Grapevine: A candle in the White House

Almog and Peres intend to present Obama with a family heirloom – a hanukkia that was saved from the plunder that took place during the Holocaust and has been lovingly safeguarded ever since.

December 6, 2016 20:47

Obama and Rivlin at the White House Hanukka Reception.. (photo credit: screenshot)

Among the features of the presidency of Barack Obama were an annual Passover Seder and a Hanukka candlelighting ceremony. Last year, President Reuven Rivlin lit the Hanukka candles in the White House; and this year, when Obama will be celebrating Hanukka there for the last time, the candles will be lit by one of the sons and one of the granddaughters of Israel’s ninth president, Shimon Peres, who died in September.

Obama, who met Peres on several occasions and was honored by him with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, and in return awarded Peres with the Medal of Freedom, also formed a bond with members of the Peres family, which was strengthened when he attended Peres’s funeral. The outgoing US president has invited businessman Chemi Peres and satirist Mika Almog to join him in spreading the Hanukka light. Because Hanukka and Christmas fall at the same time this year, Obama is bringing Hanukka forward, and will celebrate it next week.

Almog and Peres intend to present Obama with a family heirloom – a hanukkia that was saved from the plunder that took place during the Holocaust and has been lovingly safeguarded ever since.

■ FOR MONTHS now, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro has been talking about the impending arrival of top-quality American kosher meat on the Israeli market. He’s been doing a promo at numerous events that he and his wife, Julie Fisher, have hosted at the American residence, and the day finally arrived when all the necessary formalities were completed. To celebrate the occasion Shapiro and Fisher hosted a reception for a Nebraska delegation and a group of Israeli businessmen, who were given the opportunity to taste genuine Angus steak.

Among those present were Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau; Israel Hotel Association president Eli Gonen; supermarket tycoon Rami Levy; Erez Dahabani, head of the century-old meat company Baladi; Jerusalem meat importer Eli Sahar; several well-known Israeli chefs, including Shaul Ben-Aderet, Charlie Fadida and Tom Frantz; and Nebraska Gov. Mike Foley, who told all and sundry that in Nebraska there are two million residents and four million cows.

■ NOT ONLY have political relations between Israel and Turkey have improved, but so have cultural relations. Israeli author Eran Katz received a very warm welcome at the reception marking the launch of the Turkish translation of his book Secrets of a Super Memory. Katz also received favorable media coverage in Turkey.

Katz is a best-selling author whose books have been translated into 17 languages. He is also an entertaining speaker and has lectured on memory and intelligence to multinational companies around the world as well as to academic circles. Although used to speaking to large audiences in most parts of the world, in Turkey he was confined to more intimate academic circles, for fear that extremists might try to sabotage the event or, even worse, attack him.

■ IN THE 16 years in which he has worked for the Dan Hotel chain, Sheldon Ritz, who is currently director of operations at the King David Hotel, has welcomed monarchs, presidents, foreign ministers, defense ministers, et al., but he has never handled a trilateral conference.

He will have his chance tomorrow when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosts Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades.

The three leaders will each have a 15-member entourage and, following their deliberations, will hold a joint press conference which 100 people are expected to attend, and there will also be a trilateral luncheon for 40 people.

The whole affair will be a gas in more ways than one.

■ INTERNATIONAL LAWYER Zalli Jaffe, who is also acting president of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, has a very close relationship with the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce, and frequently hosts its Friday night dinners for visiting trade and academic delegations from Australia in one of Jerusalem’s highclass hotels. Prior to the dinner he hosts delegations to Friday night services at the Great Synagogue, which for non-Jews is often a first-time experience, and for nonobservant Jews a revelation of what they have forgotten or never knew.

At the dinner that he hosted last Friday night at the David Citadel Hotel for a West Australian medical delegation led by Peter Leedman, director of the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Perth, head of the Perkins Laboratory for Cancer Medicine and professor of medicine at Royal Perth Hospital, along with researchers, teachers and medical practitioners of various medical, scientific and technological disciplines – all with impressive CVs, Jaffe explained the meaning of Shabbat, the kiddush, the ritual hand-washing, and so forth.

Because he’s a good raconteur, he also spiced his talk with jokes, such as the Sabbath observant Jew who huffed and puffed his way up the stairs to the 27th floor of a hotel, where the maid at the top asked him why he hadn’t taken the elevator, to which he replied that as a religious Jews he couldn’t. “It’s my day of rest.”

But a more current joke concerned the 43rd, 44th and 45th presidents of the United States, who were all summoned to Heaven. “What do you believe in?” God asked George W. Bush. “National security,” replied Bush. “Come sit on my right,” said God. “What do you believe in?” he asked Barack Obama. “Healthcare for everyone,” said Obama. “Come sit on my left,” said God. And then it was Donald Trump’s turn. “What do you believe in?” asked God. “I believe you’re sitting in my chair,” was the reply.

Jaffe also has a beautiful singing voice, as does Prof. Menachem Steiner, an internationally recognized expert in mathematics, a former Australian, born in Romania and now living in Jerusalem. Jaffe was prevailed upon to sing a prayer. Steiner joined him, and so did one of the Jewish doctors, ear, nose and throat specialist Prof. Peter Friedland, originally from South Africa but now located in Western Australia. Coincidentally, both Friedland and Jaffe are twins. The singing trio did a sterling job and was applauded by everyone else at the table.

Other than a fine singing voice and his wide-ranging medical expertise, Friedland’s other claim to fame is that he used to clean the ears of Nelson Mandela, and engaged in many conversations with him. Not only that but when Mandela took a conference call from a world leader, Friedland was not asked to leave the room, and overheard conversations between Mandela and Yasser Arafat, and Mandela and Ariel Sharon. One time when Mandela was busy with another call, he asked Friedland to pick up the other phone that was ringing. At the end of the line was Vladimir Putin. Friedland thought that the caller was kidding, but it turned out that it really was Putin.

Having known Mandela well, Friedland said that although Mandela was very much in favor of the Jewish people having a state of their own, he also believed that the Palestinian people are entitled to their own sovereign state, and moreover he did not subscribe to the concept of the enemy of my friend is my enemy.

■ SOMETHING THAT has never happened before at an Australian delegation dinner in Israel was that two people at the table became engaged to get married. It’s customary to go around the table and for everyone to introduce themselves, as there are also guests from Israel. A relatively new employee of the chamber of commerce, Julia Budiansky, who had helped with arrangements for the delegation, came with her friend Ohad Levy, an Israeli lawyer. When it was his turn to introduce himself, Levy said that he was going steady with Julia, but had not yet asked her to marry him. “The answer is yes,” she said spontaneously, and bingo! there was an engagement to celebrate, with congratulatory remarks flowing in the couple’s direction.

■ AMONG THE anticipated features of Kazakhstan Independence Day celebrations are the country’s music, singing and dancing. And, indeed, Ambassador Doulat Kuanyshev did not disappoint at this year’s celebration at the Tel Aviv Hilton, which marked the 25th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s release from the Soviet yoke. Kazakhstan has come a very long way in this past quarter of a century.

But to return momentarily to the celebration: guests were greeted by two exquisite dancers dressed in national costume, who curtsied to them as they entered and made their way to the reception line headed by Kuanyshev and his wife. Later, a Kazakhstan singer with a powerful voice sang the national anthems of Kazakhstan and Israel, and then there were speeches, followed by an amazing violinist with a svelte, super-thin, statuesque figure, then the graceful dancers, and then the singer of the anthems sang some spirited folk songs. The actual celebration of the 25th anniversary of independence falls on December 16, but December is such a busy month in Israel that Kuanyshev played it safe and held the reception a little earlier. The event was a trilingual affair in Russian, English and Hebrew.

Kuanyshev noted that Kazakhstan had been the first Central Asian country to receive a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and will assume that seat in 2017. One of the ambassador’s predecessors in Israel, Byrganym Aitimova, who is now a member of the Kazakhstan Senate, attributed this to Kazakhstan’s integration into the global community. Kuanyshev seemed to agree with this assessment, citing a series of his country’s achievements, including nuclear disarmament. As far as Israel is concerned, Kazakhstan has proved to be a reliable partner politically and in terms of trade, said Kuanyshev. Relations are dynamic and stable, he said, noting Kazakhstan’s pride in the fact that next week, Netanyahu will be the first Israeli prime minister to visit the country.

Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara represented the government and underscored that Israel had been one of the first countries in 1992 to enter into diplomatic relations with independent Kazakhstan. Since then, there have been many significant developments in relations between the two countries on political, economic, cultural, academic, interfaith and other issues, including energy, he said, also mentioning tourist exchanges which are important to both countries. Kuanyshev had mentioned earlier that as of January 2017, there would be no further visa requirements for Israelis traveling to Kazakhstan.

Kara also commended Kuanyshev for what he had personally done to enhance bilateral relations. Kara spoke in Hebrew. The initial arrangement had been that because his Hebrew is infinitely better than his English, he would deliver his address in Hebrew, and Meron Reuben, a native English-speaker and chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry, would read a translation in English. But Kara, who loves the limelight, having completed what he had to say in Hebrew, decided to do his own thing and launched into English, after which Reuben thought that his own contribution would be a pointless exercise, and therefore did not mount the podium.

■ ROMAN IAN AMBASSADOR Andreea Pastarnac never fails to amaze Israelis with her fluency in Hebrew. In fact, she is much more grammatically correct than most Israelis, and once again proved her proficiency in the language when hosting her country’s national day reception at the Tel Aviv Museum. Her entire address was delivered in flawless Hebrew. It was just a pity that a couple of women kept talking quite loudly during all the speeches, as so frequently happens at such events. Some people simply have no manners and don’t care if they make it difficult for those guests who do want to hear what is being said by the people on stage.

Pastarnac noted the high level of political exchanges between Israel and Romania – most recently the visit in mid-November by Romanian Foreign Minister Lazar Comanescu – and the scientific cooperation in medicine, science and technology that Romania has with Israel, particularly the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Hebrew University. She also noted that Romania had quickly responded to Israel’s recent need for firefighters, and even before that Romania’s President Klaus Werner Iohannis attended the funeral of Shimon Peres.

Representing the government, Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis, who is currently in India, could not stop praising the level of Pastarnac’s Hebrew. Friendships can never be taken for granted, he said, but Romanians have strong roots in Israel, going back to the pioneer settlers of Rosh Pina and Zichron Ya’acov. Akunis emphasized that the peace process with Egypt began in Romania, which had been the only Soviet Bloc country that had not severed relations with Israel in 1967. Catching sight of Yona Klimovitzky, who had been the personal secretary to Menachem Begin, he sought her verification about the peace process.

His admiration for Pastarnac extended beyond her Hebrew prowess. He also commended her for the inspirational exhibition she had organized in honor of Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews.

Prof. Yossi Yonah, who chairs the Israel-Romania Parliamentary Friendship Group, and who together with his Baghdad-born parents spent time in a transit camp together with Romanians, said that he’d found another Baghdad-Romania connection. Sandu Albu, a Romanian violin professor, was the founder of the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra in Iraq in 1944.

Yonah also wanted to give a symbolic gift to Pastarnac, and read her the translation of a Romanian poem, asking if she knew the identity of the poet. Without even a split second’s thought she replied, “Mihai Eminescu,” who happens to be Romania’s most eminent poet.

After the speeches, a Romanian folk singer, and several of the Romanian expats spontaneously began dancing. The steps were very similar to a hora, which is not surprising. Just as so many so-called Israeli songs originated in Russia, Israeli folk dances originated in Romania.

■ FREEDOM OF the press is a constantly recurring topic of conversation, but where did it start? If you thought it was America or England, you are incorrect. The answer is Sweden, which is currently celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Freedom of the Press Act, the first legislation of its kind anywhere in the world. The right to free speech, transparency and freedom of information were guaranteed in Sweden and Finland on December 2, 1766. The Freedom of the Press Act is still an essential part of the constitutions in both countries.

Unfortunately, freedom of the press is not an automatic freedom, and it is under threat in many parts of the world. Sometimes it is strangled or muted by despotic governments, and sometimes it is silenced by commercial considerations. Whatever the reason, journalists are not always free to disclose irregularities in the system, corruption in politics and business, or unseemly behavior on the part of public figures.

To mark the 250th anniversary of this milestone legislation in their respective countries, Swedish Ambassador Carl Magnus Nesser and Finnish Ambassador Anu Saarela will next week host a seminar at the Swedish residence at which guests will be presented with a brief history of freedom of the press in Sweden, after which there will be a panel discussion on the Israeli perspective of freedom of the press and information.

■ SLOVAKIA IS making a regular impact on Israel. In February, there was a taste of Slovakia at the International Mediterranean Tourism Market. Three of the six torch-lighters on Holocaust Remembrance Day were Slovak Holocaust survivors. An exhibition by Slovak artist Igi Brezo was opened in May at Beit Gabriel on the Kinneret. In May, there was also a meeting in Jerusalem between members of the Slovak Foreign Ministry’s public diplomacy department and their Israeli counterparts. In June, Slovakia participated in the International Cyber Conference in Tel Aviv. In July, Dutch Ambassador Gilles Beschoor Plug symbolically handed over the EU presidency in Israel to Slovak Ambassador Peter Hulenyi, at a meeting at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. In August, Slovakia and Israel launched the first Slovak-Israeli Call for Proposals for Joint Industrial R&D Projects. In September, Slovak Minister of Culture Marek Madaric unveiled the exhibition of the famous Slovak photographer Yuri Dojc at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Also in September, there was another Slovak exhibition in Jerusalem, this time of national costume studies by wellknown Slovak artists Martin Benka and Jaroslav Augusta, who showed their work in the gallery of the House of Quality in Jerusalem. In October, there was Slovak participation in the Haifa International Film Festival. Also in October, Slovakian musicians and singers proved to be a great hit in Netanya. In November, Hulenyi met with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to begin planning the latter’s visit to Slovakia in 2017. In November, the House of Quality was again the venue of another Slovak exhibition, illustrating the heroism of Aron Grunhut, who saved more than 1,300 Jews from Nazi oppression and almost certain death, and brought them to the Land of Israel. That’s just a very short list of how Slovakia is making its presence known in different parts of the country.

Coming up in December is the Slovak play Leni, to be performed by members of the Slovak National Theater at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv on Sunday, December 11. The performance, which is part of the 9th International Theater Festival in Tel Aviv, tells of Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial filmmaker of the Third Reich but also relates the responsibility of the artist for his or her work. Four days later, for a change of pace, the Slovak choir Technik will perform at Saint Peter’s Church in Jaffa.

■ HE IS essentially regarded as a stand-up comedian, but American actor and comedian Elon Gold, who did a benefit show last Saturday night to a packed house at Yad Lebanim in Ra’anana, paces up and down the stage nonstop. He really is a very funny guy, and his heart is definitely in the right place. Gold was performing gratis in behalf of Kids Kicking Cancer, and at the end of the show put in a plug for Comedy for Koby, the annual comedy show in which Hollywood comedians tour Israel in behalf of the Koby Mandell Foundation. This year’s tour started on December 6 and continues till December 12.

Kids Kicking Cancer was founded in America by Rabbi Elimlech Goldberg, who holds a black belt in Choi Kwang-Do and is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. After losing his first child to leukemia, Goldberg started a martial arts program to help other children with cancer to empower them in the healing process, or to at least reduce pain if they don’t heal.

The method has come to Israel, where voluntary instructors teach children Choi Kwang-Do or karate. The chairman of KKC in Israel is Danny Hakim, who is an international karate champion. Hakim met Goldberg five years ago and was so inspired that he decided to emulate the program in Israel.

Two of the children in the program, Kayla and Gefen, gave a demonstration of what they’ve learned and even got the audience to join them in a breathing exercise. Gefen was diagnosed at age two, then went through two years of treatments, and now at age six she is cancer free.

Gold came to Israel for three weeks to do a movie with Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky about two gay fathers who bring their son to Israel for his bar mitzva.

Gold has a gay brother, Ari, who is also in the entertainment business, and who called him frantically after Trump was elected in fear that he would outlaw homosexuality. In fact, Ari was so uptight about the possibility that he wrote an article in the Huffington Post that included an open letter to Ivanka Trump, the president-elect’s daughter, begging her to persuade her father to step down and let Hillary Clinton do the job. He also mentioned in the Huffington Post article that for the past three years his family has been celebrating Passover with Ivanka and Jared Kushner.

That did not necessarily impede older brother Elon Gold from remarking in Ra’anana: “Trump will be very good for Israel. That being said, Trump will be bad for the rest of the world because he’s a meshuggener. He’s a lunatic. He’s nuts.” Nonetheless, Gold believes that Trump is a million times better than Bernie Sanders.

Gold did some marvelous impersonations of Israeli character types living in America, and had the audience in stitches. He was somewhat careful about making remarks about Israel, and refused to talk about Israeli politics except in passing, when comparing Israelis to Diaspora Jews and saying: “Israelis live in settlements. Jews live off settlements.”

When he first came on stage, after a warmup session by fellow comedian Benji Lovitt, Gold said: “Most comedians dream of playing Carnegie Hall. Not me. It was my dream to play Yad Lebanim.” Judging by the appreciation of the audience and the almost nonstop laughter, he might not have been kidding As he said himself: “You can’t tell Jewish jokes to the goyim.”

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