Starting off on the wrong foot in the month of Elul

Grapevine: Elul is a month in which Jews are expected to make amends for flaws in their behavior and make the world a better place.

GAL GADOT (center) flanked by Gabi and Eti Roter 370 (photo credit: Sivan Farag)
GAL GADOT (center) flanked by Gabi and Eti Roter 370
(photo credit: Sivan Farag)
In Jewish tradition, Elul, the month preceding the High Holy Days, is a period of introspection and self accountability. It is a month in which Jews are expected to make amends for flaws in their behavior, to do their utmost to respect others and to make a sincere effort to make the world a better place for everyone.
At the very dawn of Elul, which began on Saturday, Shas mentor and former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef denounced state courts as “evil” and was equally dismissive of the secular school system. Two days later, the presidential council of all the universities of Israel, several of which are headed by religiously observant Jews, filed a petition with the High Court to annul the status of Ariel University, which recently had its status elevated from being a college. In filing the petition, they did not take into account Israel’s demographic growth, which will require more universities, nor did they take into account the fact that hundreds of Israeli students who were rejected by Israeli universities went abroad to study and often did so well that they decided not to return home, with the result that the very universities that had not accepted them as students made tempting offers for them to become faculty staff and researchers.
Ariel University, despite its location in the West Bank, has a number of professors on its staff whose politics are left-wing but whose academic inclinations lean neither to the Left nor the Right. In a recent interview with Ha’aretz, some of them said how pleasantly surprised they had been to discover that Ariel is a regular university with a diverse student population that includes 600 West Bank and east Jerusalem Arabs who might otherwise be denied a university education.
Among the many interpretations of the meaning of “Elul” is that it is an acronym for the verse from Song of Songs, “Ani l’dodi vedodi Li” – “I am by beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” While, strictly speaking, this applies to the relationship between God and the Jewish people, on a more general level it applies to the relationship between one human being and another as well as between colleagues. Perhaps the university heads will think twice and retract their petition.
As for Rabbi Yosef, it is strange that a man so learned should choose to bad-mouth the courts in advance of this week’s Torah reading which is Shoftim (Judges) and where the message is clearly different from the one that he spelled out.
■ ON THE subject of judges, the Israeli legal system can be very accommodating, as mentioned previously in this column when it comes to allowing convicted felons to participate in family celebrations.
Moshe Katsav, Ze’ev Rosenstein and Shlomo Ben-Izri were all permitted to leave prison for their sons’ weddings.
Katsav and Ben-Izri did not pose any danger to society, but former crime boss Rosenstein is a different story. Yet he was permitted to attend the marriage ceremony, though not the celebration afterwards, which was held at a different venue.
Influential businessman Dudi Appel, who, after having been convicted on three counts of bribery, this week began serving a three-and-a-half year sentence at Maasiyahu Prison, was given a few days deferment so that he could celebrate the wedding of his daughter without any limitations.
Among the guests at the Leonardo City Tower Hotel in Ramat Gan was former Maasiyahu inmate Arye Deri, who has yet to announce whether he is running for mayor of Jerusalem in the upcoming election. Also present were Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has been under police investigation for well over a decade with no charges leveled against him; National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Dressed in a suit and a black kippa and carrying a large black duffle bag and a broad-brimmed black hat, which he will probably don for Sabbath services, Appel arrived at Maasiyahu on Monday without any fanfare and showing no signs of feeling dejected.
One can only guess that Deri had told him that things are not so bad at Maasiyahu and that, in the right frame of mind, all things can be overcome.
■ CONDUCTOR, COMPOSER and pianist Gil Shohat and broadcaster Oren Nahari are joining forces to teach music appreciation and history to Jerusalem schoolchildren. The partnership between Shohat and Nahari will continue next year in a series of five meetings with adult audiences who will benefit from lectures and concerts with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.
This year, together with the JSO, they will meet on a monthly basis with high school students who will listen to musical works that will be explained by Shohat, who also has a thespian streak and is a delightful raconteur. Nahari will talk to the students about the historical period in which the music was written. The foreign news editor and anchor at Israel Radio and an occasional foreign news reporter and commentator on Channel 1, in addition to co-anchoring “Globus” with Dudu Vitztum, Nahari is known for his remarkable range of knowledge on a huge variety of subjects.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who became involved in municipal activities through his interest in education, has been eager to introduce innovation to the capital’s education system, and this is but one example. The JSO, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary, is equally enamored with this innovative approach, which represents a slight diversion from the brilliant pre-concert lectures introduced by Leon Botstein during his period as the JSO’s musical director. While Botstein lectured in English, Nahari will lecture in Hebrew.
The concert lecture series will include history, politics and ideology.
The JSO is the orchestra of the Israel Broadcasting Authority – but Nahari will not be moonlighting.
■ IT’S A bit like the weather. Everyone talks about it, but there’s not much that anyone can do about it. The subject, of course, is violence and the extent to which pulling out a knife or a gun, gang-beating a helpless individual and motorists running down innocent pedestrians is becoming an accepted norm. Public figures, along with the ordinary man and woman in the street, express shock or outrage, but until something happens in their own family or their own apartment block, violence is just another conversation piece.
Not so with an organization that calls itself The Mensch Foundation and exhorts all and sundry to “Be a Mensch.” The founders include Yechezkel Stelzer, an expert on youth at risk and a former adviser to the Ministry for Social Welfare; Moshe Kaplan , a psychoimmunologist dedicated to a healthy mind and a healthy body; Tal Brody, Israel Prize laureate, goodwill ambassador and former basketball star; Shoshana Jaskol, a veteran of not-for-profit organizations; and Stephen D. Donthik, a consultant for non-profits.
Established in 2010 at Kaplan’s initiative, The Mensch Foundation works toward bringing Israeli society together and infusing it with positive values with the aim of making it responsible, just, considerate and integrity driven.
The foundation works with partners across the social, political and religious spectrum to reach as broad an audience as possible with a variety of programs that involve dialogue and treating everyone with respect.
■ OF COURSE The Mensch Foundation is not alone in combating violence.
Elem, which is headed by Nava Barak, is intensely involved with youth at risk; Hadassah, Amit, Emunah, Naamat and WIZO youth villages have long been catering to youth at risk, as have various other organizations. The mind boggles when contemplating how much more violence there would be if these youth villages did not exist.
Speaking this week at an Emunah seminar on violence, Rabbi Chanoch Yeres, the director of psychological services in the Binyamin Region, and guidance counselor Rafi Rotman both said that parents do not know how to cope with their children and have to be taught. Because parents are not always sufficiently involved in their children’s lives, youths come to feel neglected and rejected and become violent, sometimes taking out their anger on themselves and sometimes joining gangs of other youngsters who feel rejected and taking out their combined anger on hapless victims.
Yeres quoted from a survey taken two years ago by the Ministry for Internal Security, in which three-quarters of the respondents said that they feel that there is more violence in Israel than in any other country and 90 percent said that there was more violence in 2010 than there had been 10 to 15 years earlier. The survey also indicated a 40% increase in juvenile crime and a 30%t increase in the number of teenagers sent to prison.
Yeres and Rothman explained that teaching parents how to set limits was not good enough. Anything being done to reduce violence and to improve relationships between youngsters and their parents and/or teachers must be done together with the youngsters so that they will not be confused by changing behavioral patterns.
Interviewed on Israel Radio, Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On issued a warning against the atmosphere of hatred for the other, which, she said, is seen on the sports field, in the street and in the synagogue. She urged the Education Ministry to put more emphasis on universal values and less emphasis on visits by groups of school children to Hebron, where they ostensibly go on heritage tours but where they also witness the humiliation of Palestinians.
■ IN THE days when president Chaim Herzog used to distribute prizes on behalf of the Council for a Beautiful Israel, his wife, Aura, was also on the dais, not in her capacity as the wife of the president but as the founding and long-serving president of CBI. It was at her initiative that the organization was formed in 1968, long before there was a Ministry for Environmental Protection. The Knesset voted CBI into existence to serve as a non-profit organization to advance environmental education, promote local environmental action, initiate green urban projects and conduct national environmental campaigns and competitions to encourage the beautification of factory plants, hotels and urban areas.
Early immigrant housing in Israel was most unaesthetic, and it bothered Herzog to see such a lack of beauty – especially among poor people who needed something attractive to add cheer to their lives. She suggested to some of the residents of a dismal apartment block in Jerusalem that they could brighten its appearance with a few flower pots. Indeed, window boxes filled with flowers made an enormous difference, and Herzog quickly realized that from the seed of this idea, something big could grow.
The influence of CBI on urban aesthetics defies description. In previous years, CBI has distributed several prizes in different categories, but this year has confined itself to only one prize, which will be given by President Shimon Peres to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, which is celebrating its 110th anniversary. The most important of the prizes distributed annually by CBI is the Magshim Israel Yafa Award in recognition of the fulfillment of CBI’s vision. In many respects the JNF parallels the objectives of CBI, but with projects that are generally on a much larger scale than those of CBI itself or the various companies, organizations and institutions with which CBI associates itself.
Many JNF stalwarts from abroad will be flying to Israel for the August 29 ceremony, which, in addition to addresses by Peres, CBI chairman Avraham Katz Oz and JNF chairman JNF Efi Stenzler, will feature a documentary film showing some of the JNF’s many achievements in which Jews from around the world have had a share, either by putting coins into a blue box, inscribing themselves and their loved ones in the JNF Golden Book, buying trees, dedicating forests or working on other JNF projects.
Stenzler has recently been traveling in Europe to join in various JNF events to celebrate the organization’s 110th anniversary.
■ THE JNF knows how to combine pleasure with business, and is in a sense pleasure oriented, taking into account the number of parks that it has established with pleasant walkways and picnic facilities. Earlier this month, it even hosted a Swiss Independence Day picnic for members of Israel’s Swiss community and Swiss visitors who gathered at a recreation spot near Sataf Springs in the Judean hills. The venue was chosen because its development had been a gift of the Swiss Friends of KKL-JNF.
Rabbi Marcel Marcus, who was the rabbi of Bern before he relocated to Israel, observed that 63 years ago, Switzerland had more people and more trees than Israel did. Today, he said, it still has more trees, but KKL-JNF is working toward changing that.
The picnic was the brainchild of Jariv Sultan, who is the KKL-JNF emissary to Switzerland. Among the participants was lawyer Sandra Vogel, who had arrived as an immigrant only two months previously and who had come to the picnic at the invitation of former Hashomer Hatza’ir emissary to Switzerland Liad Levy, with whom she had gone to nursery school in Zurich. Several of the Swiss visitors were pleasantly surprised to be celebrating their national holiday in an Israeli forest.
■ WHETHER ONE has been to India or not, almost everyone has some item of Indian apparel in their closet – often one of those incredibly inexpensive scarves from Goa which cost little enough in Israel and considerably less in Goa itself. Some of us have saris, sandals or Indian tunics. Israel abounds with stores that sell Indian clothing, accessories and eye-catching jewelry. While there have been a couple of high-class Indian fashion shows in Israel organized by the wives of Indian diamond dealers living in Israel, along with restaurateur Reena Pushkarna, who is a walking advertisement for traditional fashions, there has never been a large representative group exhibition of Indian apparel in Israel. That’s about to change.
An exhibition hosted by the Indian Embassy in conjunction with the Apparel Export Promotion Council of India has organized a two-day fashion show of 30 Indian apparel manufacturers at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, which will be opened on September 5 by Kiran Dhingra, the director-general of India’s Ministry of Textiles.
■ MORE THAN 50% of the problems of rookie soldiers could be easily solved if the powers-that-be at IDF induction centers would only read and listen, says veteran prize-winning Israel Radio military reporter Carmela Menashe, whose intervention has helped to extricate many young soldiers from their miseries. According to Menashe, the IDF would be much more efficient if the talents of potential soldiers were taken into account instead of being ignored.
Too many soldiers are assigned to units and tasks for which they are not suited, she says. Many talented soldiers with leadership abilities are sent to units where their skills are neither needed nor recognized, and conversely, soldiers with attention deficits and learning disabilities are assigned to tasks that require intense concentration and a high level of education.
Inductees with health problems, emotional and psychological disturbances and learning disabilities come armed with letters from physicians, psychologists and teachers, but this documentation is often ignored and the soldier is subsequently punished for not adhering to discipline.
Menashe cited the case of a lookout observer who had to spend four hours a day glued to a computer screen. The young woman has both attention deficit and learning disability problems. Her father appealed again and again on her behalf, but the army turned a deaf ear and a blind eye.
Eventually the father brought the case to Menashe who followed up on it, went to the right people in high places and succeeded in having the soldier transferred to a more suitable position. The soldier’s father came on air to say that without Menashe’s intervention, it could never have happened.
Over the years Menashe has become an unofficial ombudswoman who not only receives complaints about the sufferings of young soldiers in the IDF but who actually does something about them. Although it’s a pleasant stroke for the ego to be so frequently acknowledged as a miracle worker, Menashe would prefer to see a situation in which her services in this regard would not be required.
■ WHEN CHINESE and Israeli dignitaries get together they often talk about the similarities of the two ancient peoples with ancient cultures which have weathered the vicissitudes of time while others have faded into oblivion. Something else that Jews and Chinese have in common is the old adage about two Jews having three opinions.
At the opening at Jerusalem’s House of Quality of the “Jewish Refugees and Shanghai” exhibition, there were huge discrepancies between the written material and what was said by individual speakers about the number of Jewish refugees who found a hospitable haven in Shanghai before and during World War Two. That being said, it was fascinating to see how strangers who were a little short-tempered with each other in the heat of a crowded, un-air-conditioned room in which there insufficient seating, suddenly became friends when the speeches were over and they could go to view the modest but extremely interesting and thoughtfully presented exhibition that had been put together by Chen Jian, the curator at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum located in Shanghai’s restored Ohel Moshe Synagogue.
Chen told individual stories on posters that featured one, two or three photos plus biographical notes in English and Chinese. Former refugees peered at the boards to see if there was anyone they recognized and then instinctively turned to those around them to ask if they recognized anyone in the photos. The atmosphere suddenly become one of excited exchanges and reminiscences based on the common denominator of a background in Shanghai.
One of the highlights for members of the Chinese delegation that came to Israel was to return home with a little more material for the museum. It has not always been easy to trace former refugees and to find documents and photographs. Miriam Hausman, who was born in Shanghai and whose father was a refugee who worked there as doctor, presented the delegation with her father’s diary and other papers. Nina Admoni presented to the delegation part of the passport that had allowed her Polish family to travel across Europe to Shanghai..
During the war years, 500 Jewish babies were born in Shanghai.
Among the refugees was Michael Blumenthal, who used to deliver bread in Shanghai and entered the US in 1947 as a refugee and received citizenship.
He later became secretary of the US treasury.
■ IT HAS become a tradition for the Castro mega show to open the new fashion show season, and the company’s co-CEOs, Eti and Gabi Roter, were no less excited than if it had been their first show. With 60 models and a hugely varied collection for men and women, not to mention the venue of the largest facility at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds plus a gourmet breakfast, it’s hardly surprising that the whole affair cost somewhere in the range of NIS 1 million. Unless they’re shooting a film, a fashion catalogue or a commercial, Israel’s celebs usually get out of bed at around noon, but when it comes to Castro they all want to see and be seen, which is why most arrive on time for an early morning show.
Conscious of all the paparazzi hovering in the area, they want to be there long before the photographers get ready to shoot the show, in the hope that they will appear in the gossip pages of a print media or online publication – or maybe both. Castro has progressed to the extent that, whereas it once had only one presenter, it now has four: international screen actress and model Gal Gadot, international model Liraz Dror, Jonathan Wagman and Arik Mor.
The collection was reminiscent of the 90s with big collars, less clingy silhouettes, longer hem-lines and a lot of color amid the traditional fall/winter blacks, browns, greys and greens. The range of choices reflected the concepts of a 16-member design team.
Among the more familiar faces in the audience were those of architect Ilan Pivco; veteran fashion designer Raziella Gershon; socialite Batsheva Bublil; singer and recent first-time mother Efrat Gosh; celebrity chef Israel Aharoni; businessman Roni Mena who brought – or perhaps was brought by – his daughter, Yuli; head of the Shenkar fashion department Leah Peretz and multi-faceted designer Yuval Caspin. Although Castro is a mass-production company, it is interesting to see how many boutique designers attend its showings.
Aside from a display of camaraderie, it says a lot about what Castro has to offer.
■ WHAT’S in a name? Plenty, if it sparks the right associations. For instance one of the people who was this week appointed a judge in the Jerusalem District Court was Moshe Bar-Am. In Jerusalem, near Menorah Park (the “Horse Park”) on King George Avenue, there is a square named for Bar-Am, who nearly 40 years ago was minister for labor and welfare.
The square is located right next to the old Knesset building, which later became the Ministry of Tourism and is now occupied by the Chief Rabbinate.
Bar-Am’s, son Uzi, occupied the main office in the building during his stint as minister of tourism. However, it was not the name of Moshe Bar-Am that caught the ear of President Shimon Peres. It was the name of Yaakov Perski, who was appointed to the Beersheba District Court, that excited his interest. Perski was the president’s original surname before he took flight and became a falcon (Peres) – even though he’s a dove.
■ OVER THE past week, the whole world has been listening to Elvis Presley, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.
Last week marked the beginning of a week-long Presley resurgence on the 35th anniversary of his death, and DJs played every song he ever recorded.
Night owls who listen to radio in the wee hours got Presley in large doses, while daytime listeners got him in somewhat smaller doses.
On the local scene, Israel Radio paid tribute to actor, comedian and mime artist Shaike Ophir, who was arguably Israel’s greatest performing artist ever.
Born in Jerusalem to a family that had lived there since the mid 19th-century, Ophir, who died of lung cancer 25 years ago, was a successful actor in the United States and might have even stayed there but for two incidents.
One was when he discovered that his agent, who was also his employer in a night club, was holding back on offers because he wanted the talented Ophir for himself. The other was that Israelis who left the country permanently were labeled “yordim,” a derogatory term that literally means “going down,” as distinct from “olim,” people who rise up spiritually by moving to the Holy Land. He didn’t want to be known as a yored, so he came home.
His comedy skits, though recorded well over quarter of a century ago, remain relevant and funny, especially the Hamlet lesson done in Arabic English.
Ophir not only mimicked the Arabic accent but spoke Arabic fluently and, toward the end of his life, hosted a television show in which he taught Arabic and Arab customs. Although the equivalent of the Israeli Oscar is called the Ophir Award, Yonatan Gat, who co-anchored the two-hour memorial tribute on Reshet Bet, said that not enough has been done to maintain Ophir’s legacy. Much more should have been done to perpetuate the memory of an artist of Ophir’s stature, he said.
■ FOR MONTHS, her friends kept nagging Ruthie Blum, a former senior editor with The Jerusalem Post and currently a columnist with Israel Today about the book she was writing. They don’t have to nag anymore. The book, To Hell in a Handbasket – Carter, Obama and the Arab Spring, published last month, has already won a few accolades and is available on Amazon in hardcover, softcover and on Kindle.
The official Israel launch of the book will be on Sunday, September 2 at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem.
■ IT WOULD be interesting to work out the extent to which entertainers engage in monetary self-deprivation by giving their services gratis to any number of worthwhile causes. For instance, Marina Maximilian-Blumin, who was approached to perform for the patients at the Beit Levenstein Rehabilitation Center, instantly agreed. Stell Pinhasov had been to a concert where Maximilian-Blumin was performing with Gil Shohat and had been so impressed that after the show she impulsively approached Maximilian- Blumin and popped her question.
Maximilian-Blumin came to Beit Levenstein with her keyboard, which she played while she sang to patients, staff and relatives of both, who congregated on the lawns to listen to her and applauded wildly. A little happiness is not only good for the soul, but occasionally does wondrous things for the body too.