Grapevine: Celebrating renewal

No one knows exactly how many Jews there are in Poland today; estimates vary from 5,000 to 40,000.

By
June 9, 2015 22:07
Carl Magnus Nesser

Swedish Ambassador Carl Magnus Nesser (left) and Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush (second left) at the Swedish National Day reception.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Just as Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman is in fact health minister without the actual title, so too Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely is foreign minister without the title – at least until such time as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides to relinquish the portfolio of which he is custodian.

However, that’s unlikely to happen before this coming Sunday – when Hotovely and Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna will deliver the keynote addresses at a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the renewal of Jerusalem-Warsaw diplomatic relations.

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Among the other speakers at the conference will be Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Krakow Jewish Community Center, who will be part of a panel discussion on the renewal of cultural ties and the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland. Earlier this month Ornstein, together with Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich and Helise Lieberman, director of the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland, were awarded Bene Merito medals by Schetyna in recognition of their efforts in promoting Polish-Jewish relations and “writing a common history” in the new Poland’s environment.

All three recipients are American expatriates; Lieberman has lived in Warsaw since 1994, Schudrich since 2000. Before his appointment as founding director of the Krakow JCC in 2008, Ornstein was a lecturer in modern Hebrew at the city’s Jagiellonian University, having previously lived in Israel for several years.

Schudrich, who will celebrate his 60th birthday on June 15 and whose grandparents were Polish, spent six years in Poland from 1992 to 1998 as an employee of the Lauder Foundation and returned in 2000. He been a dual national since November 2005, holding both American and Polish citizenship.

No one knows exactly how many Jews there are in Poland today; estimates vary from 5,000 to 40,000.

Jewish schools exist in Warsaw and Wroclaw, and there are annual Jewish culture festivals in Krakow, Warsaw, Bialystok, Lodz and Wroclaw.



Streams of Judaism run the gamut from Chabad to Reform, and there are kosher restaurants in Warsaw and Krakow. Several Jewish publications exist, while books on Jewish themes and by Jewish authors can be found in most bookstores.

There are also increasing numbers of converts to Judaism – some with Jewish bloodlines that are not sufficient for halachic purposes, and others with no known Jewish background but a strong desire to belong to the Jewish people.

Among the other subjects to be discussed at the conference will be Operation Bridge, the noble story of how Poland helped facilitate the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel. It will be told from the Polish perspective by Jan Wojciech Piekarski, Poland’s ambassador to Israel from 2003-2006. From 1989 to 1991, he was responsible for the reestablishment of relations with Israel – in which capacity he was also involved in the transfer of Soviet Jews to Israel, and in the preparation of the first visit to Israel by then-president Lech Walesa. The Israeli version of Operation Bridge will be related by Polish- born Mordechai Palzur, Israel’s first ambassador to Poland following the renewal of diplomatic relations.

Also among the many conference speakers will be Moshe Arens, who as foreign minister signed the protocols for the resumption of diplomatic ties; and Szewach Weiss, who like the majority of Israel’s ambassadors to Poland, was born there and feels at home there. In fact, he is on a frequent commute and is regularly interviewed by both the Polish and Israeli media on matters related to Poland, having taught at Warsaw University.

■ WHILE MEMBERS of coalition parties were wrangling over portfolios that in their view carried substance, the person who got the best deal was Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev – who gets to see almost every major show and sporting event in Israel. Who could want for more? When this was mentioned to her on Thursday night at the Masada premiere of the New Israeli Opera’s production of Tosca, Regev – who was sitting next to Hanna Munitz, general director of the Israeli Opera – smiled and said: “Time will tell.”

Regev was obviously enchanted by the production and sat spellbound with almost childlike awe, keeping her eyes fixed on the stage. During intermission and after the grand finale, people kept coming up to Munitz to congratulate her, and to ask if she was pleased with the production and the audience reaction. “I’m extremely pleased,” she replied.

Much as the audience applauded Svetla Vasillieva in the title role and Gustavo Porta as her lover Cavaradossi, the real star of the show was conductor Daniel Oren, who lives the music with every fiber of his body. Just watching the extravagance and sudden control of his movements, and his mouthing of the lyrics, was a sheer delight; many of those attending commented on this afterwards. Next year, he’ll be conducting Samson and Delilah.

■ THE ITALIAN Embassy ran a marathon of events to celebrate its National Day last week. Though not directly connected with the embassy events but nonetheless one of the architects of the Italian lifestyle, Renzo Rosso, the founder of Italy’s Diesel global fashion empire, was in Israel last week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Diesel’s operations here. Suzy Menkes, the doyenne of international fashion writers, refers to him as the “Jeans Genius.”

Rosso brought with him Nicola Formichetti, Diesel’s highly imaginative and creative artistic director. After taking a walk along the Tel Aviv beachfront, Rosso and Formichetti went to the Ramat Aviv Mall to look at the Diesel flagship store, and from there to Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan to see the work of the fashion design students.

They then proceeded to Jerusalem to visit the Western Wall and Christian holy sites.

On Thursday night, following an interesting meeting with former president Shimon Peres, they attended the launch at Tel Aviv’s Sarona of the 20th anniversary celebrations, which included a video art mega-production, specially brought over from Italy and depicting the history of Diesel since its inception – including its major campaigns and fashion icons, such as Lady Gaga. Special emphasis was placed on the talented seamstresses who have lent Diesel individuality in its details and finishing touches.

The evening began with as cocktail reception and performance by Ninet Tayeb. Noted artist Sigalit Landau, who has exhibited in Italy, presented Rosso with one of the works from her Dead Sea series as a memento of the 20th anniversary of Rosso’s successful collaboration with Diesel’s Israeli franchisees Mati Pollak and the Irani family. Lior Suchard delighted all those present by playing manipulative games with the company brand name, and needless to say, the guest of honor other than Rosso himself was international model and actress Moran Atias – who initially rose to fame in Italy.

Also present were architect Orly Shrem, radio and television personality Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes, broadcaster Lucy Aharish, Vivien Rachiv, Oded Kobo, Dorit Vidavsky and many other well-known figures.

■ ITALIAN AMBASSADOR Francesco Maria Talo did not attend the Diesel event; ordinarily he would have been there, but he was hosting his own event prior to the Tosca premier at Masada. The Italian Embassy had invited a busload of people to enjoy the opera and had also organized a reception in the VIP area, where guests included Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni and Raphael Gamzou, former deputy director- general at the Foreign Ministry’s division for culture and scientific affairs and current vice president of the Israel-Italy Friendship Association.

■ DESPITE THE strictures of ultra-Orthodoxy, some of its practitioners know how to play the “When in Rome” game, even in the case of someone else’s capital. Case in point is Rabbi Meir Porush, who according to the Gregorian calendar will celebrate his 60th birthday tomorrow, June 11.

Porush, who is deputy education minister and a United Torah Judaism MK, is a former deputy mayor of his native Jerusalem; notwithstanding the objections of the haredi parties to mandatory army or civilian national service, Porush can include in his CV that he did actually serve in the IDF.

Politically and religiously, he belongs to the camp that insists on modest attire and objects to women singing in public. However, when he represented the government last Friday at the Herzliya Pituah residence of Swedish Ambassador Carl Magnus Nesser, he stood at attention, wine glass poised, as a young woman in a sleeveless dress stood right in front of him on stage and sang the national anthems of Sweden and Israel; the ambassador’s wife, Maria, likewise in a sleeveless dress, was standing close by.

Moreover, Porush surprised several of the guests – who noticed he was singing “Hatikva.” One wonders how many of his colleagues would do the same under similar circumstances.

Despite the heat, the house and the garden were so heavily populated that it was almost impossible to move. There was a Swedish robot on display and during the official proceedings, the ambassador – who has a delicious sense of humor – quipped that someone had suggested the robot make the speech instead of him, but Nesser refused to relinquish that privilege.

He also mentioned that the embassy had recently moved to new premises in a tall tower, from which the real estate agent had told him that on a clear day, he could see Stockholm. “We’re still looking,” noted Nesser dryly.

In his wide-ranging address, he referred to the history of his country’s National Day, taking his listeners back to medieval times and 16th-century bloodbaths. “If you think Game of Thrones is gruesome, it’s nothing compared to medieval history,” he revealed, but was pleased that for many years now, peace has reigned between all the countries of Scandinavia. This is despite the fact that Swedish military personnel have been deployed to Iraq to fight Islamic State, he stated, underscoring that “supporting peace is a Swedish priority.”

Despite certain disagreements with Jerusalem, Stockholm wants to intensify bilateral relations and increase academic exchanges. Nesser thanked Israel for the 10 points it gave to Sweden’s Heroes song, which won the Eurovision song contest, and at the same time congratulated Israel on the success of Golden Boy. His speech also touched on Holocaust survivors, women’s issues, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, bilateral trade, measures taken by the Swedish government to combat anti-Semitism and, of course, Raoul Wallenberg – whose name is mentioned at almost every official event in which Swedes and Israelis get together.

Porush also referred to Wallenberg, and spoke of how he had saved more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews from being deported to Auschwitz. He also noted that for nearly 200 years, Sweden has not been involved in any military conflict (in Europe) and has maintained a policy of neutrality, even during the First and Second World Wars. “This policy has shaped a specific consciousness in the Swedish people, and the belief that conflicts can be solved only through negotiation,” asserted Porush.

A National Day quiz conducted by SAS, Sweden’s national air carrier, was won by Anna Kron Kindqvist – which guaranteed her a round-trip to Sweden. In addition, Israeli crime writer Dror Mishani – who had been unable to travel to Sweden to receive the Golden Crowbar awarded to him by the Swedish Crime Writers Association for his book, The Missing File – received the award from Nesser, who said he was very glad to be able to present it in the presence of his wife, also a writer of crime fiction.

■ IT’S NOT that the tale of Irishman Mike Flanagan, who converted to Judaism and became Michael Peleg, is unknown. A TV documentary based on his life was aired a few years back, but he remained an anonymous dot in the book of Israel’s history – despite the fact that in 1948, he commandeered two Cromwell tanks from a British army base as the British were preparing to leave the country.

Flanagan – who had been in the British Army, for which he had no great love – delivered the tanks to the Hagana, which put them to use during the War of Independence.

Today they are permanently located at the IDF Armored Corps Museum in Latrun. Flanagan also fought together with other foreign volunteers in the War of Independence, ironically in one of the tanks he had commandeered, and was severely wounded when the tank suffered a direct hit.

When Israel-Ireland Friendship League chairman Malcolm Gafson learned of Flanagan’s story, he was surprised to discover that Flanagan had not been properly honored in his lifetime, and decided to make up for the lacuna – even though Flanagan (Peleg) was no longer alive to enjoy the tribute, having passed away approximately a year ago. However, Gafson succeeded in locating Flanagan’s daughter Kareen Hertz and his grandson Lior, who runs a boutique brewery producing beers under the brand name of “48,” in honor of his grandfather. They came to Latrun last week for the memorial ceremony held by the IIFL; there, Irish and Israeli flags were flying side by side and Gaelic and Hebrew dirges were played by a lone Irish piper.

The tanks Flanagan commandeered had been particularly useful during the War of Independence.

One of them was on display for the tribute ceremony in Latrun, where Irish Ambassador Eamonn McKee led a moving tribute together with former ambassador to Ireland and IIFL patron Zvi Gabay, and Col. (res.) Shaul Nagar, a member of the Yad La’Shiryon memorial’s board. Also present was Ambassador- Designate to Ireland Ze’ev Boker, who will take over from Boaz Moda’i in August.

Gafson, who can never resist throwing a little Irish blarney into a gathering, told of the anger of British High Commissioner Sir Alan Cunningham when he discovered two tanks had been hijacked. In fact, he was so angry that when Haifa mayor Abba Houshy invited him to tea, he refused. The following day The Palestine Post, the precursor of The Jerusalem Post, carried the headline, “No tanks, no tea.”

■ FEW THINGS could be more embarrassing for the highly respected director of a national museum than to have his staff go on strike just as the annual meeting of the museum’s international council is about to begin. But that’s almost what happened to Israel Museum director James Snyder.

Just a few hours before the Federmann family, as it does every year, hosted the traditional opening reception for the council at the King David Hotel on Sunday night, Giora Alon, the head of the museum’s workers’ union, announced a labor dispute – claiming on Israel Radio that all attempts to reach an accommodation with management had failed, and museum staff would go on strike the following day.

The strike threatened put a nasty pinprick in the council’s festivities, especially as this is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Israel Museum. However, as Snyder stood greeting guests on the King David lawns with his usual aplomb, there was no indication that anything was amiss. When complimented on how unruffled he was in the face of a strike, Snyder said he knew nothing about it and that as far as he was concerned, the meeting of the international council was going ahead as planned.

With hindsight, it would appear he was nonetheless aware that the matter was going to be settled, at least temporarily, at a late-night meeting of the Labor Court. Many of the Israeli guests, meanwhile, had heard radio announcements about the strike and were discussing it among themselves; some even called it blackmail. But in the final analysis, a compromise agreement was reached and the international council’s schedule went ahead as Snyder had envisioned.

Snyder had every reason to be pleased. The 450 registered participants from 18 countries comprised the largest group to ever attend meetings of the international council, he said, and 20 percent of those registered were participating for the first time. Moreover, 25% had not yet been born when the museum opened 50 years ago.

Snyder was also pleased to see second- and third-generation supporters of the museum, noting that this included the Federmann family – whose patriarch Yekutiel Federmann had worked very closely with Teddy Kollek, the museum’s visionary. Michael Federmann recounted that his parents had both worked closely with Kollek, and how in the 1930s his mother had worked with him in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, taking children out of those countries and bringing them to what was then Palestine.

■ IN ISRAEL tonight, thousands of fans of Art Garfunkel will gather at Bloomfield Stadium to hear the singer’s sole performance in Israel.

Self-deprecating except when it comes to his voice, Garfunkel – at a press conference at Tel Aviv’s Dan Hotel on Monday – was thrilled and somewhat overwhelmed by the huge media turnout.

As he was led to the front of the hall by Rani Rahav, the doyen of Israel’s public relations community and a leading personality in his own right, Garfunkel was mobbed by photographers who momentarily blocked his path. Once he actually got to the stage, a half-hour behind schedule, he said he’d only come to say hello – and that he felt at home with his cousins, sisters and brothers.

“I’m not a star,” he insisted. “I’m a singer who can sing very well if I get some sleep and get over this jet lag.”

Questions from the floor were to a large extent focused on his gone sour relationship with Paul Simon.

“If you ask me a lot of questions about Paul Simon and Simon and Garfunkel, I won’t feel you’re interested in me,” he responded. He attributed the start of his career to the place where he sang as a boy: “The synagogue is a beautiful room to work in,” he enthused, but admitted he seldom goes to synagogue these days. “They make you pay money, and I don’t like that.”

In a gentle criticism of today’s electronic music, which drowns out lyrics, the storied singer noted there is some good music. When he’s in the car, he noted wryly, he keeps turning the radio dial and trying to find it – but without much success.

On Tuesday, Garfunkel traveled to Jerusalem to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister told Garfunkel that when he works out in the morning, he often plays the Simon and Garfunkel song “The Boxer.”

■ WHILE IT looks like former prime minister Ehud Olmert will be unable to evade spending several years in prison, even with time off for good behavior, his former bureau chief Shula Zaken, whose own prison sentence was reduced to only a few months after she turned state’s evidence against her former boss, is headed for a new career.

As the presenter for Urban Furniture, a company specializing in budget-priced pieces, the commercial shows Zaken in the process of helping her son Nadav furnish his new apartment. One never knows where this new career venture may lead; after all, Netanyahu was a furniture salesman before he went into politics.

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