Grapevine: Majesty and modesty under the bridal canopy

Thousands of haredim flock to Jerusalem over the past week and a half to celebrate the wedding between decedents of prominent rabbis.

Sea of haredi men 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Sea of haredi men 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mike Segar)
Thousands of haredim – most of them Belzer Hassidim – flocked to Jerusalem over the past week and a half to celebrate the wedding of Sholom Rokeach, the eldest grandson of the Belzer Rebbe, to Batya Paneth, the daughter of Rabbi Yehiel Meir Paneth of Bnei Brak.
The wedding ceremony took place last night in the courtyard of the magnificent Belz Synagogue, which stands out on the horizon on the highway approach to the capital. Roads leading to the synagogue were closed to traffic from 3 p.m. After the ceremony, the sea of black moved in the direction of the Jerusalem International Convention Center where the wedding banquet was held.
It is difficult enough at a regular wedding to see the ceremony under the huppa, but with so many people, even members of the family would have missed out – but for the many video screens placed in the area around the synagogue. This enabled the hordes of well-wishers to see the continuation of what many in hassidic circles consider a post-Holocaust miracle.
The Belzer Hassidim, a sect that gave rise to many great Torah scholars, all but disappeared in the atrocities of the Holocaust – as Belz was occupied by the Nazis from 1939 to 1944. The previous Belzer Rebbe, Aharon Rokeach, who had a reputation as a miracle worker, and his half-brother Rabbi Mordechai, managed to subsist with the help of funds smuggled into Poland by Belzer Hassidim living in the US, England and what was then Palestine. The two brothers fled from one ghetto to another, eventually escaping from Poland. A gentile sympathetic to the plight of the Jews drove them to Hungary in a wagon, disguised as Russian generals who had been captured and brought to Budapest for questioning. After eight months in Budapest, the brothers received certificates that enabled them to go to Palestine, and they left Budapest in January 1944.
The Nazis invaded Hungary two months later, and began rounding up Jews and deporting them to Auschwitz. The two brothers were the only members of their families to survive. Their wives, children, grandchildren and in-laws were all murdered or perished as a result of the conditions to which they were subjected.
Both brothers remarried, but only Rabbi Mordechai sired another child. Though 22 years younger than his brother, Rabbi Mordechai died at age 47, when his son Yissachar Dov was only a year old. Rabbi Aharon cared for the child and groomed him to be the next Belzer Rebbe. Yissachar Dov was “orphaned” yet again at age nine when his uncle died. At age 17, the boy married Sarah Hager, the daughter of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager. They were childless for almost a decade until the birth of their only son, Aharon Mordechai Rokeach, the father of the groom.
The pre-wedding festivities began last Saturday when the bridegroom was called to the Torah, and the post-wedding festivities will continue until next week. According to Yeshiva World News, the groom and his father went to the home of Shas spiritual mentor and former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef to personally hand-deliver the wedding invitation.
In some hassidic circles, including Belz, the bridegroom receives a shtreimel (fur hat) on the day he is called to the Torah. Thus, before going to synagogue, the groom and his father first went to the home of the Belzer Rebbe, who presented the groom with a fine shtreimel and placed it on his head.
The Belzer Hassidim are known to be very musical, as the groom proved to be at his bar mitzva five years ago. But the favorite Belz composer, conductor and musical arranger is Rabbi Yosef Moshe Kahana, who composed 22 new melodies for the wedding.
■ IT’S A strange thing with journalists.
Although they give themselves license to invade the privacy of everyone else – including people who are not public figures – when it comes to their own lives, they will go to extraordinary lengths to protect themselves from fellow scribes, and most importantly from the paparazzi.
This was the case last Thursday, when Israel Television’s hard-hitting current affairs interviewer Geula Even wed Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar in a private ceremony conducted by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.
The 60 or so invitees, comprising relatives and close friends, were sworn to secrecy about both the date and the venue.
Few things remain secret for long in Israel, and at more or less the last minute, noninvited members of the fourth estate got wind of what was happening – though some were led on a wild goose chase before finally discovering the north Tel Aviv venue.
This happened to be the villa of leading political campaign strategist Tal Silberstein, who has been an adviser to both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.
Even and Sa’ar have been conducting a sizzling romance for the past six months and took up residence together in Tel Aviv some time before the nuptials. At one stage, they were contemplating a Jerusalem wedding at the Western Wall, but when word got out that they were exploring such a possibility, they promptly decided on another location.
Paparazzi arriving at the villa were denied entry by a security guard, and risked life and limb climbing on a tree in an attempt to photograph the newlyweds. The branches, in fact, could not hold the combined weight.
Even, when interviewing people on television, is blunt, merciless and often resorts to accusatory tactics, as if she were judge and jury. Yet she took every possible precaution to keep her wedding under wraps. Sa’ar’s two daughters from his former marriage, and Even’s two daughters and son from hers, were in attendance for the ceremony that made them step-siblings to each other.
The newlyweds, who did not take time out for a honeymoon, may have further cause for celebration by the end of this year, when their family may be extended even further.
Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes, who is married to Minister Silvan Shalom, speaking on a panel show on Channel 2, congratulated the couple and said she was glad that yet another minister now had a celebrity journalist as his wife. Sa’ar’s wedding brings the count to three: Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a former journalist himself, is married to journalist and author Lihi Lapid.
■ FOR THE fourth consecutive year, women will be swimming across Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), in a swimathon to raise funds for Sadnat Shiluv b’Emuna. This unique school for mentally challenged youngsters works to educate and integrate special-needs children and young adults within the local community of Gush Etzion. The swimathon, a fund-raiser initiated by Vivienne Glaser, attracts participants from a broad age group, from teenagers to those in their 90s. Several of them have placed online announcements about their participation, asking Internet surfers to sponsor them and thus help them to help others.
Every swimmer is asked to raise at least NIS 2,000, and several manage to raise a lot more.
The event is a fun challenge which generates competition and friendship, but most importantly demonstrates concern for the less fortunate. Glaser hit on the idea when she saw what Sadna does for her son Elchi, who has been attending the school since its inception 13 years ago. “The happy smile he wears all day is shared by his schoolmates,” says Glaser, who is also the coordinator of the swimathon.
Funds collected at this year’s swimathon on Thursday, May 23, will go toward the expansion of the Sadna’s Holistic Animal Therapy Center and petting zoo, which will be available for both Sadna residents and the neighboring communities. The center provides employment for Sadna alumni, in addition to tools to enable them to integrate into the community at large. Elchi Glaser, now 22, works with the animals and is pleased to be able to continue to live in a warm and nurturing environment.
The swimathon attracts not only enthusiastic swimmers but also their families and friends, who cheer them on. It starts with the trip up to the Kinneret, includes dinner and evening fun, and ends with a closing ceremony for the swimmers and their supporters.
Anyone who would like to be there as a swimmer or sponsor should contact Vivienne Glaser at: 050-747-7530, [email protected], or [email protected] Registration for the swim is NIS 350, and each swimmer is responsible for bringing in NIS 2,000.
■ GUESTS AT weddings, bar mitzvas and funerals are often surprised by the number of famous people who are friends of the honoree or to whom the honoree is related, and are amazed that they have never met these people before. Much the same happened at Jerusalem’s Ohel Itzhak Synagogue, the oldest Sephardi synagogue built outside the Old City, at the memorial tribute to Carmen Weinstein, the president of the Jewish community of Cairo who died last month. At the synagogue, which was built by her great grandfather Itzhak Itzhaki in 1882, relatives representing some of the most veteran Sephardi families of Jerusalem mixed with numerous Israeli diplomats who Weinstein had befriended – from the arrival of the first Israeli mission in Cairo in 1980, to those serving in Egypt today.
Among them were Nitza Ben-Elissar, the widow of Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt, Efraim Douek, who was the fourth ambassador; Zvi Mazel and his wife Michelle, who were members of the first mission, with Mazel returning in 1996 as the sixth ambassador; later ambassadors Gideon Ben-Ami, Yitzhak Levanon and present incumbent Yaakov Amichai, who all came along with diplomats of lower rank; and Profs. Emanuel Marx and Gabriel Rosenbaum, past and present directors respectively of the Israel Academic Center in Cairo, run by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
Among the relatives present were Yoav Ginai, head of the programs division at the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Channel 1, along with his mother Miriam, an extremely knowledgeable 12th-generation Jerusalemite who revealed some of the family’s history to whoever wanted to listen.
Memorial plaques for her two grandfathers adorned the wall, one of whom was Nissim Binyamin Ohana, who was born in Algeria to Jerusalem parents – emissaries there who returned when Ohana was five years old. He subsequently became chief rabbi of Cairo, and his Jerusalem-based children and grandchildren used to travel to Egypt each year to spend Passover with him. Ohana returned to Jerusalem in 1946 and was subsequently chief rabbi of Haifa.
Another relative was eminent legal expert Prof. Ruth Gavison, who took her son Doron to Cairo soon after his bar mitzva at the Ohel Itzhak Synagogue – and of course they had spent a lot of time on the Cairo trip with Weinstein.
Yet another relative was Dr. Nahman Oron, one of the people who makes sure that the synagogue continues to function on a daily basis. The closest relative to the deceased was her sister Glorice, who came from Switzerland for the occasion.
The number of people who wanted to share their impressions of Weinstein testified to the high esteem in which she was held.
She was both a proud Egyptian and a proud Jewess, and was even described by one of the speakers as an “authentic Zionist.” Weinstein was a highly educated synthesis of East-West culture with a Sabra personality, in that she was hard on the outside and sweet on the inside. Several speakers noted her marvelous sense of humor, and all spoke of her fierce determination to preserve what was left of Cairo’s Jewish heritage. She had maintained her relationships with Israeli diplomats after their terms in Egypt were over, and had called to wish them well on Jewish holidays, met with them on her annual visits to Jerusalem and entertained them when they visited Cairo.
Even though there is a new president of Cairo’s dwindling Jewish community, she cannot match the tenacity and pedigree of Weinstein, who in the Egyptian-Jewish sense was the “Last of the Mohicans.”
■ FORMER CHIEF of protocol at the Foreign Ministry Yitzhak Eldan, like many retired diplomats, continues to keep his finger in the diplomatic pie. He is the founding president of the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel and also teaches diplomacy to “young ambassadors” at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
Eldan believes that diplomacy should be a compulsory subject in the final two years of high school education. With increasing student exchanges between countries, it is essential that all seniors in Israeli high schools know how to defend Israel against verbal attacks, and how to state their country’s case when traveling abroad, he says. Towards this end, Eldan took an 11-member group of 12thgrade students from the Herzog High School in Kfar Saba on a four-day visit to Prague. The visit was coordinated with the Foreign Ministry, the Education Ministry and Ambassador to the Czech Republic Yaakov Levy.
The group met with radio and print media representatives; toured the Czech parliament, sat in on a session and met with legislators; met with the director of the Public Diplomacy Department at the Foreign Affairs Ministry; and subsequently met with members of their peer group at the International School of Prague, where they made a presentation.
The young Israelis also visited places of specific Jewish interest, such as Terezin and the Old-New Synagogue.
On the first day of their visit, Levy invited them for coffee and cake at his residence, where he spoke to them about Israel-Czech relations – which go back to before the establishment of the state – and then participated with them in an intensive Q&A session.
The big surprise at the reception was the presence of Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who had just returned from a visit to Israel.
■ THE TELEVISION contest Dancing with the Stars, which is based on British series Strictly Come Dancing, partners celebrities with professional dancers for competition in various dancing styles – and takes on a whole new meaning with regard to the Hebrew University.
The show, which has been exported to more than 40 countries including Israel, proves that with determination and a good teacher, even someone with two left feet can learn the intricacies of the waltz, the tango, the foxtrot, the samba, the salsa and the rumba. Hebrew University president Menahem Ben-Sasson has not yet appeared on the show to demonstrate his fancy footwork, but he is figuratively – if not literally – dancing with the stars.
This was the case in the first week of May, when Ben-Sasson was in Toronto to present Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman with the Jake Eberts Key of Knowledge Award at a gala reception hosted by the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University.
The award was in recognition of Freeman’s dedication to combating racism and promoting knowledge and education worldwide.
The gala event at the Toronto Center for the Arts was attended by more than 700 guests, and raised $2 million for the Institute of Medical Research Israel-Canada, one of the leading facilities for scientific cooperation between the two countries. Through IMRIC, Israeli and Canadian scientists are working together to find solutions and better treatments for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and heart and brain disorders.
Among those present were Dr. Amir Amedi, renowned IMRIC brain scientist, and Dr. Josephine Ojiambo, Kenya’s Ambassador to the UN and a Hebrew University alumna. The award was named in honor of the late award-winning film producer Jake Eberts, who produced many feature films such as Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Driving Miss Daisy and Dances with Wolves, as well as documentaries including Prisoner of Paradise, Journey to Mecca and Oceans. His final project, Jerusalem, is an Imax 3D production due for worldwide release later this year.
Next month, Ben-Sasson will present an honorary doctorate to legendary singer and actress Barbra Streisand, who like Freeman is dedicated to the promotion of education and human and civil rights. Streisand has a 30-year history with the university, having established the Emanuel Streisand Building for Jewish Studies on the university’s Mount Scopus campus in memory of her father in 1984. Streisand, who has supported many pro-Israel events in the US, will be in Israel both to honor President Shimon Peres on his 90th birthday and to perform in Tel Aviv.
■ IT MAY have been purely coincidental, but at the sumptuous reception for Cameroon’s National Day, hosted by Diplomatic Corps dean and long-term Ambassador of Cameroon Henri Etoundi Essomba and his wife Esther at their residence in Kfar Shmaryahu, the playing of the national anthems of Cameroon and Israel featured Streisand singing “Hatikva.”
In mid-October of this year, Essomba will celebrate the 15th anniversary of the presentation of his credentials to president Ezer Weizman, who took up his position as head of state 20 years ago this month. Throughout the years, until this week, the government had never sent a female minister to represent it at the Cameroon National Day festivities.
On Monday night, Essomba was particularly pleased to welcome Health Minister Yael German, who is well-known to the residents of Kfar Shmaryahu and Herzliya Pituah as the former mayor of Herzliya, in which capacity she attended many diplomatic functions and hosted members of the diplomatic community at municipal functions.
Essomba, speaking extemporaneously, recalled what German had done for the development of Herzliya. “We are welcoming not only a minister but a leader, and we are very proud,” he said, also congratulating the government of which German is a member for making the resumption of the peace process one of its priorities. In wishing the government success in promoting this objective, Essomba said: “Without peace, nothing is possible.”
Referring to bilateral relations between Cameroon and the State of Israel, Essomba said that they go back to the 1960s. Israel was among the first countries to support Cameroon when it gained independence from France in January 1960, he recalled.
However, Essomba did not mention the 13-year period from 1973-1986 when Cameroon was one of several African states that severed diplomatic ties with Israel. In August 1986, Peres, then prime minister, traveled to Yaounde to meet with Cameroon’s President Paul Biya. After two days of talks, they announced the restoration of diplomatic relations in a joint statement.
At the time, Biya predicted that other African states would follow Cameroon in restoring relations – and he was right.
Cooperation between Cameroon and Israel has been based largely on agriculture and health. Essomba said that he would like to see greater cooperation on health issues, and with German as health minister, he was confident this would occur. He also called on Israel’s business community to invest more in Cameroon, pointing out that economic growth in his country rose by 4.2 percent in 2012, and that the economic growth forecast for 2013 is 6% – indicating that such investment is a secure risk.
German, who was extremely appreciative of Essomba’s remarks, noted that Israel attaches great importance to relations with Africa in general – and particularly with Cameroon, which she said is one of the most stable countries in West Africa. Israeli experts have worked in Cameroon to assist with irrigation and water management issues, she said, and each year 100 trainees from Cameroon come to Israel to study under the auspices of Mashav, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. Mashav also sends experts to Cameroon on a regular basis.
German also thanked Cameroon for supporting Israel at the UN.
■ DIAMONDS MAY be a girl’s best friend, but Nathalie Mimoun, a prominent figure in Netanya’s diamond industry, is prepared to temporarily turn her back on all that glitter in favor of a career in the French parliament.
She is one of at least two Israelis who are also French nationals and are running for election in the eighth constituency of the French parliament.
French expatriates were permitted to elect a representative for the first time last year, and surprisingly, French expatriates from eight Mediterranean states – Israel, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Malta, Cyprus, the Vatican and San Marino – elected an Israeli, Daphna Poznanski-Benhamou, a lawyer living in Tel Aviv. What was truly amazing about Poznanski- Benhamou’s victory was the fact that only 8% of some 80,000 bi-national Israelis eligible to vote exercised their democratic right – meaning that most of her votes came from outside Israel. Poznanski-Benhamou’s triumph was short-lived, however. Irregularities in her campaign funding resulted in the nullification of the election by the Constitutional Council of France.
Mimoun, who dresses with style and looks as if she just walked out of the pages of Vogue, was in Jerusalem last week to meet with potential voters. Many of them know her through her voluntary work as a counselor and troubleshooter with the French Consulate, where over the years she has helped solve the problems of many French immigrants.
Mimoun chose to have her campaign meeting at the Matsart Gallery, which is just around the corner from the French Consulate.
The gallery’s extensive collection includes a number of internationally acclaimed artists, who though not born in France, rose to fame in Paris – among them Marc Chagall and Moise Kisling. The choice of venue was deliberate, said Mimoun, in that most French people know of Israel only in terms of conflict – and she wanted them to know Israel as a place of culture.
Because of her volunteer work at the consulate, Mimoun believes that she is best suited to represent the interests of French citizens living abroad. She understands their concerns and also wants to fight for their rights. Some of the laws related to French citizens living abroad are unfair, she said, citing higher taxes on assets than those paid by residents of France, as well as lower pensions based on salaries earned while they were living in France. The first voting round is on May 26 and the second on June 9.
■ WHO WOULD have a imagined a Shavuot celebration in Britain’s House of Lords? But last week, on the eve of the festival, Lord Adrian Palmer, Lord Stanley Fink – who inter alia is vice president of the Jewish Leadership Council, and is director of the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies – Baroness Julia Neuberger and Lord Parry Mitchell entertained their peers with the traditional cheesecake and a lecture on Shavuot’s essence. It was the third time in House of Lords history that Jewish peers had shared something of their religious traditions with fellows of other faiths. There are several Jewish peers among the vice presidents of the JLC, and they previously held two successful Peer teas during Purim.
Neuberger observed that the Jewish community can take pride in what its members have done in public life as well as the coming together on Jewish festivals, which unites peers regardless of political and religious differences.
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