Grapevine: ‘Happy birthday’ in Hindi

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When at Tandoori, go Indian.

REENA PUSHKARNA with Zubin Mehta at his 80th birthday party, which she hosted with her husband, Vinod. (photo credit: Courtesy)
REENA PUSHKARNA with Zubin Mehta at his 80th birthday party, which she hosted with her husband, Vinod.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Janmadin kee shubhakaamanaen (“happy birthday” in Hindi). When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When at Tandoori, go Indian.
It was a multiple celebration when Indian restaurateur Reena Pushkarna and her husband, Vinod, decided to celebrate the 80th birthday of their good friend Israel Philharmonic Orchestra musical director maestro Zubin Mehta at their Tandoori restaurant in Herzliya Pituah. Aside from the birthday, which actually falls toward the end of the month, the Pushkarnas were celebrating 33 years in the restaurant business in Israel, 25 years of Tandoori, and the presence of India’s ambassador designate, Pavan Kapoor, who has yet to present his credentials.
Reena Pushkarna, who for years has been regarded as the unofficial ambassador of India, always wears traditional Indian garb, but Mehta, who is like an extension of her family, usually wears Western clothes, reserving his beautifully tailored Indian outfits for special occasions. This was one such occasion.
He also wore an Indian suit 24 years ago when attending the presentation of credentials by India’s first ambassador to Israel, Pradeep Kumar Singh, to president Chaim Herzog, and literally wept with joy at the time. In fact before the Pushkarnas came to Israel, Mehta and the late peace activist Abie Nathan were widely accepted as India’s unofficial ambassadors.
Pushkarna, who is familiar with Mehta’s favorite spicy delicacies from home, lovingly prepared them with the assistance of eight Indian cooks. Entertainment was provided by Indian musicians and an Indian dancer.
In addition to Mehta and his wife, Nancy, guests included members of the IPO, diplomats and prominent businesspeople who are both patrons of the IPO and Tandoori.
Among the diplomats were US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Nepalese Ambassador Prahlad Kumar Prasa and Sri Lankan Ambassador Periyasamy Pillai Selvaraj. When Pushkarna asked Mehta whom he wanted her to invite, he told her that he is always invited to social events without the orchestra, and that he would love the orchestra to be part of his celebration.
So including the orchestra there were some 170 guests, in addition to which street food was served to some 60 people outside the restaurant.
Two Indian singers sang “Happy Birthday” in English, Hebrew and Hindi, at which point Mehta was almost overcome, saying that he hadn’t heard “Happy Birthday” in Hindi since he was a child. A huge, three-tiered birthday cake decorated with orchestral figures featured a statuette of Mehta on top in the role of conductor.
■ KNOWN TO be a supporter and admirer of public broadcasting, President Reuven Rivlin – who was among the guests on Sunday night at the 10th anniversary party of Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich, who was celebrating her first decade in politics as well as her 56th birthday – recalled that prior to entering the political arena, Yacimovich was a longtime public broadcaster on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet, a station that can claim Rivlin as a daily listener. Aware that Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan was among the throngs of guests milling at the Seminar Hakibbutzim, where the festivities were held, Rivlin pointedly remarked on the importance of public broadcasting. Erdan, in his former capacity as communications minister, spearheaded the dismantling of the Israel Broadcasting Authority without fully familiarizing himself with all the pros and cons.
Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, have a particularly warm place in their hearts for Yacimovich, who as a novice legislator voted for Likud MK Rivlin when he stood against Shimon Peres in the presidential race. Peres didn’t bear a grudge and welcomed her warmly when she visited him after she became opposition leader.
■ ACCORDING TO Yad Vashem approximately 1.5 million Jews fought in the regular Allied armies during the Second World War – some 500,000 in the Red Army and around 550,000 in the United States Armed Forces.
They served on all fronts in Europe, and many Jewish soldiers were involved in liberating the camps. Approximately 100,000 Jews fought in the Polish Army, and about 30,000 served in the British Army, including those in special units from Palestine, such as the Jewish Brigade. There were smaller numbers from Australia, New, Zealand, South Africa, Canada and elsewhere.
In the years since the war, many veterans have settled in Israel, and until the fall of the Iron Curtain, the largest numbers came from the United States and formed the Israeli branch known as Post 180 of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America. They are now outnumbered by Russian Jewish war veterans who strut around, undeterred by the weight of the medals on their chests. Not only were the Americans outnumbered by the Russians, but their numbers were being depleted by the grim reaper, and eventually they decided to admit English-speaking ex-service personnel from any country, so long as they had been part of the Allied Forces and abided by the Post 180 rules.
The upshot is that Post 180 has its first-ever non-American commander, Maj. Bob Mountwitten, an Australian with an impressive military record. Most recently, he was the commanding officer of the volunteer anti-terrorist unit of the Jerusalem police.
It’s not only the American veterans whose numbers are declining. The same goes for the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women from Britain. In fact at a JWV meeting in Jerusalem last week, Mountwitten announced that the Israeli branch of AJEX is eager to join in some of the activities of JWV.
Attendance at both organizations is dwindling, so much so that medals commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War are being distributed spasmodically, depending on whether the recipients are present. Although Dan Nadel, the chief of operations who is responsible for distributing the medals, called out a number of names, only two medals left his possession.
David Macarov who was professor emeritus at the Hebrew University’s School of Social Work, died in January at the age of 97. His medal was presented to his widow, Frieda.
The other recipient was Elmer Offenbacher, a retired physics professor.
The guest speaker at the meeting was Simon Plosker, managing editor of HonestReporting, which monitors the media and pounces on any inaccuracies about Israel and the Jewish people, often securing corrections and apologies. “You’ve been on the real front lines, defending Jewish values and universal human values,” Plosker told the veterans, adding that they were still on the front lines because they had the time and the energy to respond to some of the media bias.
That is actually HonestReporting’s success formula. When editors are bombarded with letters and emails pointing out inaccuracies and providing the correct information, most of them, certainly the most professional of them, will back down and make amends – but not all of them. “Some media are not interested in the truth” said Plosker.
Moreover, the public isn’t interested in the truth either. The BBC World Service ran a positive/negative survey on how the public views different countries, and 24 percent of the respondents saw Israel in a positive light while 50 percent saw Israel in a negative light.
In fact, Israel falls into the same negative category as North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, said Plosker, adding that there is a gap in perception.
He attributed this to distortion of facts and wrong photo captions and gave examples of the ever constant battle being waged by HonestReporting and its supporters. In urging his audience to complain to a responsible editor when something untoward about Israel or the Jewish people is published or broadcast, Plosker said: “A single person may not make a difference, but together, many of us can.”
■ IT’S A season for groundbreaking ceremonies.
A couple of years back Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich promised at an anniversary ceremony commemorating the Battle of Beersheba that he would put an Anzac museum on the city’s agenda in honor of the victory of the Australian Light Horse in the battle, which marked the beginning of the end of Ottoman rule. True to his word, Danilovich persuaded the Jewish National Fund to come to the party, and the result is a cornerstone ceremony which will take place at 1 p.m. on Thursday, April 14, with the participation of Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma, president of JNF of Australia Peter Smaller, CEO of JNF Australia Dan Springer, vice chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund Mike Nitzan as well as a representative from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and of course Danilovich and members of the Beersheba City Council.
Beersheba already has a most impressive Park of the Australian Soldier, which was funded by the Pratt Foundation and was inaugurated in May 2008 with the participation of then-governor-general of Australia Maj.-Gen.
Michael Jeffery, then-president Shimon Peres and members of the Pratt family, who specially came from Australia for the occasion. There will be at least one Anzac ex-serviceman at Thursday’s event, and whoever read the previous item will have guessed that it’s Mountwitten, who usually wears a kilt to Anzac-related events.
■ AT THE annual awards ceremony this week given for works commemorating Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, and its 11th prime minister, Ariel Sharon, Rivlin also paid tribute to Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, who died last November. The awards ceremony commemorating the history and heritage of deceased presidents and prime ministers is traditionally held on the first day of the month of Nisan (or the closest date to it) which in Jewish tradition is the New Year for Kings.
Of all of Israel’s leaders, Navon was the only one who consistently continued to attend ceremonial events when no longer in office, especially those at the President’s Residence.
Navon made a specific point of attending this particular ceremony each year, because he was born on the first of Nisan. Navon attended last year’s ceremony and would have had a double reason to attend this year’s had he lived, because his Gregorian calendar birthday was April 9. While both Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Weizmann as a scientist, statesman and charismatic diplomat with a gift for persuasion, neither mentioned his frequently uttered presidential complaint which was often quoted by his nephew Israel’s seventh president, Ezer Weizman: “The only place in which I can poke my nose these days is in my handkerchief.” The families of Weizmann and Sharon were present at the ceremony. Navon’s family might have attended had they been invited, as Peres might have – but the invitations were not handled by Rivlin’s staff. Needless to say, there were profuse apologies later in the week.
■ BEFORE THE actual awards ceremony, there was a smaller, more modest ceremony conducted in the reception room adjacent to the main hall in the President’s Residence. Rivlin and Netanyahu belatedly presented the Prime Minister’s Prize to Yossi Ahimeir, the executive director of the Jabotinsky Institute, for editing the book Yitzhak Shamir – As Solid as a Rock (Hebrew). The prize was to have been awarded in 2014, but the ceremony was not held because no scholastic research on Ezer Weizman, who was the president commemorated that year, was considered of sufficiently high standard. Ahimeir, who was prime minister Shamir’s bureau chief, and who initiated the book while Shamir was still alive, was less interested in getting the prize for himself than in having the book finally receive official state recognition.
■ A STRANGE anomaly in the Jewish homeland is the fact that there are more social and cultural events between Purim and Passover than at almost any other time of the year.
Why is it strange? Because it’s the month in which cleaning is supposed to be done with a vengeance – and it’s more than just spring cleaning. Not everyone has household help, and many people have to juggle their jobs with their cleaning. Even if they stretch the budget and bring in some of the many yeshiva students whose notices are plastered on light poles and billboards around the country, they still have to stay home and supervise them.
The worst of it all is usually the day before Passover, when every last-minute arrangement is made and final shopping forays for food and gifts are conducted. Yet despite all that, there are social and cultural events on Thursday, April 21.
One such event taking place in Jerusalem is the opening of the innovative, cutting-edge project the Children’s Discovery Trail at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, with the participation of its chairman, Alan Berkley; the donors: the Kaplan Kushlick Foundation; Eric and Sheila Samson; Della Worms; the Koschitzky, Dent and other families; Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, JNF chairman Dani Atar; world chairman of United Israel Appeal Eliezer Sandberg; Jerusalem Foundation president Yohanna Arbib-Perugia and Hebrew University president Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson. In sending out the invitation to supporters of the Botanical Gardens, Berkley wrote: “We would be delighted if you join us for this wonderful event. You will love this trail. We appreciate your commitment to attend so close to Passover. It means a lot to us. Thanks!! We so hope you can join us.”
■ IT WAS a double celebration for the Jewish Agency last week at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, where Jewish leaders from around the world joined Peres and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the agency’s Partnership2Gether Peoplehood Platform, P2G’s flagship program Global School Twinning and its being named the winner of this year’s Jerusalem Unity Prize. For Sharansky and Peres, it was also the 30th anniversary of their first meeting, following Sharansky’s release from a Soviet prison and arrival in Israel in February 1986. Sharansky was met on arrival by Peres, who was then prime minister, and Shamir, who was foreign minister. The two escorted Sharansky and his wife, Avital, to Jerusalem.
Sharansky subsequently entered politics, formed a now defunct party, became a government minister and, in June 2009, was elected to his present position. He is fond of quipping that, unlike Israel, in the Soviet Union one went to jail before becoming a minister in the government.
Now in its second year, the Jerusalem Unity Prize – a joint initiative of Barkat, Gesher and the families of the three yeshiva students, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, who were kidnapped and subsequently murdered in the summer of 2014 – the prize is in their memory. It was officially inaugurated at the President’s Residence while Peres was still in office, and will be awarded by Rivlin on June 1. The date is observed as International Unity Day, with commemorations and educational events taking place around the world P2G , operating online locally and globally, has brought together tens of thousands Jewish students from 650 schools.
Speaking to the parents, Peres said: “It takes a person of great dignity to experience such tremendous pain and produce such deep and abiding hope. You are proof that such people exist. All of Israel shares your pain.”
Turning to the hundreds of Jewish leaders and activists in attendance, Peres thanked them, as the representatives of world Jewry, for their “uncompromising work strengthening the connection between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel. This is not easy work and it is full of difficulties, but you do it without giving up. Everyone was against the State of Israel, but we succeeded despite the odds. We have become a creative, innovative nation. We are the only country in the Middle East that has no brother and no friend – not in language, not in religion and not in culture. We have been attacked many times and they have done everything possible to destroy us, but despite it all, they have not destroyed our morality or the righteousness of our path.”
In similar vein, Sharansky said: “The future of the Jewish people depends on the sense of shared responsibility between all Jews around the world. The solidarity and connection between all parts of the Jewish people is the key, and our future will be built on a foundation of morality and on the basis of aliya.”
■ SOME PEOPLE have a remarkable gift for remaining calm, relaxed and laid back in the face of pressure. One such person is Paul Israel, the Israel executive director of the Australia- Israel Chamber of Commerce, who last week had to deal with three delegations from Down Under. The first was a delegation from Swinburne University, then there was a delegation led by New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, and there was also a delegation from Optus Telecommunications. Working closely with the Australian Embassy, Paul Israel and his staff organize academic, corporate, political and individual tours and meetings for visitors from the antipodes. Arrangements are often complicated because certain delegations or individuals are intent on meeting a particular Israeli personality who may not always be available, but by and large every delegation gets to benefit from the Israel experience with one-on-one meetings with Israeli counterparts, in addition to group meetings, traveling through a broad spectrum of the country and participating in social events.
Led by chancellor Graham Goldsmith, most of the participants in the Swinburne University delegation, which had its farewell dinner at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem on Friday night, had not been to Israel previously.
Influenced by media reports, they had come with a certain sense of trepidation, fearful for their safety. But once they arrived they felt perfectly safe throughout their weeklong visit and were full of admiration for Israeli hospitality, candor, innovation and willingness to share know-how. Individually, they all voiced appreciation for the smooth running of the visit and praised Paul Israel’s organizational skills. They were particularly pleased to learn that his mother, Sandy, who was visiting Israel for her grandson’s bar mitzva, and who had joined them at the dinner, was a Swinburne graduate.
Swinburne vice president (engagement) Andrew Smith, which in Israel parlance means vice president for external relations, who had been at the Australian end of organizing the visit, and for whom this was also his first time in Israel, said that he was amazed at how much he had learned, and had been so impressed that he plans to come back on a private visit within a year. He also intends to maintain contact with many of the people whom he met. In general, members of the delegation were pleased not only to have been in Israel but to have been in Israel together, discovering more about each other and forming closer ties than in Melbourne.
■ KNESSET SPEAKER Yuli Edelstein who is due to tie the knot with Irina Nevzlin early in the summer, may have more in common generation-wise with his future father-in-law than with his wife-to-be. It will be a second marriage for both. Edelstein’s first wife, Tatiana, died of cancer in January 2014. Nevzlin divorced her husband, Michael Kogan, a little over a year later. She and Edelstein have been an item for roughly nine months, and she accompanied him last week to the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the new National Library in Jerusalem. Edelstein is a year older than Leonid Nevzlin, the multimillionaire philanthropist who is Irina’s father.
■ THERE’S NO love lost between Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev and Gila Almagor, the first lady of Habimah Theater. Regev is now talking about setting up a committee to determine Habimah’s status and whether it should still be regarded as the National Theater of Israel. Regev and Almagor come from different sides of the political fence, as well as from different cultural backgrounds, and sparks have flown between them ever since Regev took up her current position, which begs the question as to whether the probe is what it is at face value or whether it is a personal vendetta.
■ WHEN SHE died last week, a valuable source of walking history disappeared from the social radar. Mazal Gibli, 93, who for 20 years served as housekeeper to Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, took with her some of the family secrets that eluded Ben-Gurion’s official biographer, Prof. Michael Bar-Zohar.
In television interviews that she gave 30 years ago and more, Gibli related that she had come to the Ben-Gurion household by chance. The prime minister’s wife, Paula, who was American, was visiting Esther Rubin, the wife of the great artist Reuven Rubin, who had been Israel’s first ambassador to Romania. Esther Rubin was also American, and although the two women were very different, they shared a common background. Paula saw Gibli, who at the time was employed by Esther, and instantly took to her and asked her to come and work in the prime minister’s household. From that time on, she would not let her go, and Gibli became part and parcel of the Ben-Gurion family, even to the extent of sometimes sleeping in the same room as Paula. She also ate with the family. She loved them and they loved her. She worked as their housekeeper in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Sde Boker.
Paula didn’t like Ben-Gurion standing on his head, and thus it was always Gibli who had to be on standby to ensure that he was standing straight. She was always terrified that he would topple over and knock her down in the process – but it never happened. On one occasion, when she was going from one Ben-Gurion house to the other, she forgot her night gown. Paula told her not to worry and promised she would give her something suitable. Mazal expected to wear something of Paula’s to bed, but instead the prime minister’s wife gave her a pair of his flannel pajamas.
Paula hated photographers, “but she was nice even when she screamed,” said Mazal, adding that Ben-Gurion was always busy writing or reading. Mazal prepared all the family meals, from breakfast to supper, always making sure that the somewhat demanding Paula was satisfied. Ben-Gurion would not allow anyone to leave the table until everyone had finished eating.
Once, when Paula left Mazal to lock up the house, she subsequently sent the prime minister’s car to fetch her. People recognized the car and waved and applauded, not realizing that in effect the person inside was the maid.
Over the years after the death of both Paula and Ben-Gurion, Mazal attended numerous events at the house in which the Ben-Gurions had lived in Tel Aviv, and it always brought to mind how the house had looked in Paula’s day. If Mazal saw any dust during such visits, she quickly wiped it away, knowing that Paula would be displeased if the house was not sparkling clean.
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