Of davening and diplomats

By
September 21, 2015 21:19
FROM LEFT, Jack Momjian, Honorary Consul of Armenia Tsolag Momjian, Sima Meirom, Ambassador to Armen

FROM LEFT, Jack Momjian, Honorary Consul of Armenia Tsolag Momjian, Sima Meirom, Ambassador to Armenia Shmuel Meirom and Albert Momjian. . (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Congregants at Jerusalem’s Hatzvi Yisrael Synagogue are used to seeing President Reuven Rivlin in their midst. When he attends services, anyone in the men’s section of the synagogue can approach him to shake his hand and exchange a few words.

Thus, when the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Avigdor Burstein, was walking with his grandson past the President’s Residence, the boy wanted to go inside to wish the president a happy New Year. Burstein explained that people can’t just walk into the President’s Residence when they feel like it. They need to get permission and to make an appointment.

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“But we don’t need permission to talk to him when he comes to the synagogue,” protested the boy.

“That’s because when he comes to the synagogue, he comes to us,” said his grandfather. “When we go to him, it’s different.”

■ LAST SATURDAY, Rivlin read the Shabbat Shuva haftara at the Hatzvi Yisrael Synagogue, proving that he is well acquainted not only with the text but also with the cantillation (trop), which is hardly surprising as it was the one he read on his bar mitzva 63 years ago.

The Carlebach-style Musaf service was magnificently led by Cantor Yitzhak Meir, who also led the slihot at the tiny synagogue in the President’s Residence on Sunday night.

The synagogue was full, though only two rows were reserved for women behind a screen at the back. However, there were close to 100 seats in the small courtyard immediately outside the synagogue, plus a big screen to enable people outside to see what was going on inside. In fact, they had a better view, though many kept coming inside to catch the atmosphere.

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There was also a screen dividing the men’s and women’s sections outside, and several children scuttled between the two areas.

The slihot service was conducted according to both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions, with a somewhat stronger leaning toward the Ashkenazi.

At one stage, the singing and the music became so lively that all the men got up and danced in a circle around the bima. It seemed that the president’s hassidic genes had triumphed over his Litvak ones. If teachers are complaining about the sardine environment of the classroom, the dancers could be compared much more to sardines, but in their case the proximity was a cause for joy.

At the start of the late-night service, Rivlin reminisced about the slihot of his childhood in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood and of the service in the Yeshurun Central Synagogue, which in those days was the largest synagogue in the city and the one that his family generally attended.

He also mentioned his grandfather Joseph Rivlin, who together with Yoel Moshe Solomon had built the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood and the synagogue there, which was the first synagogue built outside the Old City and had its own unique form of prayer, which was designed to avoid arguments between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, hassidim and Litvaks, and people with other traditions who joined the congregation. To this day, there are differences in the customs of different congregations. Rivlin recalled that when he was a boy, the older neighborhoods of west Jerusalem were populated by Yemenites who used to loudly call people to prayer by going from street to street repeating “Se-li-hot! Se-li-hot!” Rivlin also spoke about the recent rise in violence in the capital, and attributed it to provocateurs sent by hostile forces who want to disrupt the security of Jerusalem and to disturb the peace of its residents.

Rivlin declared that no one would be permitted to dispute Israel’s claim to Jerusalem or to take away the city’s peace and security.

Meir, in speaking about how honored he felt to be conducting a service in the president’s synagogue, said that there is a long history of cantors being the emissaries of the public in their prayers to the Almighty. Many of the presidential staff attended. Conspicuous by her absence was the president’s spokeswoman Naomi Toledano Kendal, who was otherwise occupied giving birth to a healthy boy.

■ EARLIER IN the evening, elsewhere in Jerusalem against the magnificent backdrop of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, Armenia’s Honorary Consul Tsolag Momjian and his wife, Allegra, hosted a courtyard reception in honor of Armenian Independence Day. In the absence of an ambassador, Momjian hosts the event each year, assembling a huge guest list that naturally includes a large representation of Israel’s Armenian community, which is very prominent in the Old City where the Armenian Patriarchate is located, members of the diplomatic community, ecclesiastical representatives and various friends of Armenia.

The Jewish people’s historic connection with the Armenian people goes back to before the advent of Christianity when Armenian merchants and Jewish merchants from the Holy Land engaged in trade with one another. When Armenian King Tigran II conquered the northern region of the Fertile Crescent, he briefly had some kind of political influence over ancient Israel. When he was forced to retreat from Judea and to return to Armenia, he took some 10,000 Jews with him. Some 100 years later, Armenian pilgrims came to the Holy Land soon after the dawn of Christianity, and as early as 254 CE, there were bishops of the Armenian Church in the Holy Land who engaged with colleagues from other Christian denominations to seek out places holy, for one reason or another, to Christians.

While there are full diplomatic relations between Israel and Armenia, Ambassador Shmuel Meirom sits in Jerusalem and Armenia’s Ambassador Armen Melkonian sits in Cairo. Melkonian presented his credentials to then-president Shimon Peres, three years ago. So, in effect, Momjian is Armenia’s resident representative in Israel, and has held that position for almost 20 years.

Meirom was among the many Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian guests mingling in the Notre Dame plaza. Other Israeli diplomats included Yigal Tzarfati, head of the Consular Affairs Bureau; Oded Yosef, director of the Eurasia Department of the Foreign Ministry; Ya’acov Livne, the former director of the Eurasia Department and retired ambassador Zvi Mazel. Arab and Palestinian guests included Bethlehem’s first-ever female mayor, Vera Baboun; Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib the director of the Wakf Muslim religious trust; Nicola Khamis, the mayor of Beit Jala; Hani al-Hayek, the mayor of Beit Sahur; along with Kamal Bathish of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem; Bishop Suheil Dawani of the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East and representative of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate.

Momjian also acknowledged the presence of Archbishop Sevan, the grand Sakristan; Archbishop Aris Shirvanian; Msgr. Giuseppe Lazzarotto, the apostolic delegate and the ambassador of the Holy See; and placed special emphasis on such guests as broadcaster Ya’akov Ahimeir, Prof. Elihu Richter, and Prof. Israel Charney, who have all been active in efforts to bring about recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915 at the hands of the Turks.

While many Israelis, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and various MKs, acknowledge the need to recognize the Armenian genocide, the government does not, and Armenians in Armenia itself and throughout the Armenian diaspora continue to fight genocide denial, just as Jews continue to fight Holocaust denial. Although the numbers defy comparison, mass killing is mass killing is mass killing.

A huge banner dominated by the forget-me-not flower with the legend “The Legacy of our Martyrs” dominated one of the Notre Dame walls. Momjian explained that the flower and the slogan had been chosen for the centenary commemoration of the genocide in colors symbolizing the past, the present and the future, the light and the eternity. The forget-me-not has five petals symbolizing the five continents in which Armenians settled after the genocide. The black symbolizes sadness, horror and memories of the genocide. The inner radial light purple symbolizes involvement in the recognition and condemnation of the Armenian genocide. And the predominant purple lies in the basis of Armenian’s self-consciousness and in vestments worn by the servants of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Aside from all that, the expression “forget me not” in all languages essentially means “remember.”

Momjian also referred to the crisis in Christian schools in Israel and said that the 1970s and 1980s were the golden age for the Christian churches. The local authorities did not refuse any logical demands for building. But all that has changed.

The Armenian Church has for 30 years been denied a building permit by the Jerusalem Municipality, he said. In this context he welcomed and praised Rafi Levy, the former Jerusalem district commissioner and head of the District Planning Committee, who he said had understood both Christian and Muslim needs.

■ IT WAS a foregone conclusion that small talk at a reception at the Herzliya Pituah residence of Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the head of the European Union delegation in Israel, would eventually lead to the EU’s decision to label products produced across the Green Line. In fact, one of his guests was so politically incorrect that she asked him straight out whether the EU realized that if such goods were boycotted, it would impact economically on the production plants and subsequently on thousands of Palestinian employees who would lose their jobs.

|Faaborg-Andersen replied that 60 percent of Palestinians living in the West Bank were in one way or another affected by the settlements, even though the settlements take up far less room than 60% of the area, but there can be no economic development for the Palestinians, he continued, if they don’t get more land on which to build.

Regretful though it is that 25,000 Palestinians could lose their jobs as a result of reduced exports induced by boycotts of labeled goods, it was important to see the broader economic picture, he insisted.

The reason for the reception was to kick off the fourth year of a project of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, which every month brings together European and Israeli diplomats under the age of 40 to conduct policy talks. Faaborg-Andersen called it “a very exciting program” and, in a veiled criticism of Israel’s attitude to Europe, noted that in talks between Israel and Europe, the focus is often on the 15% of issues on which they don’t agree instead of the 85% on which they do agree. ICFR president Dan Meridor observed that the Zionist movement had been born in Europe and that Israel is culturally, morally, politically and economically an extension of Europe.

Faaborg-Andersen said that the flow of refugees and migration in large numbers is the biggest challenge and test confronting Europe.

Well-known broadcaster and university lecturer David Witzthum, a member ICFR’s international advisory board, compared Europe’s refugee problem with what happened in Israel in the 1990s with the huge influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who did not leave everything behind and become part of the Israeli melting pot, but maintained their language, culture and habits, established three political parties, three television stations and, at one stage, 60 newspapers and magazines. Only their children, when they went to the army, acquired an Israeli identity, said Witzthum, who could see Europe divided into immigrant communities which preserved their individual languages, cultures and traditions.

■ FOR IRELAND’S Ambassador Designate to Israel Alison Kelly, who has been in the country for just under a month, the reception at the EU residence was one of personal reunions.

When she saw Witzthum, happy surprise registered on their faces and was instantly followed by kisses on both cheeks. The two were fellow students at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, in the 1970s. A center of academic excellence, the College of Europe prepares its students for work and life in an international environment.

It focuses on postgraduate European studies in law, economics, politics, international relations and interdisciplinary fields, while also providing a range of tailor-made seminars and training courses targeted at executives and public sector officials.

Another reunion for Kelly was with outgoing Netherlands Ambassador Caspar Veldkamp, whom she knew a decade or so ago when both were stationed in Washington. They discussed an outstanding Irish Embassy employee who had later worked for the Netherlands Embassy and then for the British Embassy, and who of the latter embassy frequently said that her grandmother would never forgive her if she knew that she worked for the British.

Kelly also spent time in conversation with a new colleague, another ambassador designate – Peter Hulenyi of the Slovak Republic. The two will be among ambassadors presenting their credentials to Rivlin on November 2.

■ INVITATIONS TO diplomatic events often contain a line specifying the dress code, which is usually a business suit. To some people, especially Israelis, that does not always mean a tie as well. Thus when National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz came to the Mexican Independence Day reception hosted by Ambassador Benito Andion at the Mexican residence in Herzliya Pituah, he wore a suit but, because of the heat, discarded the tie and wore an open-necked shirt. After the formalities, he also took off his jacket, which was a sign for other guests to do the same.

Mexican Independence Day celebrations are always colorful affairs with guitar-playing musicians sporting huge sombreros plus Mexican souvenirs for the guests, lots of balloons, ribbons and other decorative items in the Mexican national colors, and of course masses of Mexican food. This time the ambassador, for whom this was his first Independence Day in Israel, decided to add an extra dimension. He waved a large Mexican flag shouting “Grito Hidalgo,” and the crowded responded with shouts of “Viva Mexico!” The cry of Hidalgo was uttered on September 16, 1810, by Miguel Hidalgo, a Roman Catholic priest, who was part of a revolt against the Spanish colonial government. By standing in front of the church and urging people to resist, Hidalgo fueled Mexico’s War of Independence.

Steinitz looked forward to visiting Mexico one day in the not-toodistant future. Meanwhile, he said, there were some very good Mexican restaurants in Tel Aviv. On a more serious note, he was highly appreciative of what Mexico’s former foreign minister Angel Gurria had done, in his present capacity as secretary- general of the OECD, to facilitate Israel’s entry into that prestigious international organization.

■ WHILE ISRAELIS have expressed anger and dismay over the decision to label goods emanating from across the green line, a wine producer in the Golan Heights has decided to beat the Europeans at their own game and has added the symbol of the Israeli flag to the bottle tops of his wine, thus taking pride in his products rather than permitting others to turn him into a pariah. Yoav Levy of Bazelet Hagolan boutique winery has put the flag caps on all bottles intended for export to Europe. His friend, restaurateur Idi Isralvic, who operates Ashdod’s famous Idi’s Fish Restaurant, specially traveled north to toast Levy’s defiantly courageous blue-and-white initiative.

■ EARLIER THIS year, Slovenian Ambassador Alenka Suhadolnik announced that she would be concluding her term at the end of the summer. That time has now come, and her farewell at her residence in Herzliya Pituah will take place on Thursday. But in addition to that, just to make sure that she leaves a taste of Slovenia in Israel, she will host a luncheon demonstration of Slovenian cuisine on Friday by chef Roberto Gregorcic, the owner of the Ostaria restaurant, which is known to be among the best in Slovenia.

■ AND HOSTING a luncheon at her residence in Kfar Shmaryahu on Saturday is Romanian Ambassador Andreea Pastarnac, who is so enchanted with the Jordan River Village project, headed by actor Chaim Topol, that she felt that she had to make more people aware of it. The village provides, free of charge, a number of fun-filled carefree days at its facility which was specially designed for children with special needs and/or life-threatening illnesses to allow them to temporarily forget what ails them and to simply join other children in playing games and interacting with them in the most normal fashion.

Medical staff are on hand around the clock, should any child require their attention, but very often just having fun does more good for the youngsters than any medical therapies. The Jordan River project accepts children from all over the region.

■ NOT ONLY is Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger one of the oldest active journalists in Israel, working for the same publication for 58 years and traveling abroad several times a year to cover Holocaust-related or sports events, but he is the first Israeli to be inducted into the International Basketball Association (FIBA) Hall of Fame.

Klieger, 89, is a former chairman of the basketball section of the International Sports Press Association and a leading basketball journalist for Yediot Aharonot, where he has been employed since 1957. He covers other sports as well, but to the wider public is better known for his coverage of Holocaust subjects. Klieger has frequently accompanied Israel’s presidents and prime ministers on official visits to Poland, not only as a journalist but as a member of the official delegation. He has also accompanied annual Marches of the Living and has frequently lectured in Israel and Europe on his experiences in Auschwitz. He is a member of the International Auschwitz Council, which works toward the preservation of the authenticity of Auschwitz, to ensure that the world will not forget.

The FIBA Hall of Fame ceremony, at which eight champion basketball players were also inducted, took place at the Theater of Hotel Casino Barriere in Lille, France, in the presence of 3,000 people. This was not Klieger’s first FIBA award. Five years ago, he was given the FIBA Order of Merit. He was honored on this occasion as a contributor who possesses one of the richest and most varied bodies of work when it comes to supporting the sport.

Klieger has been writing about sport for 64 years. In addition to Yediot, he also writes for L’Équipe and France Football. He has covered 30 European Championship tournaments, 11 World Championship appearances and eight Olympic Games. In addition he served as chairman of FIBA’s media council for more than 25 years, which included regular participation in meetings of the FIBA World Congress and acting as a media adviser to FIBA’s secretary-general, FIBA Europe’s secretary-general and International Olympic Committee members.

Held in great esteem by the Basketball Commission of AIPS (Association Internationale De La Presse Sportive), Klieger was its president for 25 years. On the home front, he was chairman of Maccabi Tel Aviv from 1951-1969, and headed the Maccabi Ramat-Gan Omni- Sport club between 1970 and 1998.

He was a member of the Maccabi World Union executive for 14 years.

He has received numerous awards in Israel and abroad, and in 2013 he was made Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

LONG BEFORE the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and India, there was trade going on between the two countries, primarily in diamonds. In 1992, the year in which Israel and India agreed to upgrade their relations to the ambassadorial level, two-way trade was around US $200 million.

Since then, it has been rising rapidly, and last year reached $4.52 billion (excluding defense equipment). In 2014, India was Israel’s 10th largest source of import, including diamonds, and the eighth largest export destination, including diamonds.

Defense equipment and hi-tech products are among Israel’s major exports to India, but it’s a two-way street and India also exports technical products to Israel. Among the latest is a core banking system solution that will increase a bank’s competitiveness.

The bank in question is Bank Yahav, whose chairman, David Ben David, clinched the deal with Natarajan Chandrasekaran, the CEO of TCS, India’s largest software company, which is part of the Tata group of companies. Chandrasekaran is also the managing director of Tata. Indian Ambassador Jaideep Sarkar, who knows a thing or two about economics, was among those present when the agreement was concluded.

WISHING ALL readers gmar hatima tova and good health over the fast.

greerfc@gmail.com

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