THE CELEBRATION of the 50th session of the Sam Orbaum Jerusalem Scrabble Club - said to be the largest in the world - was most appropriately held in a relatively new restaurant known as Shmiel's Shmiel is a Yiddish version of Shmuel, from which the English name Samuel is taken.
The late Sam Orbaum, who after a seven-year battle with cancer, died in December, 2002, at age 46, was in April 1983, the co-founder with Sara Schacter of the Jerusalem Scrabble Club that now bears his name. Next year, the club will celebrate its 25th anniversary, which will of course be a timely reason for another gathering to reminisce about Sam, who in addition to being a Scrabble addict, was a also a keen baseball fan, a features editor of The Jerusalem Post, and a talented writer with a deliciously wry sense of humor.
That humorous streak has obviously been inherited by his teenage triplet daughters Odelia, Nomi and Donna, who with the help of their mother, freelance journalist Wendy Elliman, put together a fast-paced, witty power-point presentation about the history of the Scrabble Club.
The presentation opened with a suitably dramatic musical background, while on the screen flashed the Gothic-type title and subtitle: "In the beginning there was the word... And the word was Scrabble."
Elliman, who left the club to look after her daughters when they were babies, returned only after Orbaum's death, and managed to photograph most of the members, whose faces were featured like mug shots in the presentation.
Among them were real veterans who were there either right from the very beginning or from within the first few weeks of the club's existence, and who still come each week to play.
Among them were Zelig Leader, Hadassah Braun, Zeve Kesselman, Madeleine and Aryeh Weatherhorn, Pamela Loval, Hazel Haberer, Ruth Ogdan, Steve Goldberg, Hilda Ben Nun and Queenie Parnes.
David Litke, the third and current director of the Scrabble Club, said that in its 24 years of weekly meetings, it had attracted 1,730 individual players, who collectively had scored an aggregate of some 66 million Scrabble points. It was impossible to come to the club, he said, without thinking about Sam.
Leader noted that words and the points they can get for them are so important to Scrabble players that they run contrary to mainstream thinking.
For instance, he said, Scrabble players finding "orgasm" disappointing with only six letters, while "impotent" with eight letters is something they want to share with their partners.
Similarly, Scrabble players prefer "poverty" to "wealth." One of the observations made by the triplets in their power point presentation, was "the less your hair, the greater your word strength."
Their father, who had gone bald very early in life, was certainly an example of that, but there were other excellent players in the club who fell into the same category.
The power-point presentation was so good and so popular, that many of those present asked to see it again, and stayed back after the festivities to do so. Sam, who adored his daughters, would have been justifiably proud.
AN AGUNA, a woman trapped in marriage against her will, does not have her suffering engraved on her forehead, and it is hard to tell exactly how many agunot there are in Israel, because not all of them approach the myriad organizations that have been formed to help and support them. There were quite a number of agunot at the Dan Panorama Hotel last Friday, where the Adi Yekutieli Arts Association for Agunot in conjunction with Ikar, the Coalition of Organizations for the Rights of Agunot, joined forces to put together one of the most haunting and unusual fashion shows yet seen in this country.
Nineteen designers, of whom three - Shai Shalom, Tzuriel Ran and Sasson Kedem - were males, agreed to design special dresses for the show.
Each designer met with a woman whose husband has either deserted her or refuses to give her a divorce, and inspired by her story came up with a creation. In many cases this incorporated features symbolizing entrapment or a break in the life cycle, as women in this position cannot carry on with their lives in the sense that they cannot get married to someone else, nor can they bring children into the world without permanently marring the halachic status of such offspring, and automatically preventing them from marrying within mainstream Jewry.
In addition to the designers, there were numerous celebrities among the models, who gave their services gratis.
Among them were entertainers Galit Giat and Ninette Tayeb and super models Shiraz Tal and Maayan Keret. At the end of the show, models, designers and agunot all paraded together and embraced in what was an extraordinarily moving sight.
Some of the women had spent as long as 17 years trying to get a divorce. Two of them were recently freed from bondage only because their husbands had found someone else they wanted to marry.
Ruth Halperin-Kadari, who chairs the 25-organization coalition for agunot, made the point that although her wedding day is supposed to be the happiest day in a woman's life, too often it turns women into prisoners because their freedom is halachically governed by their husbands.
Sheli Hoshen, who heads the Tel Aviv Municipality's Committee for the advancement of the Status of Women said that while the world in general has progressed to an amazing degree, as far as married Jewish women are concerned, "we still live in the Dark Ages."
Yekutieli called for women to work together to try to change the existing situation so that rabbis will find a way to release women trapped in marriage.
"If we work together with empathy, solidarity and support, we can bring about change," he said.
Meanwhile, in a further step towards attracting world attention to the problem perpetually confronting Jewish women, what is believed to be the largest dress in the world, depicting in its embroidery the collective story of women unable to get a Jewish bill of divorce, will go on display tomorrow in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square. A scaled-down model of the dress was paraded at the agunot show. A truly gorgeous creation, it expresses both pain and hope.
SOMETIMES WE forget how charismatic our leaders used to be. At the opening at the new French Institute last Friday of the Face-to-Face photo exhibition designed to illustrate the long friendship between France and Israel, most of the photos featured leading figures from both countries at ceremonial events or engaged in animated conversation with each other.
The poster for the exhibition shows a marvelous photograph of Golda Meir and Marc Chagall, taken in Jerusalem on June 18, 1969, minutes before the ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the installation of the Chagall tapestries at the Knesset.
Another delightful photo taken in June, 1960 at the Elysee Palace in Paris shows a cherubic David Ben Gurion standing alongside a towering Charles de Gaulle.
The Israeli personality seen most frequently in the photographs is of course that great Francophile, Shimon Peres.
Especially endearing is a scene of Peres in a delightfully informal setting with Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, and the most contemporary photograph in the collection is one of Ehud Olmert with Nicolas Sarkozy.
Another contemporary shot is one taken last year in Safed during the making of the much heralded film, "Secrets," in which one of the stars is French actress Fanny Ardant who is pictured with the Israeli star, Ania Bokstein, and director Avi Nesher.
Among the other Israelis pictured in various photographs with French dignitaries are Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Chaim Herzog, Ezer Weizman, Moshe Katzav, Moshe Dayan, Yigal Alon, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Shamir, Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Amir Peretz, Amram Mitna, Ovadia Sofer, who was Israel's longest serving ambassador to France, and Eliahu Ben Elissar, another ambassador whose untimely death was tainted with scandal.
Among the French personalities, the young Jacques Chirac was a very dashing figure. One of the people in the photographs, former French ambassador to Israel Jacques Huntzinger, was also there in the flesh.
Huntzinger is now the head of the France-Israel Foundation an institution conceived by Chirac and Sharon during the latter's state visit to Paris in July, 2005.
The purpose of the foundation is to boost the ties of friendship between the two countries at all levels but especially in the realm of arts and culture, and with the aim of increasingly promoting the French language among Israelis. Towards this end a high level French high school with an intake of Israeli and foreign students striving towards excellence will open in Mikveh Israel in September.
Huntzinger said that it was a traveling exhibition that had already been seen in many parts of France and would be taken to more towns and cities there so that French people will absorb the fact that there are 60 years of friendship between France and Israel.
THERE'S NOTHING like a rumor that gets out of hand. Among those in that category is one pertaining to the Israel Museum.
The buzz around the capital and beyond was that the museum will be closing down for three years while work on its restructuring is in progress.
Well, it's true that the museum will get a major face lift, but according to director James Snyder, it's certainly not going to close down.
To get that point across, Snyder hosted a media tour at the beginning of this week, making the point that people have short memories and he wanted to get the record straight. His reasoning that whatever people may have heard, they might give the matter a little more thought if they read differently in the newspapers. He also dispelled the notion that the Museum is being gutted.
"We are NOT doing shiputzim," he declared. "We are transforming, renewing. If we were paying $80 million for shiputzim, people would think we were freiers. We are moving forward with the museum. We are building on what exists. We are not tearing anything down."
Snyder repeatedly emphasized the importance of the museum campus, and the fact that it would be utilized during the two-and-a-half year period in which the museum will be undergoing its transformation.
Throughout the summer there will be concerts, water activities, a wine-tasting festival, a kite-flying festival, choral performances, and much more. The bottom line is that if you hear a rumor about the Israel Museum check it out with James Snyder.
BELARUS AMBASSADOR Igor Leschenya could not necessarily be expected to know that July 4 is not a sacrosanct date on the American calendar, and like the independence days of other countries, can be shifted backwards or forwards by a day or two to accommodate the needs of the hour.
So unaware that this was the case this year, he went ahead and booked the Dan Panorama Hotel for a reception celebrating the 15th anniversary of his country's diplomatic relations with Israel.
It's been mentioned in this column before that although 15 in the western world is not considered a milestone number, it seems to carry a certain weight with the countries of Eastern Europe, several of which have already held similar events and some of which are still planning them.
Anyway, as far as the Belarus Affair is concerned, it coincides with that being hosted at the American residence by US Ambassador Richard Jones. Admittedly, the starting time of the American event in Herzliya Pituah is 75 minutes later than the Belarus event in Tel Aviv, which will give those ambassadors who feel some kind of obligation towards Belarus time to drop in for five or ten minutes before moving on to the American festivities.
Anyone who's ever been to an Independence Day bash hosted by the US ambassador knows that even when the lists are cut down, there are not hundreds but thousands of guests, and getting through the traffic and past the front door of the residence is absolute murder. After that, it becomes fun.
A SEARCH for family roots this week took entertainer Yehoram Gaon to Turkey. Gaon was invited to participate in the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Beit Israel Synagogue in Izmir, the city in which his mother was born.
Gaon will use the opportunity to search the city records to find out what he can about his mother's family.
TWO DAYS before leaving for Turkey, Gaon was in Jerusalem in his capacity of Honorary Consul of Chile, a title only recently bestowed on him by Chilean Ambassador Irene Cecilia Bronfman Faivovich.
Soon after joining the community of Israel's some 170-plus honorary consuls, Gaon and Gad Naschitz, the dean of the honorary consuls, hatched up the idea of taking them on a tour of the tunnels under Jerusalem's Western Wall, Zedekiah's Cave and the Davidson Archeological Park.
Before embarking on their long trek, they were hosted by Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski in the council chambers, where Gaon - who had spent 10 years as a council member - was warmly welcomed by City Hall staff. Bronfman Faivovich also came along to the council chambers, but bowed out of the tour, saying that she had already been shown the city by Gaon, and she didn't need to go with a group.
Among the people that she met at the City Hall breakfast reception prior to the gathering with Lupolianski was Moshe Benzion, the mayor's new adviser for international affairs, who told her how nice it was to have a woman ambassador from a country that has a woman president. Lupolianski, both in a documentary film and in person, extolled the beauty and diversity of Jerusalem and noted that it was the only capital in the world that in status had preceded the creation of the state of which it is the capital.
King David gave Jerusalem its status, he said, and Jerusalem remained the eternal capital of the Jewish People, and as such became the capital of the state of Israel.
Naschitz was curious as to where Jerusalem would accommodate all the embassies in the country if the international community should suddenly change its attitude and recognize Jerusalem as the capital.
There was no problem, Lupolianski assured him. A special hill has been set aside for that eventuality, and hopefully it will one day be generally known as "Embassy Hill," just like similar areas abroad are known as Embassy Row.
Gaon, who was born and raised in Jerusalem and still has a house in the capital even though he officially resides on the coastal plain, urged all the honorary consuls to keep on talking about Jerusalem to the ambassadors who had appointed them with the aim of promoting Jerusalem as the capital and natural site for embassies among the foreign ministries of all the countries that have diplomatic ties with Israel. He repeated this mantra several times throughout the day. Someone in conversation with Bronfman Faivovich noted the absurdity of lack of international recognition when ambassadors come to Jerusalem to present their credentials, for Foreign Ministry briefings, for meetings at the Knesset and for other official purposes.
The ambassador acknowledged that she was in Jerusalem nearly every day of the week, "but I don't make the rules," she said.
For the honorary consuls, the tour in the Old City was a real eye-opener. Most had not been there in a very long time and marveled at the extent to which the tourist facilities had developed, and how much proof there was of the existence and size of the Jewish community in Temple times.
The experience was enhanced by guides Sarit Gerasmi, Mordechai Eliav, the director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, and archaeologist Nir Ortal, who all live and breathe the Temple era and speak of it in present tense.
Among the honorary consuls were Adi Rosenfeld, Slovenia; Talia Glanc, Bahamas, Shlomo Graciani, Macedonia, David Luxemberg, Kazakhstan; Carlo Gross, Italy; David Castel, Sweden; Adi Strod, Thailand; Naftali Regev, Mauritius; Daniel Nisimi, San Moreno; and Nissan Hakshouri, Ghana.
Also present was Itzhak Eldan, the Foreign Ministry's Chief of Protocol, who has just recently been appointed chairman of the nominations committee for honorary consuls for Israel and abroad. Honorary Consuls are nationals of the countries in which they reside. They are usually selected because of their business connections and their ability to improve binational trade. In some cases, they are the link between their own country and a country with which their country does not have diplomatic ties.