphed over the teachers, instead of the other way around.
■ WHENEVER A dispute arises between the Supreme Court and the government or the Knesset or both, someone in the judiciary comes up with Menachem Begin’s oft-repeated quote: “There are judges in Jerusalem.”
Begin, who had studied law at the University of Warsaw, firmly believed that the law and the judicial system took precedence over the government. The comment about judges in Jerusalem was made in 1979, after the Supreme Court had accepted the position of the state with regard to the expropriation of Palestinian land for the settlement of Beit El.
The truth is that there were judges in Jerusalem even before the establishment of the state, and since the establishment, 11 justices have served as presidents of the Supreme Court – but until the appointment last week of Miriam Naor, not one of them was born in Jerusalem. Admittedly, she is the third Sabra to hold the position, but her two predecessors – Asher D. Grunis and Dorit Beinisch – were both born in Tel Aviv.
Four of Naor’s immediate predecessors were among the many members of the legal community who filled the hall to join her in celebrating this final stage of her long career. Meir Shamgar, the oldest of her predecessors, will celebrate his 90th birthday in August.
The event was almost like a gathering of the Jerusalem branch of the Likud, or an Irgun reunion. Shamgar was arrested by the British for his Irgun activities and deported to the Eritrea detention center, along with several comrades including Yitzhak Shamir, who later became prime minister; and Shmuel Tamir, who became justice minister. Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly admitted that his family and Naor’s had been friendly when he and Naor were children, and needless to say, President Rivlin, a multi-generational Jerusalemite, former Likud MK and lifelong disciple of Jabotinsky, was also no stranger to the group.
Naor’s mother-in-law, Esther Raziel Naor, who was also a member of the Irgun and had been arrested by the British on more than one occasion, was one of the founders of Herut and a member of the first Knesset. Naor’s husband, Prof. Arye Naor, was cabinet secretary during the Begin administration. One of their sons competed in the recent Likud primary, but failed to get a realistic spot.
Despite her elevation to the presidency of the Supreme Court, there is little doubt that Naor will continue to do her Shabbat shopping in Mahaneh Yehuda, as she has done for years.
Today, Naor will be back at the President’s Residence for the appointment of Elyakim Rubinstein as deputy president of the Supreme Court. This will be his highest rank, as he is only a few months younger than Naor. According to the rules, the court’s deputy president can rise to the rank of president only if he or she has at least three years left in which to serve before mandatory retirement.
■ FOR SOME strange reason, when the State of Israel and major Israeli institutions dispense honors, they continue to overlook someone who is extremely deserving, both directly and indirectly. World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, through his executive role in the Jewish National Fund of America, has contributed greatly to the greening of the Negev and to agricultural development. Through his Lauder Foundation, he has played an extraordinarily significant role in the renaissance of Central and Eastern European Jewry, by creating and supporting educational and religious Jewish frameworks through which assimilated Jews with virtually no background in Judaism can regain access to their heritage. Among those Central and Eastern Europeans who now identify strongly with their Judaism are immigrants, Jewish community activists in their places of residence, and Jews who became affluent after the fall of Communism and contribute generously to projects in Israel.
In addition, Lauder also has multi-million-dollar investments in Israel, and has undertaken diplomatic missions to people and places that are inaccessible to Israelis. In his WJC capacity, he meets with world leaders to protest incidents of anti-Semitism and attempts to erode Jewish tradition by outlawing circumcision and ritual slaughter in their countries. He is surely deserving of Israel and the Jewish world’s highest honors.
Yet ironically, the country that honored him last week was Germany – which presented him with its highest civilian award in recognition of his support of resurgent Jewish life in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This includes a yeshiva and a rabbinical seminary in Berlin, though Lauder’s support for Jewish causes in Germany goes way beyond these two institutions.
The presentation ceremony was held at the German Embassy in Washington, where German Ambassador to the US Peter Wittig, acting on behalf of President Joachim Gauck, conferred on Lauder the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit, noting that Germany is glad to see the Jewish community thriving in its midst. Among those who attended the ceremony was US Vice President Joe Biden.
It should be noted that Lauder received the award even though he has taken German art museums and galleries to task for their failure to identify and return works of art confiscated by the Nazis to their rightful Jewish owners. Lauder is very familiar with Germany’s art world through his Neue Galerie New York, which is primarily dedicated to early 20th-century German art. On receipt of the medal, he thanked Germany for its support of Israel.
■ REPORTS OF any event are like beauty – in that they are in the eye of the beholder. Ask any four people who have been at the same event to describe it and there will be some similarities, but also a number of discrepancies in all four stories.
In the case of journalists, this may be due quite literally to the geographic perspective from where they were standing, and how broad or narrow a view they may have had. But what often fuels the differences, especially when reporting on political figures, is the extent to which the reporter can be guided by objectivity rather than personal opinion.
In his weekly radio commentary on current affairs, Yehoram Gaon said he had read several different versions in the Hebrew media as to why Netanyahu had initially decided not to go to Paris for the world leaders’ march against terrorism, what had prompted him to go and events during his stay in the French capital. It would not have mattered what Netanyahu did, there would always be critics on the home front. Had he not gone, the media would have labeled him a coward or a leader shirking his duty.
The fact that he did go provoked criticism of a different kind. Even non-Israelis joined the anti-Bibi crusade, with some saying he should be ashamed to have marched together with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has Israeli blood on his hands.
In truth, Netanyahu was not exactly marching with Abbas, but in the same row. It was a pity the two were not placed side by side, because arm in arm or face to face they might have succeeded in settling a few differences.
■ EVERY GOOD cook who is not a vegan or vegetarian knows the importance of a good cut of meat. No matter how good a recipe for a meat dish may be, if it’s a bad cut, it will be reflected in the end result; if it’s a good cut, it will make the end result that much better.
Italian master butcher Dario Cecchini, who has been written up in some of the most prestigious publications about fine dining, comes from a long line of master butchers. In fact, he’s an eighth-generation Tuscan butcher, although he would have preferred to deviate and become a veterinarian.
But it was not to be, and had he gone on his chosen path, he might still be anonymous instead of a gourmet celebrity.
Cecchini doesn’t just cut the meat; he knows how it should be prepared. The upshot is that many visitors to Italy beat a path to his door, and when he goes abroad, restaurateurs are delighted to have him take over their kitchens.
Indeed, Italian Ambassador Francesco Maria Talo was delighted to give Cecchini the run of ambassadorial kitchen last week, so he could prepare some mouthwatering delights from kosher meat – which obviously must have been something of a challenge, given the differences in methods of slaughter between Jews and non-Jews (other than Muslims). But Cecchini, who came to Israel with his wife, Kim, rose splendidly to the occasion. Aided by local chefs Yaron Kestenbaum and Fabricio Guetta, he prepared a meal that included a huge amount of grilled meat, served with appropriate kosher wines from Italy.
Among the many guests who were licking their fingers were Dov Klein, Alon Ben-David, Yaniv Ben-Nur and Ran Rahav. While in Israel, Cecchini also conducted two workshops.
■ FRENCH JEWS have been urged by Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to come to Israel, where they will supposedly be safe and welcomed with open arms. As usual, talk is talk and reality is reality. Immigrants who come en masse may get a warm, ceremonial greeting at Ben-Gurion Airport, but then they discover the nitty-gritty of Israeli life – which is fundamentally one bureaucratic tangle after another.
Dr. Ilan Bijawi, a veteran immigrant whose cousin, an entrepreneur, came from France and is on the verge of returning there, contacted Israel Radio’s Chico Menashe, who went to Paris with Netanyahu, and complained to Menashe about the usual “promises, promises” and failure to deliver.
When Bijawi’s cousin realized there was a long waiting list to get into Hebrew classes for new immigrants in Netanya, which is regarded as Israel’s French capital, she decided to go to a private ulpan. But the waiting list there was also so long that she calculated she would have to wait four years until it was her turn, given that the duration of the course is 10 months. She wasn’t prepared to wait without the ability to communicate and thus the ability to work. Under the circumstances, she decided she was better off in France.
In Paris, Menashe had spoken to Sharansky, who told him that all bureaucratic obstacles would be removed so as to ease the absorption process for French immigrants.
Meanwhile, that hasn’t happened, because the attorney- general has decreed that no changes to the system can be made during an election period.
According to Bijawi, most of the French immigrants are in comfortable financial positions, but they want to work and can’t get jobs without the language. They also have problems with health insurance and drivers licenses. The licensing bureau that used to be in Netanya has moved to Holon, so someone without language and no knowledge of Israeli geography or the frequency of public transportation has the frustration of finding their way from to Holon to get a license.
Landver says that when they arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, immigrants should be directed to a city where is no waiting list for an ulpan. She also said that immigrant absorption should not be left to her ministry alone, but all ministries should work together in cutting through red tape for French olim.
■ FOR SEVERAL years now, the Blich High School in Ramat Gan has been the barometer for Knesset election results. After listening to the leaders of the various parties the students hold a mock election, the results of which more often than not are indicative of the ranking order of each party – even though the students may be slightly off the end result in regard to the number of seats each party wins.
In any case, the first politicians to present themselves to the students this time around were Koolanu’s Moshe Kahlon and Yoav Galant.firstname.lastname@example.org