Grapevine: Bnei Menashe Wedding in Israel

All the world loves a wedding, particularly one with fairy tale connotations.

bnei menashe couple370 (photo credit: Michael Freund )
bnei menashe couple370
(photo credit: Michael Freund )
Napoleon has been credited with saying that an army marches on its stomach. In Israel, there is a popular saying that the people are the army.
This may explain why almost anywhere that anyone goes in Israel, one is plied with food.
The same held true for journalists covering the Obama visit. Those attending the welcome reception for US President Barack Obama at the President’s Residence on Wednesday were asked to be there by 2:15 p.m. for security reasons. Most journalists arrived before 1 p.m. and were shown to a large, windowpane marquee where tables covered with cream-colored cloths had been set up. In a far corner were boxes of airline- style meals containing schnitzel, rice, peas and carrots and fresh salad. There was also fresh pita in plentiful supply, plus hot and cold drinks and cookies. And then there was really nothing to do but wait, bringing to mind John Milton’s famous line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Presumably, the powers that be at the President’s Residence decided that the more food there is, the less painful the waiting would be. People ate, walked around the garden, congregated in the reception hall and tried to find some glimmer of information to add a new twist to their stories while they waited. The first sign of excitement was approximately half an hour before Obama’s arrival, when a police helicopter circled the area over the presidential compound several times. Shortly afterwards, the magnolia tree which Obama brought to Israel to plant in the president’s garden was brought in, wrapped in burlap. Circumventing quarantine regulations, the tree-planting ceremony went ahead as scheduled, but the tree was not planted directly into the ground so that experts from the Ministry of Agriculture can determine whether or not it will be damaging to Israeli plant life. They were going to remove it for inspection, but have found a way to examine it without uprooting it.
Although one of his two official limousines broke down in the morning, all was well in the afternoon when Obama’s motorcade arrived at the President’s Residence. The children who welcomed Obama waving flags and singing, had spent most of the day rehearsing and were tired and restless. Among them was a token Ethiopian, Emanuel Shiloni, who bore a remarkable resemblance to a young Obama.
US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and Israel Ambassador Michael Oren did not participate in the tete-a-tete between the presidents, but remained in the main reception hall, where they had front row seats, along with members of Obama’s delegation. Turning around to talk to some of them, the two ambassadors were like Siamese twins, moving their hands in sync and standing up at the same time and in the same way. It was quite amusing to watch. Channel 2 reporters Rina Matzliach and Dana Weiss tried to persuade them to be interviewed while they were waiting and, with a little more cajoling, Oren eventually gave in.
When President Shimon Peres and Obama finally emerged from their meeting, they mounted the stage and said very complimentary things about each other, while not forgetting issues such as Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. As the two exited the stage and moved in the direction of the door, Peres said to Obama: “Let’s walk slowly so the press can take photos.” A few minutes, later as Obama headed for his meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, it is doubtful that he noticed the few “Free Pollard” posters that were left along his route from the previous evening’s mega demonstration.
■ THE GOVERNMENT Press Office catered to pluralistic palates at the media center which it set up at the Begin Heritage Center, within easy walking distance of the King David Hotel, where Obama and his staff are staying, and the Inbal Hotel, where the White House Press Corps has set up its own media center. The sumptuous buffet at a reception held on the night before Obama’s arrival ran the gamut from felafel to sushi to cheese cake, with a huge variety of other delicacies and a non-stop refilling of platters. In welcoming the visiting journalists who came not only from America but from many other parts of the world to cover the visit, GPO director Nitzan Chen, an eighth-generation Jerusalemite, advised them not to miss out on tasting Middle Eastern food, which he said was the best in the world.
The GPO set up a truly professional press center with every facility that electronic and print media journalists could want, including rows of work spaces equipped with laptops. It also organized tours of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Gaza border and the Castel Winery, to give journalists a feel for the varied panoply of Israeli life.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was on hand to welcome the foreign media and, almost immediately after he spoke, there was a walking tour through the Muslim, Jewish and Christian Quarters of the Old City, with focus on places of religious significance.
The late Harry Hurwitz, who was the founder of the Begin Heritage Center and served as its executive director until his death in 2008, had been a newspaper editor in South Africa and had been very much involved in public diplomacy after settling in Israel. He would have been pleased and proud to see the BHC utilized as a media center.
■ THOUGH JERUSALEMITES living in the vicinity of the King David Hotel, the Prime Minister’s Residence and the President’s Residence were none too happy that Obama had timed his visit for just a few days before Passover, which would interfere with their holiday shopping because many roads were closed to traffic, there is no doubt that overall, Obama was a very welcome guest, charming his way into the hearts of the nation at every meeting and event. The ready smile, the warm embraces and the easy interaction with children did a lot to break down barriers.
But the bottom line is the cost factor. How much will it cost the Israeli taxpayer? Broadcaster Oded Shachar, who hosts Politica on Channel 1, frequently appears on Keren Neubach’s Agenda program on Israel Radio and occasionally anchors Israel Radio’s It’s All Talk, said this week on Agenda that despite the high rates and taxes paid by Jerusalemites, he had always been under the impression that municipal employees didn’t know how to work because there were so many cracked and broken pavements in the city, so many unpainted crosswalks and so much filth. But suddenly, this past week everything brightened up – at least on all the routes that Obama was traveling. However, both Shachar and Israel Radio’s Jerusalem roving reporter Shai Zilber noticed neglect and lack of cleanliness in parts of the city that Obama would not see.
In places that he was scheduled to stop or to pass, the attention to detail was extraordinary. At the President’s Residence for instance, where for years, the red carpets had been in mis-matched shades, suddenly all the carpets were the same shade of red. The roped-off barriers were replaced with brand new ones and the opulent, all-white floral arrangements of orchids, roses, lilies, gladioli and snapdragons in tall urns and vases must have cost a small fortune, not to mention the re-planting of the public gardens between the president’s and the prime minister’s official residences with a gorgeous array of brightly colored flowers.
Jerusalem did not have sufficient metal barriers to line the streets that were closed to traffic and had to rent hundreds more from out of town. All of the above is just a tiny drop in the ocean of expenditure at a time when umpteen charitable organizations were pleading for donations to ensure that no one goes hungry during Passover.
■ ONE WOULD not expect, after a long day in which the new Knesset speaker was voted into office and members of the 33rd government of Israel made their declarations of loyalty, that the president and the prime minister would be playing musical chairs at 10:30 in the evening. But that’s what happened.
All the ministers in the new government, some of them accompanied by significant others and their offspring, had come at the conclusion of their first meeting to the official residence of the president to pose for the traditional photograph of the president and the prime minister surrounded by members of the government. After both concluded their brief remarks, the stage was cleared and two upholstered chairs were placed side by side.
The first to leap up on the stage to stand beside Netanyahu’s chair was Silvan Shalom, as if to prove that he was already wielding his influence. Yair Lapid, the new finance minister, stood beside Peres’s chair but a little ahead of other ministers in the front row, in a pose that made him look more like a bouncer than a minister. In a gesture of courtesy, the males let all the females stand in the front row, but none pushed herself forward. Sopha Landver, Limor Livnat and Yael German stood in a cluster alongside Silvan Shalom, but there was plenty of space between Landver and Shalom. Tzipi Livni stood on the other side, between Meir Cohen and Yaakov Peri. Moshe Ya’alon, the new defense minister, who got the best deal in the agreements, felt no need to push himself to the foreground. He stood right at the back and Naftali Bennett stood directly behind Netanyahu, as if to protect him from behind.
Once the photo was taken, Peres and Netanyahu switched chairs and another photo was taken, after which they switched places again for yet another photo.
Before they left the President’s Residence, someone dropped off a beautifully frosted triple-tiered cake topped by two sculpted figures – Barack Obama waving the American flag and Shimon Peres waving the Israeli flag.
■ ALL THE world loves a wedding, particularly one with fairy tale connotations in which the bridal couple despite many obstacles finally tie the knot and live happily ever after. The Bnei Menashe, who migrated to Israel from the north east of India, and who believe themselves to be descended from one of the lost tribes of the ancient Israelites, have had a hard time in gaining acceptance in Israel. Though practicing a form of Biblical Judaism, they were not halachically accepted as Jews and had to undergo Orthodox conversion. Rabbi Eliahu Avichail, who founded the Amishav organization that was dedicated to finding the lost tribes of Israel and bring them back to Orthodox Judaism, was among the first to believe that the Bnei Menashe were indeed descended from exiled ancient Israelites. His work was subsequently taken over by Michael Freund, who later left Amishav and founded Shavei Israel which is equally dedicated to finding lost Jews and bringing them back to the fold, with the difference that its focus is wider in its search for lost Jewish communities, such as those descended from the exiled Jews of Spain or those who converted from Judaism, or the hidden Jews of Poland who lost their Jewish identities during the Holocaust and who are still in the process of discovering their roots. Freund, who also writes a regular column in The Jerusalem Post, this week attended the weddings of four Bnei Menashe couples who were married in accordance with the Law of Moses and of Israel in a special ceremony at Givat Haviva which was organized by Shavei Israel. One of the grooms, Gilad Singson, who made aliya in 2007, had waited six years for his fiancé Ashira to be able to immigrate. Hundreds of the 2,000-strong Bnei Menashe community in Israel took part in the ceremony that Freund termed “incredibly moving.”
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