SHE HAS made history and she has witnessed history. She is an intrepid adventurer and a tireless advocate for peace who has won the hearts and trust of Israelis and Palestinians alike. Most people know her as Rose of Jericho or the Papaya Lady. Her name is Rose Bilbool, and last week she celebrated her 100th birthday at the Zion Synagogue in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood in the company of relatives, friends and admirers. Born in Sighet (when it was still part of Hungary), which was also the birth place of the Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum and Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Rose Bilbool's life story reads like an exciting novel.
She is not the only famous member of her family. Her late sister, gynecologist Gisella Perl, was known as the angel of Auschwitz. Deported with close relatives following the Nazi invasion of Hungary in 1944, she worked as a doctor in the camp, saving the lives of hundreds of women by aborting their pregnancies and thereby ensuring that they and their unborn children would not immediately be sent to the gas chambers. She was subsequently transferred to Bergen Belsen, from which she was released after the liberation. It was then that she discovered that her parents, brothers, husband and only son had been murdered. After a failed suicide attempt, she went to New York, and was eventually granted US citizenship in 1951. Working at Mount Sinai Hospital, she delivered some 3,000 babies and became an expert in treating infertility. One of those babies was Rachel Heller Bernstein, who now lives in Jerusalem and was among the guests at Bilbool's birthday party. Perl eventually moved here, and she died in 1988, 40 years after publishing her book in which she detailed the horrors of Auschwitz.
Rose Bilbool drove for years between Jerusalem and Jericho in a beat-up old Volvo and developed an almost miraculous skin cream, patented as Normacream and produced from golden Jericho papaya. Bilbool was married to a wealthy Iraqi businessman, moved with him to Lebanon and became a member of Beirut's high society. In Jewish terms, she is also part of high society in that she is a descendant of the Kaliver rebbe, Rabbi Yitzhak Taub, who was the first hassidic rabbi in Hungary. Although they came from a strictly observant religious family, Rose and her seven siblings were encouraged to pursue academic education. Bilbool went to Romania to study pharmacology. After receiving her master's degree in 1938, she felt that Bucharest was too anti-Semitic and she opted for Palestine to continue her studies at the Hebrew University. She also joined the Hagana.
During her first visit to Jericho in 1940 on a Hagana mission, she came across an Arab who was selling a fruit that she'd never seen before. This was her first encounter with the papaya. She bought it with the intention of taking it back to her botany teacher in Jerusalem. En route, she and other members of the Hagana team came across a seriously injured British army officer who was bleeding to death. The group had no medical supplies with which to staunch the bleeding. In desperation Bilbool grabbed the fruit, cut it in half and applied it to the wound. The bleeding stopped almost instantly, arousing Bilbool's curiosity about the healing properties of the fruit.
Following her marriage in 1947, Bilbool moved with her husband to Lebanon, where her son and daughter were born. Political unrest in the 1960s prompted her to move again - this time to the US, where she remained for three years before returning permanently to Israel, where she continued her research into the papaya and truly became the rose of Jericho. Gracious, charming and wonderfully articulate, she also sings and sang a song about peace at her birthday party, which was also attended by former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski.
TIMING IS everything. When Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas came here last week to participate in the Foreign Ministry's Forum on Global Anti-Semitism, he also took the opportunity to meet with various ministers and to attend the opening of "Sounds of Silence," a small photographic exhibition by Raimondas Paknys at Beth Hatefutsoth. The exhibition depicts traces of Jewish life in Lithuania.
Usackas said that a visit by him, his wife Loretta and his 28-member delegation of politicians, academics and businesspeople was long overdue. "This visit was very important to me," he said. Usackas who came to Beth Hatefutsoth directly from Yad Vashem, recalled the rich Jewish life that had existed in Lithuania for 600 years before World War II. Usackas said that he was very happy to meet with Leonid Nevzlin, chairman of the International Board of Governors of Beth Hatefutsoth who, with his partner Mikhail Brudno, also a partner in the Nadav philanthropic foundation, has been very active in Lithuania's economy.
Among the other people whom he met was Ambassador-designate to Russia Dorit Golender, who though she was born in Lithuania, chatted to him in Russian. He was also charmed by singer Limor Shapiro, who had Lithuanian grandmothers on both sides of her family. Her paternal grandmother Rachel was best friends with poet Leah Goldberg, and Shapiro sang one of Goldberg's songs. Usackas later presented her with a huge bouquet. Also present was Markas Zingeris, director of the Jewish Museum in Vilnius.
EVERY YEAR, some members of the rabbinate come out with injunctions against commercial enterprises that display any sign of Christmas. But not all Orthodox rabbis are so strict. Rabbi Benny Elon, for instance, was happy to accept the invitation of Malcolm Hedding, director of the International Christian Embassy, to join in the embassy's joint Hanukka-Christmas celebrations. Elon was not the only Orthodox Jew present.
Recalling the story of the Maccabees, Hedding observed that the situation was not much different today. "We live in world that seeks to banish God from the corridors of power," he said. He also noted that anyone who truly loves Jesus cannot possibly hate Jews. Elon, who mentioned that neither Hanukka nor Purim are biblical festivals, said that the difference between them was that while Hanukka is a reminder of an attempt to conquer the Jewish spirit, without destroying the Jew physically, Purim reminds Jews of an enemy that would not be satisfied with assimilation but sought the physical elimination of the Jewish people.
David Nekrutman, the executive director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, declared how wonderful it was to develop a fellowship together. Though relations between Jews and Christians had been hostile in the past, he acknowledged, Orthodox Jews have developed a fellowship with Christians without compromising their theological doctrines.
NOT TOO many third generation sabras can boast a British great-grandfather. Prominent among those who can is Daniel Doron, founder and director of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress. Doron's great-grandfather Zorach Barnett came to Palestine in 1870, a decade prior to the First Aliya from Russia. Surrounded by several hundred well-wishers, Doron last week celebrated his 80th birthday with a lavish dinner at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to whom Doron has acted as an adviser, couldn't make it, but he did send birthday greetings. Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer had circled the date and was there to congratulate Doron. Politicians, academics, captains of industry and several journalists were among the guests. In addition to heading an international think tank, Doron was one of the founders of the now defunct Shinui Party. A keen proponent of a free market economy, he has written frequently on the subject for a number of publications, including The Jerusalem Post. He was among the founders of the Herzliya Conference and he is a member of Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's advisory committee.
Among the guests were hi-tech businessman Izzy Tapoohi, lawyer David Shimron, political science Prof. Avraham Diskin and his wife Dr. Hanna Diskin, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror and journalists Amotz Asa-El, Elliot Jager, Steve and Ruthie Blum Liebowitz, Yossi Klein Halevi and Hillel Halkin. Fischer told Doron that although he didn't agree with him on everything, he has enormous admiration for what he does.
AFTER FALLING under a train in Vietnam a few weeks ago, Tel Aviv socialite and social activist Alice Krieger was badly in need of a Hanukka miracle. She had planned her Hanukka party to be a farewell for Nigerian Ambassador Sam Olisa and his wife Janet - and the event was scheduled to be held on her outdoor patio. There had been rain earlier in the day in Herzliya plus a few drops in Tel Aviv, and the weather forecast indicated that there was more rain to come. The truth of the matter was that Krieger would have had difficulty in accommodating all her guests indoors, and her Hanukka miracle proved to be fine weather.
Among the guests were Australian Ambassador James Larsen and his wife Antoinette, who are also making their farewells. The difference is that the Larsens know that they are going home in January, whereas the Olisas, who announced their departure almost six months ago, have still not been notified exactly when they are due to leave. Other guests included several members of the diplomatic corps and Tel Aviv University academic Dr. Uzi Rabi, lawyer Eitan Haberman, veteran journalist Dan Pattir and Dr. Anna Roznovsky, director of Musicians of the Future, a project in Migdal which trains young musical prodigies from four to 12.
Some of the young violinists from the Migdal school delighted the guests with a virtuoso performance similar to that which they had given the previous evening at Beit Hanassi at a candlelighting ceremony in the presence of some 250 Holocaust survivors.
THE ESSENTIAL difference between the two performances was related to the instruments. At Beit Hanassi one of the violins had belonged to a young boy called Mordechai (Motele) Shlein, who was born in Krasnovka, Poland, now in Ukraine. There were two Jewish families in the town - the Shleins and the Gershteins. When he was eight, Motele went to live with the Gershteins in their mansion, and was entranced by the music lessons of the Gershtein children. There was an unused violin in the house which the Gershteins gave him as a gift and he received his first violin lesson from Mrs. Gershtein's brother. It was soon obvious that the boy was a musical prodigy.
In 1941, the Germans entered Krasnovka and murdered the whole of the Shlein family. Motele was hidden in the attic but witnessed it all. At nightfall he fled with his violin to the forests and joined a Jewish partisan group. Though only 12, he carried out several missions, the most important of which was to play in city squares and to take note of anything said by German soldiers and then report back to the partisans. In October of that year, the Nazis fired heavy artillery into the forest and many of the partisans, including Motele, were killed.
The leader of the partisans Diadia Misha and his son escaped, and took the violin with them. His grandchildren Sefi Hanegbi and Zahava Shani subsequently donated the violin to Yad Vashem. Barak Dahan, one of the child prodigies, played it at Beit Hanassi.
Yad Vashem also loaned Beit Hanassi a menora that that had belonged to a Dutch youth named Vili Tal. When the war broke out, Tal, under the auspices of the Jewish Council, found work as a male nurse in a mental institution. In January, 1943, on the orders of Adolf Eichmann, 900 mentally ill people and 50 staff members were put on a train to Auschwitz. Because there was advance notice, several of the Jewish staff members went into hiding. Tal refused to desert his patients. His parents and older sister Flori Asher survived the war. His father had hidden some of the family's possessions, including the menora, and was able to retrieve them. In 1947, Flori, her husband and her mother came here and brought the menora with them. Last year, Flori, now 90, decided to donate it to Yad Vashem.
When Beit Hanassi and Yad Vashem were arranging the program for the Hanukka ceremony they wanted to do something special and Yad Vashem suggested that one of the young violinists play on Motele's violin and that the menora to be used be that of Vili Tal. It was only after all the arrangements had been made that someone at Beit Hanassi realized that there was a family connection to President Shimon Peres. Flori Asher's grandson Dror is married to his granddaughter Micha.
SEVERAL HUNDRED thousand dollars were raised by the American Friends of Sheba Hospital at a gala Hanukka dinner held in New York and presided over by by AFS chairwoman Helene Feldman. The dinner honored Chinese-American businesswoman Yue-Sai Kan with the Sheba "Global Special Ambassador" award. Yue-Sai Kan has been identified by People magazine as China's most notable woman, and Business Week has listed her among the top 100 most successful immigrant businesspeople in America. She is a writer, fashion icon, cosmetics executive, film producer and humanitarian activist. Yue-Sai Kan said that she was "very, very thrilled" to receive the honor and had been deeply moved by the great stories of humanity at Sheba which she had heard. "I intend to help create research and philanthropic partnerships between Sheba and China and the Chinese-American community," she pledged.
Among the dinner guests were the Chinese and Israeli ambassadors to the United Nations, Zhang Yesui and Gabriela Shalev. Also present were Sheba CEO Ze'ev Rotstein, Lt. (res.) Eran Peri, who was severely wounded in the Second Lebanon War and was treated and rehabilitated at Sheba, the inimitable Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Tyler Grief, who was presented with Sheba's "Rising Leader" award.
IN LOS Angeles this month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined 1,000 guests at the annual Friends of the IDF gala at the Beverly Hilton hotel. The event chaired by Haim and Cheryl Saban netted $2 million toward the welfare of Israel's soldiers, several of whom were on hand to boost the crowd's sense of security. Special guest was Jason Alexander, better known as Seinfeld's George.
ISRAEL RADIO'S Keren Noibach is a great fan of Eran Baron-Cohen, the musical brother of Sasha Baron-Cohen aka Borat/Bruno. Eran has composed a series of new Hanukka songs which have a lot more verve in them than the classical renditions of songs of the season. Noibach was so enamored with these new compositions that she played a different one each day on her Reshet Bet morning show Seder Hayom. And then one morning she actually interviewed the composer/musician in a mix of English and Hebrew.
He's come here every year since he was a small boy, because he has family and friends here and because his mother is Israeli. Now he brings his children here. His children love his new Hanukka songs and never tire of hearing them. His Hanukka album Songs in the Key of Hanukka - Dreidl Dreidl Dreidl features Idan Reichel, Yasmin Levy and New York rapper Y-Love, an Afro-American convert to Judaism who raps in Yiddish.
TOMORROW IS the 84th birthday of singer Yaffa Yarkoni. The Israel Prize laureate, who received the nation's highest recognition on its 50th anniversary, began her career in her mother's coffee shop in Givatayim. She later served in the War of Independence. Until a little less than a decade ago, she continued to entertain IDF soldiers. Yarkoni began to show early signs of Alzheimer's eight years ago and gradually stopped recognizing family and friends. She also lost her ability to sing, though her fingers occasionally drum on the table in time to music. Her birthday parties used to be famous affairs with the who's who of Israel's entertainment industry sitting around in her living room, swapping anecdotes and performing solo or in jam sessions.
Also celebrating a birthday tomorrow is Aura Herzog, founder of the Council for a Beautiful Israel and of the International Bible Quiz held in Jerusalem every Independence Day. Herzog, who is three years younger than Yarkoni, is the widow of the country's sixth president, Chaim Herzog, and the mother of Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog. Celebrating her 84th birthday is former MK Geula Cohen, the mother of Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Former foreign and defense minister Moshe Arens turns 84 on December 27.
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council Yisrael Meir Lau, Do Not Raise Your Hand Against the Boy, has been translated into Chinese. Lau last week presented the first copy of the translation to Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jun. By the time that he winds up his tenure, Zhao Jun will be well versed in Jewish history, tradition and customs in addition to anything that he learns about Israel from political, defense, cultural, geographic and economic perspectives. He has even been seen in the audience of a Yiddishpiel production.