Grapevine: Confrontations with history

Kiddush honors three rabbi sons, Benny Lau launches new book and Yad Vashem readies for conference.

JUST AS the Australian Light Horse Brigade vanquished the Turks in the Battle of Beersheba at the end of October 1917, so too on September 23, 1918, the Indian Cavalry Regiments triumphed over the Turks in the battle for Haifa, which is generally believed to be the last great cavalry battle in history. Their victory has long been an annual cause for celebration and commemoration in India, but here the historical record was buried in the dust of time, which was cleared last Wednesday when a ceremony commemorating the sacrifice of Indian soldiers was observed at the Indian Cemetery adjacent to the Haifa Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
Defense attaches from several countries were in attendance, as were Indian Ambassador Navtej Sarna, members of the Haifa city council, the Defense Ministry, the Haifa Historical Society and representatives of the Commonwealth Graves Commission.
Wreaths were laid in their honor, and Sarna gave the memorial address, underscoring the important role played by Indian soldiers during World War I. He also thanked the Haifa Historical Society for its efforts in documenting India’s history in the region Close to 900 Indian soldiers were killed in action and were cremated or buried in cemeteries across Israel. A two-member delegation of the Indian army led by Col. M.S. Jodha, grandson of Capt. Aman Singh Bahadur, who was awarded the Indian Order of Merit for his bravery in the battle, came from India to attend the memorial ceremony.
■ GUEST OF honor at the opening of the Yemenite folklore festival in Rosh Ha’ayin was Kadima leader MK Tzipi Livni, who has no Yemenite forebears, but whose father, the late Eitan Livni, as chief operations officer for the Irgun, was responsible for a series of actions against the British including an assault in 1945 on the quartermaster stores of the British army in the heart of Rosh Ha’ayin.
■ AS RECENTLY as 25 years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the US and Russian ambassadors holding hands and smiling blissfully as they danced in a circle with a group of hassidim. But that was definitely the scene at the Jerusalem home of haredi consul Matityahu Cheshin, a ninth generation Israeli and a sixth generation Jerusalemite, and his wife Hinda who invited diplomats and hassidim from different courts to their succa in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot.
The American diplomats all brought their wives, who remained outside the succa but were able to get a good view of what was going on inside because the succa was built on a large balcony leading directly from the wide doorway of the dining room. The women all crowded in the doorway, and Leslie Cunningham, the wife of US Ambassador James Cunningham, was thrilled to see the extent to which her husband was enjoying himself. She likes to take on local traditions wherever she and her husband are stationed and got the embassy staff to help build a succa at the US residence, and she put up some of the decorations. The Cunninghams had their meals in the succa for the duration of the festival, and just loved doing so.
Cheshin and neighborhood Rabbi Menahem Mendel Fuchs explained the messages of peace and concern for one’s fellow being which are integral to Succot, with Fuchs speaking in a mixture of English and Ashkenazi Hebrew that didn’t seem to bother the diplomats at all.
Cheshin also brought in a top haredi klezmer group comprising accordionist Aharon Leib Burstein and brothers Hilik and Nahman Frank, who respectively play clarinet and drums. Cheshin is one of several people working to improve relations between foreign diplomats and the haredi community. He initially served as an adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry on matters relating to Israelis traveling to Uman to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Breslav.
He developed a strong relationship with Ukrainian officials and thus it was natural that Hennadii Nadolenko, the ambassador of Ukraine, was among the guests.
Local guests included ZAKA founder Yehuda Meshi-Zahav and Pinhas Avivi, deputy director- general and head of the division for Central Europe and Eurasia at the Foreign Ministry.
■ INTERVIEWED ON Israel Radio, Jerusalemborn Ladino singer Yasmin Levy said that of all the places in which she sings, the one where she feels most at home other than in Israel is Turkey. Although relations with Turkey are currently at a low ebb, Levy said she encounters only friendliness and goodwill when she is there, in addition to which Turkey has a special pull for her because her father, who died when she was an infant, was born there and because she can never forget that Turkey opened its doors to the Jews who were exiled from Spain and allowed them to practice and perpetuate their Judeo-Spanish traditions.
■ “SOME OF you came to hear if I speak English,” quipped Rabbi Benny Lau to an audience at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue who had come to listen to him at the launch of the English translation of his book The Sages. “The answer is no, I can’t. This the first time that I can’t read a book I wrote.” He then proceeded to speak in almost unfaltering English, proving that his vocabulary is more than passable, but that his grammar is about as Henglish as one can get.
Anyone reasonably fluent in Hebrew instantly recognized the transposed Hebrew grammar construction. Lau noted the “terrible gap” between Hebrew and English speakers in that neither can truly reach the thoughts of the other. “We understand so-so, we speak a little bit, but we cannot read,” he lamented. “Most of my American colleagues can’t read a book in Hebrew, and my Hebrew-speaking colleagues can’t read in English.”
Lau had high praise for publisher Matthew Miller of Koren Publishers, who together with Jay Pomerantz who sponsored the publication of the book, had become a bridge between Hebrew and English. Lau was the first speaker in a new People of the Book series which is part of the Great Synagogue’s expanded cultural program.
■ WHEN THEIR three sons Daniel, Micah and Jeremy were small, psychiatrist and neurologist Dr. Amnon Gimpel, who has won international fame for the brain exercises he devised to cure ADHD, and his wife Dr. Lynn Gimpel never imagined that they would be the parents of three rabbis. They were living in Atlanta, Georgia, and the family was not religious, although the boys did attend yeshiva high schools and were subsequently sent to Jerusalem, where Amnon was born, to acquire more Jewish knowledge.
Daniel was the first to become religious. His parents and siblings gradually followed his example and the whole family came here.
Micah returned to the US but did not make professional use of his rabbinical ordination.
Instead he worked in high finance in New York. Daniel also chose not to make professional use of his ordination, and Jeremy the youngest, who has just been ordained, already has degrees in law, finance and Jewish studies, so it’s not quite certain which way he will go.
Meanwhile he’s enjoying great success as an international public speaker and as the coanchor of the popular television program Tuesday Night Live.
His parents hosted a kiddush at Hildesheimer Synagogue in Jerusalem last Saturday to celebrate not only the fact that all three of their sons are rabbis, but also that Micah has made aliya.
■ WHILE FORMER US president Bill Clinton sees Russian aliya as an impediment to a peace agreement, former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak has a different take and regards it as the country’s demographic savior. Speaking at a public meeting sponsored by the Movement for Quality Government, he was asked how Israel can remain Jewish in light of the high Muslim birthrate.
His spontaneous reply was: “The Russian aliya makes the difference.”
■ THE MOST famous of all Russian olim, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, was the guest speaker at what was supposed to be the cornerstone setting ceremony for the Shir Hadash Max and Jenny Weil Community Center. Shir Hadash founder Rabbi Ian Pear explained that the Jerusalem Municipality which had donated the land said that the stone setting would have to wait because of the concerns of certain neighbors. At first he was disappointed, Pear admitted, but on consideration decided that it was more of a challenge than a disappointment.
“We’re not going to fight the neighbors,” he said. “We’re going to come to the center, find common ground and hug, and create a place that will be a source of pride not only to us but also to our neighbors. If we can’t build a small center here, how can we build a Temple? We want to create a model for overcoming differences.”
Even though the stone wasn’t set, it was presented, replete with inscription to Pear by Shir Hadash president Alan Lurie.Sharansky is a Shir Hadash congregant.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, of Kehilat Jeshurun on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, has known Pear’s wife Rachel “since before she was born” and used to teach Pear homiletics at Yeshiva University. He was extremely proud of the fact that Pear had opted to hug rather than to fight. Germanborn Weil, who was educated according to the philosophy of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who combined religious study and observance with the teaching of culture, said that he had been looking for something within this genre ever since he came here, and had found it in Shir Hadash. Usually, a project goes in search of a donor, he noted, but in this case after hearing about Shir Hadash, he had contacted Pear, and had asked to be included among his donors.
To celebrate the event, Lurie and his wife Lori hosted close to 150 people in their home. “This is the biggest party we’ve ever had,” said Lurie who is a frequent host for large gatherings on Shabbat and on other occasions.
■ SIX MEMBERS of the British Embassy’s staff proudly donned their GO UK T-shirts and joined thousands of other bike enthusiasts, including representatives from the country’s top companies, in the Tel Aviv bike rally. The “GO UK” global campaign aims to promote the UK as a preferred investment location and trading partner. Richard Salt, Israel director for UK trade and investment, along with his team members Ofir Ben-Natan and Deborah Moher were joined in the rally by Dean Hurlock, Tim Simpson and Fred Cabuga from the embassy’s political section.
Simpson signed up for the grueling 31-kilometer route, while the others proudly completed the 15-kilometer track. The bike fest was organized by the Tel Aviv Municipality and the Winner sports lottery.
■ TWO GOVERNMENT ministers combined their Succot celebrations last Wednesday with milestone birthdays. Both Limor Livnat and Isaac Herzog were born on September 22. She celebrated her 60th birthday and he celebrated his 50th.
■ NOT ONLY former prime minister Ehud Olmert, certain members of the Labor Party, some of the top brass in the defense establishment and the citizens of Judea and Samaria have a bone to pick with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The Foreign Ministry is also displeased with him, to put it mildly. The reason: his wife, who not for the first time has caused him a spot of trouble. While Michelle Obama, the wife of the president of the United States; Carla Bruni, the wife of the president of France; and Yoo Soon-taek, the wife of the secretary-general of the United Nations, all sat in the gallery during the opening of the UN General Assembly, Nili Priel-Barak sat with the Israeli delegation just behind President Shimon Peres, who was sitting alongside Barak.
She was not a member of the delegation, but an appendage to her husband, and as such should have been sitting in the gallery instead of displaying an unpopular brand of Israeli chutzpah.
■ THERE WAS some added excitement in the service on the first day of Succot at Jerusalem’s Hazvi Yisrael congregation, where congregants witnessed the induction into the faith of Shmuel Ze’ev Stein, whose circumcision was held on the lectern from which the Torah is read. Synagogue attendance was boosted by the large number of visitors from abroad, but also by relatives and friends of the proud parents and grandparents, Elkie and Yehuda Stein, Perry and Mark Spitzer and Shosh and Renee Stein. In fact there were so many visitors that regular congregants felt somewhat displaced by the guests who had taken their seats. It is rare for a congregant at Hazvi Yisrael to ask someone who has usurped their seat to move, so the regulars had to look around for empty seats.
■ GREETING NON-JEWS at the rally at Revava to mark the end of the building freeze, Ayoub Kara, the deputy minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee, a Druse, looked around at the national flags and the clusters of blue and white balloons and declared: “This is what I wanted to see – blue and white in every corner. I am an integral part of what is happening here. I’m more Jewish than every Jew and more Zionist than every Zionist.”
■ SEVERAL YEARS ago, actor and director Ze’ev Revach called a press conference to complain that he and other actors of North African background were not getting the attention they deserved, and that the films they appeared in, while popular with the public, were treated with disdain by the critics.
Time went by and attitudes changed, so much so that Revach was given a life achievement award at the 2005 Jerusalem Film Festival.
Coincidentally, Lia Van Leer, founder of the festival and the Jerusalem Cinematheque where much of it is held, was sitting right behind Revach at the Jerusalem Theater last week when he received a life achievement award at the Film and Television Academy’s annual Ophir Awards ceremony. Another coincidence was the fact that Amnon Salamon, who won the award for best cinematography, has been the man behind the camera for most of Revach’s films.
Revach who received a standing ovation as he mounted the stage, said that if he had succeeded in making people forget their problems for a couple of hours, then he had achieved what he set out to do, but added that there is still so much he wants to do.
It was fitting in more ways than one that Revach received the Ophir statuette from Moshe Edri, who together with his brother Leon founded the Cinema City chain of movie theaters, owns the United King film distribution company and is one of the largest producers of Israeli feature films. Edri, like Revach, was born in Morocco, and came here at a time when Moroccan Jews were treated as inferiors.
■ POLITICS IS everything, and these days so is Gilad Schalit, who has unwittingly become the focal point of the political discourse.
Former minister of industry and trade Micha Harish, who these days serves as chairman of the Israel Film Council, visited the Schalit tent on his way to the Jerusalem Theater, and once on stage at the Ophir Awards recruited members of the academy individually and as an influential group with contacts in high places abroad to do everything within their power to bring Gilad Schalit home. Harish was the first of several people who urged that more be done.
■ VERSATILE STAGE and screen actor Aki Avni, who emceed the Ophir Awards, also had a word of advice for the Israel Broadcasting Authority with regard to the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest. He noted that Izhar Cohen, Gali Atari and Dana International, who had each won the contest, were of Yemenite background and suggested that this might be the winning formula. He seemed to have forgotten that Achinoam Nini who competed together with Mira Awad in 2009 is also of Yemenite background, and yet didn’t score anywhere near the highest number of points.
■ KEYNOTE SPEAKER at the opening session on October 3 of Yad Vashem’s four-day International Conference on “Polish Attitudes to Jews and the Holocaust after World War II and the Return of Jewish Survivors to Life in Poland,” will be Jan Tomasz Gross, author of the controversial groundbreaking books Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland and Fear – Anti- Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz that chronicle the interaction between Jews and the local population and deal with plunder and killings.
Other speakers will include well known scholars, among them several Holocaust survivors who will recount their interactions with Poles in the immediate aftermath of the war.