Grapevine October 6, 2022: Zionist chief rabbis

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 Then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak meets then-president of Israel Ezer Weizman in 2000 in Cairo. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak meets then-president of Israel Ezer Weizman in 2000 in Cairo.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

■ AHEAD OF Rosh Hashanah, the Israel Democracy Institute’s Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center for a Shared Society hosted its inaugural Conference on Religion and State, in which it brought together politicians and scholars whose discussions focused on maintaining the complex and delicate balance of Israel, which identifies as both a Jewish and a democratic state.

Among the subjects raised were reforms in the Chief Rabbinate, funding for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) education and public transport on Shabbat.

Declaring that government instability is rooted in matters of religion and state, former Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, who introduced a series of reforms during his tenure, wants to ensure that future chief rabbis are Zionists.

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, who is head of the Labor Party, was insistent about the need to expand public transport on Shabbat, and not to limit it to Haifa alone. She acknowledged that commercial enterprises should remain closed on Shabbat, but saw public transport from a social democratic perspective. She had no intention of forcing public transport on Shabbat in communities that did not want it, but argued those that do, and have no other means of transport, should not be deprived. United Torah Judaism chair Yitzhak Goldknopf was still arguing for funding for haredi schools without committing them to study core subjects of English and math.

Michaeli is particularly keen on having the Tel Aviv light rail operate on Shabbat, and has entered into many discussions about how to make this possible.

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli in Tel Aviv. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli in Tel Aviv. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

■ EVERY YEAR the Prime Minister’s Office together with the Public Council for Commemorating Deceased Presidents and Prime Ministers offer prizes of NIS 50,000 each for written works about the late president and prime minister selected for any given year. The two public figures selected for 2023 are founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who died in December 1973, and seventh president Ezer Weizman, who died in April 2005.

Weizman had many admirable achievements to his credit, and was one of the founders of the Israel Air Force and later became its commander in chief. He also had a long political career, which included several ministerial positions including that of defense minister, during which period he was instrumental in the process leading to the peace treaty with Egypt. He had a particularly warm rapport with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. 

A charismatic figure, Weizman was elected for a second term as president when the law still allowed for that, but resigned after two years rather than face prosecution for failure to declare large sums of money given to him by French businessman Édouard Saroussi. There was a general reluctance by attorney-general Elyakim Rubinstein, state prosecutor Edna Arbel and the police to indict Weizman, and he was given the choice of stepping down. After that, the law was changed whereby a president can serve only one seven-year term.

Fortunately, the contest for the prize applies to only deceased presidents and prime ministers. Otherwise, the organizers might have a problem with Weizman’s immediate successor, Moshe Katsav, and with former prime minister Ehud Olmert – each of whom served jail time for unrelated crimes. Olmert, by the way, celebrated his 77th birthday last Friday. Katsav will turn 77 in December, and opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently on trial on corruption charges, will celebrate his 73rd birthday this month. Time marches on.

■ ZIONIST VISIONARY Theodor Herzl is credited with coining the phrase: “If you will it, it is no dream.” But it doesn’t just apply to the return of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland. It applies to just about anything that a group of people want to achieve.

For instance, in the Orthodox Jewish community, there are highly talented women who grew up in secular environments, and are talented musicians, dancers and singers who worked in the entertainment industry before they became religiously observant. This created a gender problem in that it meant that they would no longer perform with or in front of men, but it certainly didn’t mean that their talents were going to waste. Many joined the Raise Your Spirits theater ensemble, an all women’s group of thespians whose members run the gamut from ultra-Orthodox to secular, with everything between.

Among their very successful shows is Mikva the Musical: Music and Monologues from the Deep.

Like so many other events that were canceled or postponed, Mikva, after a successful and well-received performance at the Beit Shemesh Cultural Center in March, Mikva went into hibernation.

Following a COVID-hiatus, Mikva will be back on stage on October 18 at the OU Israel Center, on Keren Hayesod Street in Jerusalem, in a performance hosted by L’Ayla, and on October 27 the performance will be at the somewhat larger auditorium of the Shalva National Center, 1 Shalva Road, Jerusalem. The ensemble has previously performed in various locations in Israel and in New York, including at the National Opera Center in Manhattan. The stories that make up the script are all authentic, and relate to both heavy and light topics, including abuse, hydrophobia and infertility, and on the lighter side a newly religious bride and a happy convert to Judaism. The songs are likewise a mix of light and serious. There is also a fun monologue of a woman with the BRCA gene who dips for the last time in the ocean, accompanied by her husband after a prophylactic risk-reducing mastectomy. The costumes worn by the cast include robes donated by the Missoni fashion house, which once had a close relationship with the late Lea Gottlieb, founder of Gottex.

This show is especially timely as media attention has been given to the lack of accessibility of many mikvaot in Israel. One of the performers in the show, Michele Thaler, is paralyzed from the waist down, and she both moves and regales the audience with her own stories of what happens to a woman with physical disabilities when using the ritual bath.

Adina Feldman is the production’s musical director, choreographer and key composer; and the legendary Tofaah women’s band, led by Yona Yakobovitz, plays some of its classics.

This updated version of Mikva includes a story in English contributed by Rabbanit Hani Lifshitz of the Chabad House in Kathmandu, Nepal, who takes a woman to the top of a mountain to dunk in a frozen lake. An Israeli television series under the title of Kathmandu features the lives of Hani and Rabbi Chezky Lifshitz, who are renowned worldwide for their hospitality to backpackers and the mega Seders that they host each year. Hani Lifshitz has her own show in Hebrew, which she performs when she is visiting Israel.

Co-creators of Mikva are Myra Gutterman and Toby Klein Greenwald, who is also the director. Tickets are available at www.MikvatheMusical.com.

■ THE ROTHSCHILDS and the Safras can claim to be part of a philanthropic dynasty. But they are from being the only ones, though the Rothschilds, may have been sharing their wealth for a longer period than some of the other Jewish families who support an incredible number and variety of Jewish and non-Jewish causes. Among the philanthropic dynasties that have most definitely left their mark on Israel are the Gottesmans.

David Sanford Gottesman, or Sandy, as he was better known, was the son and grandson of a philanthropic family who supported the people of the Land of Israel and later of the State of Israel for more than 150 years.

Gottesman, who partnered with Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Foundation) and the State of Israel to build the new National Library in Jerusalem, died last week at the age of 96.

When he and his wife, Ruth, came to Israel in April 2016 for the laying of the cornerstone of the National Library at a prestigious high-security ceremony in which the participants included then-president Reuven Rivlin and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with many notables from Israel and beyond, he was interviewed by the writer of this column to whom he said that the library was not just for Israel, but for the world. He hoped to be back for the grand opening in 2020, he added. Unfortunately, 2020 came and went, and even if construction had gone according to schedule, there could be no gala opening because the pandemic had put severe limitations on international travel.

In the interim, the opening date has been changed several times and currently stands at some time in the spring of 2023.

A billionaire long before he died, Gottesman was an early investor in Berkshire Hathaway and founded First Manhattan Co., an investment advisory firm.

Busisessman and philanthropist David Gottesman. (credit: Matt Greenslade/photo-nyc.com; courtesy of the Gottesman family)Busisessman and philanthropist David Gottesman. (credit: Matt Greenslade/photo-nyc.com; courtesy of the Gottesman family)

In 1964, he and his wife established the philanthropic fund from which tens of millions of dollars have been given to Israel and Jewish causes in the United States.

In Israel, before they ever thought about the National Library, they funded more than 250 school libraries.

Other projects inter alia include Hadassah Academic College, the Israel Aquarium at Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo and the bike path at Jerusalem’s First Station.

On his mother’s side, Gottesman’s family came to America before the Civil War.

His mother, Esther Garfunkel Gottesman, a dedicated and fervent supporter of Israel, was the daughter of Aaron Garfunkel, the founder of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. Esther sat on the boards of several Zionist organizations. She also supported the Jewish community of New York, and was deeply involved with Hadassah, serving for decades on Hadassah’s National Board. Her two sons, David and Milton, followed in her footsteps, just as she had followed in the footsteps of her father. David and Ruth’s daughter, Alice, is the family liaison to the Biblical Zoo.

Gottesman’s paternal grandfather, Mendel Gottesman, at age 28, in 1890 left his native Hungary for New York. He had less than a dollar in his pocket when he arrived. He worked as a traveling salesman selling sewing equipment. He was so successful that within six months he had managed to save $600, which enabled him and his wife to open a store in which they sold paper for wrapping challot. Soon after, a nearby paper factory was severely damaged in a fire and Mendel bought it. While cleaning the mess, Mendel and his wife discovered a lot of undamaged newsprint – so they decided to go into a new venture – newsprint. They became quite affluent in a very short space of time, and gave generously to yeshivot on the Lower East Side, and contributed to the construction of Yeshiva University. The Gottesman family has remained committed to YU ever since.

When Mendel died, he left money for better homes to be built for the people living in Mea She’arim’s Batei Ungarin. But when his grandson Benjamin went to Jerusalem to do that he saw that the neighborhood was so dilapidated that he decided to build in another part of the city.

Gottesman is survived by his wife, Ruth, and their children Bob, Alice and Bill, and their families.

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Board of the National Library of Israel, voiced regret that Gottesman did not live to see the magnificent structure to which he had given not only of his money but of himself.

■ GIVEN ESTHER Gottesman’s deep and long-term involvement with Hadassah, it is fitting that within a month and a half of her son’s passing, that Hadassah should hold its 100th National Convention in Israel, during the 110th anniversary year of the organization’s founder, Henrietta Szold, being elected as president. An outgrowth of the Daughters of Zion, Hadassah made nursing in the Holy Land its focal point, and the ever developing Hadassah medical centers in Jerusalem are proof of how far dedication can go. The National Convention will be headquartered in Jerusalem from November 14-17 and will honor former national president Marlene Post.

■ ONE OF the key attractions of the Sukkot festivities is the open house at the President’s Residence, where the general public has the opportunity to see the president and his wife close up, to in some cases pose for selfies with one or both of them and to shake their hands. Every president of Israel has his own style of conducting open house. Until the advent of Shimon Peres, who was considered by his staff to be too frail to stand for hours meeting and greeting people, his predecessors stood inside a huge sukkah beautifully decorated with flowers and fruit by the Agriculture Ministry. But when Peres hosted his first open house, his staff decided that he would come out at intervals to give a brief welcome address and return to his office.

In president Rivlin’s case, security became tighter, and there was a roped-off section extending from the sukkah through the main hall to beneath the pergola at the entrance to the main hall. Rivlin stood behind the rope, moving along so that he could greet as many people as possible, and it was obvious that he did not like being roped in, but security orders had to be obeyed. People still managed to push forward and somehow twist their bodies into a position that made them look as if they were buddy-buddy with the president, while a relative or a friend took the photo for posterity. 

What the Herzogs will do remains to be seen on Thursday, October 13, between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., though to the consternation of security personnel, it is known that they like to mingle. Still, everyone entering the grounds will be subjected to a security test, so the most there is to fear is that the president and his wife will occasionally be hemmed in by the crowd. There will be lots of games for the whole family, including wall climbing, plus exhibits and tastings of agricultural products, and a glimpse into the future of agriculture. Anyone planning to attend, should first take note of the traffic restrictions that will be imposed during the Jerusalem March. It will be very difficult to reach the President’s Residence from certain parts of the city.

■ BEFORE THE pandemic, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem used to host as many as 5,000 pro-Israel Christians at the Feast of Tabernacles. Although the numbers have depleted considerably, the ICEJ nonetheless expects to have in excess of 2,000 believers from some 70 countries around the world. It’s nothing to sneeze at, and to quote ICEJ Vice President and Senior Spokesman David Parsons, it marks the return of Christian tourism.

Several cabinet ministers and parliamentarians from Africa, Europe and Latin America will be among those in attendance, and speakers will include President Isaac Herzog and Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.

This will be the first in-person feast since 2019 and ICEJ President Dr. Jürgen Bühler is absolutely thrilled.

Aside from the people who will be physically present, tens of thousands of Christians will be participating from their homes thanks to daily broadcasts by Christian televisions networks.

For non-Christians who are invited, one of the highlights of the Feast of Tabernacles is the entertainment pageant, which features a most amazing array of talent made up of people from different cultures and languages, yet merging and harmonizing beautifully in a common bond.

Feast of Tabernacle participants, some attired in the national costumes of their respective countries, traditionally join in the annual Jerusalem March on Sukkot, which this year will take place on Thursday, October 13. On that day, there will also be a happening at Sacher Park, which during the pandemic was upgraded by the Jerusalem Municipality. Traffic will be closed on several Jerusalem streets, which may cause greater congestion than usual in the streets that are left open.

Parking of cars in certain streets will be forbidden from 6 p.m. on Wednesday. It is advisable to go to the Jerusalem Municipality’s website or to telephone 106 for exact details so as to avoid disappointment when trying to access certain streets, or to prevent one’s car from being towed away.

■ THERE ARE still relatively few streets in Israel that perpetuate the names of women, even though numerous women who have distinguished themselves as politicians, writers, musicians, artists, legal experts, scientists, industrialists and more, certainly deserve to be memorialized by having streets named for them. There is now a move afoot to have more streets named for women, and the committees appointed to decide on street-naming in municipalities around the country are generally in favor, though it will be surprising to find streets with women’s names in specifically ultra-Orthodox towns and villages. The best anyone could hope for as a concession would be a Street of the Matriarchs.

Surprisingly, in a city like Jerusalem, where women’s images on billboards are defaced and where certain newspapers will not publish a photograph of a woman or even the byline of a female journalist, there have long been streets named for women – queens Shlomzion Hamalka and Heleni Hamalka are but two examples. There’s also a Dina Street named after the biblical character and there’s also a Hana Street. Henrietta Szold, Golda Meir, Rachel Hameshoreret (the Poetess) and Leah Goldberg are among the more contemporary women whose names have been immortalized with the naming of streets in Jerusalem in their memories.

Among other women whose names appear on street signs elsewhere in the country are Shoshana Damari, Yaffa Yarkoni, Naomi Shemer, Hannah Maron, Dvora Omer, Ofra Haza, Shulamit Aloni and Haika Grossman.

Singer Yardena Arazi is one of the rare cases of a living person having a street named for them.

Unfortunately, there’s insufficient room on street signs to include thumbnail biographies of the people for whom they were named.

In line for having streets named for them are Kochava Levy, the heroine of the attack on the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv in 1975; and Gila Goldstein who is believed to have been Israel’s first transgender figure to make her identity public. Levy, who was involved in an extra-marital affair, was at the somewhat seedy Savoy to meet her lover, when the hotel was attacked by terrorists. Because she was fluent in Arabic, she acted as an intermediary between the terrorists and the security forces outside the hotel. She even succeeded in persuading the terrorists to allow her to take an injured person outside. Security personnel urged her not to go back inside, but she had won the trust of the terrorists and had given her word. To break her word, she reasoned, would endanger the lives of the hostages who were still in the hotel. So she returned and thus guaranteed their survival. 

However, the Israeli media, instead of focusing on her heroism, and taking into account the nature of the hotel, cast her as a prostitute. She spent the rest of her life struggling to overcome that negative reputation. Vindicated by filmmaker Zohar Wagner in his recent film Savoy, she is now a candidate for having a street named after her.

Actress and singer Gila Goldstein was born Avraham Goldstein in Italy. Together with her parents she came on aliyah in 1947. At age 13, she realized she was a female in a male body, and six years later went to Belgium for surgery that would change her gender. She stayed in Europe for some years before returning home, and in the beginning combined her singing career with managing one of Tel Aviv’s better known bars. Her talent for acting was soon discovered and she appeared in several films. She was very active in the LGBT movement, which recognized her as an Israeli transgender pioneer. She died in Tel Aviv at age 69. As far as is known, she will be the first transgender person in Israel to have a street named in their memory. The naming of the street in Ramat Hasharon was proposed by lawyer Idan Lamdan, who chairs the city’s street-naming committee. He believes this initiative will send a message of tolerance to religious extremists who spend so much time in denigrating the LGBT community.

■ ONCE OCTOBER arrives, Australian and New Zealand expats living in Israel know that they will soon receive an invitation to join senior members of the Australian Embassy and senior representatives of the Beersheba Municipality in commemorating the ANZAC victory in what is known as the Battle of Beersheba. The ANZACs were attached to the British Army, which was battling to vanquish the Ottoman Empire. The valiant efforts of the ANZACs in the southern region, as well as in the north at Semakh Railway Station, proved to be a significant factor in Britain’s victory, specifically as far as is Israel is concerned, because those two victories by Australian and New Zealand cavalry forces paved the way for the Balfour Declaration, which ultimately led to the establishment of the State of Israel.

A memorial event at Semakh last month was attended by Australian Embassy staff headed by Ambassador Paul Griffiths, and the ceremony commemorating the Battle of Beersheba will be held on Monday, October 31, beginning at the Australian Soldier Park, a gift to the City of Beersheba by the Melbourne-headquartered Pratt Foundation. From there, participants will proceed to the Turkish Memorial Monument, after which there will be the traditional ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, a section of which also contains the ANZAC Museum.

Geoff Toister, a professional translator, believes that not enough Israelis know about the long and courageous connection of Australia and Australians to Israel. He has translated into Hebrew H.S. Gullett’s Australia in Palestine, an anthology of soldiers’ reminiscences and the exploits of the Australian Light Horse in Palestine from 1916-1918. The Hebrew edition of the book will be launched in the evening of Monday, November 7, at the ANZAC Memorial Center, 4 Ostrovski St., Beersheba.