‘Hatikva’ moments

Isn’t it all just bizarre? A “Hatikva moment” deluxe.

Sylvan Adams is an avid amateur cyclist whose medal haul includes five golds at Maccabiah games (photo credit: SYLVAN ADAMS)
Sylvan Adams is an avid amateur cyclist whose medal haul includes five golds at Maccabiah games
(photo credit: SYLVAN ADAMS)
There’s something surrealistic about living in Israel. Not all the time: not when hamsins (heat waves) hit, drivers hoot and every queue for cashiers becomes a contest of who got to the check-out first. Still, somehow the surrealism survives.
Take, for example, the Friday morning before Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that pleasant spring day I found myself in the gracious home of the Austrian ambassador, chatting with a number of diplomatic wives about whether Shakespeare was an antisemite. The Merchant of Venice video wasn’t working, so the German ambassador’s wife sent for her tech guy, who fixed it.
I never really think about my Lithuanian roots, but since I met the ambassador’s wife from there, I’ve felt strangely close to my grandparents, whom I hardly remember. I’m missing them actively for the first time in my life. Suddenly I want to hear the stories firsthand of why they fled their homeland to come as refugees to South Africa. I want to tell them that I hope to visit Ponevezh soon, encouraged by a high-ranking Lithuanian diplomat’s wife, with whom I have coffee sometimes.
Isn’t it all just bizarre? A “Hatikva moment” deluxe.
Honestly, sitting in that lovely living room discussing Shylock, apfelstrudel and coffee in hand, I was flooded with such a despite-all-the-craziness-it’s-stilla- wonderful-world feeling – a sense that we’ve done it, we’ve come through. The world is a better place than it was, for us anyway, than when our grandparents were young; now we need to make it better for everyone.
Sylvan Adams is trying to do just that.
Adams, 58, a recent oleh to Tel Aviv, is the product of one of those stranger-than-fiction true stories. His father escaped from a forced labor camp in Romania in 1943 and made his way to Palestine, where he fought in the War of Independence. Later, as a French-speaking government emissary, he worked with immigrants from North Africa who were transiting through Marseilles; one day he hopped a boat to Canada. There he met his wife, who’d lived in hiding with her parents in Bucharest until they got to Israel via internment in Cyprus after World War II. Some years later her family, too, relocated to Canada.
There Adams the elder flourished, becoming a real estate magnate in Montreal (where he still lives, aged 97). Sylvan, who met his wife Margaret when they were both youngsters volunteering on kibbutz, went into his dad’s business, raised four kids, and then decided to move to Tel Aviv. Being Canadian, the couple was eligible for aid from Nefesh B’Nefesh.
Nefesh B’Nefesh is the brainchild of Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, an American rabbi who lost a family member in a 2001 terrorist attack in Israel and was determined to replace that Jewish soul here with another from abroad.
Realizing that although aliya might be spiritually uplifting, the endless bureaucracy and drama can cramp the stomach in a decidedly unholy manner, Fass, together with philanthropist Tony Gelbart, created an organization to help. Since 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh has facilitated the immigration of more than 50,000 olim from the US, Canada and Britain.
Besides guiding immigrants through government offices and negotiating work issues and more, it also pops a pleasant $14,000 into your pocket over the first year here.
Adams didn’t really need that money. “I asked whether I had to accept it,” he recalls, “and the answer was yes. The system couldn’t cope with messing up the protocol.”
The new oleh decided to “pay it forward” with a vengeance.
First of all he thanked Nefesh B’Nefesh by sponsoring the “Boneh Tzion Prize” – recognition for English speakers who have made a difference. Previous recipients include Tal Brody and Moshe Arens for their impact on sport and politics; this year the nine honorees include Prof. Alice Shalvi for shaping the status of women, and Prof. Benjamin Corn for contributing to science and medicine.
Medicine is a field close to Adams’ heart; he’s a major donor to a new children’s hospital in Holon currently under construction.
But that’s not all. Adams, an avid amateur cyclist whose medal haul includes five golds at Maccabiah games, multiple wins in Canada and in World Championships, is now on a mission to promote the “normal” nature of Israel – the non-political, non-fraught, non-contentious aspects of everyday life.
Sport is pluralistic, welcoming and non-denominational, and sport is Adams’s passion. So, in a joint venture with the Tel Aviv municipality, he is now building a NIS 70m. velodrome – the Middle East’s first – to encourage and train cyclists. This is in addition to putting up a high-performance sports center at Tel Aviv University for swimming, running and biking, in the hope of nurturing more medals for Israel in those sports, as well as in triathlons. In addition, there will be facilities for disabled athletes.
“The stories of our athletes and our future medals will bypass journalists,” he says. “It’ll just be good news; news that can’t be slanted politically.”
That’s a big statement. Controversy in sport is as ancient as sport itself; in 67 CE the Roman emperor Nero was awarded the gold medal for chariot racing, although he was thrown from his seat when his 10 horses bucked before the finishing line. Bribed officials clarified that had he finished the course, he would have come in first. In 1908 an American shot-putter refused to dip his nation’s flag in the traditional salute to the host country’s head of state; King Edward VII was not remotely amused.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics are famously remembered for African-American athlete Jesse Owens’s smashing of Hitler’s racist theories, and in a 1956 water polo match between Russia and Hungry, the water was literally bloodied as players punched each other furiously in reaction to Soviet tanks invading Hungry to crush the revolution.
So sports news is not exclusively apolitical, but just as our grandparents in the 1940s could never envisage kaffeeklatsches in Tel Aviv with diplomatic wives of erstwhile enemies, who knows? Maybe our grandchildren will routinely invite Syrian cyclists to participate with their Iranian counterparts in a bike ride winding through Israel, Palestine and Egypt. As they chat about music and Shakespeare, our team, trained in Adams’s Velodrome, will sweep all the medals.
On that happy note, Shabbat shalom to us all.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC. peledpam@gmail.com