Grapevine May 12, 2020: Searching for the symbolic

Symbolism can be read into just about anything.

The American Colony Hotel (photo credit: MEREDITH HOLBROOK)
The American Colony Hotel
(photo credit: MEREDITH HOLBROOK)
Symbolism can be read into just about anything. For instance, the actual day of Lag Ba’omer this year was on a Tuesday, considered to be the most fortuitous day of the week in the Jewish calendar, in that on the third day of Creation, God twice considered that what He’d done was good. To add to this, in relation to current events, the plague that claimed the lives of so many of the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased on Lag Ba’omer, and just ahead of Lag Ba’omer this week, Israel more or less emerged from the coronavirus crisis.
On Thursday, May 15, after a long period of enduring a caretaker government, Israel will finally have a government made up of members of Knesset whose parties were recently elected by the people, even though some of the new government ministers reneged on their campaign promises, and their party’s or faction’s numerical representation in the Knesset does not warrant a seat in government.
It may be remembered that the swearing-in ceremony was originally set for Wednesday, but has been delayed by a day, due to the visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
May 14 is the Gregorian calendar anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. What better date could there be for the swearing-in of a government of Israel? But here comes another piece of symbolism which will not sit well with a number of readers. As both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim Jerusalem as their capital, May 14 is also a significant date for Palestinians and a propitious date for the launch of the new Palestine-Israel Journal, each edition of which is traditionally launched in Jerusalem.
Most of the events organized by the journal’s editors were held at the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem, but following a violent protest in September 2018 by a group of young Palestinians who invaded the room in which the meeting was held and totally disrupted proceedings, the events were moved to the Jerusalem YMCA, which is across the road from the King David hotel in west Jerusalem. Invitations for the launch of the previous issue of the journal, which had been scheduled for March 12, were canceled due to the coronavirus precautions of social distancing.
Meanwhile, working from home, the editorial staff has produced another edition, focusing on US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” and the possible July 1 annexation by Israel of parts of Judea and Samaria. As regulations regarding social gatherings and social distancing are still in force, the launch will be a Zoom affair at 4 p.m. By that time, the government will have been sworn in.
Speakers will include Saeb Erekat, PLO secretary-general and chief Palestinian negotiator in the peace process; former US ambassador to Israel Prof. Daniel Kurtzer of Princeton University; Meretz chairman MK Nitzan Horowitz; and MK Aida Touma-Sliman, a Hadash member of the Joint List. The event will be moderated by Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert and international policy and strategy consultant. Participants will be able to make comments and ask questions, but must first register at pij@staff.pij.org

■ OUTGOING AMBASSADOR to the UN Danny Danon, who is winding up five years of service, celebrated his 49th birthday last Friday, May 8. Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer also celebrated his 49th birthday recently on April 16. Coincidentally, Gilad Erdan, who will succeed Danon at the UN, is also 49 and will celebrate his 50th birthday on September 30, the same date on which former prime minister Ehud Olmert will celebrate his 75th birthday.
Danon, who will return to Israel during the summer, intends to remain active in public life, but has yet to decide whether he is returning to politics. Dermer was supposed to wind up his tenure last year, when the Civil Service Commission announced in July that it would not extend his term. However, a replacement could not be appointed by a caretaker government, so Dermer stayed on. By the time he comes home in November, following the US presidential elections, he will have served in his post for seven years. Erdan is also replacing Dermer, so the question remains whether Erdan will be the Sabra Abba Eban, who served in both positions concurrently for nine years? Also due to come home this year is Consul-General in New York Dani Dayan, whose term concludes in August.
Israeli diplomatic missions in the US also exist in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Miami and Atlanta. Admittedly, a consul-general does not have the status of an ambassador, but comes pretty close in the states of which his or her consulate-general has diplomatic representation. Although some of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s loyalists who have missed out on being ministers in the new government are angry right now, the compensation of spending a few years in the United States may eventually cheer them up, especially if three or four or more take up the prime minister’s offer and remain in regular contact with each other in the US.
Political pundits are already pondering over what will happen to such diplomats when Benny Gantz takes over from Netanyahu, but it is unlikely that Gantz will rock the diplomatic boat, unless he is particularly beholden to one or more people in his party.
On the surface, it may seem that Erdan’s appointment will save the State of Israel a lot of money, because it is doubtful that he will receive two salaries, but the Israel missions at the UN and in Washington will not be reduced in size, and presumably, each time that Erdan has to commute from one to the other, it will be by plane and not by car. So all in all, it does not seem as if there will be much in the way of monetary savings, if at all.
As for the expenditure on other public servants, the Knesset, in January, voted a pay raise for itself, which also reflects on the salaries of the president of the state, the prime minister and government ministers. The president’s salary is NIS 64,616 per month. The prime minister, who actually works much harder, gets NIS 56,295; government ministers get NIS 50,623, and members of Knesset NIS 45,261. This is what they’re earning when more than a million Israelis are out of work, not all the promises made about grants and unemployment pay have been fulfilled, and many unemployed people for whatever reason do not meet the criteria demanded by law for financial help from the government.
At times like this, one remembers the late Ora Namir, who as labor and social welfare minister advocated for many social reforms without which we would not have equal opportunity laws, or laws related to women and children at risk, or for that matter mandatory health insurance. It is the latter that should serve as an example and an incentive for new legislation that guarantees mandatory insurance against unemployment for anyone who loses their livelihood, regardless of age or status. If such a law existed, we would not have the chaotic and often tragic economic situations which confront us today.

■ IN TEMPLE times, whoever did not bring a paschal offering in the Hebrew calendar month of Nisan had an opportunity to do so a month later on the 14th of Iyar. In some communities, this is regarded as having a second chance to make up for previous omissions of any kind, or simply to review one’s life and voice appreciation for all that has been learned along the way. During the coronavirus pandemic, it was also an opportunity for those who had missed out on the Seder because they had been placed into induced comas, to have another chance to celebrate. One such person was United Hatzalah founder and president Eli Beer, who had been on a fund-raising mission in the United States when he was infected and hospitalized in Miami. His family in Jerusalem had a Seder without him, but placed a photograph of him in front of the chair on which he would have sat, had he been home.
When he regained consciousness and spoke by phone to his wife, Gitty, and their children, he asked when Passover would be. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d missed it. Still feeling weak, but much better than he had before, Beer returned to Israel three weeks ago and decided to have a proper Seder on Pesah Sheni (Second Passover). In a post on social media, he invited people to join him in a holiday toast – a virtual one, of course. In the post he said that last month, when he learned that he’d missed out on the Seder, he felt very sad while simultaneously feeling grateful to be alive. Now he was grateful to be able to celebrate Pesah Sheni with a proper Seder with his family. The global popularity of United Hatzalah and of Beer himself was evidenced in the wide, international media coverage that Beer’s illness and recovery received.
How people feel about Hatzalah was further demonstrated during the two-day global live Hatzalahthon, featuring some of the top names among religious singers, including Avraham Fried, Yitzhak Meir Helfgot, Shulem Lemer, Lipa Schmeltzer and Gad Elbaz. The event raised millions of dollars to be used in lifesaving equipment that will enable the tens of thousands of Hatzalah volunteers around the world to work faster and more efficiently in saving lives.

■ CELEBRATING PESAH Sheni on a somewhat different level were “the hevra,” some of them graduates of the House of Love and Prayer established by Shlomo Carlebach in San Francisco in the 1960s. It was an era of hippie counterculture, and Carlebach attracted many young Jews, especially those who had grown up in totally secular environments and were seeking something spiritual, but not of a rigid nature. In 1966, Carlebach was among the performers at the Berkeley Folk Festival, where he invited young people to join him for Shabbat. Carlebach had a special gift for connecting with people, but even he was somewhat surprised when around 800 people accepted his invitation. From that large gathering came the nucleus for the House of Love and Prayer, which offered a different form of Judaism, putting its adherents on a high spiritual plateau while not depriving them of their hippie lifestyle. In fact, for years afterward, Carlebach referred to them as “hippelach.”
Some stayed. Some went their different ways. Some came to Israel and joined Carlebach at Moshav Mevo Modi’im in 1976. Those of his followers who separated geographically, either by living in different parts of Israel, staying in the US or returning there from Israel, remained in touch through literature disseminated by the Shlomo Carlebach Foundation, by visits to the moshav for special events and grand reunions, through concerts given by the Solomon brothers in Israel and across the US, and of course through social media, which was the platform for an international get-together on Pesah Sheni. The moshav burned down in a raging fire on May 23 last year, and its residents are now scattered in many directions. But they came together on Zoom to sing and to reminisce and to thank Yehudah Katz for being so instrumental in making it happen.
More than thirty individuals, including Carlebach’s younger daughter, Dari, and her mother, Neila, appeared on screen. On the right-hand side of the screen, veteran Carlebach fans from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Arizona, Oregon and elsewhere were texting to each other and to friends in Israel and expressing their delight to be able to see those who were on the lineup as well as some of those who were watching. Most of the speakers were also musicians and lost little time in strumming their guitars and singing Carlebach melodies in which viewers joined in.

■ FOLLOWING TUESDAY’S nationwide protest by representatives of cultural institutions over inactivity by the government in helping the arts and culture communities of Israel to overcome remaining restrictions and to reconnect with the general public, there will be an emergency culture conference hosted by Haaretz at 11 a.m. Wednesday morning.
The speakers’ panel will comprise filmmaker Avi Nesher in conversation with Lisa Peretz, editor of the paper’s Friday Gallery; singer and songwriter Keren Peles in conversation with television reviewer Niv Hadas, who will also engage in conversation with Muli Segev, the editor-in-chief of Eretz Nehederet; Tzipi Pines, director of the Baruch Ivtzer Beit Lessin Theater; Giora Yahalom, head of the arts and culture division of the Tel Aviv Municipality; Tania Coen-Uzzielli, director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art; and Zach Granit, general director of the Israel Opera. The conference can be accessed through the Haaretz website and Facebook account.

■ LATER IN the day, there will be another cultural event – a milestone celebration in fact, which, like so many other milestone events, had to be replanned and rescheduled.
It’s doubtful whether the Yiddishists who fought to preserve Yiddish language and culture in Israel ever imagined a Yiddish Zoom conference. In fact, when they began their struggle, Israel did not yet have television, let alone social media platforms. Leyvik House in Tel Aviv, which is one of several Yiddish bastions in the city that never stops, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The major jubilee events have been put on hold, but at 5 p.m. Wednesday, anyone who wants to join the 50th anniversary party can hear and see Klezmer musician Gal Klein, actor Avi Wurcel with a presentation about the regular Leyvik House thespians; Prof. Aviva Halamish, with nostalgic photographs of the 1950s and 1960s; Roni Cohen, speaking about H. Leyvik publications; and singer Tova Reshtik-Dodon.
The program is accessible via https://us04web.zoom.us/j/78288521922

■ AMONG THE cultural figures who have not been idle during the stay-home period of isolation is singer, musician and composer Idan Raichel, who has been doing Zoom recitals from the studio set up in his living room. Raichel was also the musical entertainer at a YouTube party for some 2,000 guests cohosted by Dalit Raviv, the deputy CEO of Bank Hapoalim and head of its commercial wing, and Danit-Cohen Nitzan, who is the Platinum Banking Manager. Intellectual stimulus was provided by Prof. Yoram Yovel.
The two hostesses told their guests that they decided to have their mega party because they missed social contact with their clients, and during the isolation imposed during the COVID-19 crisis, this was the best way to bring everyone together.
The situation is still uncertain, they said, but one thing that is certain: “We at Bank Hapoalim will always be here for you.”

■ VE DAY ceremonies and those of Victory Day that is observed in countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, were all very low-key this year, with the exception of Belarus, whose President Alexander Lukashenko decided that the 75th anniversary of the liberation from Nazi occupation was deserving of higher priority than the risk of being infected by the coronavirus. The massive parade of 3,000 soldiers and 185 military vehicles in the capital of Minsk went ahead as planned, with Lukashenko dressed in military uniform, giving them the salute. Judging by the thousands of spectators – many without masks – who lined the route of the parade, it was obvious that a large segment of the Belarus population agreed with their president.

■ IN THE United States, Trump and first lady Melania attended a brief and modest ceremony in Washington, together with seven World War II veterans aged from 96 to 100 – living proof that old soldiers never die, they merely fade away. The veterans all proudly wore their medals, and a couple also wore their old army uniforms.
The seven veterans live in different states, but were happy to come to Washington to honor the memories of dead comrades. One of the seven, Steven Melnikoff from Baltimore, was the eldest of the seven veterans. He and Trump have something in common. They both love golf. Even at age 100, Melnikoff still plays golf three times a week.

■ THE 70th ANNIVERSARY of the establishment of the European Union passed somewhat quietly in Israel last week, especially in relation to the gala event that was hosted in the Eurovision Village on the Tel Aviv beachfront last year by Emanuele Giaufret, head of the Delegation of the EU to Israel, during the Eurovision Song Contest festivities. There is almost always a certain degree of security at diplomatic events, but more so last year because of the venue and the fact that the reception was attended by President Reuven Rivlin and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.

■ WHILE IT’S true that one cannot dance in two weddings at the same time, one can appear as an interviewer on two different broadcasting networks on consecutive nights. Last week Roni Kuban appeared as the interviewer on Ilana Dayan’s Uvda (Fact) on Channel 12, where he interviewed the sisters of Michal Sela, who was brutally murdered last October by her husband, Eliran Malul; and the following evening Kuban was the anchorman in a weekly current affairs program on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet.
A prizewinning broadcaster who is always casually dressed, never wears a suit, has the build of a sumo wrestler and the personality of a cuddly teddy bear, Kuban is best known for his KAN 11 television program Meeting with Roni Kuban, in which he jogs the memories of his interviewees by showing them a board full of photographs taken of them over the years. The board has a disarming effect, but no more so than Kuban himself, who always looks his interviewees straight in the eye, but with an expression of almost childlike awe on his face. He always gives the interviewee his full attention and sometimes asks probing questions in a manner that definitely proves that one can catch more flies with honey. He is never aggressive – just curious.
During the height of the coronavirus lockdown, he visited a facility for the mentally ill that had been transformed into a coronavirus hospital but which retained those of its mentally ill patients who had been infected. He found one such woman sitting on a rock in the hospital grounds and asked her quite candidly what she was there for. Sensing his obvious interest, she did not hold back and told him that she was there for both reasons, and then they discussed her particular mental illness. Kuban probably did more for her than her psychiatrist. In conversation with the facility’s director, Kuban asked how to best deal with people who, due to the simultaneous health and economic crises, had become desperate. The answer was to tell them not to be ashamed to ask for help. The need to ask for help was repeated several times, as if to ensure that the message got across.

■ A NEW face at the British Embassy is that of Eli Hershkowitz, who has been appointed political adviser, replacing Nadav Markman. In his advisory capacities, Hershkowitz was an adviser to Zvi Hauser, Michael Oren and Israel Katz.

■ THE HEALTH Ministry came under considerable criticism for not being prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that Israel has handled the crisis better than most other countries has done little to convince the critics that the ministry is not functioning as it should.
Whether it is or it isn’t, the situation has created a red alert to which there has been response not only on the part of medical professionals, the Home Front Command, the police, social workers, countless volunteers and more, but also philanthropists. A significant donation by billionaire Roman Abramovich has enabled the establishment of an intensive care unit at Sheba Medical Center, which has been in the forefront of treating coronavirus patients.
The unit will provide crisis response in times of national emergencies, such as pandemic outbreaks and missile attacks, and can be further expanded according to need. It spans 5,400 sq.m. and covers three floors of the hospital’s underground parking lot. The infrastructure has been tailored to provide rapid response to pandemic outbreaks; and due to its subterranean location, it is also suitable in times of all-out war.
Sheba director-general Prof. Yitshak Kreiss noted that the unit will provide hospitalization on a national level, in the event of an emergency. He thanked Abramovich for being a longtime donor to Sheba and for increasing its intensive care capabilities.
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