Grapevine: Oh say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light?

July 4 bashes for US diplomats, a fond farewell for China’s ambassador, and the Israeli Madame Tussauds.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Bennie Gantz 311 (photo credit: Ariel Harmoni / Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Bennie Gantz 311
(photo credit: Ariel Harmoni / Defense Ministry)
The fourth of July came early this year for outgoing US ambassador James Cunningham, his wife Leslie and members of the US Embassy engaged in hosting and preparing the celebration of America’s 235th anniversary of independence. Guests were admitted to the residence from 5:45 p.m. on Thursday, and by 6 p.m. there was quite a large gathering on the lawns, even though one side of the street had been sealed off to pedestrians as well as cars.
According to the program, the formal part of the evening was scheduled to begin at 8:50 p.m., although in the published schedules of both President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, it was listed as 8:30 p.m. In the final analysis, it didn’t start until 9:30 p.m. Netanyahu jokingly blamed IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz for the delay because Peres, Netanyahu, Gantz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had all been at the Hatzerim Air Force Base for the graduation ceremony of cadets receiving their pilot wings. The ceremony had simply taken longer than anticipated.
Mark Regev, the prime minister’s adviser on the foreign media, did not accompany his boss to Hatzerim. In fact he was one of the first people to arrive at Cunningham’s reception and brought his daughter Danielle, who was attending her first diplomatic affair just before doing her compulsory army duty. She has no intention of applying for a position in the IDF Spokesman’s Office, even though she is fully bilingual and has her father’s genes. She wants to be a combat soldier.
The food options at the reception were not nearly as plentiful as in previous years, when several hotels and restaurants manned booths serving a large variety of dishes from their respective kitchens. Invitees, who had telephoned the Protocol Office of the US Embassy in case there was a need to RSVP, were told in a recorded message that there was no need, but that they should come armed with their invitations. They were also advised not to wear high-heeled shoes, and for those to whom kosher food was important, the message included an assurance that it would be available. The invitation itself stated that glatt kosher food would be provided by Rabbi Matityahu Cheshin, who is widely known as the haredi consul, and the recorded message added that there would be food catered by the kosher-certified Mazal Tale.
For all this, waiters and waitresses walking through the grounds of the ambassador’s residence with trays of finger food were asked again and again if it was kosher, and the reply was always in the negative. Eventually this writer caught up with Mazal Tale owner Danny Hacker who also owns Food Art, a non-kosher catering establishment.
Hacker explained that he was not there in his Mazal Tale capacity, and that the food he was serving was kosher-style, not kosher. Because he is not religiously observant, he said, he is doubly careful about where and when he provides kosher catering, because he does not want to put his kosher enterprise at risk. Knowing that there would be non-kosher food outlets at the event, he absolutely refused to come in under the Mazal Tale label. He wasn’t using the Food Art brand that night, either.
Suffice to say that aside from Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, the only kosher food under rabbinic supervision was that provided by Cheshin – and there wasn’t nearly enough of it. His area at the top of an isolated hill in back of the grounds was frequented by every haredi guest, including Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and ZAKA founder Yehuda Meshi Zahav, among others. Plenty of people to whom the Jewish dietary laws are inconsequential also helped themselves to the limited glatt offerings.
Finally, Deputy Chief of Mission Thomas Goldberger announced the entry of the official party and the presentation of the colors by the US Marine Corps Security Guard Detachment. Anthony Harrison sang the American national anthem, while Maya Gur sang “Hatikva.”
Cunningham noted that both the US and Israel had struggled against the odds in defense of freedom. He added that America had a broad understanding of Israel’s security issues and that today the search for genuine peace was more urgent than ever, but could only be achieved through negotiation. In talking about what had impressed him and his wife during their period of service here, he underscored “the complexity and diversity of your society and the tremendous promise of your wonderful country – the homeland of the Jewish people.”
Netanyahu nodded approvingly.
Peres, who spoke after Cunningham, said that for most Israelis, America was an “indispensable nation, then and now,” standing up for what was right and just and fair, defending freedom, safeguarding liberty, searching for peace, protecting democracy and advancing the shared values of both countries.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, commented that those who had come to the ambassador’s from the Hatzerim ceremony had come in American planes. He also expressed appreciation to the US for its generous military support, most recently in its willingness to assist Israel in the purchase of additional Iron Dome anti-missile systems.
Speaking of the battle of the forces of freedom against the forces of tyranny, Netanyahu said: “I don’t think there has been a greater force for good than the United States of America.”
In thanking Cunningham for his service and assuring him that he would always be welcome in Israel, Netanyahu said: “You can always come back for R&R.
We’re close by.” Cunningham’s new posting is Afghanistan.
The evening ended with a fireworks display, which, like the Hatzerim ceremony, had the official party constantly looking upward.
■ THE CUNNINGHAMS are not the only members of the embassy leaving Israel. Preceding them by a few days were Consul-General Andy Hilton-Parker and his wife Sheryn, who seemed to be playing musical chairs in a round of farewell parties hosted for them and for outgoing Russian Ambassador Petr Stegny and his wife Margareta.
The Hilton-Parkers’ next posting is to Montreal, Canada, while the Stegnys are returning to Russia. Margareta Stegny is a former president of the International Women’s Club, where Sheryn Hilton- Parker was a former vice president.
Suzette Reyna, another former president of the IWC, together with club member Naomi Cherpak, hosted yet another farewell for the Stegnys at the Vino Socca in Herzliya Pituah, which the Hilton-Parkers attended only a few days before they left Israel.
Artist Sali Ariel, another former IWC president, was at that party and at another one two days later hosted by Egyptian Ambassador Yasser Reda and his wife Nahla.
The latter party, like all the other farewell gatherings, had a large representation of the diplomatic community, including Japanese Ambassador Haruhisa Takeuchi and his wife Nabuko, Latvian Ambassador Martins Perts and his wife Elita, Indian Ambassador Navtej Singh, and Israel’s former ambassador to Germany Avi Primor and his wife Tziona – who is the incoming vice president of the IWC. The Hilton-Parkers partied till the last minute.
Their house was a lot emptier once they had packed and sent off all their belongings, so friends organized yet another party there. They managed their last round of farewells at the Cunninghams’ Independence Day bash, and then headed for the airport.
■ AMERICAN EXPATS who were not invited to the ambassador’s affair met elsewhere to celebrate America’s 235th birthday. Democrats Abroad-Israel, the Israeli chapter of the American Democratic Party, decided to combine the occasion with its Annual General Meeting and also chose June 30 instead of July 4 – perhaps because it coincided with Tel Aviv’s White Night, which brought tens of thousands of visitors to the city that never stops, and which indeed provided free entertainment options right through Thursday night until dawn on Friday.
The Democrats Abroad congregated at Beit Daniel, which houses Tel Aviv’s main Reform synagogue. Participants raised glasses of wine in salute to Independence Day and listened to Prof. Arye Hillman of Bar-Ilan University give a provocative presentation on “Why American Jews Vote Democratic,” based on the analysis by neo-con Norman Podhoretz in his book Why Are Jews Liberals? Podhoretz asserts that liberalism has replaced Orthodox Judaism as the “religious” basis of their identity.
DA-Israel Vice Chairman Hillel Schenker countered that American Jews vote Democratic as an expression of their values and interests, which are based on a combination of social justice, charity and tikkun olam (repairing the world) and a desire for a secure place within American society.
Executive members elected at the meeting were Chairwoman Joanne Yaron, vice chairman Schenker, Counsel Sheldon Schorer, Treasurer Ethel Magal, Secretary Rebecca Littman Rowe, Jerusalem Coordinator Gayle Meyers Cooper, and Members at Large Dorothy Fajans, Efrat Benn and Jonah Gribetz Rubin. Recent immigrant folk singer Tali Sachs performed a moving version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which was sung at President Barack Obama’s inauguration by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen.
Schenker, who is also co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, was in Vienna this week for a three-day conference on the proposed regional/international conference on a Middle East Nuclear and Mass Destruction Weapons Free Zone, which is scheduled for some time in 2012.
■ CHINESE AMBASSADOR Zhao Jun, who leaves Israel next week after four years and two months, does not conform to the usual stereotypes. A gregarious, hail-fellow- well-met type, he can tell jokes at his own expense and is not shy about expressing affection for his friends.
He did both with gusto last week at the gala farewell party that he hosted at his residence in Kfar Shmaryahu.
“Toda she-batem!” he exclaimed joyfully to his guests as he proceeded to explain the trials and errors he had undergone while learning Hebrew. About two years ago, he said, he had hosted a function for Bar-Ilan University, and while standing with BIU President Moshe Kaveh, had heard him say, “Toda she-batem, toda she-baat, toda shebata…” Puzzled, Zhao had turned to Kaveh to ask why he kept referring to Shabbat on a week day. Kaveh enlightened him on Hebrew grammar and vocabulary, and that’s how he learned the Hebrew singular, plural and gender differences for “Thank you for coming.”
Zhao’s wife and son did not accompany him to Israel, remaining in China. However, they did come to his farewell. Although he had been alone, he said, he had not been lonely, because he had made so many friends.
In particular, he singled out multifaceted businessman and philanthropist Nochi Dankner, to whom he referred as “my brother.” Indeed, Dankner – who stood in an informal honor guard with his wife Orly, Defense Minister Barak and his wife Nili, and Ruth Kahanoff, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general for Asia and the Pacific Region – listened intently to every word. Another close friend, Idan Ofer, showed up after the speech with his beautiful and heavily pregnant wife Batya – who, despite her condition, wore spike-heeled shoes – and quipped that if she gave birth at the residence, the baby would have Chinese citizenship. This didn’t happen, though they did pose for endless photos with the ambassador and his family, as did the Dankners.
Zhao was proud of the extent to which China-Israel relations developed during his tenure, and noted the high-level visits by visitors on both sides. He was pleased that the Israeli authorities permitted Chinese to be studied as a subject for the bagrut (matriculation) exams, and that bilateral trade had grown to $7.65 billion – roughly 150 times what it was when the two countries established diplomatic relations 19 years ago. There are more than 200 Israeli enterprises operating in China, said Zhao, who also referred to the massive and, he said, mutually beneficial financial deal between ChemChina and Makhteshim Agan.
Many people have asked him what he’s doing next, he said, “but after Israel, who cares what will be next?” To a non-stop musical background of “Auld Lang Syne,” Zhao said he was leaving with bittersweet feelings, because he found Israel so beautiful and had made so many friends here. On the other hand, he was pleased to be going back to China and his family. His successor, Gao Yanping, is a capable and experienced diplomat, he said, adding that he was sure she would do well in Israel.
Shi Yong, the deputy head of mission, expressed pride in what Zhao had accomplished, saying it had been not only a privilege, but also a pleasure, to work with him.
■ FORMER ISRAELI ambassadors to China, including the first, Zev Suffot, were among the many guests. Suffot, who has been back to China many times, will be there again this month accompanying Miriam Adelson, the relatively new chairwoman of the Council for the Promotion of Israel-China Relations, and introducing her to the executive of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship in Foreign Countries.
For Suffot, this will be the closing of a circle, in a way – but not one related to China. Adelson’s father was the owner of the popular Atzmon Cinema in Haifa, which no longer exists. When Suffot was a soldier in the fledgling IDF in 1948, he went to that cinema whenever he had leave. And now he’s escorting the owner’s daughter, who is married to one of the richest men in the world, to China.
■ AN ELDERLY gentleman with a shock of white hair and a bemused expression on his face sits outside the ladies’ bathroom. It doesn’t take a second look to see the remarkable resemblance to Albert Einstein. On closer inspection, it is Albert Einstein, and no, this is not a hallucination.
The extraordinarily lifelike Einstein is one of dozens of famous people from academia, politics, tyranny and entertainment who populate the new Israel Wax Museum, located in the lobby of the Imax 3D complex in Eilat.
Not all the figures are as recognizable as Einstein. Some of them, such as Lenin, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden definitely are, but if one doesn’t read the text alongside Madonna, she becomes just another anonymous, short blonde. There’s something amiss with Elvis Presley as well, and Luciano Pavarotti, though recognizable, is somehow off-key. Even though the disparity in the likenesses is a little jarring, it’s fun to see how many of the wax figures one can identify. The Terminator – aka, Arnold Schwartzenegger – is almost lifelike. Barack Obama is a poor imitation of himself, looking more like a crooner than a US president, while Bill Clinton actually looks better in wax than he does in the flesh. David Ben-Gurion, meanwhile, looks a bit thin.
Okay, it’s not Madame Tussauds, but it’s a nice idea, and it’s the brainchild of New Yorker Bennet Kaplan, who – along with three fellow Americans, Peter Israelson, Moshe Strauss and Herbert Seif – launched Imax in Eilat in May 2004 at an investment of $11 million.
Kaplan wanted to enhance the lobby by adding something that would capture the attention of people waiting to go into the cinemas at the complex. A wax museum, with its attendant graphics and its bilingual biographies containing bits of trivia, was an ideal means of keeping the waiting public happy.
Kaplan, who frequently commutes between Israel and the US, has a special place in his heart for Eilat. “I love this city and everything that happens here,” he says.
Many people have asked why he opened a wax museum, and his answer is simple: “The show must go on.”
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