Grapevine: Full house at the Great Synagogue

A round up of news briefs from around the nation's capital.

Former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar at Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar at Western Wall
THE JERUSALEM Great Synagogue last Saturday attracted an even larger number of congregants than it does on the High Holy Days, other than on Kol Nidrei night. The reason was a number of factors: the 90th anniversary of Amit, whose members from Israel and abroad congregated in Jerusalem; the presence of former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar; the presence of Mayor Nir Barkat; the large number of tourists who were in town for a society wedding, as well as those, including youth groups, who had come for Jerusalem Day and other tourists who happened to be in Jerusalem; plus, of course, regular congregants.
Another factor may have been that Amit had advertised that there would be a gala kiddush after the service. Suffice to say there were hardly any empty seats.
The choir, conducted by Elli Jaffe, outdid itself. For those who enjoy choral services, this one was truly outstanding. The musical arrangements included a variety of hassidic tunes, Carlebach tunes, and some of the more classic Germanic melodies. Jaffe, who is a fine singer with a powerful voice that does not require a microphone to be clearly heard in the farthest reaches of the sanctuary, called Amar to the Torah by singing in his honor.
Sermons were delivered by Amar and Barkat. The latter, though secular, wore the long prayer shawl of the more observant but could barely focus on the service because so many people came to shake his hand and introduce their children to him.
Amar’s sermon covered many facets of Jerusalem but centered primarily on the spiritual aspects. Most of the time he seemed to be directing his words to Barkat, who kissed him on both cheeks as he stepped down from the podium.
Barkat related to his more material ambitions for the city and spoke about the academic and economic development of Jerusalem, including for Arab residents and of the need to make Jews from all over the world feel at home in Jerusalem, first and foremost Jews of Ethiopian background. He then mentioned Jews from other countries.
LATER IN the day, there was a double whammy for congregants of the Hazvi Yisrael Congregation in Talbiyeh, where they got two for the price of one. International human rights lawyer and former justice minister and attorney-general of Canada Irwin Cotler, who owns a home in Jerusalem and is a regular congregant at Hazvi Yisrael when in Israel, was invited to speak at a special Jerusalem Day seuda shlishit. He suggested that his wife, Ariela, who is a fourth-generation Jerusalemite and a personality in her own right, might be a more appropriate speaker. In the final analysis, it became a double act in which it was agreed that they both would speak – she in Hebrew and he in English, though both are capable of delivering speeches in either language. The synagogue’s Blondheim Hall was packed to capacity. It was arguably the largest seuda shlishit turnout ever.
The Cotlers were introduced by Chuck Solomon, Irwin Cotler’s friend from his teenage years.
Momentarily forgetting herself, Ariela starting speaking in English until she was reminded that she was supposed to be speaking in Hebrew. She began by identifying with Amos Oz’s novel A Tale of Love and Darkness. Although they are not on the same page politically, she and Oz grew up in the same neighborhood, and she could easily relate to many of the descriptive passages in the book. She has Jerusalem in her bones, she said.
She told of how every Shabbat her father would take the family for a walk along Jaffa Road, which was not open to the Old City as it is today. At the end of the road there was fence with windows and a ramp. The children would climb on the ramp and look through the windows at the walls of the Old City. Their father, in the pain of memory and longing, would direct them to look this way and that and to imagine what was beyond the wall. Later, when the windows were sealed and the ramp removed, they went to the fence on Mount Zion. Ariela’s father used to read the weekly Torah portion in the synagogue, and each year when he read the passage about Moses being denied entry into the Promised Land which he could only see from afar, her father always wept with nostalgia and yearning because it paralleled how he felt about the Old City.
Prior to her marriage to Irwin Cotler, Ariela was parliamentary secretary for Gahal, which was led by Menachem Begin and merged with Likud in 1973. During the Six Day War, Begin accepted the invitation of prime minister Levi Eshkol to join the National Unity government. As parliamentary secretary, Ariela was privy to everything in which Begin was involved. She was still a student at the Hebrew University when she took on the job, which was supposed to be temporary but, like so many temporary things in Israel, developed into something permanent until she married and went to Canada with her husband. When the Six Day War broke out, there was a great fear that Israel would suffer 100,000 casualties or more, she said.
Irwin Cotler, while still a university student, was a leftist. After graduating from Yale, he was given a chance to be one of 30 Canadian university graduates who went to Poland for three months, after which they could each spend another month going anywhere they liked. He and three other Jews in the group visited Auschwitz. They were so traumatized by the experience, that they went from there to Jerusalem. It was a very transformative period in his life, Cotler recalled. Jews were murdered in Auschwitz because of anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism didn’t end in Auschwitz as evidenced today, he said.
After spending time in Jerusalem, he returned every year. When the Six Day War broke out he wanted to volunteer for the IDF, but when he went to the Schneller recruitment base, they sent him away. Later he was at a bank near Terra Sancta when two soldiers came in and asked if anyone had a car. He had a jalopy, and they got him to drive them literally into the war zone. He returned to Schneller, told them of his experience with the soldiers and asked if there was anything he could do. They sent him to Haga Civil Defense, where he discovered that a group that included Menachem Begin was going into the Old City. He was able to join them in his Haga capacity and was therefore among the first Jews to reach the Western Wall.
Cotler wanted to learn about Arab culture and psyche, so every year he went to an Arab country. When he was studying in Cairo with Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the Center of Political and Strategic Studies just after Begin was elected, he was asked by Ghali on behalf of president Anwar Sadat whether he thought that Likud would make peace with Egypt and, more importantly, whether Begin would. He replied that he didn’t know. Presumably Ghali did not believe him, and Cotler was asked to deliver a note from Sadat to Begin. Cotler asked Ghali whether Egypt was ready to accept Israel as a legitimate state. Ghali’s reply was that it already existed, but Cotler persisted and Ghali said it would depend on whether Israel was ready to join the Middle East family of nations. When Cotler queried what that meant, Ghali said it meant that Israel would not be a Jewish state. The delegitimization did not start now, said Cotler. It started then.
En route to Israel, Cotler stopped in Syria and met with Jewish community leaders, who drank a toast to Begin. They were thrilled that his party had won the election and that Begin was prime minister.
When Cotler got to Israel, he was invited to a luncheon hosted by Uri Gordon, head of the Jewish Agency’s Department for Immigration and Absorption, and Eliezer Shefer, who headed a department of the Jewish Agency and had been a paratrooper in the Six Day War. They asked him to speak about North American Jews, but he opted instead to speak about Syrian Jews.
Ariela was at that luncheon and wrote a note to a friend stating that she thought Cotler was a spy. After the lunch, she went to check him out. When he told her about the toast, she insisted that he meet Begin… and the rest is history. Shefer and the late Aliza Begin each had a hand in making a match between the two.
MORE THAN 50,000 schoolchildren throughout Israel on Jerusalem Day heard Yehoram Gaon, one of Jerusalem’s most famous sons, deliver a lecture on the Jerusalem of his childhood and growing up in the capital when it was still a divided city. Gaon shared memories of what it was like living in Jerusalem under siege and some of his youthful escapades. The lecture was given under the auspices of the Education Ministry.
WHEN HE was a poor boy living in Mahaneh Yehuda, Rami Levy, the founder of Hashikma Marketing, named for the street in the market where he opened his first rather small store, probably never dreamed of becoming a national or international figure. His chain of discount supermarkets and other business ventures in communications made him a national figure, more so when he was invited this year to light one of the Independence Day beacons on Mount Herzl.
Last week, he also came to international attention when within the framework of the annual meeting of the International Board of Governors of Tel Aviv University he was awarded the prestigious Hugo Raminceaunu Prize in Economics.
Last year’s winners were WAZE founders Uri Levine, Noam Bardin, Ehud Shabtai and Amir Shinhar. Among previous winners is Israel Prize laureate and former two-term governor of the Bank of Israel Prof.
Jacob Frenkel, who since January 2013 has been chairman of the TAU Board of Governors.