Grapevine: Yekke pride

A museum on German-descended Israelis, a Torah in Tel Aviv, and a Scandinavian celebration.

311_UK ambassador Gould (photo credit: Courtesy of British Embassy )
311_UK ambassador Gould
(photo credit: Courtesy of British Embassy )
FOR “YEKKES” – people of German and Austrian background – all roads on Thursday will lead to the Tefen Industrial Park in the Western Galilee, established by Stef Wertheimer, one of the most successful and best known of Israeli yekkes. The industrial park also contains an open museum and a Yekke Museum, the latter devoted to the documentation of the people of the fifth aliya – those who fled Austria and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and took an active role in the creation and development of the State of Israel.
Now, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of this particular aliya, the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin (which includes second- and third-generation Israelis with yekke ancestry, as well as people from countries that border Germany and Austria, and where German was spoken in border towns and villages) has organized an event under the title “Derech Hayekkim” (The way of the yekkes). The association, which was founded in 1932, runs three homes for senior citizens, maintains nursing home facilities and provides assistance and support with the social, economic and cultural absorption of immigrants and young people from German-speaking countries.
Among the better known yekkes in Israel, including those no longer in the land of the living, are composer Paul Ben Haim; philosopher Martin Buber; publisher Gershon Schocken; professor of Jewish mysticism Gershon Scholem; state comptroller Yitzhak Nebenzahl; the country’s first Nobel Prize laureate, Shai Agnon (who, though born in Galicia, lived for several years in Germany); controversial philosopher and scientist Yeshayahu Leibowitz (born in Latvia, but studied at the Universities of Berlin and Basel); former government minister and leader of the National Religious Party Yosef Burg; Moshe Landau, the presiding judge at the Eichmann trial, who was born in Danzig; as were former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar; politician, diplomat, economist, banker and real estate developer Zalman Shoval; and former diplomat and former Keren Hayesod world chairman Avi Pazner. Former Haifa and Yeroham mayor Amram Mitzna, who is a candidate for the leadership of the Labor Party, is the product of German-born parents.
Yekkes also founded urban and rural centers such as Nahariya in the North and Kibbutz Hafetz Haim.
■ EVERY SHAVUOT Micha and Yael Taubman, who divide their time between Palm Beach, Florida and Jerusalem, make a point of being in the Holy City to celebrate Micha’s birthday in the company of close friends and admirers. The Taubmans have had various homes in Jerusalem, and over the years, friends have gathered in these or others’ homes to conduct Shavuot services followed by a birthday brunch.
This year was no exception. The hosts were Heidi and Scott Lawrence, who made their home in Katamon available for the occasion. The large backyard area had been set up for both the prayer service and the brunch, with the added permanent touch of a chicken coop.
The morning prayers at the Carlebach-style service led by Rabbi Joe Schonwald, a longtime friend of the Carlebach family and founder of the Shlomo Carlebach Foundation, included a few traditional non-Carlebach melodies, but an eyebrow or two were raised as worshippers realized that he was singing “Hodu Lashem Ki Tov” (Give thanks to the Lord for He is good) to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”
This may have been a concession to the fact that Neshama Carlebach, the famed rabbi’s daughter and a popular singer and lecturer in her own right, has been singing with the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir.
Whatever the reason, Schonwald’s rendition sounded great. There was only one Cohen at the service to utter the priestly blessing on the congregation, and that was Ralph Goldman, who is the guiding force behind Israel’s social service infrastructure and who, at 96, is three years older than the birthday boy. Goldman obviously enjoyed the role, and Lawrence – a Levite, whose duty it was to wash Goldman’s hands each time he gave the blessing – said how wonderful it was to be in Israel, where he could perform this sacred duty 400 times a year instead of the four times a year that he did it in the US.
Another guest was Selwyn Gerber, an investment adviser and Jewish community leader from Los Angeles, who came to Israel especially for the occasion and recalled that in 1978, he, then newly arrived from South Africa, and Taubman had worked together to build up the Jewish community of Venice in California. Gerber said that in Cape Town, where he grew up, the houses didn’t have numbers, but names. One such name, Linga Longa, prompted his birthday wish to Taubman: “to linger longer.”
Also present was Tony Sachs, a Jerusalem-based property manager who grew up with Gerber in Cape Town and was delighted to be reunited with him. Sachs led the second part of the service. The Torah readings were beautifully done by Noam Ebner, who was also born on Shavuot, albeit 55 years after Taubman.
Taubman and Ebner were not the only people celebrating a birthday. So was Ovadiah Eluk from Mazkeret Batya, who was there coincidentally after reviving a long-lapsed friendship with art teacher and children’s-book author Maureen Kushner, who has known Taubman for over 30 years. Eluk was thrilled to discover that Shuli Natan had been invited to sing “Jerusalem of Gold” – without the usual guitar accompaniment – in honor of Taubman’s birthday. In 1967, Eluk celebrated his birthday on top of a tank in the battlefield to a background recording of Natan singing that song, which at that time was the new, uplifting national hymn. Meeting her in person on his birthday 44 years later was the closing of a circle.
■ RELIGION, OR at least religious outreach, is coming to secular Tel Aviv.
With noisy nightclubs as its neighbors, Aish HaTorah, which is headquartered in Jerusalem’s Old City, has established its Tel Aviv branch in Kikar Atarim – about as secular a location as one can get. Rabbi David Ziering, one of the directors of Aish Tel Aviv, was on a high this week because his parents, Gerald and Judith, had donated a Torah scroll to the Aish building on the Tel Aviv seafront.
The Zierings brought the scroll and Torah scribe Moshe Flummenbaum with them from Jerusalem, and the final letters of the Torah were inscribed in Tel Aviv by a series of men, Gerald Ziering being the last.
Flummenbaum stressed the importance of the 300,000-plus letters in the Torah, saying that just as each Jew is important, so each letter is important. The comment was later reinforced by Gerald Ziering, who, when speaking at the festive dinner after the dancing in celebration of the event, said that if only one letter of the Torah were rendered invalid, it disqualified the Torah from use. But if that flawed letter were fixed, the Torah could be used again. Fixing or writing one letter, then, becomes equivalent to writing a whole Torah.
After the last letter was written, the Torah was held aloft under a bridal canopy, and the exuberant crowd went out singing and dancing to a four-piece band. Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau arrived just as the dancing stopped and the canopy was being folded away.
It all started up again in his honor, and he danced the Torah back inside the building. Lau addressed the crowd on Jewish heritage, saying that the word “heritage” was mentioned only twice in the Bible – once in connection with Eretz Yisrael and once in connection with the Torah itself. His father-in-law Rabbi Yediya Frankel had asked him as a young man to explain the difference between heritage for the Torah and heritage for Eretz Yisrael. Lau confessed to having been nonplussed. It’s very simple, Frankel had told him: Every Jew, knowingly or unknowingly, observes some aspect of the Torah, but not every Jew sets foot in Eretz Yisrael. Even today, said Lau, only 15 percent of American Jews have visited Israel.
■ IN THE family of the Bank of Israel governor, it’s usually Stanley Fischer who’s in the limelight – at least in Israel. But his wife Rhoda had both the first word and the last word this week at a ceremony naming both of them honorary fellows of the Israel Museum, along with Jerusalem residents Sheila and Nahum Gelber, formerly of Canada, Susan and Dan Propper, and Estelle Yach of South Africa.
No one could tell from their happy demeanors that Fischer, because of his age, had been disqualified that day from competing for the top job at the International Monetary Fund. In fact, responding to museum chairman Isaac Molho’s announcement of the honorees’ names and countries, Rhoda Fischer said it was “a heady experience” to hear him say they were from Israel.
“None of us can remember a time when Israel did not occupy a prime position in our lives and those of our families,” she said, recalling with what pride her father had come to Israel from Bulawayo to attend the first anniversary celebrations of the nation’s independence. Rhoda and Stanley Fischer first came to Israel in 1961 as high school students on a Habonim leadership course and kept coming back for years afterward. Since the Fischers moved to Israel permanently in 2005, their sons and grandchildren have made a point of visiting at least once a year – and they always include the Israel Museum in their itineraries.
■ BEFORE THE commencement of the honorary fellows ceremony, Israel Museum Director James Snyder paid tribute to the memory of Dov Gottesman, the lovable and legendary president of the museum who died this year, after having served as museum chairman from 1995 to 2001 and president since then. There was no way that his absence could not be felt, said Snyder, noting that this was the first meeting of the International Council without Gottesman present. Snyder recalled that it was Gottesman who had brought him to Israel, putting his confidence in someone who had never been here before, didn’t know the language and didn’t know much about the country. Gottesman and his family had adopted the Snyders, making them feel very welcome. Gottesman had remained a friend and mentor, calling several times a day, said Snyder. He missed those calls very much, he said.
Recalling her many years of working with Gottesman, Maureen Cogan, co-chair of the International Council, could not contain her emotions, and wept throughout her address. Both Snyder and Cogan assured Gottesman’s widow Rachel that she and their sons Assaf, Noam and Yoav would always have a place in the hearts of the Israel Museum family.
■ BRITISH AMBASSADOR Matthew Gould is a keen fan of celebrated British historian Sir Martin Gilbert – so much so that not only did he host an Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association function at his residence with Sir Martin as the guest speaker, he also went to Tel Aviv University on the previous day to hear him speak about the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of the state. The jam-packed event at TAU was organized by the British Council.
At the Ambassador’s residence, Sir Martin spoke about the three-quarters-of-a-million Jews who had been expelled from Arab countries, and said that they must be an integral part of any future negotiations on refugees.
The establishment of Israel sparked off a wave of violence against Jews, forcing their flight from Islamic countries, he said, noting that between 1948 and 1951, Israel had absorbed 500,000 Jews from Arab countries, compared to 100,000 people from Europe. While Israel didn’t want to look upon them as refugees, the United.Nations recognized them as such.
Sir Martin also praised Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion for not bowing to the wishes of those influential politicians who wanted to impose quotas for immigration from Islamic countries. Ben-Gurion was adamantly in favor of unrestricted immigration, said Sir Martin, quoting the former premier’s credo that “there is no basic difference between Jews from wherever they come from.”
Arab discrimination against Jews is not a phenomenon generated by the birth of the Zionist Movement, Sir Martin pointed out; ever since Muhammad (who had two Jewish wives) battled Jews in Medina 1,400 years ago, Jews have suffered discrimination, but were also welcomed in some Islamic countries, where they reached the highest positions. Sir Martin cited Turkey as a country that was especially hospitable to Jews after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century.
The Sultan even set up a commission to reject blood libels and false accusations against Jews.
■ THERE ARE lots of things that Scandinavian countries do almost in tandem, so it’s hardly surprising that their national days – at least in the case of Denmark and Sweden – come one after another on June 5 and 6.
Norway’s Constitution Day, on May 17, is not quite as close but near enough. Both Denmark and Sweden have female ambassadors, with Liselotte Plesner heading the Danish Embassy and Elinor Hammarskjold the Swedish Embassy. Plesner held her reception at the Peres Peace Center, where the government representative was Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon and the special guest of honor was Esther Herlitz, one of the pioneers of Israel’s diplomatic corps who served as ambassador to Denmark from 1966 to 1971.
Also among the guests were Amos Gilad, director of policy and political-military affairs at the Defense Ministry, and the ambassador’s nephew, Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner. Kahlon spoke glowingly of Denmark’s social welfare policies, while Liselotte Plesner said she attached great importance to celebrating Denmark’s Constitution Day in Israel to demonstrate the mutual friendship between the two countries.
Although relations between Israel and Sweden have occasionally been bumpy, both Hammarskjold and government representative Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon went out of their way to emphasize the positive. Hammarskjold spoke of her moving experience in meeting people in different parts of Israel who told her how they or their families had sought refuge in Sweden during and after the Holocaust. Some were saved through the actions of Raoul Wallenberg, today a Righteous Among the Nations, and his team in Budapest.
Some arrived in Sweden with the Red Cross white buses, organized by Folke Bernadotte.
“For the past decade, cooperating on Holocaust education has been a joint priority in our relations with Israel, following from the Stockholm Declaration on Holocaust education, remembrance and research,” she said, adding, “This is a question of learning as an investment in our future.”
Like many heads of diplomatic missions in Israel, Hammarskjold could not overlook the most vital yet contentious issue in the region – the resolving of the conflict.
“Hope for peace is key to the relationship between Sweden and Israel,” she said. “We continue the firm support expressed jointly by the EU for efforts to achieve peace, our hopes for a future in which two states, Israel and Palestine, can live side by side in peace and security and mutual recognition. Recent regional developments have confirmed the importance of progress in the Middle East peace process.”
Simhon, speaking in Hebrew, referred to increases in trade with 20 percent export growth in both directions, as well as the growing interest in clean tech in both countries. Guests who congregated on the ambassador’s lawn in Herzliya Pituah dined on Swedish delicacies that included smoked salmon on traditional Swedish bread, mini meatballs, mini tartlets with Swedish caviar and sour cream, gravlax salmon with special gravlax sauce, mini pies with Vasterbotten cheese from the North of Sweden and cranberry tartlets evocative of the taste from Swedish forests.
■ FOR THOSE non-Israelis and non-Jews who love Israel, there is always something special that remains in their hearts and minds. In the case of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, that something is also in his taste buds.
Bocelli loves Israeli humous, which he learned to eat during previous visits here, he told President Shimon Peres when he and his family joined the president for breakfast at Beit Hanassi on Monday. Bocelli came to Israel at the invitation of the OR Movement, which is dedicated to the development of the Negev and the Galilee. To raise funds and create awareness, OR brings celebrities to Israel; in partnership with the Tamar Regional Council and the Israeli Opera, it brought Bocelli to Masada for a special concert to salute the Negev and the Galilee. Proceeds from the concert – which was attended by thousands of people from around the world – will go toward completing the first and only Negev visitor center, scheduled to open next year in the Bloomfield Family Gateway to the Negev, in the heart of Beersheba’s Old City.