As I began driving from Jerusalem to Jaffa with The Jerusalem Post’s Grapevine columnist Greer Fay Cashman on June 11, I heard on the radio that the cabinet planned to close neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv and Jaffa due to a spike in coronavirus cases there. There had also been growing protests in Jaffa over the tragic killing on May 30 of Iyad al-Halak, a 32-year-old disabled Palestinian, by a policeman in Jerusalem’s Old City. This was exacerbated by new protests over the Tel Aviv Municipality’s decision to allow a homeless shelter to be built on an 18th-century Muslim burial ground in Jaffa. The US Embassy had even issued a security alert for Jaffa.
“Greer, are you sure you want to go?” I asked.
“Yes, it will fine,” she reassured me.
The hour-long drive was smooth, and we parked near the Russian Orthodox Church in the Compound of St. Tabitha (the burial place of Tabitha, who according to Christian tradition was raised from the dead by Peter). The festive Russia Day reception, hosted by Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov in the gorgeous garden outside the church, was attended by between 80 and 100 mask-wearing guests.
After musicians played the anthems of Israel and Russia, Viktorov welcomed the guests, who included Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Higher Education Minister Ze’ev Elkin, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus lll, Russian Ecclesiastical Mission head, Archimandrite Alexander, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog and Sofa Landver, a former Israeli cabinet minister born in St. Petersburg.
Viktorov said that Moscow views Israeli sovereignty plans in the West Bank as “a very dangerous development.” As he put it, “Israel’s annexation of part of the Palestinian territories would cross out the prospects of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement and provoke a new round of violence.” He added, pointedly, “We believe that during the pandemic of the novel coronavirus infection, we all should think about cohesion in the face of the new challenges of our time, reveal humanism and openness to cooperation.”
The ambassador noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made “a significant visit” to Israel in January to attend the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. During that visit, he also unveiled the “Candle of Remembrance” monument in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park in memory of the 1.5 million soldiers and civilians who died in the Nazi siege of Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg. Putin had recalled that his father fought in the siege and his three-year-old older brother died of disease.
Congratulating Russia, Ashkenazi made a point of thanking the Red Army for liberating Bulgaria and saving his father, Josef, a Holocaust survivor. “Without the Red Army, I would not be here,” he said.
After the Russian Day event, Greer treated me for my 60th birthday at the nearby Shmulik Cohen Restaurant, a glatt kosher eatery famous for its East European Jewish cuisine. Founded in 1936 by Rivka, Shmulik Cohen’s mother, it was frequented by the founders of the state and remains a family-run business today. We were surprised to see the restaurant full, even though diners maintained social distancing. Among the delicious delicacies we sampled were chopped liver, chicken soup with kneidlach and kreplach, and cholent with kishke. It was, as Greer said, food for the soul.
We are living in tough times, but Greer was right that we have to venture out, while taking the proper precautions.