Grapevine: Happy Chinese New Year!

THE FIRST Hebrew words uttered by Chinese Ambassador Gao Yanping were “shana tova,” according to Hebrew University President Prof. Menachem Ben- Sasson.

Chinese new year 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
Chinese new year 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
THE FIRST Hebrew words uttered by Chinese Ambassador Gao Yanping were “shana tova,” according to Hebrew University President Prof. Menachem Ben- Sasson, who, a little over two years ago, soon after Gao’s arrival in the country and before she presented her credentials, had invited her to join his family and other guests at their Rosh Hashana table. They taught her that “Happy New Year” in Hebrew is “shana tova.”
She obviously learned the lesson well, because she repeated it many times this week at the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival celebrations that she hosted at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv.
While the greetings in English and in Hebrew are relatively easy to pronounce, the pronunciation in Chinese Mandarin is a real tongue twister – though not for Gao, who occasionally interrupted her address to have her guests say it with her. Ben-Sasson had it written down but couldn’t quite get the hang of “xin nián kuài lè,” nor could any non-Chinese who was present. Gao was obviously amused.
Chinese and Jewish new year customs are similar in that the focus is on family gettogethers and food. “The Chinese New Year is a time for family reunion. The Chinese who are far away from home will make every effort to go home, even thousands of miles away,” said Gao, whose husband came from Beijing to join her. “As we are here in Israel, we celebrate the new year with you, our most cherished Israeli friends, as members of our family,” she said. At the conclusion of her address, she expressed good wishes familiar to the Jewish ear: “good health, good luck, good fortune and family happiness.”
Seizing on Gao’s reference to family, former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, who was introduced without the first adjective, and corrected the moderator by twice stressing the word “former,” said that everyone present was happy to be part of Gao’s family. “Please keep this in mind for inheritance,” he said.
In her own address, Gao had referred to the China-Israel relationship as being “in the best ever shape.”
Elaborating on this, Ayalon caused a ripple of laughter through the audience when he said that Israel and China together constituted 1.5 billion people. He also commented on some of the notables present, including outgoing Agriculture Minister and former MK Orit Noked, who happens to be his first cousin.
Ayalon also told Gao how much he had enjoyed working with her, adding that she had really made her mark in Israel. China is now the third-largest market for Israeli exports with bilateral trade for this year, expected to reach $10 billion. Netanya Mayor Miriam Fierberg-Ikar praised Gao for being “a wonderful, strong lady,” adding “I like it.”
Fierberg-Ikar, who also has a reputation for being a strong lady, took advantage of her place on the podium to sing the praises of Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar whose political future may be hanging on a sexual thread. “We admire Gideon Sa’ar,” she said, and, before returning to her seat, invited everyone to come to Netanya for Sunday’s Purim carnival.
The main purpose of the event was to create awareness of Chengdu in the Chinese hinterland, which was the starting point of the ancient South Silk Road. Zhong Laishao from the Chengdu Foreign Affairs Office was on hand to tell those present that Chengdu, which is located in southwest China, has a history reaching back 4,000 years and a population of 15 million. “It is the fastest growing city in the world,” he said. “Once you come to Chengdu, you’ll never want to say goodbye.”
Even if they are not traveling to China at this time, guests had the opportunity to sample Chengdu cuisine, which is tasty but super spicy, and to marvel at the dancing and singing talents of the China Chengdu Art Troupe, whose ornate, colorful costumes were a treat to the eye and whose agility and synchronization were truly remarkable. Some of the music and the dancing that went with it were reminiscent of America’s Wild West, suggesting that China may have had a greater influence on Western culture than most people realize. The piece de resistance of the evening was Face Changing, a centuries-old tradition in Sichuan Opera in which visible and tangible masks are used to reveal the invisible and intangible emotional changes of the characters. In this instance it was only one character whose mask changed whenever he stamped his foot. The spellbound audience with cameras held high in the air was astounded at the speed with which the masks changed almost automatically, like changing news flashes on a computer screen. At one stage the performer showed his true face, and then a split second later the mask came down again. The overall show could best be characterized as Chinese cabaret, with a huge range of variety and loads of talent. Audience reaction said it all – and many in the audience were diplomats and international business executives who are frequent flyers and have seen a thing or two in their travels.
■ IT’S VERY frustrating when there are multiple important functions on the same night at the same time. Nonetheless, Ayalon managed to make it to the David Intercontinental Hotel, a little further south on the beachfront, to congratulate Serbian Ambassador Zoran Basaraba and his wife, Jelena Kunovac, who were hosting Serbia’s National Day Reception, as well as Armed Forces Day, co-hosted by Col. Rasa Lazovic and his wife, Lilijana.
The hotel ballroom was packed with diplomats from many of the foreign missions in Israel, underlining Serbia’s enhanced image on the world stage. Among those seen rubbing shoulders with were Serbian Consul Milica Vujovic, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Peled, spymaster Rafi Eitan, Serbian Honorary Consul Abe Neeman, the eternally radiant Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III and “Grapevine” spy for the evening, Michael Freund, who writes a regular column in The Jerusalem Post and is the chairman of Shavei Israel, which is dedicated to bringing “lost” Jews back to the fold.
Large Serbian and Israeli flags fashioned entirely out of flowers hung from the ceiling, and the chatter in the room fell silent as the national anthems of both countries were played. In his remarks, Basaraba spoke poignantly about the close historical links between Jews and Serbs, noting that “today’s Serbia is going through a difficult period of its history, losing part of its ancestral lands. Looking at Israel through the lens of Jewish resurrection and regeneration can and should serve as an inspiration.”
■ AFTER EIGHT years as head of the IDF’s foreign press branch, Col. Avital Leibovich stepped down this week to take up her new role as head of interactive media, which, she said, “opens endless opportunities to consolidate the IDF’s online presence.”
She listed online pages in the full spectrum of platforms, including the Israel Defense Forces website, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Flikr accounts and the IDF blog. The interactive media branch is vibrant and creative and a real turning point in IDF media relations, she said.
When Leibovich first took up her position as head of the IDF’s foreign press branch, there were only two media desks – North America and Europe. Today the department can boast of its ability to communicate in more than 10 languages, with a full set of departments: Europe and North America as well as South America, Asia, Russia and Arabic desks. Four years ago, the department moved into the Jerusalem Capital Studios building in Jerusalem because it wanted to be open and easily available to foreign media, many which have their offices in the JCS building. It wasn’t just a matter of supplying information but also of facilitating visits to and tours of IDF outposts, bases, drills and training exercises in the ground force, air force and navy as well as in all four area commands. Leibovich’s successor is Peter Lerner.
■ MARCH 8 is International Women’s Day, but for the family of the late Dave Kimche and for the Foreign Ministry, the Mossad and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, the date has a different significance altogether because it marks the third anniversary of Kimche’s death. It is particularly interesting at this time for the ICFR to hold its annual Kimche memorial seminar, because so much is happening in the environments in which Kimche was so much at home. As a deputy head of Mossad and a spymaster par excellence, he would no doubt have been interested in the Ben Zygier saga. As a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and founding president of ICFR, he would be concerned at Israel’s political isolation in the world. As someone involved in the Iran-Contra affair in the mid-1980s, he would be engaged in various think tanks cogitating over how to prevent the nuclearization of Iran, and as someone who traveled widely in the Arab world, he would have been fascinated by the overthrow of tyrannical regimes and the ensuing chaos. The seminar will be held on March 10. Details of the venue have not yet been made public.
■ ALL OVER the country on Purim, people run around delivering baskets of food and drink to relatives, friends and business acquaintances. In some cases, in lieu of such gifts, which many of the recipients don’t really need, people are contributing to Leket Israel, the national food distributor to the needy; Leket then sends out e-cards to let people know that someone has contributed in their names.
One sector of society that is often overlooked on Purim is that of Holocaust survivors.
At least 70 of these will receive baskets of goodies that will be delivered by Albar leasing company employees in cooperation with Latet, a humanitarian organization that provides help for the needy. Albar CEO Yinon Amit said that it was a privilege to be able to bring some joy into the lives of lonely Holocaust survivors. Cooperation between Albar and Latet began half a year ago, just before Rosh Hashana, when Albar put its resources at the disposal of Latet to acquire, pack and deliver food packages that would enable poor families to properly celebrate the holiday. According to Amit, it is part of Albar’s strategy to give back to the community, and its activities in this sphere expand from one festival to the next. It is very important for the strong to support the weak, he said.
■ INTERNATIONAL AGUNAH Day traditionally coincides with the Fast of Esther, and thus fell on Thursday. The International Council of Jewish Women has recognized the value of a research project carried out by Dr. Nechama Hadari on the issue of get (halachic divorce), and has awarded Hadari the second ICJW Academic Research Prize.
Lea Aharonov, immediate past president of ICJW, chairwoman of the ICJW Research Prize Committee and a liaison officer for Jerusalemheadquartered World Emunah, said that Hadari was a natural choice because helping agunot – women chained in marriages from which they wish to extract themselves – has long been an ICJW priority. Agunot are women whose husbands have abandoned them or who for some reason have disappeared without proof that they are no longer alive. Some people confuse agunot with mesurvot get, who can usually pinpoint their husbands who keep them trapped in loveless marriages because they refuse to give them a Jewish bill of divorce.
Hadari will be presented with her prize at the closing ceremony of the ICJW quadrennial Herczeg Jerusalem Seminar for Jewish Education, which will take place at the Jerusalem Gardens Hotel on May 5 through 8.
The International Council of Jewish Women represents 52 Jewish women’s organizations in 47 countries. ICJW has consultative status at United Nations bodies, the Council of Europe and the European Women’s Lobby and represents women in major international and regional Jewish organizations. Among the issues they champion are human rights, Jewish legal rights for women, opposing domestic violence and human trafficking, fighting anti- Semitism and racism and encouraging interfaith dialogue between women around the world.