Elie Wiesel’s message

This week's culture news.

Elie Wiesel participates in a discussion on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 2, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)
Elie Wiesel participates in a discussion on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 2, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)
Generally speaking, Rabbi Yosef Ote, the spiritual leader of the Hazvi Yisrael Synagogue, does not introduce those speakers who address congregants after the Sabbath morning service. But this past Saturday, it was in the nature of a family matter when he introduced 94-year-old Ted Comet, who happens to be his wife Atira’s great-uncle as well as the father and father-in-law of two regular congregants.
Comet is still active in Jewish life in America, and has been since 1946, when he was sent as a volunteer to France by the Joint Distribution Committee to help rehabilitate orphaned Jewish child Holocaust survivors. He was later director of the American Zionist Youth Foundation, a senior official in the Council of Jewish Federations (which preceded the Jewish Federations of North America), and after that he went back to the JDC as honorary associate executive vice president. He has contributed in many ways to Jewish life in America and was the founder of the annual Salute to Israel parade along Fifth Avenue in New York, because he wanted to create a platform for across-the-board Jewish unity. He also organized the first large-scale demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jewry and led the first mission of Jewish Federation leaders to the Soviet Union.
Before he left for France as a volunteer, a friend asked him to look up a young relative in Versailles. At the time, Comet had no idea where he would be working in France, but as luck would have it, he ended up in Versailles, and while going for a walk to familiarize himself with his surroundings, he took the piece of paper with the address of this relative, and found himself standing outside the very place. It happened to be the children’s home to which he had been assigned. He went inside and stopped a young boy to ask him if he knew an Elie Wiesel. “C’est moi” (It’s me) was the response from the 17-year-old survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, who in 1986 was conferred with the Nobel Peace Prize. Thus began a lifelong friendship.
Conscious that he was speaking on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Comet said that he didn’t want to speak of survivors of the Holocaust as victims, but as people who had reclaimed their lives and who had transmuted trauma into something positive. The birthrate in the displaced persons camps in the aftermath of the war was the highest in the Jewish world, he said – proof that people who had survived the death camps wanted to live and to create life.
Wiesel, too, had preferred not to speak of victims but of survivors as witnesses who could relay the story.
There are many things in Jewish life that we take for granted, said Comet, citing as an example the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. When president Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel as chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, Carter wanted to put up a monument to the suffering of all human beings. Wiesel argued that as worthy an idea as this was, the Jews had suffered more than any other minority during the Holocaust and therefore deserved their own memorial. Wiesel also argued against a monument. “What he wanted was something monumental,” said Comet. The result was the museum in Washington.
Comet also credited Wiesel with being a pioneer in raising awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry through his book The Jews of Silence. The outcome of the book was that Wiesel was banned from entering Russia. The ban was lifted only when he came as an American official in the capacity of chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust.
According to Comet, Wiesel firmly believed that the best way to heal pain is to help others heal their pain. This was part of his moral mission. The other was to create awareness of the moral responsibility that each human being has to preserve the sanctity of human life.
Wiesel had honorary doctorates from 130 universities, said Comet, and these doctorates were conferred on graduation day, which gave him the opportunity to convey his message to graduates in 130 institutes of higher learning.
Although he did mention Wiesel’s Nobel Prize, time did not allow Comet to quote from Wiesel’s acceptance speech, which is as relevant today as it was then.
Wiesel said: “There is so much injustice and suffering crying out for our attention: victims of hunger, of racism, and political persecution, writers and poets, prisoners in so many lands governed by the Left and by the Right. Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. And then, too, there are the Palestinians, to whose plight I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore. Violence and terrorism are not the answer. Something must be done about their suffering, and soon. I trust Israel, for I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from her horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.”
Comet recalled that at times when Wiesel came for Shabbat dinner, he would close his eyes and sing in Yiddish: “If I had the strength I would rush through the streets shouting the holiness of the Sabbath.”
“Fortunately, he had the strength to run through the streets and proclaim the sanctity of life,” said Comet.
■ TEL AVIV-based photographer Andres Lacko, who was born in Argentina to Hungarian parents, grew up with very little knowledge of Judaism. Coming from a decimated family of Holocaust survivors who wanted to forget the past, he was denied knowledge of much of his Jewish heritage.
Early in his career as a professional photographer some 40 years ago, he showed his photographs to Prof. Alexander Schreiber, who, after looking at photographs that Lacko had taken in the town of his ancestors, told him that he should go and take photographs of the tombs of the miracle rabbis. Lacko had never heard of the miracle rabbis, but his curiosity had been piqued, and not long afterward he went to Budapest and visited the Library of the Rabbinical Institute on the third floor of an old building. That was the beginning of his ventures into an old world which his parents had tried to forget.
“We, the children, we were born far away, in a land where many of the survivors arrived to build a life that remembered nothing and created for us everything, from zero,” he says.
Over time, Lacko went from town to town and cemetery to cemetery, speaking to survivors in those places whenever the opportunity presented itself, or talking to the spirits of Jews he’d never met. He kept amassing increasing evidence of what had happened in 1944 when so many Hungarian Jews, including members of his own family, had been deported to Auschwitz.
Lacko was living in Israel when his first daughter was born, a month after his 40th birthday. In addition to the usual congratulatory messages, he received a letter from his aunt in Argentina who told him that the time had come for him to know that his grandfather had four sisters who had all perished in the Holocaust. It was something he had never known before.
The upshot of acquiring knowledge of his roots, which he has amassed throughout the years, is a photographic exhibition that was opened in September at the Sered National Holocaust Museum in southern Slovakia, in an area that was once part of that region of Austro-Hungary where his family had lived. The exhibition, which opened in the presence of leaders of the Jewish community and Ambassador to Slovakia Zvi Vapni, is titled “Remembrance” and is still on view. It includes photographs of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims visiting the graves of the great rabbis and other aspects of what remains of Orthodox Jewish life, because for Lacko remembrance is not just the past. It’s also continuity.
■ IN OTHER Slovakia-related news, Israeli honorary consuls of Slovakia Josef Pickel and Martin Rodan participated in the annual Slovakian Honorary Consuls Conference in Bratislava in October. They were among 130 honorary consuls who came from countries with which Slovakia enjoys diplomatic relations. The conference was designed to strengthen economic ties between Slovakia and those countries.
Other participants in the conference from the Slovak side included President Andrej Kiska, Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak and Speaker of the Parliament Bela Bugar, who mingled freely with the visiting honorary consuls.
■ ALL ROADS may proverbially lead to Rome, but in Israel they lead to Eilat. Almost every major professional association has its annual conference in Eilat – maybe because it’s so hot outside that conference participants prefer the air-conditioned comfort of the conference hall.
Heading for Eilat on November 18 for the annual three-day Journalists Conference will be print and electronic media publishers and journalists, representatives of local authorities, members of Knesset, police officers, economists – and then some. In other words, conference organizers are giving representatives of fields that are widely covered by the media the opportunity to respond to speakers and panelists.
What is unique about this conference, in comparison to many other conferences scheduled for this month and next, is that there is not a single government minister on the program, although there are former ministers who are now in opposition.
Among the topics to be discussed are circumventing the law, nation-state legislation, crises in confidence, reviewing the record of the outgoing IDF chief of staff, the future of radio and television in Israel, and – probably one of the more interesting for the gossipmongers – when the journalist becomes the story. This usually happens when a journalist is attacked, kidnapped or killed, is targeted by #MeToo or becomes the subject of derision in social media postings by presidents and prime ministers.
Organizers are to be commended for not limiting panels to media stars, but also including journalists who work for local and niche media outlets. However, it is not fair to have excluded journalists who write for foreign-language outlets that publish for an Israeli readership or audience, albeit not in Hebrew or Arabic.
Life achievement awards will be given to Shimon Shiffer of Yediot Aharonot and Amos Biderman of Haaretz.
■ THERE ARE many ways to combat BDS, and former fashion retailer Fern Penn is taking if not exactly a novel approach, an approach that creates a novel experience for others. Penn has always been partial to Israeli fashion, and with the encouragement and support of her husband, Leslie, she opened an Israeli concept store in New York, where the merchandise was overwhelmingly fashion, but also included ornaments and accessories.
Nearly all of Penn’s Jewish friends and acquaintances have been to Israel more than once, and have done their share of making purchases that contribute to Israel’s economy. Their choices were not always “Made in Israel.” In fact, they were barely aware, if at all, of Israeli designers. They just knew they were buying stuff in Israel.
When Penn opened her concept store a little over 15 years ago, her first customers were friends from her synagogue. They were happy for her, and they wanted to help out. Then they started to discover that certain Israeli designers had signature cuts that were flattering to individual customers, and they came back again and again to buy clothes with Israeli designer labels.
Soaring rents in New York forced Penn and others out of business. But she didn’t want to let go. She loved Israeli fashion, and she loved talking to the designers whom she had befriended over the years. So Rosebud on Madison, which closed down in June, became Rosebud Fashion Tours, which aimed to give American Jewish women a sense of the Israeli lifestyle, plus introductions to their favorite Israeli designers.
The first weeklong women-only tour was last week, with a group of five. The next tour is in March, with more already lined up. Penn says that she would limit the number of participants to 10 at a time at most, because to have more women destroys the sense of intimacy.
Although she’s not aiming for returning participants, there were two members of her group who said they would come again if she did it tomorrow.
Arlene Wiczyk, who discovered Israeli fashion through Penn, had the opportunity to meet her favorite designer, Hagar Alembik, who manufactures under the Alembika label. Wiczyk naturally added to the contents of her closet.
Michelle Rosen, a retired pharmacist originally from South Africa, who has been living in America for 27 years, said she would be willing to take the tour again tomorrow, because it afforded her the chance to get to so many places and meet so many interesting people she would never have come across under other circumstances.
Stella Schindler, who has been to Israel many times with different groups, said that she had never had an experience of this kind before and had enjoyed meeting designers and learning their stories.
Shira Weinstein, a lawyer who is a big Israel supporter, said that she had already come with other groups and had joined this one “because it’s something different, and any excuse is a good excuse to come to Israel.” She also enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t religious, political or military, “and I love fashion. It’s a great way to spend money in Israel.” Nonetheless, she would not join a future group of this kind, not because she found fault but simply on a “been there, done that” basis.
Rozanne Seelen, the owner of The Drama Book Shop, which specializes in film and musical theater titles, had been through a difficult period in which she had lost a lot of weight, and she needed to give her closet a complete overhaul. The tour helped toward that and made her feel good. Her favorite place to shop was at Maskit, but she found other designers whose creations also appealed. “There are so many good designers in Israel,” she said.
Penn herself was pleased with the feedback that she received not only from the women in the group but also from the designers, who are suffering because of new purchasing habits via the Internet.
The group dined in various restaurants and, in addition to the above-mentioned design houses, visited Kedem-Sasson, Kissim, Ronen Chen, Anny Jacobson, Adi Benjo and various jewelry and eyewear designers. They also visited several museums and found the fashion retrospect at the Israel Museum to be particularly fascinating. In addition, they went on a graffiti tour and paid a nighttime visit to the Western Wall.
One woman who said that she enjoyed herself was not happy being with women only, but that was her sole complaint.
Everyone on the tour made several purchases of clothes and jewelry. Some bought so much that they had to have it shipped back to them in the US because they simply couldn’t carry the extra baggage weight.
■ IT’S COMMON knowledge that success has many fathers – even the humble paper clip. In advance of the reception that he hosted this week to mark the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski, who in another life might have been an actor or stand-up comedian, claimed the humble paper clip to be a Polish invention. A double check with Prof. Google indicated that there are several different stories about the invention of the paper clip. Google also disputed the ambassador’s claim that windshield wipers were invented in Poland. Still, it was a fun video and proved that Magierowski has many talents.
■ LAST YEAR, when an ambassador of an African state presented his credentials, Meron Reuben, the chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry, was under the impression that he was the first ambassador of that country to serve in Israel. The ambassador argued otherwise, and Reuben went in search of proof, which he was unable to find. The archives of the ministry have lots of history of Israel’s relations and agreements with other countries, but for some reason, not all the names of foreign ambassadors to Israel were included.
Reuben’s big dream was to have a section on the ministry’s website that would list them all include thumbnail biographies. There wasn’t much he could do about it, until Or Shaked, a computer-savvy former Jewish Agency emissary to Virginia who is studying for his master’s degree in public administration, came to work in the protocol office. Shaked hopes to become a ministry cadet. Meanwhile, Reuben put him to work assembling the list of ambassadors to Israel during the state’s 70-year history. The enterprise, which is not complete but has certainly taken wing, is accessible on the ministry’s website, and Shaked is now working concurrently on a similar list of Israel ambassadors to all the countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations.
From this perspective, the list is of great historic value because it includes many names of first-time ambassadors as well as ambassadors to countries which were previously hostile to Israel. Shaked’s mission as a whole puts him in touch with many embassies as well as past and present ambassadors from around the world. It’s a marvelous means of networking for a would-be diplomat.
■ AMERICAN JEWS have become both a media and an academic obsession in Israel – partially over the rift between them and the Orthodox establishment, and partially due to rising antisemitic incidents and social media incitement in the US.
This has led the Center for the Study of Cultures of Place in the Modern Jewish World and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to host a three-day conference beginning Sunday, November 18, on American Jews and their (Various) Others. In addition to American and Israeli academics, the conference will also be addressed by a representative of the US Embassy.
The opening session will be at the Van Leer Institute, where Prof. Steven Zipperstein of Stanford University will deliver the keynote address titled “Excavating Philip Roth: Reflections on a Biography’s Beginnings.” The remaining sessions will be held at the university’s Mount Scopus campus and will deal with religious crossroads and social landscapes, Jewish peoplehood, self-inventions and interventions, and local and trans-local dimensions in literature.
Other than Roth, other Jewish writers who will be discussed at the conference include Isaac Bashevis Singer; Allen Ginsberg, whose spiritual journey took him from communism to Buddhism; and Harry Austryn Wolfson, who was one of the early Jewish students accepted at Harvard whose faculty he subsequently joined. He became a full professor in 1925, and had the distinction of becoming the first chairman of the first Judaic studies center in any secular American university.
Another interesting discussion will be led by Sara Hirschhorn of Northwestern University, whose talk is titled “How the 1967 War Turned Diaspora Jewish Zionists into White People.”
Of course, discussions on America and American Jews could not omit reference to the feminist movement, in which so many American Jewish women were prominent. That lecture will actually be delivered by an Israeli academic, Prof. Adam Ferziger of Bar-Ilan University, who will speak on “Orthodox Responses to Feminism: Between North America and Israel.” Ferziger was actually born in America and made aliyah in 1989.
■ BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY prohibited a student group on campus from distributing pro-Israel advocacy material about the “Nakba” and the Palestinian refugees. The ban occurred earlier this week ahead of the university’s student group fair, an event in which student groups on campus were invited to present their groups to the students.
One of the student groups, Im Tirtzu, was denied permission by the university to distribute its “Nakba Nonsense” and “The Palestinian Refugee Lie” booklets, which according to Im Tirtzu are its most popular booklets and have been distributed for years in every Israeli university without issue.
Im Tirtzu’s Bar-Ilan University branch was notified of the university’s decision via email on the evening prior to the fair, despite having submitted its material for review two weeks prior, as is required by the university. The university’s email did not provide explanation as to why it barred Im Tirtzu from distributing its booklets.
The group was also initially denied permission to distribute complimentary bags to IDF reservists but received permission hours before the fair, after petitioning the university.
According to Bar-Ilan University’s guidelines for public activities, the university is required to provide student groups with an answer regarding their materials within three days of submission, in order to provide the group with enough time to appeal the decision, if necessary.
“The university’s conduct is unfitting and goes against its very own guidelines,” said Carlos Bigio, the deputy head of Im Tirtzu’s Bar-Ilan University branch.
“It is unfortunate to see how the university administration, which is supposed to promote discussion and social activities, is working to silence students and prevent their freedom of expression.
“We will continue to be the spearhead of Zionist activity on campus and to ensure that the Zionist spirit continues to flourish on campus,” added Bigio.
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