Grapevine: Israel Prize for IDF entertainment pioneer

Movers and shakers, how Israeli people shape the places of this country.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN with Naomi Polani on Independence Day 2018 (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN with Naomi Polani on Independence Day 2018
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
Of all the Israel Prize laureates who were at the closing event of Israel Independence Day festivities on Thursday night, none, with the possible exception of the late Rona Ramon, received as much media attention as nonagenarian Naomi Polani, who is arguably the oldest person still employed in Israel’s entertainment industry. Polani is responsible for editing the musical playlist on Radio Lelo Hafsaka (Non-Stop Radio).
The past year has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride for her. It all started with an invitation from President Reuven Rivlin to come to the 2018 Israel Independence Day festivities at the President’s Residence, because he wanted to honor her for her contribution to Israeli culture.
A Palmah veteran, the diminutive Polani, 92, whose grandfather was one of the founders of Tel Aviv, is a singer, actress and stage and screen director, and one of the pioneers of the army entertainment troupes.
Rivlin called her “the mother of the entertainment units,” and said every army needs entertainers to boost its morale, and that’s what Polani had done before and after the establishment of the state.
Rivlin quoted from one of her best known songs, “Hayu Yamim” (“Those Were the Days”). The lyrics are a reminiscence of sitting in the control room where they fought and loved, and which is no longer recognizable because a city has been built in its place, perhaps because of what happened in those days.
Rivlin said he wanted to change the text and to take out the word “perhaps,” because in his perception, there is no doubt that we have today owes its being and its success to what was done in those long-ago days.
Rivlin is a great fan of Israeli songs and Israeli entertainers. He came down from the stage to where Polani was sitting in the front row alongside former chief of staff Benny Gantz and presented her with a citation.
The IDF singers sang a string of Polani’s perennial hits, and her face was wreathed in smiles as she listened.
In relation to the Israel Prize, Polani has told various reporters that in the twilight of her days, she doesn’t need any more honors, but the NIS 75,000 that goes with the prize would be very welcome, because she does not have a pension.
Polani, in addition to training IDF entertainment troupes, has trained civilian music and dance ensembles, as well as actors and actresses. Many of Israel’s entertainment icons began their careers in army entertainment troupes, and after completing their service, came to Polani to ask her to continue working with them, knowing that because she is such a stickler for detail that she would bring out the best in them.
When outgoing Education Minister Naftali Bennett informed her that she would be receiving the Israel Prize, he called her not only the mother of the entertainment troupes, but “the Queen Mother.”
Polani is known for her wry sense of humor and her sharp tongue, which in its own way has contributed to the Hebrew lexicon.
Although she understands that tastes in music change, she is not enamored with current popular songs, because to her they lack meaning and substance. The lyrics of the songs that accompanied the development of the state have much greater poignancy for her because so many of them refer to the realities of yesteryear.
As a walking monument of Israel’s entertainment history, Polani is frequently visited by young entertainers who want to hear her stories. She was also a singer, dancer, actress and accordion player in her own right who became involved with the Palmah entertainment troupes primarily because the security situation was such that she felt the soldiers needed a boost to their morale, and thus Polani was able to build a multi-faceted career. This week, four members of the Northern Command entertainment unit came to her home at Moshava Kinneret to get some tips as to how to improve their performance. The quartet was preparing a medley of songs as a memorial tribute to singer/songwriter Yigal Bashan, which they performed on Thursday morning at the President’s Residence. Polani not only helped them out but shared some of her memories with them, and talked about friends she missed such as Naomi Shemer, Arik Lavie and Haim Hefer.
■ ON TUESDAY, May 14, ESRA, the English-Speaking Residents Association, will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a series of events at Kibbutz Shefayim with leading speakers, a jazz ensemble and an arts and crafts fair among other attractions. But one of the more important aspects of the event will be a tribute to ESRA founder Merle Guttmann, whose perception, determination and perseverance has made ESRA what is today. Born and educated in Zimbabwe, Guttmann relocated to Israel in 1962, and like many people from English-speaking countries, moved mostly in English-speaking circles.
Although she herself is fluent in Hebrew and has served in many organizations and institutions where English is barely spoken, if at all, she realized that for some native English speakers, Hebrew was too difficult a hurdle to mount and that they would never be fluent in the language.
This inspired her to found ESRA, a self-help organization for English speakers, enabling them to network socially while making the world a better place for others. ESRA in Hebrew, though usually transliterated with a Z and not an S, means help, and that’s what ESRA members do. They help themselves, each other, and weaker sectors of the wider community. Today, ESRA has some 20 branches from Nahariya to Eilat run by 800 volunteers, with thousands of members engaged in a variety of activities and projects designed to reduce social needs, and to help young people with potential to reach their goals. In addition to founding the organization 40 years ago, Guttmann also founded ESRA Magazine in 1979, which is not only an outlet for occasional writers in the English language, but also provides information about ESRA activists and activities and is run on a volunteer basis by professional writers.
Although Guttmann encourages people to become involved with the absorption of new immigrants and a multitude of community and social welfare projects, she has stood back and let others run the show. As a result, many people with leadership abilities have led ESRA’s main branch as well as the various branches around the country, leaving Guttmann free to work with other organizations and institutions, while simultaneously keeping her finger on the pulse of ESRA. She remains the life president of ESRA and edits the ESRA Magazine.
■ ASIDE FROM the security situation, the formation of the next government and the legal woes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli media is giving a lot of attention to the sorry state of Israel’s health services. Admittedly, there are hospitals in which patients can no longer be seen in the corridors, but this does not apply to all hospitals, and there simply isn’t room in the wards to accommodate all the beds. Moreover, people who live in peripheral towns and cities have to travel long distances for chemotherapy, dialysis and other life-prolonging treatments, and the wait for an MRI can sometimes take six months or longer. More hospitals and health clinics with state-of-the-art equipment are needed to cope with Israel’s ever-growing population.
Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba is partially responding to the need and recently laid the groundwork for a new emergency department and trauma center to be called the Frances and Nathan Kirsh Emergency Department. Funding for the new department comes largely from the Kirsh family of New York, which has contributed $5 million in honor of the 50th wedding anniversary of Frances and Nathan Kirsh. An additional $1 million has been raised through the UJA-Federation of New York’s fund-raising campaign for this particular project. Donations have been matched by Israel’s Clalit Health Services.
Kirsh family members attended the cornerstone ceremony along with UJA-Federation of New York representatives; Keren Hayesod representatives; Beersheba Mayor Rubik Danielovitch; Clalit CEO Prof. Ehud Davidson; Clalit deputy director Dr. Mickey Scharf; Soroka director-general Dr. Shlomi Codish; and other senior hospital directors and staff of the ER and trauma unit.
One of the major factors leading the expansion of the hospital’s emergency services was the relocation to the Negev of several major bases of the Israel Defense Forces, many of whose personnel will remain permanently in the Negev together with their families. This would mean an increase in potential patients in tandem with the increase of Beersheba’s population. Soroka was determined to be prepared for that eventuality.
Construction of the new department is expected to be completed in 2021. This is phase one of a two-phase project. Responding to the many expressions of appreciation to the Kirsh family, Nathan Kirsh said: “It’s a mistake to thank us for the donation. The truth of the matter is that we are lucky enough to be able to do so and are privileged to be a part of this amazing complex.”