Grapevine: Cultural springboards

Welcoming China’s culture minister, remembering the Holocaust through film, and hailing Rabbi Richard Hirsch’s new book.

311_white night (photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
311_white night
(photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
It remains an ongoing surprise that so vast a country as China, with ancient traditions that are at least as old as the Jewish people’s, is not only interested but eager to enhance its relationship with Israel on every level, not the least of which is in cultural exchanges. In the midst of completing his tour of duty, taking his leave of various high-ranking officials and preparing his gala farewell party for tonight, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jun had to busy himself with the visit of China’s Minister for Culture Cai Wu, who came with his delegation to renew the cultural exchange agreement between China and Israel and to participate in last week’s “Facing Tomorrow” Presidential Conference in Jerusalem.
It wasn’t just a matter of accompanying Cai at his various meetings, including one at the capital’s King David Hotel with Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat; Zhao also hosted a glittering reception in Cai’s honor in conjunction with Barry Swersky, founder and head of the China-Israel Cultural Exchange Society.
At both the reception and the meeting with Livnat, Cai emphasized the importance of relations between the two countries and said that cultural ties helped to strengthen relations in other spheres, especially when the artists came from so many other cultural disciplines. Among those attending the reception were actor Haim Topol, a good friend of Zhao’s; conductor and pianist Gil Shohat, who is a regular on the Chinese guest list; actress Idit Teperson; pianist and pedagogue Arie Vardi; Cameri Theater director Noam Semel, who hopes to take the current production of Fiddler on the Roof to China; Israeli Opera director-general Hanna Munitz, who left a rehearsal of La Traviata in order to attend, and who also hopes to take the country’s opera to China; tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who has a casino empire in China, and his wife Miriam; Israel’s Ambassador to China Amos Nadai; leading businessmen Idan Ofer; Chemi Peres and Dori Manor; philanthropist Lynn Shusterman, who supports the cultural exchanges between China and Israel; and singer Ahinoam Nini, who together with Mira Awad recently completed a nine-city tour of China, with a final performance at the Forbidden City. Cai heard her sing at the opening of the Presidential Conference.
US Ambassador James Cunningham is combining his farewell party with American Independence Day celebrations, which in essence means that the 30th of June will become the Fourth of July. Cunningham and his wife Leslie will soon take up residence in his next posting in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he actually arrived earlier this month.
Some of the guests will proceed from the American residence to that of Austrian Ambassador Michael Rendi for another of the clubbing nights he is hosting for young Israelis with Austrian ties. But most people who want to be part of a diverse and exciting cultural happening will head for Tel Aviv to join in the annual White Night, celebrating UNESCO’s declaration of the city as a World Heritage Site.
White Night celebrations include dozens of open-air events in various parts of the city, with street and theater performances continuing until just before dawn. For those who don’t want to wander around the city, there is ample entertainment just along Rothschild Boulevard.
For the more adventurous, some of the options include: Nini and Awad at Jaffa Port; a sunrise concert on the beach with Mati Caspi, Shlomo Gronich and Shem Tov Levi; sunrise yoga at the Tel Aviv Port; a marathon of indie rock bands outside the Tel Aviv Museum; a sound and light show on Bialik Street; Kobi Oz singing in Gan Hahashmal; a night market in Jaffa; and new Jewish songs at the Great Synagogue and the Ohel Moed historic synagogue. Special night tours will be offered by the Tourism Association, and restaurants throughout town will feature innovative menus.
Museums and galleries will stay open late, with many special exhibit openings.
Guests from abroad at the monthly Friday night dinner for lone soldiers, hosted by the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, included Harvey Schwartz, chairman of the America Israel Action Coalition; Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Betty Ehrenberg, the United States and North America executive director of the World Jewish Congress; and Tomer Orni, executive vice president of the European Council of Jewish Communities.
Among the regulars was rapper Shyne – the Belize-born, Brooklyn-raised ex-con who found religion and his Jewish roots and who studies in a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Dressed in his Shabbat finery of white stockings, a black and silver-patterned kapota, white shirt and a magnificent shtreimel, the rapper, accompanied by a small entourage of similarly dressed young men, went from table to table shaking hands.
The guests from abroad also mingled with soldiers, spending more time talking to them than partaking of the meal, and came away not only impressed but emotionally inspired that so many youngsters from different countries had come to volunteer in the IDF.
“You are defending not only the State of Israel, but the Jewish people,” Hoenlein told them.
Noting that it was the fifth anniversary of the incarceration of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, synagogue Vice President Zalli Jaffe asked everyone to join him in reciting a psalm for the safe return of Schalit and all the other Israelis captured or missing in action. Tziki Aud, who acts as a surrogate father to the lone soldiers, reminded the gathering that Americanborn Ilan Grapel, currently imprisoned in Egypt for alleged espionage, had been a lone soldier in the IDF just like them, and that right now he was in need of their prayers.
While filmmakers tend to focus on the here and now, some prefer to use history as a springboard into the present.
Several important Holocaust-related documentaries were shown in Jerusalem over the past week, and although feature films are usually greater magnets than documentaries, two films – Torn at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and The Last Flight of Petr Ginz at the Yad Vashem Auditorium – each attracted a full house, partially because some of the people seen in each film are still alive and are bridges between that awful time and the present day.
Torn, a challenging and sensitive documentary written and brilliantly directed by Ronit Kertsner, tells the story of Romuald Waszkinel, who, 12 years after becoming a Catholic priest in Lublin, Poland, was told by his mother that he was Jewish – that his biological mother had handed him to her through a window during the Holocaust years and that his real name was Jakob Weksler. Now living in Jerusalem, were he has many friends, Weksler is still Catholic, but is a regular congregant at the Mizmor LeDavid Synagogue in Talpiot.
Initially, when he applied for citizenship, he encountered a brick wall at the Interior Ministry, which, though sympathetic to his special circumstances, noted that by law, a Jew who converts out of the faith is ineligible to become a citizen under the Law of Return.
Apparently bureaucracy has a heart, however, and Weksler was recently notified that he has been given permanent resident status and can apply for citizenship in three years. As both a practicing Catholic and an ethnic Jew, he sees no conflict between the two. In fact, he was initially extremely opposed to the title of the film and still disagrees with it, but understands why Kertsner chose it. Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich, who was both in the film and in the audience, is a close friend of Weksler’s.
The Last Flight of Petr Ginz is about a Czech Jewish child prodigy who at age 14 was sent to Tereizenstadt and later to Auschwitz, where he was murdered at 16. His parents and sister Chava Pressburger survived, and waited in vain for his return. Ginz, a gifted writer and artist who wrote his first novella at age 13, might have remained only in the consciousness of his family were it not for Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, whose mother had survived Auschwitz. Prior to making his ill-fated journey into space, Ramon asked Yad Vashem for some item from the Holocaust to take with him.
He was given a copy of an extraordinarily accurate moonscape drawing done by Ginz in Terezeinstadt.
The drawing and other works by Ginz, as well as some of his short stories and the underground newspaper he wrote, had been miraculously preserved, and after Ramon’s fatal mission, the artist and his creative legacy came to public attention. Film school students at Wake Forest University in North Carolina took on a two-year project to make a film about him, using cartoons, animation, stills, archive news footage and live interviews with his sister, in a moving collage.
The film was directed by Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts, who with Prof. Randall Rogan, associate dean of WFU, came to Israel for the screening in the presence of Czech Minister of Culture Jiri Besser and Czech Ambassador Tomas Pojar. Had he survived, Ginz would probably have had a triple career as a writer, artist and astrophysicist. Besser said he regarded it as a privilege to be able, on his visit to Israel, to honor the memories of 78,000 Czech Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Pressburger said her brother symbolized the 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the Shoah.
Australian Ambassador Andrea Faulkner was in capital this week for the opening of the eighth Australian Film Festival, the fifth to be launched at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
The film festival, she said, enables Israelis to get the Australian perspective on universal themes and also gives them the opportunity to see something of Australia’s diversity. Albert Dadon, the initiator and chairman of the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange – who came from Down Under with his wife Debbie, AICE artistic director Keith Lawrence and the film’s producer Nelson Woss – declared how pleased he was to see that Lia Van Leer was still running the Cinematheque.
Kadima MK and former finance minister Ronnie Bar-On, a personal friend of the Dadons’, spoke of the importance of the film industry in immigrant societies such as Israel and Australia. Quite a few Australian accents were heard in conversation among members of the audience. They belonged not only to Australian expats, but also to Australians who had come to Israel for various conferences, such as MP Michael Danby and mega-philanthropists John and Pauline Gandel.
No music rings quite as sweet to anyone’s ear as praise from peers, colleagues and admirers. On that premise, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, the founding director of the Religious Action Center in Washington – where he served for more than a decade and which he made available to Martin Luther King as a Washington headquarters – and honorary life president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism – of which he was the executive director for more than quarter of a century – heard accolades from WUPJ chairman Mike Grabiner, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, Arzenu chairwoman Joan Garson, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
They had come together during the Jewish Agency Assembly in Jerusalem this week for the launch of Hirsch’s book For the Sake of Zion, which tells not only his story, but the story of the development of the Reform Movement in Israel and its impact on the Zionist enterprise. Individually and collectively, the speakers discussed Hirsch’s passion for and commitment to civil rights, the struggle for Soviet Jewry, the Reform spiritual, educational and cultural institutions that he pioneered in Jerusalem, and the Reform kibbutzim in the Negev and the Galilee. According to Sharansky, a lot of the people who have worked closely with Hirsch are unaware of the magnitude of his achievements.
“He brought the Reform and progressive world into the Zionist Movement,” enthused Garson.
“This is a man who has changed the Zionist world,” declared Yoffie, who noted that Hirsch gave himself equally to Zionism and the Reform Movement. In response, Hirsch, who made no effort to hide his delight, told the old Yiddish story about the hassidic rabbi who after Shabbat lunch, surrounded by his disciples, dozed off. Each of the disciples took it upon himself to sing the rabbi’s praises – his piety, his wisdom, his knowledge – until they ran out of things to say. Whereupon the rabbi opened an eye and commented: “And about my modesty you have nothing to say?”
French Ambassador Christophe Bigot hosted a special reception last week in honor of Alon Garbuz, director of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque; Katriel Schory, the director of the Israel Film Foundation; and Sayed Kashua, author, journalist and script-writer – all of whom were made French Knights of Arts and Letters.
In making the presentation to Garbuz, Bigot said how pleased he was that French culture had a special place in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, which hosts the annual French Film Festival. He praised Schory’s integral role in many French-Israeli co-productions, which helped give Israel increased exposure in French cinemas, and he described Kashua as an exceptional person who stood at the seam of two cultures and two narratives – Muslim and Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian. Bigot had warm words of praise for the generation of creative people Kashua represents, saying they chose to conduct a dialogue using humor and intelligence as their weapons.
It's a pity that the extremely important Anusim Conference on the Worldwide Awakening of the Descendants of the Secret Jews took place at the Netanya Academic College instead of at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, where the “Facing Tomorrow” conference was held.
There are doubtless millions of descendants of these Jews, who were outwardly Catholic but who practiced their true faith in secret during the Spanish Inquisition. Many of those descendants, though no longer halachically Jewish in the overwhelming majority of cases, continue to practice certain Jewish rituals without being aware of what they are, but know that they were handed down from generation to generation.
One of the driving forces for recognizing descendants of Anusim is Gloria Mound, director of Casa Shalom, the Institute for Marrano-Anusim Research Studies. She spoke at the conference, as did several academics and diplomats, including Spanish Ambassador Alvaro Iranzo; Prof. Michael Corinaldi, who heads the International Institute for Secret Jew Studies; and Dr. Tzvika Shaick, historian and museologist at the Donna Gracia Museum, Tiberias, among others.
It may be remembered that when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara recently hosted coalition members in the Galilee, they went on tour to Tiberias, where they were photographed with several women in period costume. These women were not identified in the press, but they are part of the Donna Gracia team.
Last year was the 500th anniversary of the birth of Donna Gracia, a great philanthropist who saved many Jews from certain death and established a refuge for them in Tiberias.
Another vital topic missing from the Presidential Conference, according to Ya’acov Ben-Shaul, was longevity.
Interviewed on Reshet Bet, Ben-Shaul, who has written a book on that subject, said that President Shimon Peres, at almost 88, serves as an example of a person sound in mind and body, still active, energetic and effective. Although there is a tendency to believe Peres is an exception to the rule, said Ben-Shaul, this is a fallacy. There are hundreds of people in Israel in his age group and older who are active and have much to contribute to society. Well over a century ago, when Germany under Chancellor Otto von Bismark adopted 65 as the retirement age, said Ben-Shaul, it was because people were not living nearly as long as they do today. Longevity will have an effect on almost everything in our lives, and retirement age will have to be extended, he said.