Grapevine: A week for honoring contributors to the nation

While Independence Day is essentially a secular holiday, it is also ushered in by prayers of thanks at special services in many synagogues across the country.

April 21, 2015 20:51
YITZHAK NAVON, as drawn by Chaim Topol

YITZHAK NAVON, as drawn by Chaim Topol. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a tough time since the middle of last week for President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, beginning with Holocaust Remembrance ceremonies last Wednesday night and continuing with pre-Independence Day events; memorial ceremonies for the fallen in Israel’s wars and victims of terrorism; and finally, Independence Day – where the two will spend the day going from one ceremony to another. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has also been rushing from one ceremony to another, but hasn’t had to speak at as many as Rivlin and Netanyahu.

Unlike the rest of the country, they won’t be able to relax at a barbecue.

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For them, Independence Day is as much a workday as a holiday.

■ WHILE INDEPENDENCE Day is essentially a secular holiday, it is also ushered in by prayers of thanks at special services in many synagogues across the country. Anyone wanting to attend a service in which Chief Rabbis Yosef Yitzhak and David Lau will be participating should make it their business to come to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue. Both rabbis will deliver a sermon and the service will be led by Cantor Chaim Adler, accompanied by the Jerusalem Synagogue choir conducted by Elli Jaffe.

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■ FORMER PRESIDENTS of Israel don’t seem to be letting up even when out of office. Israel’s ninth president Shimon Peres is constantly involved in new projects and continues to travel abroad; fifth president Yitzhak Navon, who commutes between homes in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has just celebrated his 94th birthday with the release of his autobiography Yitzhak Navon – All the Way. This week, he was also honored by the Mensch International Foundation at a reception at Tel Aviv’s Einav Center.

Navon will be back in Jerusalem on Thursday to attend Independence Day ceremonies at the President’s Residence, as he has done consistently since leaving office. It will not be his first visit during Rivlin’s term; he has been there for other events and was a frequent guest at the behest of Rivlin’s predecessors, especially Peres – with whom he enjoys a friendship that spans almost seven decades.

Peres will also in all likelihood be at the President’s Residence, and if so it will be the first time in many years that three presidents of the state will be together.

It is unlikely that a fourth president, Moshe Katsav, currently in prison, will be invited to future events at the President’s Residence, but one never knows. His photograph is on the wall together with those of other presidents, and his bust is in the row with all the others on the grounds.

Navon is the second Israeli to be honored by the Mensch Foundation, founded in 2002 by Steven Geiger, a Hungarian-born American who migrated with his Holocaust survivor parents to New York in 1956.

Navon, whom Geiger has known for 35 years, was introduced by former Supreme Court justice Gabriel Bach, who two years ago was the first Israeli recipient of the Mensch award. Navon accepted the award on the condition that he didn’t have to make a speech, other than to thank Bach for all the platitudes he heaped on him.

Bach had noted that Navon was the country’s first Israeli-born president and had been the only president to return to politics, and as education minister, had insisted that Arabic be taught as a compulsory subject in the state school network. Bach also noted Navon’s historic visit to Egypt in 1980 and the warm reception he had received from president Anwar Sadat, who said at the visit’s conclusion that Navon had captured the hearts of the Egyptian people. Listing some of Navon’s achievements in education, the arts, the transmission of cultural heritage, politics and the bridging of differences between disparate sectors of the population, Bach dubbed the former president “a mensch for all seasons.”

The event was a dual-purpose affair.

In addition to honoring Navon, it was also the Israel launch of a Jewish and Israeli Aviators Exhibition, created by Laszlo Angyal with the help of the Hungarian government. It may surprise a lot of people to know how many Hungarian Jews were aviators, and that aviation pioneers included the likes of Harry Houdini, the famous illusionist and stuntman who had a passion for planes.

Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, one of seven children of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and his wife, Cecilia. The aviation side of Houdini’s character was revealed by Ron Lustig, the director of the Memorial Museum of Hungarian- Speaking Jewry in Safed, which was established by his father. Houdini purchased a French plane and had it shipped to Australia, where in 1910, he was the first person to actually fly in the island continent. Lustig also mentioned Viktor Wittman, a designer of planes in Hungary before World War I.

Israelis are familiar with Hannah Szenes, who was parachuted back into Europe and arrested on the border of her native Hungary during World War II; and subsequently tortured and executed by a firing squad.

But there are many other people of Hungarian background who have distinguished themselves in Israel’s aviation history.

One of them is Eliezer Shkedy, a former commander-in-chief of the Israel Air Force and former CEO of El Al. Shkedy was present in a dual capacity; his father, Moshe, who died just over three weeks ago, was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor whose entire family was murdered in Auschwitz. Moshe Shkedy survived because he jumped from the train on the way to the death camp and subsequently found refuge at the Swiss consulate. A teenager at the time, he dreamed of a Jewish air force and lived to see his son as IAF chief.

The other reason for Eliezer Shkedy’s presence at the event was because the exhibition was in memory of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, with whom Shkedy had served in the IAF. Ramon, like Shkedy, came from a family that had known the trauma of the Holocaust.

Shkedy also had something to say about Navon, describing him as “a very special man who has touched the hearts and souls of all Israelis. We know you love us, and we love you.”

The exhibition featured thumbnail biographies of Jewish combat pilots and air aces from different countries.

Among them were two women who stood out. The most impressive was Melitta Schenk Grafin von Stauffenberg, a German Jewish aviatrix whose husband Alexander was the brother of Claus von Stauffenberg, a German Army officer who was at the forefront of several plots to kill Hitler. Melitta was the second German woman to earn the rank of flight captain; she flew in the German Air Force during World War II, flying more than 2,500 times in dive bombers, and in 1943 was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class.

In 1944, following a second unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life, she was arrested together with other members of the von Stauffenberg family, even though she had not been personally involved in the plot. However, because of the importance of her work as a combat and test pilot, she was released. She was unable to help her husband and his sisters, who were taken to a concentration camp. She was shot down by an allied fighter on April 8, 1945; her diary revealed that she was always loyal to Germany even though she hated National Socialism, but the Luftwaffe was her life.

The other woman was Soviet Jewish aviatrix Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak, regarded as the most successful female fighter pilot of the Second World War. She scored at least 12 individual victories and four joint victories.

There were Jewish pilots, navigators and designers of planes in the air forces of many countries, despite anti-Semitism and university quota systems. More recently and even today, quite a number of Jews were and are astronauts.

■ ASIDE FROM the fact that they were both born in Jerusalem, what do Reuven Rivlin and singer/actor Yehoram Gaon have in common? Both will receive honorary doctorates from Bar-Ilan University on May 18.

Others among the 14 recipients include former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz; Rabbanit Chana Henkin, who founded Nishmat in order to open the gates of higher Torah education to women; Dr.

Joseph Ciechanover, who has been involved with higher education, law, diplomacy, industry and finance, among other activities and projects; company director and philanthropist Ariel Carasso alongside Tziporah Mizrahi Carasso; and halachic expert Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch.

All the other recipients are non-Israeli.

■ ALTHOUGH THERE is a greater tendency on Independence Day to pay tribute to founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion rather than to Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl, the Israel Broadcasting Authority decided that Herzl is worthy of special attention.

The idea germinated last year on the 110th anniversary of Herzl’s death. His wife and children who survived him all subsequently died under tragic circumstances, and it was long thought there were no members of the Herzl family left among the living. But Herzl had a number of cousins, and although there was a distinct possibility that most of his family had been murdered in the Holocaust, there was also a possibility that some had survived and even that some had left Europe before the war and were scattered in different parts of the world.

The documentary division of Channel 1 took up the challenge of finding them, and the result was the four-part documentary series The Herzls, which will be screened weekly at 9 p.m. from Tuesday, April 28.

Directed by Yael Kipper, edited by Tzipi Raz, produced by Ada Keren and researched by Hadas Cohen, the series introduces viewers to distant relatives of Herzl who are living in Israel and beyond, and whose faces were captured for posterity by Shai Cohen and Tal Yunovski. The Tel Aviv Cinematheque will host a preview screening of the first episode on Friday morning, April 24, in the presence of First Lady Nechama Rivlin.

■ FOR THOSE print media journalists who don’t have regular working hours, the only night of the year they have free other than religious holidays is the evening of Independence Day, which Post journalists are celebrating together with the birthday of Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde, who was born on April 23, 1960.

The celebrations will start with his colleagues on the evening of April 22 and will be continued with his family on April 23. Linde’s birthday celebration has actually become a three-day affair, which began on Tuesday when colleagues surprised him with an impromptu (albeit modest) birthday party just ahead of the daily editorial meeting.

■ ALSO CELEBRATING a birthday this week was the Post’s most veteran employee and quite possibly the oldest working journalist in Israel, if not the world. Alexander Zvielli, who came to work at the paper before the establishment of the state, is 94, and at a staff meeting recalled that he had been discharged from the British Army on the morning of December 1, 1945; he then immediately came to the offices of what was then The Palestine Post in the hope of finding a job. He was interviewed by Bilha Michaeli, who happens to have been the mother of actress and comedienne Rivka Michaeli – who celebrated her 75th birthday on April 14.

Bilha Michaeli asked Zvielli what he could do and when he told her he knew how to operate a printing press, she took him to look at the linotype machine and told him to report back in the evening. He had woken up to his last day in the British Army, and went to sleep working for The Palestine Post.

The meeting was called not only to celebrate Zvielli’s birthday, but also to listen to the reminiscences of his former colleague, celebrated photographer and Israel Prize laureate David Rubinger – who will be 91 in June. Rubinger, who for many years was a Time magazine photographer, was pleased to see one of his own photographs mounted on the wall.

It was a portrait of the late Ted Lurie, who had succeeded Gershon Agron, the founding editor of the Post, after Agron became mayor of Jerusalem.

When Rubinger was 49, he received a phone call from Lurie, who reminded him that he was hitting 50 and getting too old to run around; Lurie invited him to become the Post photo editor. Though meticulous in classifying and archiving his photos, Rubinger is not really a desk man; he has to be on the move. So after about a year, he went back to running around and taking photos, and even today goes nowhere without a camera.

Conventional wisdom says that where there are two Jews there are three opinions, but in the case of Zvielli and Rubinger – who have been part of the evolution of the state since its creation – the point of agreement was on who they regarded as the best prime minister. None of the more recent holders of the title qualified.

Rubinger singled out Levi Eshkol, calling him a mensch and adding that even though President Rivlin and Eshkol were politically at odds, there is something about Rivlin that reminds him of Eshkol. Zvielli added that it was Eshkol who brought Jabotinsky’s bones to Israel for reburial, as Ben-Gurion refused.

■ MAKE-A-WISH FOUNDATIONS in different parts of the world usually focus on children with life-threatening illnesses, and try to brighten their lives by paving the way for their dearest wishes to realized – such as meeting a film star, visiting some far-flung part of the world or flying in the cockpit of a plane. But there are many low-income senior citizens who have wished for something for years, with little chance of it coming true – until the advent of Wish of a Lifetime. The organization was initiated by Jeremy Bloom of Denver, Colorado, in honor of his grandmother Donna Wheeler, a selfless woman who though suffering from various ailments, devoted herself without complaint to her family and her community, but always longed to have her own greenhouse.

In his desire to help his grandmother, Bloom – a two-time Olympic skier, World Cup gold medalist, entrepreneur and former NFL football player – began to think of granting the wishes of other seniors. In 2008 he founded Wish of a Lifetime, a nationwide nonprofit comprised of corporate sponsors, private foundations, volunteers and professional staff that to date, has made the wishes of some 1,000 US senior citizens come true.

Last week it did so for 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Ernie Braunstein of California, who actually had two wishes. One was to visit the Western Wall, but his great wish was to once again meet his 86-year-old cousin Sara Leicht, who lives in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood. Their mothers were sisters.

The two cousins, who had grown up in a small town in Transylvania near the Hungarian border, had not seen each other in a decade and thought they would never meet again. There were sporadic telephone contacts and greetings were exchanged on major Jewish holidays, but neither cousin was in the financial position to visit the other. The last time they had seen each was 10 years ago, when Leicht went to California to join in the bar mitzva celebrations of Braunstein’s grandson.

Braunstein had visited Israel many years before that, but had thought his own traveling days were over, until his daughter Gilda Evans appealed to Wish of a Lifetime – which sent them both to Israel, arranging for Braunstein to travel in business class so he would be comfortable throughout the journey. Evans, who sat in economy class, was a little apprehensive because her father is legally blind – but the El Al cabin crew took very good care of him.

Sara Leicht, who came to Israel 51 years ago, was destined for death in Auschwitz. She was already in the gas chamber with a large number of other women when a call went out that 100 women were needed for labor; she was nearest to the door and was one of the first to be let out.

Those left behind did not survive.

Braunstein was in Auschwitz at the same time as Leicht, but they never saw each other through the barbed wire fence. It was only after the war that they were reunited.

Braunstein had never been at the Western Wall before and was very emotional in advance of the visit. His daughter led him into the men’s section of the plaza, where they encountered Marcel Reboh, an international hairdresser with salons in Jerusalem, the US and Canada, who makes a point of praying at the wall every Rosh Hodesh. Reboh told Evans she couldn’t come in to the men’s section and when she explained her father’s condition and her fear he would not be able to make it to the wall on his own, Reboh promptly undertook to guide him and to steer him back to where his daughter and his cousin were waiting.

Braunstein felt the surface of the wall and began to cry like a baby. It was also an emotional encounter for Reboh, who may yet get to see him again. The hairdresser told Evans he is opening another salon in California, not too far from where she lives.

■ QUASI-DIPLOMATIC STATUS has been conferred on Dr. Tzvika Berkowitz, who happens to be the personal physician of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Berkowitz and his wife, Elizabeth – a talented pianist whose pupils at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance included Yair Netanyahu, the elder of the prime minister’s two sons – are also friends of Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. The prime minister had nothing to do with Berkowitz’s new status as honorary consul of Romania. That decision resulted from an agreement reached between the Romanian Embassy and the Foreign Ministry.

Berkowitz, the son of Holocaust survivors, had his new status formalized by Romanian Ambassador Andrea Pasternac and Foreign Ministry chief of protocol Talia Lador-Fresher, at a ceremony that symbolically took place at the Foreign Ministry on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In recognition of what Berkowitz has done over the years to enhance relations between Romania and Israel, Bucharest Mayor Sorin Oprescu specially came to Israel for the occasion, bringing a delegation with him.

■ LAST WEEK, on the eve of the Holocaust Remembrance Day, Holocaust survivors, members of their families and other supporters held their own March of the Living along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.

Among those who joined them was Dutch Ambassador Caspar Veldkamp.

The march was an initiative of the Aviv nonprofit, which promotes the rights of Holocaust survivors residing in Israel, and its purpose was to create greater public awareness of the fact that more than half of the 180,000 survivors do not receive all the benefits to which they are entitled. There were also several MKs among the marchers.

This week there will be a similar march in Jerusalem on Thursday, Independence Day, in the vicinity of the Old City – which will necessitate the closure to traffic of Batei Mahse Street and the whole area from Zion Gate to Dung Gate from 2-3 p.m.

The march on Independence Day is very symbolic, in that many Holocaust survivors – some of whom were the sole survivors of their families – became untrained soldiers in the War of Independence as soon as they came to the Land of Israel, with some losing their lives in the battle for a sovereign Jewish state.

Though survivors who first came to the country after the war were often treated with disdain and were humiliatingly referred to as sabonikim – because the Nazis had made soap from the corpses of Jewish bodies – the fact is that from the moment of their arrival, many contributed to the establishment and development of the State of Israel.

■ JERUSALEM MAYOR Nir Barkat this week joined congregants of the famed and ornate Ades synagogue in the capital’s Nahlaot neighborhood for the rededication ceremony following the synagogue’s renovation, which Barkat said was a process of bequeathing a long heritage to future generations. The synagogue – which is a hop, skip and a jump from Mahaneh Yehuda – though not very large, is one of the most beautiful in the country; it preserves the traditions of the Aleppo Jewish community, though in recent years its congregants have not been confined to people with Syrian roots.

The synagogue is named after cousins Ovadiah Josiah and Yosef Isaac Ades, who financed its construction.

It was damaged during World War I and again during the War of Independence. Its elaborate décor is typical of the finest Middle East traditions; the opulent murals were the work of Yaakov Stark, who was closely associated with Bezalel founder Boris Schatz – who believed all synagogues should be artistically embellished.

Over the years the paint began to chip and fade, and dust that settled on the walls turned into dirt.

A non-professional effort was made to restore the murals to their former glory, but instead resulted in greater damage. The Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites together with the Antiquities Authority stepped in a little over two years ago – and the outcome is breath-taking.

The liturgy of the synagogue is well-known around the world, and many famous cantors who sing in the Middle Eastern style have come from around the world to listen to the melodies and lead the services.

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