While still mourning the death of his wife, Nechama, President Reuven Rivlin returned to work in full swing last week, demonstrating that even though the presidency is largely a ceremonial position, the president is fully conscious of his duties, and does not allow personal grief to keep him from them.
The president also has to be au fait with many subjects and issues. On Thursday alone, Rivlin swung from health to education to diplomacy. In the morning he hosted young cancer patients in advance of cancer awareness week, which will be held June 23 to 29. In the early evening he attended the National Teachers’ Conference at Tel Aviv University, and in the evening he was in Herzliya Pituah, where he joined Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov in celebrating Russia’s national day.
A report on the Russian event will appear in Wednesday’s “Grapevine.” As for cancer awareness, there is no age limit for cancer. It can affect babies or strike senior citizens in the twilight of their years. Moreover, there are many types of cancer, one of which is melanoma skin cancer, which is treatable if caught in time. If left alone, it can spread and become fatal. Hospitals throughout the country are now encouraging the public to come for free melanoma testing. The beauty spot or the freckle that was not there yesterday could be a danger sign today.
Accompanying the young people to the meeting with Rivlin was Zohar Jacobson, the agent of many of Israel’s leading entertainers, whose daughter Tal died of cancer after being diagnosed at age 25. Tal was a socially aware young woman who felt the need to help the less fortunate. To continue in her spirit, the Jacobson family subsequently established the Tal Center with the aim of helping other young people afflicted with some form of cancer to survive or at least learn to enjoy whatever time they have left.
Also present was Shir Kuperman, director of the Tal Center and its Stop Cancer project. The center, which helps young people to cope with cancer, has 22,000 people aged 18-44 in its database. Both Kuperman and Rivlin spoke of the importance of cancer awareness, and the importance of recognizing the fears and special needs of young people who have been afflicted, and helping them meet and overcome the challenges confronting them.
The young people who came to the President’s Residence under the Tal Center umbrella told their personal stories to the president.
■ WHILE LEADERS in the Jewish world bemoan increasing incidents of intermarriage and assimilation, not enough is being done to welcome the return to the tribe of descendants of those who voluntarily or under coercion abdicated their Jewish identities and forsook their heritage.
There are no absolute figures for the number of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who abandoned their faith and converted to Christianity. Some of those who converted continued to practice Judaism in secret. Others, who no longer practiced their Judaism, nonetheless maintained certain traditions in their homes, handing them down from generation to generation, without any specific explanation as to their origins. Thus we see people from Latin America, the Philippines and various European countries upholding certain Jewish traditions without knowing why, or in some cases knowing that they had emanated from a Jewish ancestor, but not more than that.
Over the past half century, there has been a growing global trend, not only among descendants of Iberian Jews, to discover roots, and in some cases to return to them and reunite with long lost and very distant relatives. This has also happened in countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, and which were previously occupied by Nazi invaders – especially Poland, where many Jews took on non-Jewish identities in the hope of avoiding capture by the Nazis, and retained those identities after the war. Now, in some cases, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, having somehow discovered their Jewish genes, are returning to Judaism.
But back to the non-Jewish descendants of the Jews of 15th- and 16th-century Spain and Portugal, who were forced to convert to Catholicism, and who nonetheless fled or were expelled. Two of the descendants of such Jews were married on June 4 in the ruins of one of the oldest synagogues in Europe. Doctors Roque Pugliese and Ivana Pezzoli, who are each descendants of Iberian Jews who were forced to convert more than 500 years ago, were married in the ruins of an Italian synagogue, in which there had not been a wedding in 1,500 years.
The groom was raised in Argentina and Calabria, southern Italy, and the bride in Italy. Some Jewish customs were observed in her family, but she was never told why. His family completely hid their Jewish origins. But curiosity drove the two medical practitioners to research their families’ backgrounds. After learning of their Jewish origins, each independently decided to live a Jewish lifestyle, and after eight years of intensive study were converted to Judaism with the help of Shavei Israel. The couple, who met while working at a local hospital, now live religiously observant lives.
The wedding reception took place in the archaeological park of the seaside village of Boya Marina, where the remains of a synagogue were unearthed in 1983 during the construction of a road. Among the items discovered were a mosaic floor with colorful tiles arranged in the likenesses of a menorah, a shofar, and a lulav and etrog. There was also a walled niche which had housed the holy ark for the Torah scrolls. The ruins face directly toward Jerusalem. Pugliese and Pezzoli chose the site for their traditional Jewish wedding to honor the memories of their Jewish ancestors.
There were several rabbis among the guests, including Rabbi Giuseppe Momigliano, chief rabbi of Genoa; Rabbi Elia Richetti of Milan and Naples; and Rabbi Gad Fernanado Piperno, the chief rabbi of Florence, who officiated under the bridal canopy. Also present were Shavei Israel chairman Michael Freund, who specially flew to Italy from Israel, and Noemi Di Segni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.
What was particularly moving was that among the other guests were many of ancestral backgrounds similar to those of the bride and groom. Not all are interested in fully reclaiming their heritage, but they are definitely interested in knowing what it is, and some have even explored its laws and customs. But the fact of the matter is that these people have formed a community of sorts, which gives rise to the hope that they or their children will return to the fold.
■ IN A roundabout manner, notwithstanding the political turmoil in Moldova, which rivals that of Israel, Moldova’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem could be seen not only as a move of appeasement to the United States, but also as a birthday gift for Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who celebrated his 61st birthday on June 5. Liberman was born in Moldova, where he lived till he was 20. He immigrated to Israel in 1978.
■ THE 50th anniversary of the start of the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt, which actually began in March 1969 and concluded in August 1970, is being commemorated with an exhibition that opens on Sunday at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. Among those who are expected to attend, regardless of political differences, are former chiefs of staff Shaul Mofaz, Moshe Ya’alon and Dan Halutz. Mofaz and Ya’alon later went on to become defense ministers. Needless to say, Dalia Rabin, chairwoman of the center and a former deputy defense minister, will be there to greet all those attending the opening.
■ THE VENICE Biennale is one of the world’s most prestigious showcases for the arts. It is a signal honor for Israelis to be chosen to appear there. Lena Rykner, a professional dancer, choreographer and dance teacher, was the recipient of such an honor at the 58th Venice Biennale. She performed at the opening event of the Anima Mundi Festival, which is integral to the biennale.
Born in Antwerp in 1990, she came to Israel in 1998 with her immigrant family. A graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Rykner has participated in various international workshops and festivals, and has danced with the Academy Dance Ensemble, the Jerusalem Dance Theater Company and in various projects, including the MASH Dance House, the Percival Project in the Feiburg City Theater and the Jerusalem Arts Festival.
She has been a dancer at the Rina Schenfeld Dance Theater in Tel Aviv since 2014, and dances not only in accordance with Schenfeld’s choreography, but also her own.
In 2017 Rykner performed her solo dance “Inside-Out” in Amsterdam, and in September 2018 was Schenfeld’s personal assistant in the Paris National Opera production of Berenice, directed by Claus Guth at the Palais Garnier.
Rykner’s solo “Stuff” premiered in Jerusalem in January this year, and this was the choreographic item selected for Venice.
It will be performed again in Jerusalem this coming Wednesday June 19 at the Machol Shalem Dance House at a creative evening in which three other choreographers will also perform their dances. “Stuff” is about thoughts, feelings and experiences which are personal yet at the same time universal.
Her latest creation, Pas de Trois, premiered this past April at the 18th Jerusalem Arts Festival.email@example.com
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