SOME MONTHS after his arrival in Israel last year, Mexican Ambassador Carlos Rico decided to familiarize himself with Israel's cultural scene. One of his early choices was the Abu Ghosh Festival, where he chanced upon a concert by Phoenix, an early music ensemble who presented part of a Mexican work composed almost 400 years ago.
Rico was astounded to realize he had never heard the music before. After the performance, he introduced himself to the charismatic Phoenix founder, Brazilian-born Myrna Herzog, who brought together early music exponents to create the ensemble in 1999. The piece was a segment of the Zapotec Mass, which premiered last Saturday morning at an Israel Festival performance at the Jerusalem YMCA.
Rico, who was in the audience, subsequently hosted a Mexican buffet lunch on a closed-off section of the YMCA patio. Addressing the packed YMCA auditorium before the performance, Rico said one of the tasks of an ambassador was to present the country in which he served with the reality of his own country. It was equally important, he added, to present the roots of that reality as embodied in the Zapotec Mass, which incorporates the musical influences of Spain with those of Creole, Mestizos, African slaves and Indians.
Towards the close of the concert, Herzog, who is also the ensemble's musical director and conductor, said playing Mexican music is an exciting experience because it has so much joy and generates so many positive energies.
This was evident from the facial expressions of soloists Michal Okon, Zvi Netanel and David Nortman as well as the choral singers and musicians.
DEBATE ON the budget in the Knesset precluded participation in the Swedish National Day celebrations by Minister Rafi Eitan, who had been designated to represent the government. Instead, what he was going to say was read by Amiram Magid of the Foreign Ministry, who said Sweden could serve as a model to the world of what a social welfare state should be. It was a Swedish tradition, he said, to help people in conflict and poverty in different parts of the world.
Despite occasional misunderstandings, the friendship between Israel and Sweden remained strong, with ongoing political dialogues and cultural exchanges, said Magid, who also praised the Swedish initiative in introducing an international Holocaust Day. As usual, the speeches were delivered from the roof of the residence; Ambassador Robert Rydberg enjoys the different perspective he gets of the hundreds of guests when he looks down at them from the roof.
The ambassador was sporting a brightly striped tie in Sweden's national colors while his Vietnamese-born wife, Hai, was dressed in Sweden's national costume. Although it has become increasingly trendy among foreign envoys serving in Israel to make at least one speech a year in Hebrew, Rydberg arguably has a far better command of the language than his colleagues and often converses in Hebrew with Israelis. He certainly impressed on this occasion with a wide-ranging address that was delivered in excellent Hebrew.
Rydberg preempted Magid with regard to certain disturbances in the cordial relations between Sweden and Israel, but pointed out that nonetheless, the dialogue between the two countries had intensified. He commended Israel's "democratic triumph" in implementing the disengagement from Gaza without bloodshed and congratulated Israel on the smooth transition of power in the aftermath of the illness of former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Rydberg added that he was pleased that he had joined in the celebrations of Nobel Prize awards to Israeli laureates and looked forward to continuing to do so in the future. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he joined in the singing of "Hatikva," but not before bestowing on behalf of the King of Sweden, His Majesty Carl XVI Gustaf, the insignia of Commander of the Royal Order of the Polar Star on David Castel, the honorary consul for Sweden in Haifa.
MANY OF those who responded to the invitation to attend a fundraiser on behalf of the children of the Hadassah Neurim Youth Village at the residence of Chinese Ambassador Chen Yonglong did not anticipate that the ambassador's wife, Shugin Liu, would be a major part of the entertainment.
Shugin Liu heads Hadassah's Corps Diplomatique, and does all she can to aid Hadassah projects. Although to most people Hadassah signifies the impressive medical center in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem neighborhood, the Hadassah umbrella covers much more than medical care.
Among other categories of Hadassah's overall program, said Hadassah Israel President Miriam Griver, are children at risk and immigrant absorption - each of which come within the framework of Neurim. Several of the Neurim youngsters, two female singers and a group of Ethiopian dancers were also part of the entertainment program. Torch singer Chana Gur, a finalist in the A Star is Born series, though not a Neurim graduate, gave her services gratis.
But the highlights of the evening were the Chinese dances and fashion show staged by Shugin Liu and Chinese Embassy staff members - Shugin Liu stood out for her grace and expertise in a Tai Chi dance. The fashion was also magnificent, with a stunning display of garments, some of which were purely Chinese in concept and some which signified successful meeting points between East and West.
FEW THINGS are definite in Israel, and it was not entirely certain on Wednesday of last week that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would be able to attend the gala closing dinner of the International Council of the Israel Museum. It all depended on the timing of the Knesset vote on the budget. As it happened, Olmert did come, together with his wife Aliza. He attributed their attendance to Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, whom he had asked to conclude the voting by 8 p.m.
Also present at the dinner were the ambassadors of Switzerland, Italy, South Africa and Russia - Francois Chappuis, Sandro de Bernardin, Fumanekile Fumie S. Gqiba and Gennady Tarasov, respectively, along with their wives. Austrian Ambassador Kurt Hengl, who was unable to attend, was represented by his wife Jacqueline.
Others singled out for mention by Museum Director James Snyder included Limor Livnat, who as minister for education, culture and sport had been extremely helpful in securing government funding for the museum, Aura Herzog, the widow of Israel's sixth president Chaim Herzog and a prominent personality in her own right and Esther Rubin, the widow of painter and diplomat Reuven Rubin, who was described by Snyder as one of Israel's truly great ladies of the arts. Though now in her mid-nineties and confined to a wheelchair, the still beautiful Rubin continues to party all over Israel and is completely up-to-date on all the things that gossip writers would like to know but often miss.
Jewelry designer Nurit Jaglom came wearing one of her own eye-catching creations, and she wasn't the only one - Elena Tarasova had been so impressed with the display at Jaglom's most recent exhibition at the port of Tel Aviv that she purchased two items.
The theme of the closing dinner was "Flowers of Israel," taken from the Shmuel Haruvi Exhibition: Of the Floral Treasury of the Land of Israel. Paintings of Israel's rich flora adorned the walls of the tent in which the museum often holds its gala events. Delicate butterflies dangled from the ceiling and hovered over the decorative candles on the tables. Waiters and waitresses were even dressed as farm-hands.
International Council members get their fill of ballroom dancing in their home countries. When they come to Israel they like to let their hair down with a spirited hora and other folk dances. The spike-heeled sandals worn by most of the women were no deterrent, nor was age. Some of the older museum supporters spun around the dance floor with the speed and energy of teenagers.