Grapevine: A trio of walking history

Diplomat Yehuda Avner, educator Avraham Infeld and academic Avraham Avi-hai joined in celebrating the launch of Avi-hai’s novel A Tale of Two Avrahams in Jerusalem.

Steve Linde at Zionist Confederation House in Jerusalem (photo credit: Moshik Cohen)
Steve Linde at Zionist Confederation House in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Moshik Cohen)
Three men who collectively represent almost a quarter of a millennium of history came together this week at Zionist Confederation House in Jerusalem, to launch a novel that had been written by one of them.
A fourth, who was also an adult when the State of Israel came into being and had documented its development on many fronts, had been scheduled to participate in the launch, but was unexpectedly called abroad. However, David Rubinger, whose historic photos continue to grace the walls of the Knesset, sent a message that was read out by Steve Linde, editor-in chief of The Jerusalem Post and moderator of the Wednesday evening event.
Several people came late, not realizing, despite the clarity of the invitation and the newspaper advertisement, that this was not a canapés and wine affair. Rather, it was the coming together of three intellectuals: one from Britain, one from South Africa and one from Canada, who have each, in their own way, left their mark on the Israeli landscape. Diplomat Yehuda Avner, educator Avraham Infeld and academic and Jewish world activist Avraham Avi-hai joined in celebrating the launch of Avi-hai’s novel A Tale of Two Avrahams.
Earlier in the evening, the three – who have known each other for more than half a century – dined together and reminisced about their experiences of working with legends of contemporary Jewish history, such as David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Teddy Kollek, Uzi Narkiss and others whose names are inextricably woven into the fabric of Israel’s birth and growth. Small wonder then that Avner, who was the first speaker, began his address by saying that for him, the evening had a certain degree of emotional nostalgia going back to the 1950s.
Linde, who met Avi-hai for the first time only a few months ago, said he had been immediately captivated by Avi-hai’s charm and intellect. On learning that the activist’s first job in Israel in 1952 had been as a journalist with his paper – the then-Palestine Post – Linde promptly offered him a column, which Avi-hai has headlined “The POSTman Knocks Twice.”
Avner has also written many columns for the Post, and is the author of the highly successful book The Prime Ministers, which has been adapted for both documentary and feature films. In introducing him, Linde – a voracious reader – said it was one of the best books he’d ever read.
Before analyzing Avi-hai’s book, Avner credited him with paving the way for Avner to join the Foreign Ministry. In the 1950s, he said, they both were living in what is now Kiryat Hayovel. Avi-hai had by then begun working for Israel Bonds, and as a result he was one of the few people in the neighborhood with a car and a telephone. These two privileges – rare in the Jerusalem of those days – contributed to his popularity with the English-speaking residents of the neighborhood, many of whom used his phone for urgent communications.
Avi-hai was also an unpaid driver for pregnant women who went into labor, driving them to hospital when their babies were due.
Both Avner and Infeld found a certain symbolism pertaining to the biblical Avraham in Avi-hai’s novel, and it was interesting to hear these two eloquent and erudite men, who had not previously compared notes, voice similar impressions and opinions of the book.
While at dinner, Linde had asked the two who wanted to speak first.
Infeld had persuaded Avner to speak ahead of him, but after listening to his gripping oratory, declared he had no idea why he had persuaded him to do so – in that Avner was a hard act to follow.
Infeld found the book riveting – so much so that he read it twice. He was taken by the mystery, research and ability of the author to describe places he had never been to, yet was able to see so clearly now as a reader.
The first time around, he had found the book so absorbing he couldn’t put it down, and finished reading it in a single session. His only disappointment was that it finished so abruptly, because he would have enjoyed reading more. However, he was nonplussed by the footnotes, as before this he had never come across a novel with them. In fact, Infeld found the book sufficiently inspiring as to be used as an educational text.
When introducing Avi-hai, Linde described him as “a Renaissance man” and said he felt privileged to be the one who had given him the platform to facilitate his return to the Post.
It’s great to write a book and be eulogized when you’re still alive, quipped the octogenarian Avi-hai.
Relating to Infeld’s opening remark, Avi-hai said it was bad enough to follow Avner, but he had once had to follow Abba Eban.
Harking back to the days when he worked for Gershon Agron, the founding editor of the Post, Avi-hai said Agron, who was a great Hebraist, was once challenged as to why he produced a paper in English – to which replied that the Post is “a Hebrew paper in English.”
In writing his novel over a period of years and in choosing its title, Avi-hai said that the name Avraham made certain demands on him, in addition to which he wanted to show Jews as humans, ready to fight against fundamentalism.
He paid tribute to his wife, Henrietta, and other members of his family for putting up with him, particularly when he lost his temper.
Just as the name Avraham evokes many connotations, so too does the name Henrietta. Avi-hai’s wife was born to ultra-Zionist parents three days after the death of Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah – which is how she came by her name.
Asked by a member of the large audience about his next book, Avihai said it would probably not be fiction, nor would it be an autobiography.
More than that he was not prepared to say. In keeping the subject under wraps, he quoted the late Moshe Pearlman, a well-known British-born author who was the first official spokesman of the IDF, the founder and first director of the Government Press Office, and one of the early directors of Israel Radio, who was fond of saying “If you talk your book, you won’t write it.”
In the audience was one of Pearlman’s GPO successors, Meron Medzini, a prolific writer himself, whose byline has frequently appeared in the Post – and may soon do so again. Medzini’s father was a prominent journalist, his mother a childhood friend of Golda Meir.
Medzini actually spent many of his younger years in Meir’s household.
At the end of the evening there was a long line of people queuing up to buy signed copies of the book – not just one each, but in several cases two or three copies at the specially reduced price of NIS 50. Aside from natural curiosity about the book and the desire to buy it as a gift for others who might know the author, they wanted to contribute to a good cause. Avi-hai had announced that not a single shekel of the proceeds was going into his own pocket; all the money gleaned from sales that night would be directed towards the Hullegeb Israeli-Ethiopian Theater at Confederation House.
However, one man stood aside.
When friends tried to persuade him to join the line, he explained he already had a copy, but didn’t think Avi-hai could sign it – because it was on his Kindle.
■ AMONG THE last of some 40 events that were part of Israel’s first Polish Culinary Festival, last week’s night of wine and vodka songs took place at Jerusalem’s literati hangout Tmol Shilshom, the restaurant owned by writer David Ehrlich and named for the famous work by S.Y.
“Come early, because the place will fill up quickly,” said Erlich, and that indeed proved true. By 7 p.m. the restaurant was almost entirely full, and the event was not due to start until 8 p.m. The patio was also full, as was another section on the other side that was totally separate from the Polish event.
The difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was immediately obvious in terms of table talk. In Tel Aviv, most of the patrons would have been conversing in Polish. In Jerusalem, the conversations were in Hebrew.
Also, there wasn’t much in the way of Polish fare on the menu – just herring with sour cream, beetroot borscht with cream and potato kreplach with fried onions and sour cream. this journalist wasn’t the only patron who was disappointed. The kreplach were by far the most expensive, but the other two items are available in many restaurants all year round. Though tasty, the kreplach were a little too soft and a lot too cold, and were not even vaguely reminiscent of those that emanated from my mother’s Polish kitchen.
Then came the program, with singer Ofer Golani, historian David Assaf and playwright, translator, adaptor and raconteur Dan Almagor. Golani did a warm-up with some Hebrew songs that had not been borrowed from any Polish melody. Then he went into Russian and hassidic drinking songs, including one in Yiddish – but nothing in Polish. Assaf devoted most of his talk to the background of the songs, saying that Polish Jews didn’t know much about winemaking, because there were no grapes in Poland – so the only wine they made was sweet raisin wine; otherwise they drank vodka. Almagor, the son of a father from Warsaw and a mother from Lublin, said he could not remember ever eating good Polish cuisine. That, of course, may have been a reflection on his mother’s cooking.
By the time the program reached its halfway mark, Almagor was able to bring in some Polish content, by telling his audience that Natan Alterman, one of Israel’s most celebrated poets, was from Poland. He said his father, Yitzhak Alterman, was also a poet who had opened one of the first two Hebrew kindergartens in Warsaw in 1910. The tragedy was that both father and son were alcoholics, which explains why so many of the younger Alterman’s poems were about drink.
■ IT HAS become commonplace for members of ZAKA, the Israeli search and rescue organization, to rush to disaster areas around the globe to work as paramedics, and to aid in the recovery and identification of the remains of disaster victims. A fourmember ZAKA team from Israel and the US is currently in the Philippines, providing medical and humanitarian aid in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.
Recognized by the UN as an international humanitarian volunteer organization, ZAKA – which was founded by haredim – is a member of the UN Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System. The organization coordinated its arrival in the Philippines and its subsequent recovery efforts with the International Federation of the Red Cross, the IDF delegation and other international humanitarian agencies working in the area; this is not the first time ZAKA has worked alongside members of the IDF Medical Corps.
Generoso D.G. Calonge, the Philippine ambassador to Israel, assisted in connecting ZAKA with the relevant emergency services on the ground in the disaster area. The organization’s experience proved useful in helping the local Red Cross reallocate relief zones from geographical boundaries and focus instead on care priorities, the level of damage and the extent to which response was needed.
ZAKA chief officer Mati Goldstein, who is heading the delegation, is a veteran of international disasters. Yet even with all he has seen in the past, he found it emotionally difficult to cope with the nature and volume of the devastation, and the number of individuals and families who have lost their homes and have nowhere to go.
Only a day after its arrival, the ZAKA team went to three islands where rescue operations had not yet been initiated. ZAKA’s mode of travel was via a broken-down, raftlike boat. The team did its best to help those injured individuals who were in the greatest need of attention.
Later the team went to outlying islands, where it assessed the situation on the ground and with the help of the local sheriff, established an operations base and a makeshift morgue.
Operations chief Zvi Glick noted that ZAKA is ready to participate in humanitarian efforts anywhere in the world, and has participated in relief projects in Thailand, Haiti, Japan and elsewhere. The ZAKA volunteers are being hosted by Rabbi Yossi Levy, who runs the Chabad House in the Philippines.
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