Grapevine August 17, 2022: A boost for tolerance and understanding

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 President Isaac Herzog with Indian Ambassador Sanjeev Singla. (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog with Indian Ambassador Sanjeev Singla.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

Notwithstanding Jerusalem’s large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and the harsh opposition in it and in traditional Muslim circles to the capital’s gay population, capped by the demonstrations along the route of the annual gay pride parade, Jerusalem’s gay community has survived, and by its very existence has helped to generate greater acceptance of the other.

The problem is that the city’s officialdom does not recognize the organized gay community, and does not offer financial or other assistance in the running of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.

But things may change following the visit this week by Michal Herzog, the wife of the president of the state, who came to show solidarity with members of the LGBT population, and to demonstrate that she not only accepts them in all the variances of their identities, but also sympathizes and emphasizes with them and understands the difficulties that many of them have had in coming out of the closet.

Herzog was welcomed by Alon Shachar, the executive director of the Open House, and met some of its pioneers as well as more recent regular visitors, including members of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab communities. She listened to their stories, in which they related the fears and challenges that they had encountered and emphasized the importance of the activities of the Open House in their lives. It is more than a community center. It also offers counseling and health services.

Afterward she told them that the very fact that the Open House exists and that people know about it has undoubtedly helped to save lives of otherwise desperate individuals who want be free to live in accordance with their sexual identities and with the partners whom they love.

 ALON SHACHAR with Michal Herzog. (credit: ARIK PREIS) ALON SHACHAR with Michal Herzog. (credit: ARIK PREIS)

Shachar told her that the gay community of Jerusalem has for years been requesting official recognition, which has not been forthcoming. He was hopeful that her visit and the long in-depth discussions to which she had been privy that morning would ultimately benefit the community in its quest for recognition and tolerance.

■ FOR MUCH of this past week, the voice of iconic singer and composer Svika Pick was heard on Israel’s airwaves. Mainstream media devoted an inordinate amount of space and airtime to eulogizing the pop star, actor and musician. Most ran front-page stories about his death on Sunday at the age of 72.

If there is a next world and the souls of the deceased, while on their way there, can still hear what’s going on in this world, Pick must have been amazed and pleasantly surprised.

Even before his stroke some four years ago, radio DJs had begun to ignore the prolific songwriter. The songs that he wrote for others were played, but not those he sang himself. He couldn’t understand it, his good friends musical virtuoso Nansi Brandes and actor Zachi Noy said in radio interviews after Pick’s death. Matti Caspi, despite his ambivalent attitude to Israel and his decision to move to Italy, was frequently heard on radio, and Pick was not. It wasn’t that he was jealous. He admired Caspi, and appreciated his talent. It was just that he could not understand why he, who had so frequently been hailed as the King of Pop, should be ignored.

But that, unfortunately, happens too often – and not just in Israel. It applies more to people who fall on hard times than to those who age. There are plenty of senior citizens who are still playing to full houses in Israel, America, France, England and elsewhere. But if they temporarily disappear, it’s very difficult for them to come back, as was the case with Pick, who was actually looking forward to returning to the stage, and announced at a press conference in May that his health had improved sufficiently for him to do so.

Now that he is no longer with us, those who eulogized him said that he was larger than life, that he revolutionized Israeli music, that he broke through the ceiling of conservatism with his long mane of hair and extravagant clothes. It was all kind of repetitious, but Noy gave him the best eulogy of all when he said: “His wonderful piano playing will bring joy to the angels.”

Dan Hotel

TEL AVIV’s Dan Hotel was this week transformed into a mini India, as members of the Indian community, diplomats, politicians, academics and other well-known figures gathered to celebrate India’s 75th anniversary of independence.

The array of beautiful saris or other forms of national dress worn by the vast majority of Indian women and by some of the other guests was simply breathtaking. Many of the Indian men, including Ambassador Sanjeev Singla, wore the smart button-down collarless jacket with matching trousers and a red or gold breast-pocket kerchief.

The Indian tricolor flag of saffron, white and deep green, with a 24-spoke blue wheel centered on the white stripe , was everywhere, and the bannisters on the staircases leading to the banquet halls were covered in saffron, green and white bunting. India’s national colors were repeated in the superb floral decorations on stage and on the tables.

The Dan Hotel is known for its willingness to allow chefs specially flown in from overseas or those employed in ethnic restaurants in Israel to come and work side by side with the regular hotel chefs to prepare an ethnic buffet in keeping with the country whose national day is being celebrated. This event was yet another example of this cooperation.

For many years now, when one speaks of Indian food in Israel, the immediate thought that comes to mind is the Tandoori chain of Indian restaurants run by Reena and Vinod Pushkarna, who have been living in Israel since 1983. An exotic creature on the Tel Aviv horizon in those days, Reena quickly became a celebrity. When she and Vinod opened the first of their restaurants, people flocked to taste the authentic Indian cuisine.

Long before India and Israel entered into full diplomatic relations, the Pushkarnas, together with Zubin Mehta, the former director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, were India’s unofficial ambassadors to Israel, and were present 30 years ago when Paradeep Kumar, India’s first official ambassador to Israel, presented his credentials to then-president Chaim Herzog.

 INDIAN AMBASSADOR Sanjeev Singla with President Isaac Herzog. (credit: STEVE LINDE) INDIAN AMBASSADOR Sanjeev Singla with President Isaac Herzog. (credit: STEVE LINDE)

For two days prior to the 75th Independence Day reception, Tandoori chefs worked in the Dan Hotel kitchens to prepare a sumptuous and highly varied Indian feast, including a number of delicious hot curry sauces. Each dish was labeled so that guests not familiar with Indian palate pleasers would have some idea of the choices.

In his address Singla noted the presence in the room of some of the people who had attended the presentation of credentials 30 years ago. Among them were Indian-born Linda Rivkind, a former longtime representative of the Government Press Office, and Shalva Weil, a British-born academic expert on the history of the Jews of India. Together with the late Eric Silver, an eminent foreign correspondent who had worked as a journalist in India, they formed an Indian Cultural Association before there were full diplomatic relations between India and Israel.

Singla also quoted from the “Tryst with Dynasty” speech of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in which he said exactly 30 years earlier: “At the stroke of the midnight hour when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”

Singla also spoke of India’s centuries-long connection with the Holy Land by way of the Indian Hospice opposite Herod’s Gate in Jerusalem, which 800 years ago was built as a place for pilgrims, but also served as an R & R facility for Indian soldiers who served with the British Armed Forces during World War II. During the First World War, Indian cavalry forces helped to liberate Haifa. Some Indian soldiers who fought in that war paid the supreme sacrifice, and are buried in the Indian Cemetery in Haifa.

Singla was particularly proud of the fact that, unlike most other places in the Diaspora, India has that rare historic record of long, continuous freedom for its Jewish population. The Indian-Jewish Diaspora supports Israel, he said, and the Indian Jews in Israel are a bridge between the two countries.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a marked development in political, cultural, tourism and people contacts between India and Israel, enhanced by the July 2017 visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel.

In the spirit of innovation, said Singla, hundreds of Indian students are studying in Israel in order to gain expertise in matters related to water, energy, health, transport and food security.

Among the challenges to both countries are radicalism and terrorism – issues on which they closely cooperate.

Trade between the two countries stands at $7.8 billion, and a free trade agreement is now being pursued.

Representing the state rather than the government, President Isaac Herzog congratulated Droupadi Murmu on her recent election as president of India and her taking up residence in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official house of the president, which was originally the residence of the viceroy of India and a symbol of the dominance of the British Empire. Today, the vast and splendid architectural structure is the symbol of India’s democracy.

Taking his cue from Singla, Herzog remarked on how happy his father had been to receive India’s first ambassador, and noted how far India has come since gaining independence in August 1947, less than a year before Israel declared independence in May 1948. Today, the two are modern nations, proudly bound in democracy, both aiming for equality and transparency, he said. He also mentioned that both are advanced in hi-tech and green tech and are moving toward a new era of peace and prosperity.

He characterized India as a regional global power.

He invited Murmu to visit Israel and said he was looking forward to his own visit to India. If his visit eventuates, Herzog will be the third Israeli president to visit India.

His immediate predecessor, Reuven Rivlin, visited in November 2017. The visit followed that of then-president Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Israel in 2016. The first Israeli president to visit India was Ezer Weizman, who went to New Delhi in 1997 to mark the fifth anniversary of full diplomatic relations.

In a videotaped congratulatory message, Prime Minister Yair Lapid commended India for, on the hand, being steeped in history and tradition, and, on the other, being a leader of innovation.

Herzog and Singla inaugurated the Hebrew edition of the book Indians at Herod’s Gate – A Jerusalem Tale, by former Indian ambassador Navtej Sarna, who served from 2008 to 2012. The English edition was published in 2014.

The peacock is India’s national bird, and a painting of a peacock by beautiful young artist Akanshka Rastogi, who was wearing a sari with peacock feather print, was prominently displayed on an easel away from the stage and near a corner of the room. Herzog and Singla were asked to put the finishing brush strokes to the painting; and the crowd, in a mighty gush, moved behind them as they approached to complete the task.

Inasmuch as Herzog was surrounded by well-wishers as he was leaving, it could not compare to what happened some 20 minutes later with the arrival of opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. People surged forward from every corner. Plates of food were temporarily put down as people began clicking on the cameras of their cellphones. Kitchen staff emerged to do the same. In whichever direction the Netanyahus moved, the crowd followed, in a show of approval and affection. It was just like the good old days when Netanyahu was prime minister, but this time his security detail was a little more relaxed and allowed people to come up close for selfies. Bibi and Sara positively glowed.

Their presence had not been intended as a campaign ploy in advance of the November 1 elections, but it certainly looked as if it was. The excitement around them was palatable. Eventually, seats were brought for them, a coffee table was set in front of them, and platters of food were brought out for them.

The Netanyahus frequently dine at one of the Tandoori restaurants. In fact, they had their first date at Tandoori in Tel Aviv. They are particularly partial to Indian food. When he was prime minister, Netanyahu’s visits to receptions of this kind were a hit-and-run affair. He would spend some private time with the ambassador prior to the official ceremony, and would leave very soon afterward. But here, he came after the ceremony, stayed for much longer than usual, and simply basked in all the goodwill that was generated.

■ ON THE same date as the Indian reception, residents of the Protea Hills Anglo Club were focused on Judaica as they listened to internationally famous Judaica collector Irvin Ungar, a former pulpit rabbi and antiquarian bookseller, who is currently in Israel on a tour to promote the celebrated Polish-born artist Arthur Szyk and to gift the University of Haifa with a significant set of the Jewish Publication Society’s books. Ungar’s company Historicana specializes in Judaica that captures the spirit and essence of the Jewish people throughout the ages.

A dynamic and riveting speaker, Ungar had the audience enthralled as he presented colorful images of Syzk’s artworks, as they depicted the horrific times leading up to and during World War II.

Szyk, who worked mainly as a book illustrator and political artist, was born in Lodz and worked in France and Poland until 1937, when he moved to England. In 1940 he made his permanent home in the United States, where he lived until his death in 1951. He achieved considerable fame in America, so much so that president Roosevelt called Szyk “a soldier in art.”

Like many outstanding people who are well known in their lifetimes, but who fade from public consciousness after their deaths, Szyk became an unknown following his own demise.

Ungar came across him in 1975 when he purchased a copy of the famous haggadah that was illustrated by Szyk. Ungar subsequently met a couple of Szyk collectors who wanted to establish a society to preserve his work and his memory. The Arthur Szyk Society was eventually headed by Ungar, and in 1994 he began traveling to various countries to lecture about Szyk and to display his illustrations.

■ IT DOESN’T always happen, when new ambassadors present their credentials to Herzog, that their Israeli counterparts present their credentials in the same week. But it happened in the case of Israel’s ambassador to Vietnam Yaron Mayor, and Vietnam’s Ambassador to Israel Ly Duc Trung, who presented their credentials within a day of each other. The presentation by the Vietnamese ambassador was already reported in The Jerusalem Post last week, but that of his counterpart – Mayor, who, in an impressive ceremony,  presented his credentials the following day to President of Vietnam Nguyen Xuan Phuc – took place too late for a simultaneous report.

During the conversation between the president and the ambassador, the two discussed bilateral issues, including enhancing the relationship between the two countries with the early completion of a bilateral free trade agreement, as well as strengthening cooperation in various areas of tourism.

Mayor is no stranger to Asia. Among his previous postings are India, Myanmar and Nepal, and on home turf he has served as director of the Foreign Ministry’s Southeast Asia Department.

■ VETERAN LABOR Party member and former education minister Aharon Yadlin, who died last weekend at age 96, managed to vote in the Labor primaries before his demise and to give some advice two weeks earlier to rising political star Naama Lazimi, who came to seek his counsel.

Among the condolence messages received by his son Amos, was one from a former government minister who, as a child, lived in one of the peripheral towns, and who revealed that, as education minister, Aharon Yadlin frequently visited the homes of immigrant parents of schoolchildren. When he visited the government minister’s mother, she was illiterate. Yadlin knew that if she couldn’t read or write, then there was not a strong likelihood that she would understand the significance of education. So he sent a couple of teachers to help her learn to read and write and, in that way, to be able to communicate with her children when they were not physically present.

 EDUCATION MINISTER Aharon Yadlin with first graders at the Eshkol School on the opening day of the school year, in Rosh Ha’ayin, September 1, 1976. (credit: YA’ACOV SA’AR/GPO) EDUCATION MINISTER Aharon Yadlin with first graders at the Eshkol School on the opening day of the school year, in Rosh Ha’ayin, September 1, 1976. (credit: YA’ACOV SA’AR/GPO)

Up until the end of his days, Yadlin continued to use public transport and came by bus from his kibbutz to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or anywhere else in the country. Among veteran Labor people interviewed about Yadlin’s character and influence was former tourism minister and former Labor secretary-general Uzi Baram, whose own father, Moshe Baram, who was labor minister, also traveled everywhere by bus.

■ TWO STALWARTS of Israel’s entertainment industry entered into the next decade of their lives this week. Israel Prize laureate Nurit Hirsh and singer Gabi Berlin each celebrated their 80th birthdays within three days of each other. Coincidentally, they were classmates in high school and served together in the army entertainment unit of the Armored Corps.

Berlin has been a live performer in Israel and abroad for 61 years. Although he has been a member of various singing groups, has appeared in musicales, and has produced albums, he is best known for his community-singing concerts.

Hirsh, who has composed more than 1,600 songs as well as music for the soundtracks of several films, including Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah Shabati, worked extensively with Naomi Shemer and Ehud Manor.