Grapevine: In his grandfather’s footsteps

THE EXCITEMENT inside the Achdut Yisrael synagogue in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood was palpable.

Jerusalem (photo credit: NAAMA BARAK)
(photo credit: NAAMA BARAK)
THE EXCITEMENT inside the Achdut Yisrael synagogue in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood was palpable. This was the synagogue of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the legendary rabbi of the Lechi and Etzel underground resistance movements against the British Mandate authorities.
It was also the 45th anniversary of Reb Aryeh’s death. But even more important, it was the installation ceremony of Rabbi Benji Levene, the grandson of Reb Aryeh, who as a boy came from America during school vacation periods to stay with Reb Aryeh and who later came to live permanently in Jerusalem. There were four generations of people in the synagogue including Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and his father-in-law Rabbi Yitzhak Ralbag, who is a former member of the Chief Rabbinate Council and a former chairman of the Jerusalem Rabbinate Council. There were also Etzel and Lechi veterans and young congregants who had been born long after Reb Aryeh passed away. But almost everyone present knew his grandson, and rejoiced in the fact that he was continuing with his grandfather’s legacy. Not that he had asked to do so. After Reb Aryeh died, the congregation looked for a rabbi whose world view was similar to theirs. Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, who had been chief rabbi of Johannesburg in South Africa, fitted the bill quite nicely.
After his death in 1984, Rabbi Simcha Shlomo Levin, one of the sons of Reb Aryeh, became the congregation’s spiritual leader. Now frail and in poor health, he wanted to make sure that his father’s legacy would be continued.
As the father of daughters and no sons, Rabbi Simcha Shlomo thought that his nephew Benji was the ideal choice because he had spent so much of his boyhood with Reb Aryeh and had learned a great deal from him. So Rabbi Simcha Shlomo telephoned Eitan Vittelson, the gabai (beadle) of the congregation, and suggested to him that Rabbi Benji Levene be appointed in his stead. Vittelson, a lawyer, who grew up in Nahlaot and in the synagogue itself, and had known Benji for nearly all his life, agreed with him. In fact, he had been thinking the same thing himself. His father, Yosef Vittelson, who died three years ago, had been famous in Etzel circles, had been the beadle before him, and had promised Reb Aryeh on his death bed that he would make sure that the synagogue, which is dedicated to the underground fighters who were placed on the gallows by the British, would continue to hold services. Often it was difficult to get a quorum and the senior Vittelson would stand on Jaffa Road stopping passers-by to ask them to join the service.
Though deeply moved by his uncle’s gesture and by the fact that Eitan Vittelson also wanted him to take on the spiritual leadership of the congregation, Rabbi Benji did not give an immediate answer to the invitation.
First he went to see Yosef Vittelson’s widow Rachel, who now lives in the Beit Bart sheltered living facility, to ask for her permission – which she gave gladly. At his inauguration, he explained why he had done this. His father, Rabbi Yaakov Levene, had been sent to America as an emissary by Rabbi Chaim Berlin for what was supposed to be a few weeks but lasted 30 years. He served as a rabbi in different places and applied to be the congregational rabbi at a synagogue in New Jersey. He had been one of many applicants, and was the one eventually chosen by the synagogue board.
Although he wanted and needed the position, he would not immediately give the synagogue board an answer.
When he did eventually give his answer, he declined to explain why he had not been able to give it straight away.
Every week without fail, he visited Chana Bloch, the widow of his predecessor Rabbi Chaim Yitzhak Bloch and he took the young Benji with him.
One day, in the course of such a visit, he had to pay a shiva call and asked the rabbanit whether she would mind looking after Benji who was then five or six years old. After she had given him some milk and cookies she revealed why his father had not instantly accepted a position. Realizing how painful it would be for her to see another rabbi in her husband’s place, he had come to ask her permission, and had told her that if she would not give her permission, he would leave the following day never to return. She did give her permission, but even so, it took a whole year before his father sat in the rabbi’s seat.
Rabbanit Bloch was overcome by this generosity of spirit and this basic consideration for another human being.
The story she told has stayed with Benji Levene all his life, and it was that story that caused him to seek out Rachel Vittelson and get her permission to be the rabbi of the congregation.
She not only gave it, but sat in the front row of the women’s section to signify her absolute approval. His grandfather he said, had looked only for the good in people, It was a practice he hoped to continue.
■ EARLIER IN the day, Chief Rabbi Lau was the intermediary for the sale of leaven (hametz) by Shufersal co-chairman Shalom Fisher and the supermarket chain’s CEO Itzik Abercohen. Fisher told Lau about the efforts made by the company to ensure that people working in all its stores were familiar with kosher for Passover regulations, and what the company’s in-house bakeries across the country had done to ensure that there were ample baked goods that conformed with the strictures of the festival. Lau explained the law that prohibits Jews from owning and even seeing leaven during the Passover period, which is why it is contracted to a rabbi who in turn sells it to a non-Jew, and then buys it back after the conclusion of the Passover period.
■ YAD VASHEM’S design contest for a logo for the upcoming Holocaust Remembrance Day was won by Ira Ginsberg, who submitted a striking black and white concept of a forest in which the trees were black and the people were faceless white silhouettes.
Ginsberg who called her design The Forest of Testimony, based it on the fact that so many Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in the forests of Europe, which to this day bear silent witness to the atrocities committed there, and which in many cases contain the mass graves of the victims. The adjudicating committee was headed by two Israel Prize laureates who are amongst the country’s best known designers, Dan Reisinger and David Tartakover.
Reisinger was himself a child Holocaust survivor. At the award ceremony this week attended by Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat and Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev, Livnat emphasized that the more time that passes since the Holocaust, the more Israel and Jewish communities everywhere are obligated to document it in every way possible.
■ A FILM that is being widely used as a fund-raiser by organizations in Israel, as well as Jewish organizations abroad, is Orchestra of Exiles, which tells the story of how internationally acclaimed violinist Bronislaw Huberman, the founder of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, saved the lives of several European Jewish musicians by inviting them to come to Tel Aviv and form an orchestra. Huberman is regarded with such esteem in his home town of Czestochowa, Poland that the Czestochowa Philharmonic Orchestra bears its name and is headquartered in what used to be the Great Synagogue of Czestochowa.
On May 2, the synagogue will in part resume its original purpose when Israeli cantor Israel Rand, supported by the White Stork Synagogue Choir of Wroclaw will present a recital of Jewish liturgical music. Rand is no stranger to Poland and has performed at various religious, commemorative and cultural events in different parts of the country. The White Stork Synagogue Choir was founded in 1996 at the initiative of composer-conductor Stanislaw Rybarczyk with the aim of reviving the music of famous Wroclaw cantor Moritz Deutsch. Rubarczyk recruited students and graduates of the Wroclaw Music Academy and has appeared with them all over Poland.
The White Stork Synagogue Choir is the only choir of its kind in Poland.
■ FOR THE 13th consecutive year the Canadian Zionist Cultural Association (CZCA) in conjunction with the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers will underwrite the Israel Defense Force Seder for lone soldiers.
This year’s Seder will take place at the AWIS R&R resort village in Givat Olga, with the participation of Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz and 420 lone soldiers from more than 30 countries. For the soldiers, it’s not just a matter of congregating for the Seder. The IDF and the CZCA have prepared gifts and surprises for them as well, which they will all find in their rooms when they arrive.
■ ISRAEL’S HIGH Priestess of advertising Yafit Greenberg, better known as Gimmel Yafit, made her reputation and her fortune by personally advertising products and always signing off with the word “nekuda,” which in American English is period and in British English, full stop. However in her capacity as president of Pitchon Lev, one of several Israeli organizations that attempts to combat hunger and poverty, she omits her signature sign off. Broadcasting several times a day on radio in the hope that the public will contribute more money with which to buy food, Greenberg says that her organization is distributing 10,000 baskets of Passover products.
One can imagine that the reason she does not sign off with the word “nekuda” is because there is no end in sight to poverty, and this year many families are for the first time accepting charity food baskets, and in some cases, those who are receiving were among those who gave, and find the juxtaposition not only painful but embarrassing. The State Comptroller’s Report on the lack of food security is a mark of shame not on the needy but on the government, which should not be relying on voluntary organizations to feed the poor. Market vendors on Fridays throw out over-ripe fruit and vegetables, which they will not be able to sell the following week. The products are scattered on the ground in the market place and the poor scramble to pick them up. This is degrading and another means should be found for disposing of goods, which cannot be sold. This week there was a happening at the Port of Tel Aviv to show that even goods that be rejected by paying customers can still be turned into delicious cuisine. Some of Israel’s leading chefs got together, took delivery of the unsalable products, cooked up a storm and let anyone and everyone have a portion free of charge. The government should be doing more by way of creating an umbrella liaison, which ensures that the efforts of organizations that run soup kitchens, provide food coupons for the poor and deliver groceries to the poor are properly channeled and supervised so that no poor person in Israel goes hungry. After all, that is the beginning of the Seder service: “Let all who are hungry come and eat, and all who are needy, let them come and celebrate.”
■ ONE OF the biggest headaches for parents during the intermediate days of Passover is to a place that is safe, kosher (in the case of the religiously observant), family oriented and relatively inexpensive where there are provisions for children and parents can do their own thing without being constantly nagged by offspring. One such place is Mevo Mod’im, the moshav founded by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and populated by some of his early followers. The moshav hosts country fairs on either Passover or Succot or both and will be hosting its 13th fair on Thursday, April 17, beginning at 12 noon. The fair includes concerts every hour on the hour with different entertainers including all time favorites Benzion Solomon and Sons who live on the moshav, but who entertain all over Israel and abroad. The last concert will begin at 9 p.m. In addition there will be a video presentation on the life and legacy of Shlomo Carlebach by Dr. Natan Ophir who has also written a comprehensive book on Carlebach, a women’s tent in which there will be yoga, lectures, cymbal gong therapy and lullabies. There will also be yoga for children, theater, art, jugglers and story tellers. In addition there will be sports, games and face painting, and of course there will be stalls with different hand crafts. Parents and children can go their separate ways, come together again to eat and then separate once more. All children who have difficulty in locating their parents should be told in advance to make their way towards the stage where someone at the microphone will call out the parents’ names.
■ APRIL 17 looks to be one of the most popular dates for events during the holiday period. Chilean philanthropist Leonardo Farkas will be honored by the United Hatzalah first responder and rescue organization and three of Israel’s leading cantors: Netanel Hershtik, who currently is the chief cantor of the Hampton Synagogue, New York, cantor Itzhak Meir Helfgot, who is the chief cantor at the Park East Synagogue New York and cantor Shlomo Glick of Jerusalem.
They will be accompanied by the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute Choir and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. Conductors will be David Sebba and Elli Jaffe. Guest speaker will be Rabbi Marc Schneier, the founding rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue. The performance marks the 10th anniversary of United Hatzalah and all proceeds will be used for lifesaving equipment for United Hatzalah’s volunteers. Farkas who is a long-time supporter of United Hatzalah, and sponsored all the operational costs of the organization’s Haifa and Safed divisions, received international acclaim in 2010 when he gave $10,000 to each of the trapped Chilean miners.
■ YET ANOTHER April 17 event is the annual Passover luncheon hosted by IDC president Prof. Uriel Reichman, Jonathan Davis, head of IDC’s Raphael Recanati International School (RRIS) and vice president external relations and Rena Neiger, the director of RRIS. The luncheon in the lobby of the Arison-Lauder building is held for parents of IDC students, IDC supporters and special guests. Following the luncheon IDC will have an open house for would-be students and their parents.
■ AND ONE last April 17 event, even though there are many more: Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and Daniel Gordis will have a repeat conversation at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem of that which they held at Yeshiva University in New York in the first week of April. Their conversation will be based on Gordis’s recently published book Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul and will trace Begin’s life from Brisk to Jerusalem: The event attracted a full house and since both Soloveichik and Gordis are known for their eloquence and erudition, it was a resounding success.
■ ONE OF the Passover traditions in Jerusalem that can be either a family or an individual experience is the Klezmer Musicians and Dancers March, which begins in Yemin Moshe near Montefiore’s Windmill and concludes at King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion. The event, which is free of charge, begins with the klezmer band that is headed by Avrum Burstein, but ultimately evolves into a moving klezmer jam session as instrumentalists who play klezmer music but are not part of Burstein’s regular band, show up somewhere along the route and join in. This year’s klezmer happening will take place on Sunday, April 20 at 1 p.m. Klezmer enthusiasts who may not be available on that date can catch up with Burstein and his band on Saturday night in the Yung Yidish cellar in Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood. Yung Yidish also has a very active Tel Aviv branch in the building of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, where events are usually held on weeknights.
■ TIMES ARE more than a little tough for singer Eyal Golan, who on the one hand is coping with income tax evasion, and on the other cannot shake off the sex scandal in which he was implicated even though no charges were brought against him. The Haifa Municipality has canceled his Independence Day gig. He still has a couple of gigs elsewhere for Israel’s national day festivities, but it’s anyone’s guess whether other municipalities will follow Haifa’s example. Meanwhile he’s got at least two things on the bright side. He’s just released a new CD dedicated to the memory of his grandfather and on Saturday April 12, he will celebrate his 43rd birthday.
■ PARTICIPANTS IN reality shows on television become instant celebrities and are invited to a variety of promotional and social events. Most of them don’t last the distance and drop back into anonymity very soon after being disqualified from whatever reality show they’re in. But some have unique staying power like Jerusalem’s Malul twins, Merav and Hodaya, who sprang to fame in Beauty and the Geek. Most of the young women who appear in the show, whether genuinely or by design come across as airheads – the Malul sisters more so than others. But this has not prevented them from landing contracts as presenters of commercial products.
Judy Shalom Nir Mozes had a hunch that the twins were not quite as unintelligent as they seem to be, and interviewed them on her radio show last Friday, asking them whether it bothers them or their parents that their image was that of dumb bunnies.
Shalom Nir Mozes was carefully diplomatic in posing the question.
“That’s who we are”, each of the twins told her, but their responses to other questions belied that claim, because some of their answers were very intelligent. JSNM thought so too, and said as much.
■ CHINA IS in the news not only because of the visit there this week by President Shimon Peres, who is due to return home today, but also because of Chinese items that have become so much part of our daily lives. Many of the clothes we buy are Made in China. So are household appliances, office equipment, and even certain styles of Rosewood furniture. And of course Chinese cuisine remains a popular choice for the Israeli palate. Notwithstanding the growing plethora of celebrity chefs in Israel, the one who remains most identified with Chinese cuisine is Israel Aharoni who graced Jerusalem’s King David Hotel with his presence to lecture on China and the Silk Road. As a mark of respect to Aharoni, the hotel’s executive chef David Biton prepared a Chinese meal, which Aharoni consumed with relish.
■ COINCIDENCE may be just that and nothing more, but political pundits and conspiracy theorists might find a connecting thread between statements made this week in the United States by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman that were widely interpreted as new elections on the horizon, hints of the political comeback of former communications minister Moshe Kahlon and fresh allegations against the Prime Minister’s wife Sara Netanyahu. Although the prime minister defended her when he appeared on the television program State of the Nation, and the prime minister’s closest associates claim that the allegations about her mistreatment of staff in the prime minister’s residence are part of a smear campaign, the allegations, whether true or not, make her a political liability with regard to the Likud’s next election campaign. What is particularly disturbing is that if the allegations are true (and there have been other stories of irrational behavior when she has accompanied the prime minister abroad), that the PM’s wife does not seem to realize that she is not the employer of staff assigned to the residence, and has no right to make unreasonable demands of them.
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