Grapevine March 15, 2023: A wedding to remember

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

The Great Synagogue (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Great Synagogue
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

While Hollywood stars and famous American singers were appearing in designer gowns on the champagne-colored carpet (a radical change from the traditional red) at this year’s Academy Awards in Los Angeles, in Jerusalem there was an equal, perhaps even more varied and interesting display of the creative talents of European, Asian and American fashion designers.

The occasion was the marriage at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue of Natalia Sassoon, daughter of Michelle and Victor Sassoon of Singapore, to Freddie, the son of Neil and Judy Black of the United Kingdom. The bridal couple first met in London, where the bride is senior manager for a large medical clinic and runs an online subscription service related to women’s health, and the groom is a chartered accountant.

The Great Synagogue has been the venue for some spectacular events, but it is doubtful that anything could have equaled this one.

In Singapore and London, weddings, no matter how informal the atmosphere, are still very formal events in terms of attire. Many of the male guests wore tuxedos, fancy white shirts, bow ties and white kippot. Their black shoes were highly polished. Most of those who did not wear tuxedos came in business suits with ties.

It was easy to spot some of the Israeli male guests, who stood out in their ultracasual garb. But with less than a handful of exceptions, the women all wore eye-catching evening gowns, some with the current revival of yesteryear’s long trains descending from formfitting silhouettes, some with narrow waists and wide skirts, a lot of bare shoulders and shimmering fabrics, and a vivid return to color, though there were quite a few women in black, which never goes out of style, and is easily accessorized.

 NEWLYWEDS NATALIA Sassoon and Freddie Black (credit: Noa Tamarkin) NEWLYWEDS NATALIA Sassoon and Freddie Black (credit: Noa Tamarkin)

Singapore, though small in size, is a multicultural country in which people of different faiths, ethnicities and nationalities live together in harmony and friendship and socialize with one another.

Thus it was no surprise that guests included Jews, Christians and Muslims, people of Indian and Chinese backgrounds and, of course, a lot of Brits from the groom’s side.

Jews have been living in Singapore since the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Among the first to arrive were the Baghdad traders. The Jewish community today numbers close to 2,000.

In addition to celebrating the wedding in Jerusalem and the ceremonial henna in Beit Shemesh on the preceding Thursday, both families, but the Sassoons in particular, contributed directly and indirectly to Israel’s tourist industry. Quite a few of their 400-plus overseas guests had never been to Israel before, and some said that they would be happy to come back and explore the country further. The Sassoons arranged for special walking tours to visit Jewish, Christian and Muslim heritage sites in Jerusalem.

The visitors who came from many parts of the world, not just England and Asia, spent several days in Israel, and the bride’s mother, who is known to be a fantastic organizer, utilized an Israeli events team to supply information about hotels near the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria, where the celebrations continued after the religious ceremony; information about climate; what clothes to bring; hairdressers in the vicinity of the hotel belt; and background information about a Jewish wedding.

Michelle Sassoon has a passion for flowers, and is also fond of candle-lighting, and both, together with voluminous sheer white curtains, dominated the decor at both the synagogue and the hotel.

There was such a profusion of varied glorious flowers in many colors that it seemed that she had brought part of Singapore’s magnificent botanical gardens to Jerusalem.

If the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles was a major production, so was the Sassoon-Black wedding in Jerusalem.

There were flowers and dozens of candles in the entrance hall of the synagogue, as well as in the main synagogue chamber. Although it was a Sephardi wedding, it was conducted in the building’s Ashkenazi section because the exquisite Sephardi synagogue was too small to accommodate all the guests. There was a specific seating arrangement, which was not just gender divided, but also in front of each seat was a folder, explaining the proceedings, and the name of the person for whom the seat was designated.

The same procedure followed later at the Waldorf, where place cards listed the tables to which guests had been assigned, but menus with the name of each guest were placed on the tables at exactly where each guest had been allocated a seat. Ushers from the events team showed people to their seats.

In the synagogue itself, a male pianist and six-member female string quartet, clad in black, played music before the ceremony started. Then cantor Yossi Azulay, singing “Jerusalem of Gold,” made his way to a platform opposite the bridal canopy. He was joined by a boys choir. They sang some more appropriate songs for the occasion, after which the groom, led by his parents, came down one of the synagogue aisles.

They were followed by various members of the groom’s family, his best man and his groomsmen, and then the grandmothers of the bride, Rahma Elias and Rebecca Sassoon, aunts and uncles of the bride, her three sisters and her brothers-in-law, her 11 bridesmaids dressed in mushroom pink gowns and carrying bouquets of roses, tiny tot flower girls in romantic white dresses, white tights and shoes and white bolero jackets, scattering rose petals from small white baskets; young page boys in tailored suits, the ring bearer, and finally the bride escorted by her parents, who each embraced her, before the groom performed the veiling ceremony.

There were two officiating rabbis, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Moshe Amar and Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, the chief rabbi of Singapore, who is usually headquartered at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, which was consecrated in 1878 and is the oldest and largest synagogue in Southeast Asia. Other rabbis present included Rabbi Moshe Pinto of Petah Tikva and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, the chief rabbi of Thailand, who is stationed in Bangkok.

For Abergel, this wedding was very special in that he has known the bride all her life. She was born soon after he and his wife arrived in Singapore and grew up together with his children.

Both he and Amar emphasized the importance of the first commandment, which is to increase and multiply, which is a natural progression from getting married and building a home.

Once the groom had broken the glass that serves as a reminder of the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, and Azulay had sung the appropriate psalm, everyone made their way outside, where a fleet of minibuses was parked in the synagogue courtyard to take guests back to the Waldorf.

In October 2014, when the Sassoons celebrated the marriage of Cherie, one of the bride’s sisters, the wedding was also in Jerusalem. The Sassoons took a risk by having it at the Waldorf, which at that time had been operating for only six months and was still in its running-in period.

They were obviously satisfied, because they came back. This time the tables were longer and arranged on an angle, which made the event seem more festive. In addition to multitudes of flowers adorning every table, there was also greenery hanging from the crystal chandeliers.

Victor Sassoon made a brief but heartfelt speech in which he thanked his wife for all she had done, spoke of his special relationship with his daughter, welcomed his new son-in-law, saying how pleased he was to have him as a member of the family, congratulated the groom’s parents on raising such a fine young man, and thanked all the guests for making the effort to come to Israel.

The band had an incredible repertoire that included hassidic, jazz, Greek and blues music, and had most of the guests dancing and/or applauding.

It was a long and memorable night, but the Sassoon family has not yet finished celebrating. Mordechai Sassoon, the brother of the bride and his fiancée, Sarah Baruch, have yet to tie the knot.

Not all South Africans are anti-Israel

■ ALTHOUGH SOUTH Africa has downgraded its relations with Israel, this does not mean that all South Africans are anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. A message from James Mlambo, the curator of the Welkom History Museum, tells of an exhibition under the title of “Smoky Simon Welkom History.”

The exhibition, which opened on February 25, at features a collection of press cuttings and photographs about Harold “Smoky” Simon, who was one of the key South African volunteers who fought as a veteran World War II pilot in Israel’s War of Independence, serving as a navigator. He returned to South Africa in 1950, and came on aliyah with his wife, Myra, and their four children in 1962. Myra had also served in the Israel Air Force during the War of Independence. Their eldest son, Saul, was an F-15 pilot, their youngest son, Dan, was a Phantom pilot; their daughter Philippa Tik served in IAF operations, and their grandson Erez became a Hercules captain.

Simon died a year ago at the age of 101.

The exhibition deals with the period in which Simon lived in Welkom, from the 1950s to the 1960s, where he launched his career as a global insurance entrepreneur.

 A WEARY Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) A WEARY Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In a message to Welkom History, soon after the opening of the exhibition, members of Simon’s family wrote that they found the exhibition very informative, respectful and even delightful – in particular Simon’s use of parables in his advertising.

■ VENGEANCE OFTEN simmers before it comes to the boil. As a delinquent youth, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir had plenty of run-ins with Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy, who headed the Jerusalem District police force. He also had run-ins with Tel Aviv District police chief Ami Eshed, when the latter served in a lower rank.

As an adult, and a lawyer by profession, Ben-Gvir represented Michael Ben Ari, who in 2019 had been approved by the Knesset Central Elections Committee, but who was struck down by the Supreme Court, which also banned fellow Otzma Yehudit members Baruch Marzel and Bentzi Gopstein from running for election. All four were followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose party was outlawed 1988.

Kahane was assassinated in New York’s Marriott Hotel in November 1990, after delivering a lecture. He was well known for his anti-Arab vitriol, which his disciples continued to mouth.

Ben-Gvir who has been vicious in his condemnation of Levy, Eshed and Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara, is taking revenge on behalf of his leader and his political cohorts. The big question is that if Ben Ari, Marzel and Gopstein were banned from becoming legislators, why was Ben-Gvir not subjected to the same ban? And why was a person with his background permitted to become national security minister? Considering terrorist attacks and feudal killings among Arabs on his watch, his title should perhaps be the minister of insecurity.

■ KNESSET MEMBERS are fortunately immune from being sued for irresponsibility that results in serious fiscal losses. The proposed judicial reforms, which have resulted in so much national havoc and have caused needless animosities, have also caused a severe downturn in the economy, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like the world to think otherwise. The way things are right now, it looks as if the situation will get a lot worse before it gets better.

Yet as upsetting as it may be for a large percentage of the population, it could be the darkness before the dawn, and in the final analysis, Israel may have a constitution.

Meanwhile, there is something fundamentally wrong with the stubborn stance of Religious Zionist Party MK Simcha Rothman, who is ignoring the tens of thousands of demonstrators from nearly all sectors of Israeli society, who do not object to judicial reform per se, but who object to the proposed format, which they fear will politicize the police force and the IDF, and will impinge on human rights, with negative effects on the status of women, the Arab population and the LGBT community.

These fears, coupled with Rothman’s aims for the selection of judges, casts a blight on the integrity of anyone chosen to be a judge under the new legislation, because the general feeling is that they will be appointed in order to acquit Netanyahu of all the corruption charges against him.

But the new judges could surprise, as has State Comptroller and Ombudsman Matanyahu Englman, who, when he was appointed, was widely regarded as Netanyahu’s man who would find little or no fault with the way things were conducted under the Netanyahu regime. But Englman has lived up to the obligations of his title, and in all probability new judges in the Supreme Court will do the same. Hopefully, consensus on the nature of the reforms can be reached before Rothman does further damage not only to the nation but to the reputations of future judges.

■ AFTER WEEKENDS in France and Italy, the Netanyahus are off again to Berlin and London. Quite a number of people have voiced their incredulity over the absence of the prime minister when Israel is experiencing multiple crises. Opinions have also been voiced that Netanyahu is removed from reality, that he frequently muddles his facts and needs to be corrected, and that he occasionally shows signs of desperation and fatigue. So far, Netanyahu comes through his medical checkups with flying colors. But the public never hears about psychological checkups or whether the prime minister is ever examined in order to determine his mental competence. Perhaps that will be included in new legislation. Netanyahu may do as well mentally as he does physically, but the public has a right to know, one way or the other.

 REMARKABLE WOMEN with Michal Herzog (front center, in black pants and top and pale peach jacket). (credit: Galia Peled) REMARKABLE WOMEN with Michal Herzog (front center, in black pants and top and pale peach jacket). (credit: Galia Peled)

■ THERE ARE more remarkable people in the world and in our own communities than we realize. But not everyone has the opportunity to shine; instead, people quietly contribute to the success of business and social projects. Google global initiative “I am Remarkable,” which empowers everyone, including underrepresented groups, to celebrate their achievements in the workplace and society, while challenging perceptions about self-promotion of motivation and skills, has been particularly influential during international women’s month in Israel. Some of the newly empowered women met at the President’s Residence this week to tell Michal Herzog that “I am remarkable.” The president’s wife, for her part, pledged to do her utmost to promote women into decision-making circles in which national priorities are determined.

■ ALTHOUGH HE has suffered several disappointments while trying to heal rifts in the nation, President Isaac Herzog, a native son of Tel Aviv, not only enjoys the support of the city of his birth, but has been conferred with the title “honorary citizen of Tel Aviv,” a distinction that he shares with several notable personalities, not the least of whom was his late grandfather Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, for whom he is named. The whole list of honorary citizens of Tel Aviv is very impressive, but Herzog is among the few honorees who were actually born in Tel Aviv.

ON AN altogether different happy note, daylight-saving time returns to Israel on Friday, March 24, but not early enough to light Sabbath candles after 6 p.m. That won’t happen till the end of the month.

Daylight-saving time actually began during the British Mandate period, changing in length of time from year to year. Following the establishment of the state, it applied primarily to Jerusalem, with the aim of saving fuel. In the early 1950s, it extended to the whole country but still changed in length of time from year to year, partially because political parties could not agree. In 1992, the Knesset voted that daylight-saving time would operate for at least 150 days a year, but with no fixed start or finish.

After years of debate in which the religious parties did not want it to start during Passover and to extend into Yom Kippur, which would make the fast day longer, Eli Yishai, who was then the leader of Shas and interior minister, approved ending the period at the beginning of October.

In November, 2012, the Knesset voted to extend daylight-saving time to 193 days, beginning on the Friday before the last Sunday in March and ending on the first Sunday after October 1. In July 2013, daylight-saving time was again extended to the last Sunday in October. Since then, there have been calls by Israeli industrialists to extend it to the whole year. So far, that request sits on the back burner, but has not been rejected outright.

■ WHAT WERE Ehud Olmert, Dalia Itzik and Tzipi Livni doing together with beauty product guru Ronit Raphael? No, they were not all buying skincare products to rejuvenate their faces. They were attending the 10th Baku Forum, an international get-together of present and former state, government and political leaders, Nobel Prize laureates, diplomats and other people of influence who still have what to say about what goes on in the world. Olmert is a former prime minister; Itzik is a former speaker of the Knesset; and Livni is a former political party leader who almost became a prime minister, but failed in her attempt to form a coalition.

Raphael latched on to former president of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko, who had been the victim of an assassination attempt through dioxin poisoning. As a result, his face had become disfigured and his skin blotchy, some signs of which remain evident. Raphael told him that she had experienced temporary disfiguration following a faulty cosmetic treatment, a factor that had led her to establish her international chain of cosmetic treatment products and clinics.

During the period that the forum was in session, Mukhtar Mammadov, Azerbaijan’s first-ever ambassador to Israel, had been scheduled to present his credentials to President Herzog last Thursday, but the ceremony was postponed due to nationwide demonstrations and traffic disruption. Although Israel has had an embassy in Baku for some three decades, Baku did not have an embassy in Israel. Now it will, thereby adding to the growing number of resident ambassadors from mainly Muslim countries, the first of which was Turkey.

In November last year, the Azeri parliament voted for the establishment of an embassy in Israel. In December 1991, Israel was among the first countries to recognize Azerbaijan, just over a month after it achieved independence. Netanyahu visited Azerbaijan in December 2016 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of bilateral relations.

■ TO MOST people, March 30 has very little significance. For Americans it means the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia. For the British it means the death, in 2002, of the beloved Queen Mother Elizabeth, who died at the age of 101. For the French, it marks the 1856 Treaty of Paris, signed by France, Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire, Sardinia and Russia, which marked the end of the Crimean War. For Israel, it is the anniversary of the launch of public broadcasting in 1936 by the British Mandate authorities, with the title Jerusalem Calling under the wing of the Palestine Broadcasting Service. It broadcast in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Jerusalem Calling was the English title. In Hebrew it was called Kol Yerushalayim, and in Arabic Iza’at al Quds.

In 2006, Israel Radio (Kol Yisrael), which was originally Kol Yerushalayim, celebrated its 70th anniversary with a series of nostalgic broadcasts and a reenactment of the first broadcast from Jerusalem’s gutted but historic Palace Hotel, which is now the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria. Credit for the enactment and the script goes to Yoav Ginai (now with Army Radio) and Izzy Mann, who was the unofficial historian of the now defunct Israel Broadcasting Authority, and who, in addition to presenting a history-based program on radio, authored a wonderful book in which he reminded readers of radio and television personalities – some long dead – whose names used to be household words. Over the years, many attempts have been made to close down public broadcasting in Israel, and currently that threat looms very large. Israel Radio, KAN 11 and Army Radio are making every effort to fight that threat.

The most effective way would be for all Israeli broadcasting outlets to join forces and to desist from interviewing legislators and ministers. Even those who approve of the demise of public broadcasting still enjoy being interviewed on public broadcasting platforms. But if everyone closed the door – or, rather, the microphone – on them, they might realize what they and the nation would be losing.

Ruth Belkin, the first English-language announcer on Jerusalem Calling, fell in love with a British officer, divorced her husband and returned to England with the officer, whom she married. Following his death, she came back to Israel as Ruth Connell Robertson and worked for several years as a copy editor at The Jerusalem Post.