It was a long day of nostalgia on Monday for former president Shimon Peres, who attended two significant events linked to his past. The first was the opening of the restored Tzemach railway line, which had been a joint project of Kinneret College, the Jordan Valley Regional Council and the Council for the Preservation of Israel Railways. The Tzemach station was an important factor in the development of the country in the first half of the 20th century.
It factored in political, national and geopolitical events that impacted on the history of the country and the region.
It began with an Ottoman initiative and the laying of the first tracks in 1905 and within two years was more or less in place.
Railways developed rapidly during World War I, because trains were needed to transport troops and provisions. Tracks were laid by the Ottoman regime and by the British, who eventually triumphed over both the Turks and the Germans. In the period leading up to the final conquest by the British, the Tzemach station became a site of great strategic importance. The Australian Fourth Light Horse regiment was charged with the responsibility for capturing the railway station and its surroundings in a bitter battle against the Germans on September 25, 1918. Just under a year earlier, the Australian Light Horse had vanquished Ottoman forces in the October 31 Battle of Beersheba.
Peres was very familiar with the Tzemach station from the years that he spent living on Kibbutz Geva prior to the establishment of the state, and could not help but notice its remains in the 1990s when arriving at meetings with Jordan’s King Hussein and senior Jordanian officials at nearby Beit Gabriel, which is literally next door to Kinneret College. Peres, a great raconteur with a never-ending fund of anecdotes, was naturally called upon on Monday, to share some of his memories of Tzemach.
“For one day I returned to being a youth leader,” he said happily after having told groups of visitors what life was like in the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys when he was a young man.
“The railway station at Tzemach is a place I hold dear in my heart from the time I spent at Kibbutz Geva,” said Peres.
“We had special protektzia from the train driver, who slowed down when we neared the kibbutz so that we could jump off. My heart is full when I see the people of Israel exploring all the heritage and nature sites.”
The Tzemach railway station stands at the southern end of the Kinneret College campus, and its main building serves as a facility for studying the history and geography of the Land of Israel. It is one of a series of heritage sites targeted for restoration with the objective of teaching the history of an area in a site that is part of that history.
Peres was driven through the whole of the Jordan Valley and in the evening attended the opening of the annual Ein Gev Hebrew Song Festival, where with the exception of last year, he has been the guest of honor year after year. The festival attracts thousands of people, and was particularly packed this year, because it was paying tribute to the 80th anniversary of public broadcasting in Israel.
Over the years, listeners of Israel Radio and viewers of Channel One have been able to participate in the festival in a sense through live and recorded broadcasts. Peres opened the festival saying that there is no more beautiful tradition than the Hebrew Song Festival during Passover. The festival has been one of the highlights of the Passover holiday for more than 70 years.
Peres also congratulated Israel Radio, which under one name or another has been broadcasting for 80 years.
As Peres mounted the stage, there was literally a blast from the past with the playing of a rare archive recording of an interview he gave when he was direotr-general of the Defense Ministry. In that interview, Peres related to the nuclear project in Dimona.
In his address, Peres told the enthusiastic audience that he was always pleased to return to the Jordan Valley with its breathtaking views, and to listen to the songs that reflected the history and development of the state. Peres also reminisced about the early days of public broadcasting in Israel, saying that the Voice of Israel was always a unifying voice. While still on stage, he sang with a children’s choir conducted by the irrepressible Saraele Sharon. When he returned to his seat, Peres joined in the community singing with gusto, his face beaming with pleasure.
Also attending the event was Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, who made no secret of the fact that this was her kind of culture. Regev, in lauding Israel Radio, which in Hebrew is called Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel), emphasized that it was always there to tell Israel’s story, and as such had made an invaluable contribution to the saga of the nation. She also referred to the Voice of Israel as the voice that united the nation.
■ FOR REGEV, the holiday period has been one of touring the country and combining work with pleasure. Earlier in the day, she was at the annual Ma’alot Tarshisha “Stone in the Galilee” International Sculpture Festival, which attracts sculptors from around the world as well as entertainers.
Regev received a guided tour from Ma’alot Tarshisha Mayor Shlomo Buhbut, and she stopped here and there to chat with sculptors, actors, singers and musicians, including Guido Verhoef from the Netherlands, recognized internationally as one of the most innovative balloon artists and as an instructor. He specializes in designing large-scale sculptures and organizing international balloon shows for festivals and corporate events. Regev also met Israeli entertainers Static and Ben El Tavori.
Tens of thousands of people have made their way north to view the sculptures and have been particularly awed by Verhoef’s dove, which stands 25 meters high and 16 meters wide and is composed of 30,000 balloons.
■ IT’S FORTUNATE that there’s household help in the Rivlin and Netanyahu homes so that the wives of the president and prime minister do not have to cope with the frustrations of their husbands not being around to share in Seder night and other Passover preparations.
After returning from Russia last Thursday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin got together on Friday for their regular meeting, in which they discussed political and security issues – including their respective impressions of their meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The two leaders also took the opportunity to jointly wish the nation well during the holiday period, to voice a hope for unity in overcoming challenges and to thank Israeli servicemen and women, including border guards, who defend Israel’s security around the clock all year round. Rivlin did actually perform two Passover tasks before the holiday. He sold the presidential leaven via Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar and on Thursday night, together with one of his grandsons, he performed the ritual search of the presidential premises for any crumbs that may have been overlooked during the scrubbing and cleaning for the holidays.
■ APROPOS OF the separate visits to Russia by the president and the prime minister within the period of just over a month, those were not the only places they both visited in a similar time frame. Much closer to home, Netanyahu attended Purim services at the Hazvi Yisrael congregation in Talbiyeh, and last Friday night Rivlin attended services ushering in the Sabbath and the Passover festival at the same synagogue.
■ IN ADDITION to the search for leaven, another ritual performed by Rivlin last week in the garden of the presidential complex was the traditional blessing on fruit trees that blossom in the Hebrew calendar month of Nissan. To add weight to the blessing, Rivlin was assisted in this task by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. On the same day, Lau, together with Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, also recited the blessing over the trees at the Kfar Ezion Field School along with students, residents of the Gush, soldiers and local dignitaries.
■ SOMETIMES ISRAELI bureaucracy can be amazingly flexible. Even though former president Moshe Katsav and Rabbi Yeshayahu Pinto were not eligible for furloughs over the Passover holiday, both were nonetheless permitted to spend Seder with their families. Katsav, who has been a model prisoner, was given a 96-hour leave pass from Ma’asiyahu Prison in Ramle and was taken home to Kiryat Malachi by his wife Gila and brother Lior so that he could celebrate Seder with his family. Rabbi Yeshayahu Pinto, who hasn’t been in prison long enough to be eligible for leave, and who is being treated in the medical facility of Ayalon prison, received a 30-hour leave pass in order to officiate at the wedding of his brother Rabbi Menachem Pinto, which was deliberately timed for just before sunset last Friday, thus enabling the convict in the family to spend Seder with relatives.
At first, it seemed that Elior Azaria, the soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian terrorist in the head, would be spending Seder night behind bars, but he, too, was allowed to go home and spend this special night of the year with his family, as was a group of female soldiers whose misdemeanors put them behind bars. Appeals by their parents for them to be released for the Seder initially met with firm refusals, but in the final analysis, they too went home.
This generosity of spirit on the festival of freedom did not extend to former prime minister Ehud Olmert, nor to crime boss Zev Rosenstein, although Rosenstein, who had been denied permission to participate in his son’s wedding, was allowed out for a few hours to attend one of the sheva brachot dinners for the newlyweds.
■ AUSTRALIAN-BORN prizewinning journalist, author and blogger Dvora Waysman, who has been living in Israel since 1971, celebrated her 85th birthday this week. Her writings are syndicated worldwide in more than 20 publications. Her byline has often appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
Waysman, who also teaches journalism and creative writing, is currently working on her 14th book.
Although she is chronologically 85, she says that she feels 65.
Her novel The Pomegranate Pendant was made into a movie in 2009 and premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2012. Her four children and their progeny call her “Wonder Woman,” and she herself says, “I am wonder woman. I wonder where I left my keys, I wonder where I left my glasses, wonder why I came into this room, etc.”
She’s in good company. There are quite a few wonder people in Israel.
■ SOUTH AFRICANS in Israel rejoiced this week with Smoky Simon and his family as the former Mahalnik celebrated his 97th birthday.
Machal is a Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz le’aretz (Volunteers from Abroad).
The Mahalniks were mostly ex-service personnel who had fought with the Allied Forces against the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II, and later 4,800 of them, including 832 from South Africa, took it upon themselves to fight with and for the nascent State of Israel in the War of Independence.
In January 1941, Simon, whose first name is actually Harold, volunteered to join the South African Air Force and fight the Nazis.
He was trained as a navigator bombardier and served in both the South African Air Force and the Royal Air Force in different theaters of war for a total of five years. In May 1948, together with his wife Myra, he volunteered to fight here in the War of Independence. Myra Simon was trained and flew as a meteorologist in the South African Air Force in World War II, and during the War of Independence served in the Israel Air Force as an instructor in meteorology.
The couple was blessed with two sons and two daughters. Their sons Saul and Dan each served as fighter pilots in the IAF. In June 1948, Smoky Simon was appointed the IAF’s Chief of Air Operations. In 1968, Simon was elected chairman of World Mahal, and a couple of years back, he launched Mahal’s final operation, which was to help expand and increase the facilities of the Michael Levin Center for Lone Soldiers in Tel Aviv, so that Mahalniks who went back to their home countries can have a place to relax and reminisce when they visit Israel, in addition to meeting the soldiers of today.
After he completed his service in the Israel Air Force, Simon and his wife returned to South Africa, but not for long. In 1962 they came on aliya with their four children, and Simon and a partner founded an insurance and pension brokerage company which some years later they sold to Migdal Insurance. Simon is closely affiliated with the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. He needed very little persuasion from Harry Zvi Hurwitz, who conceived the idea of such a center, to become one of its founding members and donors.
■ SWEDISH AMBASSADOR Carl Magnus Nesser hosted a festive pre-Eurovision bash in honor of Hovi Star, who will be representing Israel at the 2016 Eurovision contest in Stockholm. Next month, Star will be competing in the second semifinal on May 12, and if he gets past that, he will compete in the finals on Saturday, May 14.
Nesser, full of goodwill, wished Star good luck in Stockholm and gave him a gift of a Swedish Fjällräven backpack with guidebooks to enhance his tours across Sweden.
The party was attended by many Eurovision fans. Entertainment included dancers, video clips, music from previous Eurovision contests plus lots of Swedish food.
■ PROOF THAT Yiddish is far from waning in popularity was seen this week at the Yiddish Festival at the Susan Dellal Center in Neveh Tzedek. The tickets were not exactly cheap, not even for the 5 o’clock concert featuring singer Myriam Fuchs, best remembered in Israel for the Israel Electric Corporation commercials in which she appeared in the 1970s, speaking Hebrew with a French accent and always complaining to her neighbor Mr. Chibotero about the waste of electricity.
It was a little difficult to reconcile the red-haired, zaftig Myriam Fuchs with the huge eye glasses of 40 years ago with the slim platinum blonde figure on stage who had replaced her eye glasses with contact lenses, and her thick curls with a slight wave and whose excess kilograms were history. However, the effervescent personality was still there, as was her rapport with the audience, some of whose members actually anticipated what she was going to say next. The theater auditorium was packed – mostly with senior citizens, but also an appreciable number of young people.
Yiddish humor in general is designed for the masses and is therefore rarely subtle.
In fact, it is often coarse to the point of rudeness and insensitivity. Although Fuchs made some members of the audience laugh when referring to latecomers by saying that there are people who can’t make it on their own these days but have to be led, there were those who didn’t find such a remark the least bit funny, and one said that if she continued in this vein, he would leave. Fortunately, the rest of her patter was mostly self-deprecating, and like so much of Jewish humor, the laughter was tinged with sadness.
Fuchs was born in Israel, and taken as a child to Belgium where she first appeared on the stage at age 12. He mother was a Yiddish actress and had been a member of the famed Kaminska Yiddish Theater in Warsaw.
As an adult, Fuchs kept coming back to Israel and leaving again, but this time she said she was back for good, because she’d recently married off her daughter to an Israeli. The story led into one of the songs in her repertoire. To be happy, it’s not good enough to get married, she said. What you need is luck. Whereupon she launched into the song “Vi Nemt Man a Bissele Mazal? [Where Do You Take a Little Luck?].”
She prefaced another song with a story about a man who had three daughters whom he married off one after another until he was left alone. At which point he said that it was bad enough with them, but worse without them. Now that her own daughter is no longer with her, she too knows the awful feeling of being left alone, said Fuchs. Murmurs of empathy emanated from women in the audience. Clapping and singing, the audience joined her in the refrain.
Another veteran favorite in her repertoire was “Mein Shtetele Belz” and here again the audience joined her. There was no intermission as such, but when Fuchs went to take a break, the brilliant klezmer trio of Russian immigrants that accompanied her did their own thing to cheers, sustained applause and requests for encores. Strangely, they weren’t listed in the program, though Fuchs did introduce them and engaged in some cute interaction with accordionist Vitaly Podolski. The other two musicians were double bass player Konstantin Eidelkind and clarinetist Felix Teplitzky. Fuchs concluded with “A Yiddish Mama.” The whole concert took just under an hour, and there were many wistful complaints that the concert was too short.
■ THE ADVERTISING departments of the Hebrew media must have great affection for Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who has come out against McDonald’s, not because some of its branches in Israel are not kosher, but because he considers the fare that it serves to be junk food and he has placed his anti-junk food battle high on the list of his priorities. In response, McDonald’s placed double-page advertisements in several newspapers explaining the attention that it gives to nutritious foods.
This certainly helped to boost newspaper revenues, though it is doubtful that Litzman could succeed in weaning McDonald’s junkies away from their favorite foods.
■ FORMER LITHUANIAN ambassador to Israel Darius Degutis and his wife Nida cannot get Israel out of their system. She had wonderful international success with her book A Taste of Israel, in addition to which the two keep up with many of the friendships that they made in Israel and never fail to send greetings on Jewish holidays.
They sent two separate e-cards for Passover: a joint one featuring a bouquet of flowers with a greeting in transliterated Hebrew, and separate one taken of a photograph of Degutis clinking glasses with Shimon Peres on the day that Degutis presented his credentials. The photograph is accompanied with a Hebrew toast and a comment by Degutis that it brings back great memories.