Grapevine: More to Hadassah than meets the eye

Esther Herlitz is focusing on getting Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities to know more about each other.

Esther Herlitz 370 (photo credit: Etan Tal, Wikimedia Commons)
Esther Herlitz 370
(photo credit: Etan Tal, Wikimedia Commons)
About to celebrate her 91st birthday on October 9, former diplomat, former Member of Knesset, former member of the Tel Aviv City Council, former secretary-general of the Tel Aviv branch of Na’amat, founding director of the Center for Volunteer Services, longtime director of the International Harp Contest and the World Assembly of Choirs in Israel and for 25 years a member of the Jerusalem Board of Overseers of the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, Esther Herlitz is still very much with it and is currently focusing on getting Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities to know more about each other.
She is making plans to attend the mid-October final session of Hadassah’s centennial celebrations in Jerusalem at which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be the keynote speaker. Herlitz has a big place in her heart for Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which she says has done much more for Israel than is generally known. The feeling is apparently mutual, because one of the prized possessions on display in Herlitz’s apartment is Hadassah’s Woman of Distinction Award, which she received at a special event at the Knesset in January 2003. The inscription states: “She set the standards for serving the Jewish People.”
Herlitz has enjoyed a close relationship with Hadassah, both in America and in Israel, for more than 60 years. She is tickled pink that the architect for the new Sara Wetsman Davidson Tower at Hadassah Medical Center was Arthur Spector, whose mother, Dorothy Spector of Brookline, Massachusetts, a member of Hadassah’s National Board was a close friend.
When Golda Meir was foreign minister, Herlitz was working as head of the guest department at the Foreign Ministry and took care of arrangements for the many African visitors whom Meir had invited to Israel. Among them was the health minister of Ghana, who was a tribal chief and who came with his secretary.
Herlitz arranged for them to spend a day at the Hadassah medical center. At around 11 p.m., she received a phone call from the secretary who said that the chief needs a woman. “That’s not my business,” Herlitz replied. “But you said they are a woman’s service organization,” the secretary protested. So much for semantics.
When Herlitz was Israel’s consul-general in New York, there was an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal for the sale of four of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These were of enormous value to the young State of Israel, but the state could not afford to cover the cost of purchase. Herlitz turned to Hadassah National Board member Esther Gottesman to share with her Israel’s concerns about the purchase and asked how she could possibly raise the required sum.
Gottesman told her not to worry, but to come to her home for Friday night dinner and to discuss the matter with her brother-in-law, well-known philanthropist David Samuel Gottesman, who had just returned from Israel. His reaction was what every fund-raiser would give an arm and a leg to hear: “What a wonderful project. Thank you for asking me.” He subsequently funded the construction of the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Before becoming consul-general, Herlitz had been first secretary at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, which was then headed by Abba Eban. In 1952, during the extreme austerity period known as the tzena when Israel was close to bankruptcy, Eban arranged a meeting with the Hadassah National Board and took Herlitz with him. At that time Hadassah had amassed considerable funds toward the construction of its medical complex in Jerusalem’s Ein Karem neighborhood. Eban wanted to borrow a large chunk of that money to pay off Israel’s short-term debts. The board initially denied his request, at which point Eban asked, “What is the point of having a hospital if the country goes broke?” That argument was not sufficiently convincing to sway the board, but Eban’s next statement did the trick.
“If you can’t give me a positive answer, I’ll go to you membership,” he said. Hadassah boasts the largest membership of any Jewish organization in America. The last thing the National Board needed was for its members to know that it had rejected a plea from Israel. The loan was granted.
Even before that, in 1951 when the Israel Bonds organization was established, Herlitz was at a gala launch function in Washington that was attended by Hadassah national board member and past national president Judith Epstein; the first United States Ambassador to Israel, James Grover McDonald; and US vice president Alben William Barkley. McDonald, the first speaker, said that he didn’t have to make a speech because he’d written a book, which anyone could buy in the foyer and he would happily sign. Barkley said he didn’t know how to write a book but that he grew apples in upstate New York and he would be willing to sign the box for anyone who bought a crate. When it was Epstein’s turn to speak, she said: “I sell nothing but the State of Israel, which I ask you to support.”
CONSIDERING THAT he’s 67 years old, it’s hard to believe that Mike Burstyn has been appearing on stage and screen for more than 60 years. But that’s what often happens to children whose parents are both entertainers and work together. Burstyn wandered out on stage when he three years old and upstaged his father. He was seven when he and his twin sister Susan started their careers on the Yiddish stage in New York with their parents, Lillian Lux and Pesach Burstein. The twins subsequently went on tour with their parents, arriving in Israel for the first time in 1954. Much of their childhood was spent in Israel, but Susan left the stage at age 18 when she got married and moved back to the US. In recent years she has devoted her energies to the study of the Davidic dynasty and the creation in Tel Aviv of the King David Museum and Research Center.
Mike Burstyn, who also lives in the US, is a fairly frequent visitor to Israel. He performs in several languages. He is fluent in eight languages and is learning his ninth – Russian. He mastered Dutch many years ago, but is in Israel to perform in Yiddish with Yaakov Bodo in the Yiddishpiel production of Hershele Ostropolyer, which opened last night in Tel Aviv. Further performances will be held in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Herzliya, Beersheba, Kiryat Motzkin, Jerusalem, Rehovot, Ashkelon, Kiryat Yam, Ness Ziona, Petah Tikva and Ashdod. The performances run through November 6.
FOLLOWING THE assassination last year of Juliano Mer Khamis, the son of a Jewish mother and a Christian Arab father, there were doubts whether the Freedom Theater he had founded in Jenin would continue to function. Mer Khamis, a noted actor, director and film maker, was also a political activist, as were his parents, who were among the leadership of Israel’s Communist Party. One of his mother’s big dreams was to establish a children’s theater group in Jenin, which to some extent she succeeded in doing in the 1980s. Seven years after her death, Mer Khamis, who was a complex character with one foot in the Israeli camp and the other in the Palestinian, decided to complete his mother’s project.
Mer Khamis went to Jenin to interview the participants in the original group, who by then were no longer children. Some had become militants and some could not be interviewed because they had been killed. In 2006, together with former al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade leader Zakaria Zubeidi, Swedish Israeli political activist Jonatan Stanczak and controversial Swedish-Israeli artist Dror Feiler, he established the Freedom Theater. Because of his own background, Mer Khamis was able to gravitate freely between Israelis and Palestinians and to identify with both. Notwithstanding his deep-seated pro Palestinian views, he had been a paratrooper in the IDF, had performed on stage with the Beit Lessin and Habima theaters and had appeared in both Israeli and Palestinian films. His assassination in Jenin was condemned by both Israelis and Palestinians.
A Palestinian suspect was detained and eventually released, and Mer-Khamis’s unidentified killer remains at large.
Stanczak continued as managing director of the Freedom Theater, but he and most others associated with it are under constant surveillance by the IDF and are frequently pulled in for questioning. That’s what happened to Nabil al-Raee, the theater’s artistic director, who was taken from his home in the predawn hours in the first week of June this year. Zubeidi had been arrested a month earlier, but in his case it was by the Palestinian Authority, which incarcerated him in Jericho.
In July, Raee was brought before an Israeli military court and accused of the illegal possession of arms.
Eventually both Zubeidi and Raee went on a hunger strike and Raee was released on bail. The opening of the Freedom Theater’s in-house production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, which had been scheduled for June but was delayed due to Raee’s imprisonment, finally eventuated on September 23.and played to a full house.