Grapevine: Mimouna fever

Many interviewees of Moroccan background recalled that in the old country, Arab neighbors had always joined in the Mimouna festivities.

President Shimon Peres (C), former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar (L) and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (R) celebrate Mimouna festivities in Jerusalem. (photo credit: GPO)
President Shimon Peres (C), former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar (L) and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (R) celebrate Mimouna festivities in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: GPO)
Although the central Mimouna celebrations on Monday night were in Modi’in, neither President Shimon Peres nor Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu chose to go there.
Peres went first to the tent of former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar adjacent to the Ahavat Shalom Synagogue in the capital’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood and from there to the home of Shas leader Aryeh Deri in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.
Netanyahu and his wife Sara went to Or Akiva, where they were seated alongside Mayor Yaacov Edri and Reuma Weizman, the widow of Israel’s seventh president Ezer Weizman. She holds a special status in the town where both her husband and their son Shaul are buried.
Curiously, presidential candidate Reuven Rivlin, who has always been so passionately proud to represent Jerusalem where he was born and where he lives, did not include any of the Jerusalem Mimouna events in his Monday night itinerary. According to a notice sent out by one of his aides, Rivlin’s Mimouna festivities began in Yavne then continued to Rehovot and Lod, where Mayor Yair Revivo’s mother Esther was attempting to make the largest ever moufleta – the traditional Mimouna pancake dripping with butter and honey – for possible entry in the Guiness Book of World Records. Revivo, in an interview on Israel Radio, said that as the mayor of mixed Jewish- Arab city, he thought that it was much easier for the two sides to find common ground through culture and cuisine than through politics.
Many interviewees of Moroccan background recalled that in the old country, Arab neighbors had always joined in the Mimouna festivities.
Rivlin kept up with his Mimouna peregrinations on Tuesday, going to Dimona during the day and in the evening to Maskeret Batya where former Labor MK Rafi Elul and his wife Ofra have traditionally for almost thirty years hosted a post-Mimouna celebration. It enables everyone who was caught up in other Mimouna events to unwind on the lawn of their home. It also brings together people from different political parties in a spirit of mutual goodwill.
■ Nobody is more deserving of credit for Mimouna becoming a national festival than Sam Ben Chetrit, the chairman of the World Federation of Moroccan Jews. The highly educated Ben Chetrit was always pained by the stereotypically negative image given to Moroccan Jews, and he felt that this derived in part from ignorance of the wealth of their culture. So he set about introducing the rest of Israel to one of the most widespread of Moroccan Jewish traditions – that of holding an open house immediately after the conclusion of Passover. He recalled that the first guests who used to come year after year were Arab neighbors, who arrived dancing and singing and they brought flour to make moufletas.
Representatives from the government also came, because in the Morocco of Ben Chetrit’s youth, there was a healthy relationship between Jews and Arabs. When Moroccan Jews came to Israel, they learned to their dismay, that there wasn’t as good and as a healthy a relationship between Jew and Jew.
Some of the European Jews treated them with disdain, and if they weren’t disdainful, they were either critical or patronizing. The authorities tended to send Moroccan Jews to the most peripheral parts of the country where employment opportunities were scarce and where amenities were few.
“Who would have imagined that the World Federation of Moroccan Jews headquartered in Jerusalem would be giving scholarships to Israelis of Russian, German, Polish, Austrian and numerous other backgrounds?” Ben Chetrit said in conversation with the writer of this column some 30 hours before the start of this year’s Mimouna celebrations.
Unlike many other immigrant groups that provide scholarships only for their own, said Ben Chetrit, “We give scholarships to all including Arabs and Circassians.”
From 2004 to 2013, he said, the federation had distributed NIS 20 million in scholarships to 3,163 students studying for bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees.
■ WITH ALL that has to be admired in the federation’s work and in what the Mimouna represents, it would seem that not all is quite as rosy as it should be. When Ben Chetrit was asked about Mimouna celebrations in Jerusalem, he was very dismissive.
He said that it was just a small thing that had nothing to do with the federation and that he didn’t know anything about it. The key celebration would take place in Modi’in, he said. However, the local publications and afterwards the daily papers stated that the central Mimouna event in Jerusalem that was attended by Peres, was organized by the federation.
In actual fact, it was organized by Haim Cohen who heads the David Amar World Center for North African Heritage that is primarily dedicated to Moroccan Jewish heritage.
Cohen, is a former secretary- general of the Jerusalem branch of the Labor Party. His relationship with Peres goes back a long way, even before the time when Peres was chairman of the Labor Party. It was therefore understandable that Peres would opt to attend a Mimouna event that was organized by him. In addition, it was where former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar would be the principal host and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat would also be at the head table. Amar said that Peres had distinguished himself as president, especially in his quest for national unity. Peres said at this event and later repeated in Deri’s home that, just as Jews are commanded from generation to generation to remember that they were slaves in Egypt, they must not ignore contemporary issues.
“There is still slavery around us,” he said.
As for the Mimouna, he was pleased that what been imported to Israel as a Moroccan tradition has become a national tradition, in which everyone can appreciate the values of hospitality and family.
At Deri’s home, there was good natured repartee about Ashkenazim cashing in on Sephardi traditions.
Peres sat between Deri, who was dressed in Moroccan traditional garb, and newly installed Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen who was wearing a regular suit. At right angles from them sat Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef in his ceremonial regalia. There seemed to be something unbalanced in the seating arrangements considering that when Peres visited Yosef last week, in the course of his customary Passover calls on the chief rabbis, Deri sat at the head of the table with Peres and Yosef, but did not accord Yosef the same courtesy at his own table. Peres repeated more less what he said earlier in the evening to Amar, but before that Cohen said that although the president’s lifelong mentor David Ben-Gurion had not been religiously observant, he had great respect for religion. Deri remarked that the same could be said for Peres, who throughout the years had never missed an opportunity to visit with the late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the father of the present Sephardi chief rabbi. When he heard that Ovadia Yosef was dying, he dropped everything on his schedule to come and bid farewell to him on his death bed.
■ ASHKENA ZI CHIEF Rabbi David Lau, who was vacationing in the North last week, missed out on a visit from Peres simply because he was not at home to receive him.
Yosef and Lau are of like mind on the issues of the new conversion law and the need to change the Law of Return to prevent an influx of people who are not Jewish according to Halacha and who likewise were barely genetically Jewish. In response, Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, one of the sponsors of the legislation called on Yosef to continue in the footsteps of his father and to display courage in confronting difficult halachic problems and in finding humane solutions that benefit Israeli society and the Jewish people.
She suggested that Yosef convene an in depth halachic discussion on conversion to find a means of staunching a bleeding wound.
■ THE NUMBER of concerts and music festivals during the Passover holiday was astounding considering the size of the country – and all were reportedly well attended. The large auditorium of the Jerusalem Theater was 99 percent full for the 10th anniversary concert of United Hatzalah where the key performers were cantors Netanel Hershtik, Yitzchak Meir Helfgot and Shlomo Glick who are all Israeli born. Conductors Elli Jaffe and David Sebba are also Israeli born, though the same cannot be said for all the members of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra which they took turns conducting. It’s also not certain that everyone in the choir of the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute was born in Israel.
But what is amazing, considering that Israel as a state is about to celebrate its 66th anniversary, is that there is so much native born talent in such a small country. In addition, those who have talent can express genuine admiration for each other without any hint of jealousy. Founder Eli Beer said that since he was 15, all he ever wanted to do was to save people’s lives. Over the past year he revealed, Hatzalah medics and paramedics throughout Israel, have treated more than 209,000 people and have succeeded in getting response time to under three minutes.
The goal is 90 seconds.
It’s hard to tell how many members of the enthusiastic audience who roared their approval after almost every song, actually thought that indirectly they might be helping to save lives – but everyone who bought a ticket can definitely claim to have had a hand in saving a life because the proceeds were dedicated towards life saving equipment.
At least one member of the audience knew for a fact that he has contributed more than a little to saving lives – and that is Chilean mining billionaire Leonardo Farkas who adopted the Haifa and Safed Hatzalah divisions, underwriting all of their operational costs. The long haired Farkas was sitting in the front row when Helfgot called him on stage so that he could dedicate a song to him. The song was Puccini’s Nessun Dorma. Anyone who has heard Helfgot before knows that opera is part of his extensive repertoire, but it seemed somehow strange when coming out of the mouth of someone dressed in the garb of a Ger Hassid. Farkas sat on a chair half facing the orchestra and began conducting. There was nothing strange about that because he’s a former entertainer himself. He spent several years working as an entertainer in Las Vegas and on cruise ships before returning to Chile to take up mining. One of the Hershtik items on the program was Ein Keloheinu, which he told the audience he used to sing with his famous father Naftali, when the latter was chief cantor at the Great Synagogue. More memorable to congregants of the Great Synagogue was the moving rendition by father and son of Unetaneh Tokef.
On the program the singer of the song was listed as Netanel Hershtik and guest. As it happened, the guest was his nephew Shlomo Zichel, who is the 15th generation singer in the family. Hershtik and Zichel have sung together before, including at the Hampton Synagogue in New York where Hershtik is the cantor. Hampton Synagogue founder Rabbi Marc Schneier, a great supporter of United Hatzalah volunteers, was on hand to sing the organization’s praises from the stage. Given the popularity of the program and the important work that United Hatzalah is doing, it shouldn’t be too long before there is a sizable addition to its fleet of ambucycles.
■ THIS IS a milestone year for the Tourism Ministry in that in December the ministry will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the appointment of its first minister. That’s right, in a country that depends to such a large extent on revenues from tourism there was no tourism minister prior to December 22, 1964, when Akiva Govrin became the first person to hold this portfolio in an Israeli government. Up until June 1995, most tourism minister served two or more terms, but after that, the ministry became somewhat of a revolving door with no minister serving more than 18 months with the exception of the controversial Stas Misezhnikov who stayed at his post for four years. Current Tourism Minister Uzi Landau is doing his best to persuade investors to build more hotels, hostels and guest houses to accommodate domestic as well as foreign tourists and to help create greater competition with the aim of bringing down prices.
■ WHILE THE fate of the Israel Broadcasting Authority continues to hang in the balance, IBA broadcasters are continuing with their campaign to prevent Communications Minister Gilad Erdan from carrying out his threat to close it down. Liat Regev, who is one of the most hard-working radio and television broadcasters, and who has what is arguably the most radiophonic female voice on the airwaves, shared with listeners her great dream as a young law student at Tel Aviv University to become a broadcaster. Everyone had told her that she didn’t stand a chance because there were no vacancies.
Then one day she saw a very small advertisement for a teletext typist who would provide text for television programs. The building where applicants were told to go was next door to that of Educational Television, so for Regev, the geography alone was already a stepping stone towards the realization of her dream. It was August and most people were on vacation. She entered the building where she had come to apply for the job and wandered through empty corridors. Eventually a man came out from behind one of the closed doors, wanted to know what she was doing there and asked if he could help her.
“I want to work here,” she told him.
He introduced himself as Moshe Arbel, producer and director, and said that he was launching a new quiz show for youth on Educational Television and needed young audiences in the studio for every program.
He had all the staff lined up, but there was one piece missing from the puzzle, and that was a person willing to go from school to school and line up students to come and be in the audience. At that moment in time, there was nothing that Regev wanted more. She was absolutely willing to be that person, she told him. Once her foot was in the door, other opportunities presented themselves. She later became a researcher, moved to the IBA where she became an editor and eventually an announcer and an anchor woman interviewing all kinds of people on radio and television – and she’s still dreaming of doing more. If Erdan goes through with his plan, Regev would not be the only highly talented and highly qualified person to be put out to pasture.
■ HOW MUCH noise can the blast of 100 shofars make? Anyone who happens to be in the vicinity of the United Jewish Appeal Federation Building in New York on Tuesday, April 29 is bound to find out. Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America is protesting the inclusion in the annual Israel Day Parade on June 1, of organizations that call for boycotts of Israeli goods, finance organizations that promote Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel or produce videoed or printed material that in any way defames Israel. The rally is sponsored by the Hear O Israel Coalition that is comprised of almost a dozen groups and organizations.
Speakers in addition to Klein include: Rabbi David Algaze, the Coalition for Israel; Richard Allen, JCC Watch; Helen Freedman, Americans for a Safe Israel; and Beth Gilinsky, National Conference on Jewish Affairs.
■ AUSTRALIAN AMBASSADOR Dave Sharma will be attending his first Anzac Day memorial ceremony in Israel this coming Friday, April 25. The ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on Mount Scopus. Participants will include Australians and New Zealanders living in or visiting Israel as well as diplomats and military attaches from embassies representing countries that fought in World Wars I and II as well as in the Korean War and any other battles in which there were Australian and New Zealand soldiers. Anzac Day primarily commemorates those members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fell in the Gallipoli Campaign in World War I, but has come to include all Australian and New Zealand military casualties