Grapevine: A private moment with God

Ben-Eliezer visits the Western Wall, singer Yehoram Gaon talks about the paparazzi, and Metzger entertains tots at a Seder.

311_Amar and Metzger at Joseph's Tomb (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Amar and Metzger at Joseph's Tomb
(photo credit: Courtesy)
DURING HIS many years as a career officer in the IDF, where he served as a commander in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, as well as in other important capacities, Labor Party kingmaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had several brushes with death. He was wounded in the War of Attrition, and he was the first commanding officer in Southern Lebanon. Yet he’d never felt closer to death than during his six weeks of hospitalization while being treated for severe pneumonia. He felt that he’d come back from the other side, he told reporters following his release last week from Assaf Harofe Medical Center. What does a believing Jew do when saved from death? He recites the Gomel prayer. And if he lives in Israel, he usually recites the prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. That’s what Ben-Eliezer did soon after leaving the hospital. He was accompanied by his son Yariv and Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen, and was warmly greeted by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites. Ben-Eliezer placed his head and face against the wall as he gave thanks to his creator. It was his private moment with God.
■ WHILE HEBREW University President Menahem Ben-Sasson, at a ceremony at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, was heaping praise last Wednesday on the late president Chaim Herzog and on former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, the recipient of the Herzog Prize, his son Hillel Ben-Sasson of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement – and an HU doctoral candidate in philosophy – was across town at the Notre Dame Center, which sits on the Green Line between west and east Jerusalem, advocating the importance of joint Israeli-Palestinian activity for the sake of the city’s future.
His plea was in the context of a conference on “Jerusalem in the Eye of the Storm,” the central theme of the new issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal co-edited by Hillel Schenker and Ziad Abu Zayyad. Close to 200 senior diplomatic representatives, Israeli and international media, students, researchers and activists attended and heard Schenker recall that when his uncle, Dov Barnir, was the youngest member of the first Knesset at age 37, Israel’s parliament had been located in Tel Aviv. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion transferred it to Jerusalem for fear that internationalization of the city, as proposed in the 1947 Partition Plan, might come to fruition.
Schenker fantasized that Tel Aviv would become the capital of Israel while Ramallah would be the capital of a future Palestinian state, though he realized that this was unacceptable to almost all Israelis and Palestinians. Abu Zayyad, who once served as Palestinian Authority minister for Jerusalem affairs, emphasized that “only east Jerusalem can be the capital of Palestine.”
Dr. Jad Isaac of the Applied Research Institute, Jerusalem, suggested that the “corpus separatum” idea of an international regime for the city, as stated in the Partition Plan, should be revisited. “It will be difficult to divide Jerusalem,” he said. Dr. Omar Yousef, director of Al-Quds University Jerusalem studies, disagreed and urged east Jerusalem Palestinians to actively seek their human, urban and civil rights. Among the other speakers was Hagit Ofran, who is the granddaughter of controversial philosopher and scientist Yeshayahu Leibowitz – living proof that the apple did not fall far from the tree.
■ THE PALESTINIAN influence on university campuses seems to be gaining in strength. Marvin Casey, the head choreographer of a recently launched hip-hop dance troupe called Tribe 13 – which is made up of new immigrants, is sponsored by the Jewish Agency, performs for visiting groups in Israel and acts as a group of cultural ambassadors abroad – has had some setbacks due to the influence of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which in March of this year pressured Washington University to revoke its invitation to the group.
More recently, the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, which welcomed the decision, announced its second annual Commemoration of the Nakba (catastrophe), which will take place on May 14, with proceeds from the event earmarked for the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund. The Palestinian Campaign is aided by Anna Baltzer, a Jewish-American Columbia graduate, former Fulbright scholar, and granddaughter of Holocaust refugees. Baltzer is an award-winning lecturer, author and activist for Palestinian human rights. She worked as a volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service in the West Bank and supported Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance to what she perceives as Israel’s occupation.
■ POPULAR JERUSALEM-BORN singer, actor, television host and Israel Radio current affairs commentator Yehoram Gaon, who also happens to have served for eight years on the Jerusalem City Council in the Arts and Culture portfolio, raised quite a storm last month when he criticized Mizrahi songs, saying that much of what was recorded was garbage, that the music was too loud and that the lyrics were an abuse of the Hebrew language. He didn’t mention any specific exponent in his negative remarks, but among the exceptions he admires, he included Shlomo Bar and Avihu Medina.
Gaon, who has previously couched his views in more diplomatic terms, made his remarks to Alon Katz, a communications student at Ariel University. His comments were subsequently published in a frontpage story in Yediot Aharonot and then taken up by other media. The issue was also raised in the Knesset. Katz, in a radio interview, claimed that Gaon knew he was being recorded and that what he said would be made public. Gaon, in his weekly radio show on Reshet Bet, denied this, saying he had been led to believe that he was simply helping out a communications student who had dogged him and begged him for an interview because an interview with a famous personality would earn him more credits.
The outcome is that Gaon will never fall into that trap again. He said as much on the radio. But he also said that he would not retract any of his comments. In an angry and emotional tone, Gaon said he was a proud Sephardi, and as such was allowed to speak about his (cultural) home.
Notwithstanding the storm, the Jerusalem-based Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies will award him the Rabbi Marc and Dr. Henia Liebhaber Prize next month for the promotion of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism.
■ ON FRIDAY of last week, Gaon, in a radio program, mentioned Justin Bieber’s aggravation with Israeli paparazzi. Gaon, who is not exactly unfamiliar with paparazzi, noted that if they didn’t know where you were, they didn’t stalk you. In other words, someone has to notify them.
Citing an example of a celebrity of whose presence the paparazzi were apparently unaware, Gaon named celebrated, prizewinning filmmaker Steven Spielberg. “No one knows he’s here,” said Gaon, simply because Spielberg was not interested in publicity. The people who complain about the paparazzi would be nobodies without them, Gaon remarked, adding that there was a mutual sycophantic relationship between the paparazzi and the celebs. The more the latter complain, the more they want be photographed, he said. Although Bieber didn’t get the best of reviews in Friday’s papers, he certainly got massive coverage – some of which he owes to the tenacity of the paparazzi.
■ LIKE MANY kindergartens in Israel, Kiryat Ono’s Gan Yarok B’Teva (Green Garden in Nature) held a model Seder to give tiny tots an inkling of what was to come. The excited youngsters and their teacher Daphna Belzer were joined by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. Parents had been advised that he was coming, so all the children were festively attired. Metzger apparently has a special rapport with children, because he succeeded in keeping their attention for a whole hour while he told them the Pessah story and sang Pessah songs with them.
Sometimes it’s more fun to be with junior citizens than with adults. At the conclusion of the model Seder, Metzger said he had never enjoyed himself so much.
■ ON SATURDAY afternoon, in his Shabbat Hagadol sermon at Jerusalem’s Yeshurun Synagogue, Metzger urged US President Barack Obama to pardon Jonathan Pollard immediately. This will be to Obama’s advantage if he wants to serve a second term, said Metzger. It wasn’t a matter of prophecy, Metzger clarified, but a gut feeling that many Jewish voters who supported Obama the first time around would not do so again unless Pollard was released from prison, because they could not go along with his indifferent attitude toward Pollard in the face of the numerous appeals on his behalf, some from people who have wielded great influence in the US. Before Obama starts imposing political strictures on Israel, he should prove his declared friendship by letting Pollard go, said Metzger.
■ WHEN HE was in Budapest last September to participate in the ceremony marking the rededication of one of the city’s oldest synagogues, which for some years had been used as a television studio, and prior to that as a textile museum, Metzger met Istvan Tarlos, who was running for mayor of the Hungarian capital, and gave him a blessing, plus an invitation to visit Israel. The blessing proved effective: Tarlos won the election and, as a devout Catholic, decided that he should visit the Holy Land as soon as possible, especially because he was born in May 1948, just a few days after the establishment of the State of Israel. His visit was facilitated by the Rabbinical Center of Europe. Tarlos was accompanied by Rabbi Shlomo Kovesh, the Chabad emissary to Budapest. In addition to meeting Metzger and touring the Western Wall tunnels, he met with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat as well as with Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv mayors Rabbi Ya’acov Asher and Ron Huldai. He was particularly impressed with the religious character of Bnei Brak.
■ POLISH AMBASSADOR Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska hosted a reception last week for Spark Pro, an Israel-based organization that works with the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the British Council, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jezreel Valley Academic College and several other entities in an ambitious exchange program between young Poles and young Israelis aged 21-35 to change their perceptions of each other, to learn to know each other and each other’s cultures and to form friendships. The program is the brainchild of Boaz Yardeni, the son of Holocaust survivors, who believes that while we should not forget the painful chapters in Polish- Jewish/Israeli history, it is time to write a new positive chapter.
It is amazing how ignorant people from both countries are about each other. Some 25,000 Israeli youth go to Poland each year to visit the death camps, he said, and their whole perception of Poland is that of a graveyard. They see very little of the new, modern Poland. Similarly, said Timothy Rabinek, one of the Polish young people who participated in the program, Polish people’s image of Israel is shaped by what they see on their television screens – mainly war and guns. Poles are surprised to discover a very different Israel, said Rabinek, who fell so much in love with the country that he’s now living here.
Tal Grayevsky of Migdal Ha’emek, who also participated in the program, is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and grew up with a negative image of Poland. She was happy to have been on the program, “because this enables you to see the positive side.”
Ten Israelis and 10 Poles spend an intensive week together in each other’s countries. They live in a guest house, eat together, go out for coffee or a beer together, go to concerts, art shows, lectures and the beach, and learn about each other’s countries and each other as human beings. Many of the participants will hold key positions in the future, says Yardeni, and this will bode well for both Poland and Israel. Spark Pro conducts “before” and “after” surveys to see how the views of participants have changed – and the results are astounding.
■ WRITING IN Yediot Aharonot last week, veteran journalist Shimon Schiffer, who covers the political scene, could not understand why Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein had to make his announcement about the impending indictment of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman almost on the very eve of the Festival of Freedom. Fifteen years after the commencement of investigations against Lieberman, a year and a half after the police recommended that he be charged with the most serious of crimes, and months after the Attorney-General’s Office promised to publish its decision quickly based on police recommendations, the lot finally fell on the eve of Pessah, wrote Schiffer.
Though not familiar with all the details of the case, Schiffer wondered what was burning, and why Weinstein, after so much time had elapsed, could not postpone his announcement for another week. In the past, wrote Schiffer, delivering this kind of news on the eve of a festival was simply not done.
Earlier in the week, Schiffer’s colleague Itamar Eichner, who frequently writes gossip items about the Foreign Ministry, was asked whether he thought that any announcement about Lieberman would be made within the next few days. “Not before Pessah,” he replied. “It would be in bad taste.”
Lieberman obviously had a premonition, which is why on the night before the announcement, he visited the great halachic legal expert Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak to ask for a blessing – which he received.
■ ON THE day following the headline news about Lieberman, Israel Beiteinu MK Anastasia Michaeli e-mailed Pessah greetings to friends in Israel and abroad in a card that emphasized the importance of freedom historically, nationally and personally. The card, which bore the national crest, an illustration of a kiddush cup with a stack of matzot and a sketch of Michaeli’s face, came in three versions: Hebrew, English and Russian.
Given the wording, the timing was interesting: The card was sent at 2:19 a.m., only a few hours after the Israel Beiteinu convention.
Michaeli has come a long way since meeting Yoseph Samuelson at a technology exhibition in St. Petersburg. A graduate in electrical engineering and telecommunications, the statuesque Michaeli was also Miss St. Petersburg and a successful model. She converted to Judaism, married Samuelson and settled in Israel 14 years ago. In Israel she also worked as a model and studied business administration at Bar-Ilan University. In 2002, she joined the Israel Plus Russian-language television station, where she worked as a journalist and presenter. Outside of her working hours at the station, she continued to occasionally accept modeling assignments.
She was also involved in several Jewish Agency projects related to immigrants and potential immigrants from the FSU. She was a frequent guest at the home of the Russian ambassador and was on the regular guest list of several of Israel’s leading socialites. Because of her wide social circle, many politicians sought her out and invited her to join their parties. In 2005, she accepted the invitation of Ariel Sharon to join Kadima, but failed to gain a Knesset seat. She joined Israel Beiteinu in December 2008 and was placed ninth on the Knesset list. The party won 15 seats in the elections.
Michaeli and her husband have eight children, for whom she personally prepares breakfast and lunch. Motherhood has not impeded her activities. She sits on some half a dozen Knesset committees, occasionally sleeps at the Knesset so she can catch up on her paperwork, and still has a busy social schedule. She has also traveled abroad with Knesset delegations. It would not be at all surprising if, in the event that Lieberman has to step down temporarily from public life, Michaeli would leapfrog over some of the more prominent members of the party to take up the reins of leadership.
■ BRITISH AMBASSADOR Matthew Gould and his wife Celia attended the launch of British menswear brand Topman’s flagship store in Israel. Topman is part of the Topshop group, which belongs to British billionaire and philanthropist Sir Philip Green, who spends considerable time in Israel and donates to several Israeli causes. The Israel franchise for Topman belongs to Sakal Holdings, whose chairman, Haim Sakal, joined Gould in cutting the ribbon signifying that the store was now open for business.