Grapevine: Women worth remembering

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

Nechama Rivlin looking through a graphic novel based on The Diary of Anne Frank. (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Nechama Rivlin looking through a graphic novel based on The Diary of Anne Frank.
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
This week President Reuven Rivlin and members of his immediate family visited the grave of his wife, Nechama, following the seven-day period of mourning which was actually cut short due to the Sabbath and the Shavuot festival.
Ironically, Israelis learned more about Nechama Rivlin in the days following her death than they had ever known about her in her lifetime, even though she had been the wife of the man who was a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, twice speaker of the Knesset, a government minister and president of Israel.
Although politicians, diplomats and the judiciary opted for the most part to attend her funeral, other dignitaries came to pay tribute to her memory as her casket lay in state in the foyer of the Jerusalem Theater. There were not nearly as many people as had been anticipated, and certainly not nearly as many as the large crowd that gathered at Mount Herzl for the burial ceremony, at which eulogies were delivered with eloquence and emotion.
But what was most moving to President Rivlin and his family was the outpouring of condolences from world leaders, from prominent Israelis and from ordinary people. Aside from large condolence notices in daily newspapers, there were numerous messages tweeted, sent by fax, and delivered by representatives of foreign countries.
Although there is no love lost between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Rivlin, Netanyahu’s condolence announcement was among the first.
“Along with the citizens of Israel, my wife, Sara, and I would like to express our deep sorrow over the death of the president’s wife, Nechama.
“We have all been praying for her recovery these past weeks, as she was bravely fighting for her life. We send our condolences to the president, his family and to the entire country. May her memory be blessed.”
Netanyahu and his wife were also at the funeral, and subsequently went to the President’s Residence to pay a condolence call.
US President Donald Trump tweeted to US Ambassador David Friedman: “Mrs Rivlin represented her beloved country with grace and stature. We will miss her along with all those who knew her. Her strength in the face of adversity will remain an inspiration to all who knew her.”
Former US president Barack Obama sent a handwritten note in which he wrote:
“Dear President Rivlin, Michelle and I want to offer you our deepest condolences on the passing of your beloved Nechama. We recall with great fondness our visit together, and it was clear that you and I share the great blessing of having had an extraordinary partner for our journey through life. I hope these cherished memories help ease the pain for you and your family. You are in our prayers.”
French President Emmanuel Macron sent a lengthy typed message in French in which he wrote by hand at the top “Cher Reuven.” However, his wife, Brigitte, sent a handwritten letter on presidential notepaper.
One of the surprise messages came from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wrote in Turkish: “The farewell of our closest and most beloved family members is a great loss for which there is no comfort.... I share your pain with all my heart....”
Indian President Ram Nath Kovind wrote: “We remember the grace and charm of Mrs. Nechama Rivlin when she accompanied Your Excellency to India in November, 2016. The people of India stand with you, Mr. President, and the people of Israel in this moment of sadness and grief.”
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, with whom Rivlin developed a warm friendship, wrote in German that “Nechama Rivlin will be remembered as a strong and courageous woman who was devotedly active on behalf of the weaker sectors of society. She was an outstanding example and an inspiration to many. In a time of increasing divisiveness and intolerance, she constantly delivered a message of tolerance and respect for others and worked toward unifying society.”
For several years, due to the illness that hampered her breathing, Nechama Rivlin walked around with a portable oxygen tank and tubes in her nose. She was almost a walking advertisement for don’t judge a book by its cover. Her knowledge and appreciation of all forms of art was legendary. She learned that a disability is not a reason to refrain from enjoying life, and she passed this lesson to others by going to concerts, dance recitals, movies, art exhibitions, book fairs and more. She loved to travel, and often accompanied her husband on his trips abroad, astounding people with her knowledge of the diverse cultures in the countries she and the president visited.
Some people might have been embarrassed by the oxygen tank and the tubes, but Nechama Rivlin was well aware that without them she could not enjoy life, or for that matter have any life at all.
She also knew that inasmuch as she valued her independence, she sometimes needed help, such as that given by Melania Trump during the US presidential visit to Jerusalem in May 2017.
Yet despite the difficulties she faced, Nechama Rivlin conducted regular activities for children, especially those who came to Jerusalem for a respite from the trauma of living near the Gaza Strip, hosted representatives of women’s organizations and joined the president in many of his duties.
But while the President’s Office issued daily press releases about the president’s activities, including many that were not open to the media, there were very few releases about what his wife was doing.
It was only after her death that it became public knowledge that she was a frequent visitor to Neveh Tirza women’s prison, where she met several of the incarcerated women and heard their stories. She also attended theater performances by the prisoners and formed a particularly close relationship with Dalal Daoud, who in 1997 killed her violently abusive husband, and in 2002, following more than one court hearing, was sentenced to life imprisonment, even though she had repeatedly complained to police when her husband attacked her. In May 2017 President Rivlin commuted her sentence to 25 years. With hindsight, it doesn’t take much guesswork to realize that his decision was influenced by his wife’s intimate knowledge of the case.
During Nechama’s hospitalization, Daoud wrote to her to wish her a speedy recovery, stating that it was an emotional experience for her each time they met. Daoud described Nechama as “a modest and unique woman, full of the joy of life, who gives hope to others.” Elsewhere in the letter she wrote: “I can see in your eyes how much you want to help sexually and violently abused women.” Unfortunately, Nechama’s condition had deteriorated to the extent that she was unable to read the letter and to know the depth of her influence on other women.
On Thursday and Friday of last week, people flocked from all over the country to the President’s Residence to express their condolences to President Rivlin and his family. Many young couples came with small children, who were a welcome diversion for Rivlin, who has a special rapport with infants. The queues were long and the people standing in them were patient, most of them knowing that this might be their only opportunity to actually shake hands with the president and wish him long life. It was also an opportunity to explore the grounds of the presidential complex as they filed out.
Initially, the family had asked to be left in private to mourn, but the outpouring of sympathy was such that it was ultimately decided to open up the President’s Residence to the public on Thursday and Friday of last week. The Rivlins were overwhelmed by the response, and the public, for its part, understood that well-known figures, especially those who were among Rivlin’s friends and former colleagues, as well as judges, politicians, religious leaders of almost every denomination in Israel, cultural icons and diplomats, had priority over them and were ushered in almost immediately after arrival.
Such figures included chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, former chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former foreign minister and Israel Prize laureate David Levy, outgoing State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, who is a childhood friend of Rivlin, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Nadav Argaman, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, noted author A.B. Yehoshua, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, Israel Prize laureate Miriam Peretz and Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, who with his mother and siblings had also received the public at the President’s Residence following the death in April 1997 of his father, Chaim Herzog, who was Israel’s sixth president.
But for the Rivlin family, the most moving presence was that of members of the family of the late Yair Halibi, whose lung Nechama had received. Hugging Yair’s brother and sister Nisai and Amit, Rivlin said, “We are now all family.”
As is almost always the case at funerals and during shiva calls, there were many reunions. Herzog embraced Druse dignitary and Israel Prize laureate Kamal Mansour, who, together with his son-in-law Brig.-Gen. (res.) Hassan Hassan led a Druze delegation to Jerusalem. Mansour had for 40 years been an adviser on minorities to seven presidents of Israel, and Hassan had been appointed by Shimon Peres as the first Druze to serve as a military aide to the president. Also among the well-wishers was multilingual Gisele Abazon, who has accompanied presidents abroad, especially on visits to France, and who has frequently exercised her linguistic skills as well as her flair for drama at the President’s Residence.
The shiva visits were due to conclude at 2 p.m. on Friday, but at that time people were still showing up and being admitted.
■ THERE WAS no one to sit shiva for Adrianne Yael Taubman, a childless widow and philanthropist, who divided her time between her homes in Jerusalem and Florida until such time as her struggle with ALS, a debilitating illness, prevented her from traveling. So some of her closest friends in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel visited her in Florida. Among them was Aura Wolfe, a former Jerusalemite, who now lives in the Galilee. Wolfe visited Taubman shortly before the latter’s death in April of this year. Taubman, who had been known as a wonderful hostess, a frequent and generous party organizer, a spontaneous friend and one of the most positive people anyone could imagine, had made Wolfe promise that rather than mourn her death, Wolfe would organize a party to celebrate her life. Taubman’s funeral took place at the Etz Hayim Cemetery a month and a half ago, and singer-guitarist Yehudah Katz of Reva L’Sheva fame undertook to say kaddish for her in the year ahead.
Wolfe kept her word, and the party was held this week with a gala luncheon in Taubman’s own style, replete with gorgeously colorful floral arrangements, at Terasa restaurant in the Begin Heritage Center opposite the Old City, which Taubman and her husband, Micha, had loved so much and where they had once lived, among several other locations in the capital. She was a professional decorator, loved the challenge of decorating a new home and moved frequently.
Every table at the restaurant was packed with people who in some cases had been neighbors who became friends, and in others were people who had known Taubman in America and who had continued the friendship in Israel. Many of those present told loving anecdotes about sitting at her Shabbat table with Micha. Katz, singing Carlebach songs, was naturally among those present, together with his artist wife, Michelle, but this time kaddish was recited by Tony Sachs, who had known the Taubmans from their time in the Old City.
Also present were Rochi Ebner, an expert in the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, who had imparted his teachings to Taubman; writer and editor Ruth Beloff; Emuna and Reuven Halevi; Suzie Frankel; Heidi and Scott Lawrence; Elana and Zvi Rosenmann; Rabbi Joe Schonwald; Gedaliah Gurfein; Sheila Zuker; Gloria Kramer and many others.
Several shared memories of Taubman as a warm, dynamic and vivacious personality, who was always beautifully groomed and dressed, and who made an impression wherever she went. Someone suggested that a party in her memory be held every year.
But the next get-together will be much sooner. Schonwald said that the Taubman Foundation had funded a children’s park in the Negev. The park is already operational and going through a running-in period. It will be officially dedicated toward the end of this year, when most of the people at Taubman’s celebrating a life party will again share fond memories.
■ INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S Clubs around the world assist members of the diplomatic and international communities to adjust to the countries in which they are temporarily residing. The IWC in Israel is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, and in honor of the occasion has produced a cookbook containing more than 200 recipes from Greece, Romania, Thailand, Holland, Spain, England, France, Turkey, Italy, America, Hungary, Russia, Philippines, China, Indonesia, Israel, Sweden, Germany, Egypt, Austria, South Africa, Australia, Denmark and more.
The IWC has roughly 300 members, and tries to ensure that half are members of the international community, including the diplomatic community, and half are Israelis. The presidency of the IWC is for only one year, and alternates so that one year the IWC is headed by a local and the following year by an international. Because most changes in diplomatic postings occur in the summer, the IWC usually has its closing event for the year in May or June and opening event in September or October. Last week, at a festive, well-attended and delicious brunch at the NYX hotel on the rim of the Herzliya Pituah industrial zone, Maxine Levite, who permanently lives in Israel, passed the leadership baton to Aline Bizimana of Rwanda, who saw something symbolic in the fact that she and the Israel branch of the IWC are the same age.
Prior to all the reports, the IWC’s multinational choir, conducted by Tsippi Ben-Sheffer, sang a medley of songs in English, Hebrew, Rwandan and Latin. Both Levite and Bizimana are members of the choir.
Levite said that she could not believe that the year had passed so quickly. It seemed as if it had started only two weeks previously. She had learned a lot, she said, and noted the team spirit of the organization, saying that so many people give so much time and effort to the success of the many committees and events. In the course of the year there had been almost 200 events organized by members of 27 committees. These events included lectures, tours, visits to religious institutions, universities, kibbutzim, concerts, fashion shows and panel discussions. Among the committees are language conversation groups, archaeology, arts, book club, bridge, cooking classes, culture, science, technology, knitting and stitching, gardening, dancing, lifestyle, “Meet My Country” and other activities to suit all tastes. The truth is that members of IWC get to know more about Israel than most native-born Israelis, and the internationals, after leaving Israel, are effective albeit unofficial ambassadors for the country.
■ AN ITEM found in almost every household is the safety match, but most people are unaware that it originated in Sweden as a result of research conducted by 19th-century distinguished physicist and mechanic Jonas Samuel Bagge. Anyone who read the bits and pieces of trivia that accompanied the Vinnova exhibition at the residence of Swedish Ambassador Magnus Hellgren last week, at the reception in honor of Sweden’s national day, learned quite a few interesting things about Swedish innovation over the past 200 years. Vinnova, which is Sweden’s innovation agency, opened an Israel office in June last year. It is only the second Vinnova office outside Sweden. The first is in Silicon Valley.
In addressing his many guests, Hellgren began his remarks in much more fluent Hebrew than last year, and spoke with greater confidence, before switching to English, with which he is more familiar. He also voiced sincere condolences to Rivlin and the people of Israel on the death of Nechama Rivlin, and said that he had been among the ambassadors who attended her funeral.
Delving briefly into the background of Sweden’s national day, on which not only his own country but several neighboring countries were liberated, Hellgren said that he was celebrating not only history but modern diversity in Sweden.
Relating to the innovative character of both Sweden and Israel, Hellgren referred to the similarity of their ecosystems, and said that plans are afoot for closer cooperation.
He also mentioned that Swedish fans had come to Israel for the Eurovision Song Contest and enjoyed the hospitality and friendship that they had encountered. He also credited part of Israel’s successful execution of such an event to the judicious hiring of Swedish production teams. Neither country won, but the bonds of friendship were strengthened, he said.
Other than innovation, and similarities in ecosystems, Hellgren said that both Sweden and Israel had recently held elections. In Sweden’s case it took four months to form a government. Democracies can be very challenging, quipped Hellgren.
Although there are areas of dispute between Sweden and Israel, what they do agree on is the need to fight antisemitism, which unfortunately exists in Sweden, as it does in most countries. Hellgren quoted Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, who said in a recent interview: “You find antisemitism in Sweden, Europe and all over the world. Antisemitism is not only a Jewish problem. It is a poison for all of society.” In the hope of eradicating this poison, Sweden will host an international conference in Malmo in October 2020, commemorating the 75th anniversary year of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Second World War.
Malmo will also be the site of a Holocaust museum dedicated to the survivors and to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, to whom so many survivors owed their lives. It is scheduled to open in 2020.
The government was represented by Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, who said that his initial awareness of Sweden was as a schoolboy, when Sweden and Israel were pitted against each other in the FIFA World Cup competitions in Mexico in 1970. “We didn’t lose,” declared Kara with a grin. Israel didn’t win either. The tied score was 1-1.
In a more serious vein Kara commended Sweden as a model welfare state, and on the subject of antisemitism said: “We share a growing challenge in fighting antisemitism in Europe.” He also spoke of peace in the Middle East, disclosing that he had lost two brothers in the IDF in the fight against terrorism, and that he, too, had fought in the IDF for the same cause.
■ THE RIFT between Israel and American Jewry is to a large extent based on ignorance. Neither side knows enough about the other, Rabbi Meir Azari, of the Beit Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism, told Liat Regev of Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet.
In an attempt to enhance the knowledge of Israelis about what makes their American brethren tick, Beit Daniel has organized a festival of American Jewish culture taking place in Tel Aviv-Jaffa during June 12-14 inclusive. There’s a tendency in Israel to blame the Reform and Conservative movements for the assimilation of American Jews, said Azari, underscoring that there is far greater assimilation in France, where the Reform and Conservative movements barely exist. Under the title of Bridge over Troubled Waters, the festival, which will be conducted in Hebrew, will include lectures, panel discussions, comedy, cinema, literature and live music performances that will take place in Hayarkon Park, directly opposite Beit Daniel. Speakers will include former politicians, journalists, academics and artists.
Azari, who initiated the festival, said: “Most of us know Woody Allen, Seinfeld and Streisand, but there are many facets of American Jewish culture that Israelis aren’t familiar with. Jews have lived in America for over 400 years and have developed a rich and diverse cultural repertoire that has greatly influenced American life in general. The growing chasm between American and Israeli Jewry necessitates that both sides examine and emphasize our commonalities, to confront the crisis. Our plan is to make this festival an annual event, as a means of creating and fortifying connections between our people.”
The festival is being run in cooperation with the Jewish Agency, the Tel Aviv Municipality, the World Zionist Organization, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Film screenings will take place at Tel Aviv City Hall, and there will be an American-themed Kabbalat Shabbat in Hayarkon Park. Entry to all events is free of charge.
■ VISITORS TO Tel Aviv should remember that this coming Friday is the date of the annual Gay Pride Parade, which though very colorful and exciting hampers not only traffic but mobility in general.
Actor Neil Patrick Harris, who has been named international ambassador for Tel Aviv Pride, is due to attend the parade with his husband, David Burtka, and their eight-year-old twins, Harper and Gideon. It will be the family’s first visit to Israel.