Grapevine: The little Torah that could

MANY OBSERVANT Jewish men who work outside their hometowns or cities do not have time to attend synagogue services in the morning, and instead say their prayers during the commute. Most would prefer to have a proper quorum, but this is not always possible on buses. On the train from Jerusalem via Beit Shemesh to Tel Aviv, however, it is a daily occurrence. There are three such minyanim on this train, at 6:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. These services are attended by some 150 men. What was missing, says lawyer David Schapiro, who lives in Beit Shemesh and works in Tel Aviv, was a Torah scroll. After consulting the Beit Shemesh Rabbinate, he was given permission to buy an easily portable Torah scroll, namely one that is only 15 cm. high, which was put to use for the first time this week. Schapiro described it as "a historic occasion." It certainly gives a new fillip to the journey. IT WAS much in the nature of a mutual admiration society when leading British historian and Winston Churchill's official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert delivered an appreciation at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center last Friday of the book The Aaronsohn Saga, and its prolific author, journalist and historian Shmuel Katz, who is generally regarded as the official biographer of Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Katz, 93, made aliya from South Africa in 1936, the year Gilbert was born, in London. They met in Jerusalem 32 years ago and have remained friends and admirers of each other's work ever since. In his latest book, observed Gilbert, Katz writes that Aaron Aaronsohn was ignored by British historians. Gilbert prided himself on being the exception to the rule. Recommending the book at the launch hosted by Gefen Publishing House, Gilbert said: "It's an extraordinary book. I've read it twice and hope to review it for The Jerusalem Post. It really is exceptional, and I take my hat off to him." Few people are aware that it was information supplied by Aaronsohn that enabled the British to defeat the Turks in Beersheba in 1917. Aaronsohn was also involved with Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor in creating the Jewish Legion, said Gilbert. Recalling his first meeting with Gilbert after the publication of his monumental work Battleground, Katz said: "When Martin read it and liked it, I realized the book had succeeded." Commenting that he had read a month ago about a man who did not know who Jabotinsky was, other than a name on a street sign, Katz lamented that Aaron and Sara Aaronsohn did not have even that much. Not a single street in Israel is named for them, he said. "The hatred for the Aaronsohn family came down through the ages." Both Gilbert and Katz received resounding ovations from the largely ultra-right-wing audience. Standing out like a sore thumb was former Labor MK Tamar Eshel, a cousin to Avshalom Feinberg, who together with the Aaronsohns organized the NILI espionage group. HOW DOES one spend one's 55th wedding anniversary? Well, if your name is Yehuda Avner and you're a much-in-demand public speaker and writer who has been actively engaged in the development of modern Israel since before its declaration of independence, then you give in to yet another request for a speaking engagement. Last Saturday night, Avner, who is a member of the board of directors of Jerusalem's Great Synagogue, could hardly refuse. He had been scheduled to speak at an earlier date, and had been prevented by illness from carrying out his commitment. As this was the last in an annual six-months series, it was a matter of noblesse oblige. So he and his wife Mimi duly turned up at the Great Synagogue where he delivered a warmly received fire and brimstone address. Avner came to Jerusalem in November, 1947, as a 17-year-old volunteer from Britain to fight in the War of Independence. He subsequently helped found Kibbutz Lavi, became a career diplomat and was sent back to England as ambassador to the Court of St. James. He was also ambassador to Australia. Speaking just after the escalation of hostilities between Gaza and Israel, Avner said that there was a war of attrition raging in the South because Israel's policy toward Gaza was not working. Repeated air strikes against those deploying rockets had not proved to be a deterrent to Hamas, and finally the government had agreed to budget quarter of a billion dollars for the building of shelters for Sderot and its environs. "That's unacceptable," thundered Avner. "A country with the most powerful army in the Middle East cannot tell itself that it cannot put a stop to the harassment of its citizens. "There are better uses for a quarter of a billion dollars than as a sign of our government's impotence," he said. A rousing ovation by the audience indicated that they were with him all the way. WHEN IMMIGRANTS from the former Soviet Union began arriving in great numbers after the fall of Communism, many were adopted by Chabad and other like-minded movements that were interested in giving them a sense of the Jewish heritage that they had been denied. Among these immigrants were many couples in which both husband and wife were halachically Jewish, but had been married in a civil ceremony because that was generally how things were done in a Communist regime. But once in the Jewish homeland, a significant number wanted to remarry each other in accordance with Jewish law. As a result there were mass marriages in different parts of the country, with as many as 30 couples at a time rededicating themselves to each other in a traditional Jewish ceremony. Now, it's happening with the Indian Bnei Menashe, who this week saw 18 couples in their community remarry under a huge bridal canopy at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, with Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum performing the honors. People from all over turned up to wish them well and join in the exuberant dancing in the large entrance hall to the synagogue. The brides, decked out in high-necked, long-sleeved, full-skirted traditional wedding gowns, sat in a row to the right of the entrance as other women danced in their honor. On the left of the entrance, grooms and other men danced enthusiastically and belted out Carlebach melodies. Bongo drums and tambourines added to the festive atmosphere, and everyone, even the photographers jostling for position, wore happy expressions.