GENERALLY SPEAKING, with the notable exception of American Independence Day, there's a paucity of ministers available to represent the government at diplomatic events.
Certainly, in recent months, the Foreign Ministry was hard pressed to find ministers to attend the diplomatic receptions hosted by ambassadors in celebration of the national days of their respective countries. However, at the Canada Day reception last week, there was an unusual glut.
Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter was there as the government representative, Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim was there as a guest, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni dropped by briefly to express her friendship for Canada.
"It's easy to be a Canadian friend," she said. "It's much more difficult to be a friend of Israel."
Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay called to ask not only about political issues, but also about what's going on with her and her family, disclosed Livni.
She also noted Canada's support for Israel at the Council of Human Rights, which put Israel as the only item on its agenda. Canada was the only country out of 47 member states to speak out against the outrageous discrimination against Israel, said Livni.
Looking out at the crowd at the Israel Diamond Theater where the Canada Day reception was held, Livni addressed ambassadors of other countries who were thronged in the lobby, and suggested that they follow Canada's example.
"We need it not only for the State of Israel, but for doing the right thing," she said. "I hope we have not only the courage to do the right thing but also the wisdom."
Dichter started out by talking about North American influences on Israel, and commented on the baseball league that was started here this year.
His expressed hope that "by next year we'll launch a professional hockey league," was greeted with a roar of laughter. It was a concept that Canadians could not take seriously.
On a more sober note, Dichter - who visited Ottawa early this year - said he had held in-depth meetings with Stockwell Day, the minister for Homeland Security, as well as with other members of the government.
In all these meetings, he said, there was a strong emphasis on strengthening relations between the two countries.
Canadian Ambassador Jon Allen, who arrived in Israel less than a year ago, introduced his wife, Clara Hirsch, whom he said was not only his partner but also his translator on Friday nights of Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country).
Mixing a little French and Hebrew into his address, Allen said that he'd promised his wife that next year, he would do the whole speech in Hebrew, providing that things calm down for three weeks or so in Israel so that he can go to ulpan.
To enhance the cultural ties between Israel and Canada, Allen - who hails from Winnipeg - contacted leading composer and musician, Sid Robinovich, a fellow Winnipegger, to arrange a concert of Canadian compositions to be performed by Israeli singers and musicians. Robinovich was delighted, but said that he would need a musician living in Israel to help him.
Composer and pianist Aharon Harlap proved to be the perfect choice, not only because he is a talented composer and pianist, but also because he, too, originates from Winnipeg. As always, Air Canada provided a round trip ticket to be raffled as a lucky door prize. The winner was Shenkar College president, Prof. Amotz Weinberg.
WHILE ON the subject of Shenkar, the college last week held its annual graduates fashion show under the sponsorship of Castro, which takes the best and the brightest of the Shenkar alumni and gives them the chance to integrate into the industry via Castro before setting out to do their own thing.
Contrary to previous years, this year's show indicated that most of the young designers had been inspired by the same muse, given the similarity of concepts in which the general trend was towards sheer fabrics fashioned into romantic, micro-mini dresses, or dresses that were very short in front and extended into fishtails in the back, with lingerie-style torsos, many layers of tulle underskirts, tight leggings and deliberately uncoordinated colors and prints.
Against all this were the more ethnic designs of the hauntingly beautiful Zoe Gidamo Zemenaweet, who would do well for herself as a model, but prefers to be a designer.
In researching her graduation project, Zoe discovered the richness and the poverty in every aspect of her native Ethiopia. It was like that even during the era of the Queen of Sheba, she learned.
Clothes were a very visible example of this. Ceremonial garments were rich in color and embroidery, but not intended for the poor tribes-people.
Zoe combined the opulent borders of the ceremonial garb, with the white starkness of the poor, infusing a little Western ambience but not enough to rob her collection of its ethnicity.
ACCORDING TO Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce chairman, Leon Kempler, Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who paid a brief visit to Israel last week, "is one of the most outspoken articulate and consistent supporters of Israel on the international scene."
Kempler is not alone in this opinion. Fellow Australian Mark Leibler, who is world chairman of Keren Hayesod and who introduced Downer at a dinner co-hosted by Australian Ambassador James Larsen, the Israel Australia Chamber of Commerce and Bar Ilan University.
The university has conferred an honorary doctorate on Downer, spoke of the Australian foreign minister's "unfailing and principled support for Israel," called him a great ally and said that he was a man who stood to be counted when it counted.
Downer, who always has a mischievous twinkle in his eye, even when he's being deadly serious, said that a lot of people ask him why he's so committed to Israel, even though he's a Christian.
"I think I could be counted as an honorary Jew," he commented, explaining that from early childhood onwards, and for no particular reason, Jews seemed to befriend him.
When he was a student in London in the early 1970s, he recalled, one of his flatmates was a Jewish girl called Judy.
Her cousin from Israel came to see her just as the Yom Kippur War broke out. Downer recounted how he came into their rather untidy kitchen on the second or third day of the war to see Judy and her cousin huddled by the radio, anxiously listening to reports of the war.
Downer was "tremendously struck" by the power of the moment and the fact that Israel and the Jewish people were again under siege.
"It seemed to me that someone had to stand up for Israel," he said, and he's been doing that ever since.
"The cause of Israel has become decreasingly fashionable, but I never changed my mind," he proclaimed.
Other than the United States, the country that has stood most solidly behind Israel in recent years has been Australia, even in the face of displeasure from its large and ever-growing Muslim community.
Bilateral trade between Israel and Australia has increased dramatically, notwithstanding the geographic distance between them.
In 1970, the volume of bilateral trade was $10 million. In 2006, it exceeded $600 million.
Aside from meeting high-ranking Israeli and Palestinian officials in their respective offices, Downer got to pump the flesh of a large number of dignitaries at the dinner, among them Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, Environment Minister Gideon Ezra, whose wife, Ann, is from Australia, MK Colette Avital, who was the only woman seated at the minister's table, Isi Leibler, former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Gaby Levy, former Israeli ambassador to Australia and currently ambassador designate to Turkey, Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran, former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, Gad Propper, honorary consul for New Zealand, Mary-Clare Adam Murvitz, the honorary consul for Papua New Guinea, and former justice minister Yaakov Neeman.
The person that Downer was most delighted to meet was neither an Israeli dignitary nor an Australian expatriate, but the recipient of a scholarship awarded in his name - 23-year-old Keidan Yitzhak, a first-year sociology, education and anthropology student at the Hebrew University.
One of six children, she was born in Ethiopia and brought to Israel when she was just a year old. Her family is impoverished and her mother told her she would never go to university, because university is only for the rich. Yitzhak did not accept this, and after completing her army service with the rank of sergeant, enrolled at the Hebrew University's pre-academic center, and is now on the road to academic achievement.
THE INVITATION understandably came on orange colored paper, and was sub-headed "Koffee with a Kallah."
The bride did not materialize, but that was irrelevant, because the 80 or so women gathered in the living room of Rabbi Jay and Ruby Karzen had not necessarily come to meet the bride, but to provide her with a dowry.
Ever since the disengagement from Gaza, or as the evacuees prefer to call it "the expulsion," there has been an international network of bridal showers for brides from Gush Katif. This was yet another expression of concern for so many young women whose families have still not found permanent housing, and whose parents in many cases are still unemployed.
Roz Schneid, a former resident of Netzer Hazani and an articulate spokesperson for the residents of what was once Gush Katif, said that she was overwhelmed to see so many people doing so much for people they've never seen and never talked to.
As the mother of sons who had been married since the disengagement, she knew the nature of the gifts that people give at bridal showers for Gush Katif brides.
"You have no idea of what you're doing for the people of Gush Katif. You give us an injection of happiness," she said.
Prize-winning author Yaffa Ganz had hoped to see her oldest granddaughter, Odelia, married beneath the grapevine gazebo in the family home in Gush Katif, but the withdrawal came before wedding plans could be made.
Many of the evacuees left the Gush carrying a bottle of sand. Odelia was one of them, and as she passed the vine which her father had planted, she plucked a bunch of grapes, and stuck the stem in her bottle of sand. Because she had nowhere to cultivate her vine, she gave the bottle to her grandmother, who wept over it, talked to it and sang to it - and amazingly it flourished in a very short period of time.
When Odelia got married recently in Hebron in the Cave of the Patriarchs, Yaffa Ganz took a cutting from the vine, put it in a bottle of sand and gave it to the bride to take to her new home.
n AN ALMOST empty section on the fifth floor of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station was originally intended as a parking bay for buses.
That plan never eventuated, and that part of the complex was never properly completed.
The ceiling, for instance, is still raw, and the walls remain unfinished. But that didn't deter Yung Yidish founder Mendy Cahan, who was looking for premises in which to hold Yiddish cultural events and to display tens of thousands of Yiddish books.
The launch of the Tel Aviv branch of Yung Yidish attracted a huge crowd of people aged from their early teens to their eighties. Many were native Russian speakers, but quite a lot were native English speakers. The premises are at least four times the size of those of Yung Yidish headquarters in Jerusalem, and the fact that so many people turned up, including several Jerusalemites, was indicative of the growing importance of Yiddish in the Jewish cultural renaissance.
Cahan, who is a multilingual entertainer and translator, was thrilled by the attendance and the number of performers, but was most greatly encouraged by Meir Tshetshik, a haredi supporter of Yung Yidish, who regularly participates in the programs in Jerusalem singing hazanut and Yiddish folk songs.
Tshetshik declared the Central Bus Station to be an ideal venue for Yung Yidish because it was easy for people from all over Israel to get to. Soon, there will be a branch of Yung Yidish in every central bus station across the country, he predicted, and passengers buying a bus ticket could simultaneously get a ticket to a Yiddish concert.
Not too far from Yung Yidish on the fifth floor of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station is Little Manila, and floor space in the public areas on the same level of the complex is used by youngsters of Ethiopian background to demonstrate their breakdance skills.
WHEN SOMEONE famous has a debilitating illness, it creates public awareness. That's what happens whenever Stephen Hawking makes an appearance, and in Israel people have become more aware of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) not only since Hawking visited the country, but also as an outcome of the media attention given to Israel Prize laureate and Delta Galil founder, industrialist Dov Lautman.
Although Lautman, who is also president of IsrALS - an organization for Israelis with ALS - is nowhere near as seriously affected by the illness as Hawking, he cannot raise his arms, and he knows that other nerve cells in his body will gradually degenerate to the extent that he will no longer be able to control voluntary muscle movement.
That may be the reason behind his decision announced on Monday to sell his controlling interest in Delta.
Lautman was on hand for ALS International Awareness Day, along with other victims of ALS for a benefit night attended by some of Israel's leading business people and President-elect Shimon Peres.
Back in 2000, just a short time before the presidential elections, Peres was being introduced left, right and center as Israel's next president, and when it came to the vote, he was left with egg on his face.
However, when he was introduced at the ALS dinner as Israel's ninth president, he positively glowed, knowing that this time the presidency was not going to be snatched from under his nose.
Peres was actually not there in his president-elect capacity, but as a Nobel Prize laureate. He and other Israeli Nobel Prize winners were recruited to give more prestige to the event.
Those who were in the country came along. Those who were not sent videos with greetings. Peres made the point that with diseases such as ALS, there is a battle between democracy and Judaism.
In a democratic system, one needs to have a lot of victims of a particular disease before sufficient funding is allocated for research, he observed, and since ALS is not all that common, it would ordinarily not get the attention it deserves - but then comes the battle with Jewish tradition which says that he who saves a single life is as one who saved the whole world.
Since ALS can be fatal, it comes within the purview of essential research within the framework of Jewish values.
Among the donations received for Israeli research into ALS was a Â£5,000 (NIS 40,000) grant from the British government presented by Ambassador Tom Phillips.
The money will go towards sending an Israeli scientist to the UK to research the disease.
"We hope this money will help bring us closer to the day when a cure is found for this disease," said Phillips. "This grant will also help further foster the links between Israel and British researchers."
ALTHOUGH THEY live in Los Angeles, Izak Parvis Nazarian and his wife, Pouran, chose to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in Israel, where they spent a great deal of their time over the years.
One of the leading figures in the Iranian Jewish community of Los Angeles, the Teheran-born Nazarian made his first fortune in Israel, where he arrived in 1948 in the first week of independence.
He joined a tank brigade, suffered a serious injury in a mine explosion and was hospitalized for five months.
After his recovery, he became a construction worker, and rapidly progressed from worker to contractor. He later branched out into construction equipment, electronics and sheet metal production.
He commuted for years between Israel and Iran before taking up residence in the US in June, 1979.
He expanded his entrepreneurial skills and business interests in America, became a Jewish community activist and a philanthropist, aiding a variety of humanitarian Jewish causes in different parts of the world, and contributing mainly to education in Israel.
Nazarian is a strong supporter of Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, the Haifa Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science. More recently, he established the Citizens' Empowerment Center in Israel and is its main source of funding.
Several of its members were at the Nazarians' 50th wedding anniversary celebrations in Caesarea, along with prominent figures from Israel's business community and many of the Nazarians' relatives and friends from Los Angeles. Entertainment for the evening was provided by singers David D'Or and Rita.
CONGRATULATIONS ARE in order to Environment Minister Gideon Ezra who this week celebrated his 70th birthday. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a point of congratulating him at Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting.