Grapevine: First and last

The actual birthday of Japan’s Emperor Akihito is on December 23, but Japanese ambassadors around the world tend to celebrate it somewhat earlier in the month.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN greets Ivory Coast Ambassador Vhangha Patrice Koffi, who is accompanied by his wife and daughters, after he presented his credentials. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN greets Ivory Coast Ambassador Vhangha Patrice Koffi, who is accompanied by his wife and daughters, after he presented his credentials.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
The actual birthday of Japan’s Emperor Akihito is on December 23, but Japanese ambassadors around the world tend to celebrate it somewhat earlier in the month, before all their colleagues and friends disperse for the Christmas vacation period. Ambassador Koichi Aiboshi and his wife, Motoko, last week hosted their first and last reception in Israel for the emperor’s birthday. Aiboshi announced that the 85-year-old emperor will abdicate at the end of April.
Masses of food in honor of the emperor’s birthday were served in three areas in the building. The largest was a universal buffet with a couple of Japanese delicacies. This was actually in a large tent placed in the back garden. In a small room inside, there was kosher fare, and in yet another somewhat larger room there was a huge Japanese buffet in which sushi does not happen to be the main dish. There’s lots more to the Japanese menu than sushi, and each of the offerings was listed by its Japanese name accompanied by an explanation in English.
Every year, there are Japanese nationals among the guests, indicating the increase in the number of Japanese doing business in Israel. There is a lot of bowing, not only among the Japanese as they greet each other but among the non-Japanese as well, who feel that if someone bows to them, they have to bow back.
However, one of the former traditions at such receptions was missing. In the past the majority of women who had some relationship to the embassy either as employees or as wives of Japanese diplomats wore kimonos, some of which were breathtaking in their beauty. This time, there was only one woman in a kimono – and it wasn’t the ambassador’s wife.
The ambassador, who has a keen sense of humor, said that he was surprised to discover that there are around 300 sushi restaurants in Israel, but he was impressed, when attending art exhibitions and music and dance performances by Japanese artists, to see the extent to which Israelis are interested in Japanese culture.
He noted the substantial increase in Japanese investments in Israel since the second official visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in May of this year.
Aiboshi also commented that 23,000 Israeli tourists had visited Japan during the period January-August 2018.
He was also proud of the Japanese Industrial Zone in Jericho, a peace corridor project constructed in cooperation with Israel and Jordan to improve the quality of life for Palestinians. The project has begun to show tangible results, he said.
Concluding on a humorous note, Aiboshi commented that if there were smokers in the crowd, a special smoking area had been set aside in a corner by the pool – but he could not promise them a lifesaver.
Representing the government was Michael Oren, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and himself a former diplomat who was ambassador to the United States.
For most government representatives, such events are usually hit-and-run affairs, where the representative spends a few minutes chatting with the ambassador, stays for the official proceedings and departs soon afterward. Perhaps because of his own experience as an ambassador, Oren stayed for most of the evening, and was inundated by people who wanted to talk to him or pose with him for selfies.
He was more than familiar with Japanese martial arts because his son Yoav is an internationally known exponent. Although he didn’t mention his son, Oren did mention Ari Fuld, murdered by a terrorist earlier this year. Fuld had not only been a spokesman for Israel but also one of the country’s leading exponents of Japanese martial arts. In paying tribute to Fuld, Oren also spoke of the series of terrorist attacks against Israel during the week, which he attributed to Hamas, and said they were thoroughly unacceptable. Terrorism is terrorism wherever it occurs, he said. It’s the same enemy, the same ideology, and often the same weapon. “Together, we will stand to defend democracy and our citizens, and we will defeat terror,” Oren declared.
He lauded Japan as Israel’s oldest friend on the Asian continent, spoke of Japan’s interest in Israeli R&D and voiced his hope for the introduction of direct flights between Tel Aviv and Tokyo. He concurred with the ambassador that there’s much more to Japan than sushi and martial arts.
■ THERE’S A McDonald Street in Netanya and another spelled MacDonald in Ramat Gan, but they are both named for James Grover McDonald, an American who was a truly righteous Christian who deserves an honored place in Jewish history. Sixth-generation Jerusalemite Shuli Eshel, a documentary filmmaker who now lives in Chicago, has made a film about McDonald, which has been shown in Israel before but has not yet made as broad an impact as it should. The film was screened again this past Sunday as a prelude to the 10th of Tevet, which is a day of mourning for victims of the Holocaust who have no graves and whose date of death is unknown.
But there was another reason for screening the film at this time, and that was to expand the wave of protest at the omission of McDonald’s name from the comprehensive exhibition that has been on view in Washington since April under the title “Americans and the Holocaust.” Eshel and numerous Holocaust scholars, including Holocaust historian Dr. Rafael Medoff, have written letters to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to protest the omission, but have not received a satisfactory answer, though Medoff, who was in Israel for the screening at the Begin Heritage Center, surmised that to include McDonald might have cast president Franklin D. Roosevelt in a negative light.
What baffled him and Eshel was that the museum had co-published two books based on McDonald’s detailed diaries, which he dictated to his secretary every day. The information added valuable data to historical records of the Holocaust years, what preceded them and what came after.
McDonald, who was the first US ambassador to Israel, was the son of a German mother, who taught him to speak fluent German. He also looked very Aryan. Thus, when he went to Germany in 1933 and met Hitler, the latter actually told him how he was going to get rid of the Jews. McDonald conveyed this information to Roosevelt, but it didn’t move him to do much if anything to save the Jews of Europe.
According to Medoff, Roosevelt did not have to do anything special to save some 190,000 Jews from Germany. He just had to abide by the regular quota of immigrants from Germany – but he didn’t. Roosevelt and his advisers looked for any excuses to keep Jews away from American territory, said Medoff.
Because she had to interview people in the United States and Israel, in addition to researching archive footing, and was working on a low budget, it took Eshel three-and-a-half years to make the film, which is called A Voice Among the Silent: The Legacy of James G. McDonald. She was grateful to the McDonald family, which she said was very cooperative and supportive, and moreover liked the result. Although Eshel has made several documentaries of Jewish interest, she had never tackled the Holocaust before, but believes that this film is her best work.
The screening and post-screening discussion were sponsored by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and the World Jewish Congress.
The sad thing is that so many Israelis and so many Jews in the Diaspora have never heard of James G. McDonald, and are unaware of his superhuman efforts before and during the Holocaust on behalf of the Jewish people, whom he code-named refugees, and later for the phoenix that rose from the ashes to help create the State of Israel. Perhaps Yad Vashem or one of the smaller Holocaust memorial museums in Israel will make up for Washington’s omission, and will have a yearlong James G. McDonald exhibition in Israel – which of course the US ambassador would be invited to open.
■ MORE OFTEN than not, new ambassadors host a reception known as a vin d’honneur that gives them the chance to meet fellow ambassadors and to reciprocate the hospitality of those whom they have already met since arriving in Israel. Traditionally, the vin d’honneur is held at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, which provides a most satisfying buffet. The costs are usually divided between the embassies of the new ambassadors, but sometimes there’s no budget in a particular embassy, and this can result in no vin d’honneur, as has happened twice in recent months.
Few people expected a vin d’honneur this week, as three of the four ambassadors who presented credentials to President Reuven Rivlin were nonresident and therefore had no need for a vin d’honneur. But one of them, Vhangha Patrice Koffi, the ambassador of the Ivory Coast, decided to go ahead and hosted a somewhat smaller reception and invited his three nonresident colleagues along with resident ambassadors who have been in Israel for some time, though not all the ambassadors of African states were present.
Among the non-African ambassadors seen were French Ambassador Hélène Le Gal, Irish Ambassador Alison Kelly and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov. Rarely seen at such events, the hotel’s owner Michael Federmann, who heads the Dan Hotels chain, was extremely visible – the reason being that among the many hats he wears is that of honorary consul of the Ivory Coast, so he could hardly stay away.
Conversations naturally focused on Brexit, the political chaos in France and the attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by some of the members of his own coalition. The diplomats found this far more titillating than anything that’s happening in Europe, but they’ve learned to take Israeli political shenanigans in their stride, knowing that they tend to be short-lived, and often by the time they’re reported, they’ve lost their relevance.
■ THE DISTANCE between Czestochowa and Katowice in Poland is slightly less than that between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Just as Jerusalem is the holiest city in Israel, Czestochowa, the home of the Black Madonna, is the holiest city in Poland. While Katowice was preparing for the UN Conference on Climate which it is hosting, antisemitism was again rearing its head in Czestochowa in the form of obscene graffiti that suggested that the Nazis had not completed their job. The graffiti was painted on the gates of the Czestochowa Jewish cemetery, which is one of the larger Jewish cemeteries in Poland and which Israeli high school students have helped to clean up and catalogue over a series of summers.
The initial work was done by students of Jerusalem’s Gidonim and Reut high schools, and since last year the project was expanded with the assistance of The Matzevah Foundation of America, the Adullam association of Czestochowa and local high school students.
In addition to individual graves, the cemetery contains seven mass graves with the remains of victims of the Holocaust who were murdered in the Czestochowa Ghetto, or in the Hasag forced labor camp, as well as the bodies of resistance fighters who stood up against the Germans.
As soon as the matter came to the attention of Alon Goldman, the Israel-based vice president of the World Society of Czestochowa Jews and their descendants, he wrote to the mayor of Czestochowa, demanding that the graffiti be removed and that security cameras be placed at the site.
At the time of going to press, he had not received a reply. He also filed a complaint with the police through the lawyer who works with the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland.
Part of the problem in preventing desecration of Jewish sacred sites in Czestochowa, says Goldman, is that since the end of the Second World War, no official body or individual in Poland has taken responsibility for it. Not the Jewish community in Katowice and its chairman, Wlodzimierz Kac, who are in charge of the Czestochowa region, and not the Czestochowa Municipality.
■ AMONG THE people admired by US Ambassador David Friedman are singer Yehoram Gaon and cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen. Among the books that Kirschen has authored is one called Trees… the Green Testament. Not only should one not judge a book by its cover, but likewise by its title. It just so happened that in going through his literature, Friedman came across a copy of the book, which also lists Kirschen’s phone number, so he called him to tell him how much he enjoyed Kirschen’s work. It was around High Holy Day time, and the two men decided they should get together, but Friedman said it couldn’t be till after the holidays. He didn’t specify which holidays.
Recently, Kirschen’s wife, artist Sali Ariel and Friedman’s wife, Tammy, happened to be at the same event, and the subject of the get-together came up again. Because Shabbat goes out early at this time of year, Tammy Friedman suggested that Saturday night might be a good time for them to meet for dinner, which they did last Saturday night at the American residence, in a casual and relaxed atmosphere with a nice flow of conversation, which all four seemed to enjoy.
Few people go anywhere these days without having a photograph to remind them of where they’ve been. One might well ask what a religiously observant Jew is doing with a Christmas tree in his living room, especially after lighting Hanukkah candles at the Western Wall. But an ambassador is an envoy to and for people of all faiths, in addition to which he must observe the traditions of the country that he represents. But if it bothers anyone, they can call it a Hanukkah bush, even though Hanukkah is already behind us. But Christmas is still ahead.
■ FOR THOSE who are under the mistaken impression that ambassadors and their spouses spend most of their time at social events, a photograph can present a different concept of what ambassadors and their spouses do. The Friedmans decided to donate some of their time to Jerusalem-based Pantry Packers, a Colel Chabad initiative conceived by its director, Rabbi Menachem Traxler. Pantry Packers packages and distributes food to the needy.
Not only did Tammy and David Friedman don aprons before they got down to work, but they brought a group of US Embassy staff with them as well as family members of embassy employees. Everyone had a great time doing a good deed, and between them the group filled more than a thousand packages with whole wheat pasta, which will be added to food boxes containing a diverse selection of nutritious and satisfying foods sufficient to feed an average sized family for a month.
Friedman was quite moved by what he was doing. “It’s the most important thing – people cannot be hungry,” he said. “Hunger doesn’t discriminate between Jews, Muslims or Christians, and here at Pantry Packers they deliver food to the entire nation based upon need, not based upon their religion, not based upon where they live, but based upon what they need.”
■ ONCE UPON a time, people stayed in the same place of employment for all of their working lives if they had a reasonably good relationship with their employer or the person who was the supervisor of the establishment. But these days people move on every three to five years. Noa Amouyal-Brummer, whose most recent role at The Jerusalem Post was that of senior features editor, broke that record ever so slightly before moving on to greener pastures. She stayed for six years. At her farewell party this week, where several of those present belonged to the Post’s revolving door club, having left and returned, staff members were betting that this was not the last they would be seeing Amouyal-Brummer.
In a sense, she, too, is part of a revolving door. Her mother, Barbara Opall-Rome, who anchors a weekly features program on i24News, was pregnant with Noa when she worked as Barbara Amouyal for the Post. The baby grew up to earn a BA in communications and English from the University of Maryland and an MA in political science from Tel Aviv University.
During her time at the Post, she’s been a news editor, content writer, reporter and marketer. The farewell gift at the Post is usually a facsimile of the paper’s front page with text and photos pertaining to the person who is leaving. People don’t always remember where and with whom they were photographed, and Amouyal-Brummer was pleasantly surprised.
She learned a lot during her six years at the Post, she said, but someone had told her that if she wanted to finish the book, she had to turn the page, so she was eagerly anticipating the next chapter in her life.
■ ISRAEL’S MEDIA, in its ongoing efforts to denigrate Sara Netanyahu, was highly critical of her inclusion in the Foreign Ministry delegation that went to Guatemala for the inauguration of the Jerusalem neighborhood which is being built for the evacuees of the Fuego volcano disaster of June 2018. The writers of brickbats conveniently overlooked the fact that the spouses of heads of state and government frequently represent them, when the president or prime minister is otherwise engaged.
Sara Netanyahu was in Guatemala at the invitation of Patricia Morales, the wife of President Jimmy Morales, who also attended the event, as did Ambassador to Guatemala Mattanya Cohen, cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman and various VIPs, including ZAKA chairman Yehuda Meshi-Zahav.
Construction of the neighborhood was initiated by Joseph Garmon, the rabbi of Guatemala, who also serves as head of ZAKA Guatemala, together with an alliance of international organizations to help finance and build 100 units to provide homes for the evacuees. The State of Israel also joined the project, and is financing an additional 200 housing units.
■ THERE’S A Hebrew saying to the effect that one good deed begets another. After reading in Grapevine last week about the man who bought a meal for a beggar and himself so they could eat together, reader Joan Fisher of Jerusalem was moved to send in a slightly different but nonetheless heart-warming good deed story.
In the days when she still drove a car, Fisher used to take a physically disabled friend to lunch in town. It was much easier at that time to park a car in the commercial heart of the city. In the beginning Fisher could take out and return her friend’s wheelchair to the trunk of her car, but later, when her friend’s wheelchair was changed, Fisher could not lift it, and the friend’s caregiver had to put it in the trunk. That was all well and good, but when they arrived at their destination, Fisher was unable to lift it out.
Standing not far from the restaurant where she and her friend had planned to go, Fisher, after opening the trunk of the car, saw a man walking toward her and called out to him, before realizing that he was talking on two mobile phones, one to each ear. He walked toward her, still talking, put both phones together, lifted the wheelchair out with one hand, and continued walking and talking! “I could not even thank him,” she wrote.
When they returned to the car after lunch, there was a small group of dirty-looking hippies standing nearby. Before she had a chance to say anything, they asked if she wanted any help, and put the wheelchair in her car.
■ IN OUR youth so many of us are impatient and uninterested in the anecdotes told by our parents of their lives in other places and at other times. When we finally are interested, our parents are either dead or suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s, and so we are left frustrated, eager to know but with nowhere to turn.
Some of us, like Shira Sebban, are lucky. After her mother’s death, she and her sister found a diary written by their mother, Naomi, during an 18-month visit to Israel for the purpose of studying at the Hebrew University. It was the early 1950s. Jerusalem was still divided and much smaller, not only geographically but also demographically. It was a period of extreme economic austerity, and a quite different city compared to that of today. The upshot was a book – Unlocking the Past.
Sebban, a Sydney-based writer and editor and a former journalist, produced the first edition of the book in English, and on Thursday, December 20, will host the Hebrew edition at Shalhevet, an autonomous living center for adults with severe physical disabilities. The address once housed the premises where Naomi lived during her stay in Jerusalem, and was subsequently an immigrant absorption center run by the Jewish Agency. The guest speaker at the launch will be fellow Australian Irris Mekler, an award-winning international broadcast journalist and author who is currently based in Israel.
Naomi, then a single young woman, had a keen observing eye and an engaging style of writing. Her impressions were written almost like short stories.
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