Grapevine May 17, 2023: True friendship

“I’m here two months after I assumed my duties, and I’m here despite the terrorist attacks that we fully condemn, because I want to send a strong and clear message” Christodoulides said to Netanyahu

PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

In a demonstration of solidarity, Nikos Christodoulides, the recently elected president of Cyprus, came to Israel with a delegation last Sunday, and met with President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A former foreign minister, Christodoulides, 49, is his country’s youngest president.

He was accompanied by the Cypriot ministers of foreign affairs and energy, commerce and industry.In welcoming Christodoulides, Herzog voiced appreciation for what he called “a symbol of true friendship and true alliance” on the part of his Cypriot counterpart “who came to express solidarity and support as Israel comes under fire from enemies in Gaza.”

Herzog paid a state visit to Cyprus in March of last year, and in November awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor to Nicos Anastasiades, who preceded Christodoulides in office.

“I’m here two months after I assumed my duties, and I’m here despite the terrorist attacks that we fully condemn, because I want to send a strong and clear message about the strategic nature of our relationship,” Christodoulides said to Netanyahu. “We worked together in the past. I’m here to see how we can enhance even more our excellent bilateral relations, but also – and that is something that I always enjoy discussing with you, dear Benjamin – the regional developments and how we can work together, two democracies in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Middle East; how we can work together in order to get the stable future.”

 MICHAL HERZOG, flanked by Rachel Ruto, wife of the president of Kenya and Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem (credit: Courtesy Fleur Hassan-Nahoum) MICHAL HERZOG, flanked by Rachel Ruto, wife of the president of Kenya and Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem (credit: Courtesy Fleur Hassan-Nahoum)

Although relations between Israel and Cyprus, which go back to before the creation of the state, have not always been rosy, they have gained impetus in recent years, and officials of the two countries work in close harmony on numerous levels.

Illegal immigrants, mostly Holocaust survivors, who came to the Land of Israel while the British still ruled the roost, were deported to Cyprus, where they were often helped by the local population. There are second-generation Holocaust survivors in Israel who were born in Cyprus.

■ THERE IS no new thing under the sun, we are told in the Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet). Indeed, we see the return of many things that were part of another era, particularly fashion in which the trends of the 90s, with slight changes, have been revived.

Change is inevitable. With Jerusalem Day on the immediate horizon, veteran Jerusalemites are looking at the changes in the capital and wondering if this is still their city. Changes have been introduced under every mayor since the establishment of the state, and at a more rapid pace since the advent of Teddy Kollek.

But in recent years, change has been faster and more obvious. Under Kollek, construction projects were in the nature of restoration, such as in the Old City; or in the nature of creation, such as the Israel Museum and the Bible Lands Museum, each of which was built on barren land.

While Ehud Olmert has been castigated over the monstrous Holyland residential project, far more controversial in its time, especially under a sports-loving mayor, was the demise of the YMCA soccer stadium and the construction of a residential, office and commercial complex in its place.

There was expanded construction under Uri Lupolianski and Nir Barkat, but nothing as radical as what has happened under Moshe Lion.

Change is a sign of progress, and one such sign in recent years is that even though women are greatly outnumbered on the Jerusalem City Council, the few who were elected were not shy violets. They had no fear of expressing their opinions and of fiercely advocating for what they believed to be right.

But none had the clout or charisma of Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. In fact, if the municipality had ministers, Hassan-Nahoum would most definitely be the foreign minister.

Fluent in English, Hebrew, Spanish and French, she is the one who usually deals with visiting foreign officials, ambassadors and other members of the diplomatic corps. She is also engaged in economic diplomacy with the countries of the Abraham Accords. She represented Israel at the Arab Tourism Market in Dubai; she joined in the Mimouna celebrations at the Moroccan Embassy, an event she thoroughly enjoyed as the daughter of a Moroccan mother; she welcomes foreign dignitaries to city hall or joins them elsewhere in Jerusalem; she attends national day receptions and state dinners, meets with counterparts from abroad, and also does what many people in similar positions do, such as awarding prizes and scholarships; distributing food and household utensils to Ukrainian and Russian refugees; and joining locals in various events.

For instance, as someone who spent several years in Britain, she went to the Kumkum Tea House in Jerusalem to drink English tea and eat scones with proprietor Elisheva Levy in celebration of the coronation of King Charles and Queen Camilla, and also celebrated separately with British Ambassador Neil Wigan, who shared a message from the king in which he expressed his gratitude to those around the world who joined in the celebration of his coronation.

“As my wife and I mark this very special moment, we want to thank all of you, in the Commonwealth and throughout the world, for your good wishes. We have been hugely inspired by the community spirit on display at coronation celebrations, and are deeply touched by the many similar events taking place across the globe.”

Hassan-Nahoum recently met with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey; had lunch with Rachel Ruto, the wife of Kenyan President William Ruto, and attended the state dinner for him and his wife, hosted by Herzog and his wife, Michal.

A passionate orator, Hassan-Nahoum addressed ambassadors to the United Nations who were brought to Jerusalem by Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan. She hosted her Latvian counterpart from Riga, Linda Ozola – and the list goes on.

While it’s true that Lion attends a lot of events, it would be a fairly safe bet to say that Hassan-Nahoum attends more, and many of those are more prestigious than those attended by the mayor.

Jerusalem Day march

■ JERUSALEM DAY celebrations began this week with the good news that Jerusalem-born singer Yehoram Gaon has released a disc in honor of the occasion, and will be performing at various venues around the city. The UN delegation that visited commented to Zvi Vapni, the senior foreign policy adviser to Herzog, on the difficulties of getting anywhere on time due to heavy traffic. The congestion will get even worse during Jerusalem Day events with all the anticipated visitors to the capital. Vapni told the ambassadors that on the morning of their meeting, it had taken him an hour and a half to get to work from his home in Modi’in, only 30 kilometers away.

■ IT’S NICE to know that Charles is well disposed to being the first British monarch to visit Israel. Considering Britain’s involvement in the country and the region in the first half of the 20th century, plus the fact that the king, as prince of Wales, visited Israel, and that one of his brothers and one of his sons have visited Israel, it’s high time for him to bring his queen to the Holy Land.

■ WORLD-RENOWNED Rishon Lezion-born sculptor and experimental artist Yaacov Agam last week celebrated his 95th birthday at the Yaacov Agam Museum of Art, which opened in Rishon in 2018. Agam is primarily known for his amazing kinetic art, but that is far from his only genre.

He initially trained at Bezalel in Jerusalem, then in Zurich and afterward in Paris, where he lived for many years before returning home. He has exhibited in some of the world’s most prestigious museums, and his work graces iconic buildings and other important sites.

It is not generally known that Agam is also a composer. The premier of a composition of his, with musical arrangement by Yoav Shemesh, was part of the artistic program that highlighted the birthday celebration that was attended by his three children, Orram, Orit and Ron, and other family members, Vietnamese Ambassador Ly Duc Trung, Rishon Lezion Deputy Mayor Liel Even-Zohar, city council member Idan Mizrahi, museum architect David Nofer, CEO of Park West Gallery, New York, Albert Scaglione, artists David Gerstein and Adrianna Abel, Agam Museum director Ruth Makbi and many public figures and notables from Israel’s art world.

■ FORMER POLISH ambassador Marek Magierowski, who currently serves as his country’s ambassador to the United States, has not forgotten some of the issues that he embraced while in Israel.

A tweet he sent last week thanked Star Jones, chairwoman of the US Heritage Commission, “for an engaging conversation about Poland’s efforts to preserve Jewish cultural legacy.”

Among the responses that Magierowski received were reminders that his portfolio is that of Poland and not of Israel, and that he should be talking about Poland’s cultural legacy. Another of a similar nature stated that talking about Jewish cultural legacy is the province of Israel Ambassador Michael Herzog. There were also responses praising Magierowski, and others that noted the reported rise of antisemitism in Poland.

■ CRITICS OF someone who voices an outside opinion often fail to realize that opinions are based on the values we are taught and the environment in which we were raised.

Responses by Israeli citizens to German ambassador Steffen Seibert’s tweet: “Hundreds of rockets indiscriminately fired from Gaza, so Israelis must rush into shelters or hide by their cars in the road – this cannot be justified, also not by the awful loss of life among innocent civilians in yesterday’s IDF strike. Israel has the right to self-defense” included criticism of moral equivalence. To someone who is neither Israeli nor Palestinian, the killing of innocents – especially children – on either side is something that cannot be condoned.

■ INTERIOR MINISTER Moshe Arbel is to be blessed for temporarily restoring the old system of taking a number and waiting in line – even if it takes all day. Making an appointment for service from government offices is greatly inconvenient because it ties people to a certain time on a certain day. Even then, they sometimes have to wait an hour or more before it’s their turn, and their whole day is ruined. When people know in advance that it’s going to be a long wait, they show up at the door at 6 a.m. They still may have to wait till lunchtime, but it’s their choice.

The COVID excuse for the backlog in issuing passports is so much poppycock. If there was a need for an in-person meeting with an Interior Ministry official, it could have been done in the same manner as information and ticket offices in bus and train terminals, where a glass partition separates the company representative from members of the public. So long as one has an expired passport, or one that is about to expire, it should not take more than 15 minutes to issue a new one.

A couple of years back, the writer of this column had three months to go before her passport expired, and she was going to Salzburg for only three days. But she was told by her travel agent late in the afternoon before her flight that the Austrians would not allow anyone with less than six months left on their passports to enter the country. There was no choice other than to go to the office of the Interior Ministry at Ben-Gurion Airport and fork out NIS 800 plus for an emergency passport, which took less than 10 minutes to deliver. Only later did she realize that she was the victim of an international scam. The new passport was valid for less than a year, and cost nearly four times as much as a five- or 10-year regular passport. The three months which had been left on the passport that had since expired could not be added to the regular passport.

The situation today is infinitely worse because people who plan to travel abroad next year are getting new passports as a kind of insurance against another long-term backlog. That means that they are financially losing whatever time is left on their current passport, because once a new passport is issued, the current passport is confiscated, or at best cut off at the corner to preclude its use.

With all the goodwill in the world, the situation could be easily improved, if there was a booth set up by the entrances of Interior Ministry offices for three or four clerks to simply check the identity of an applicant and put all the documents supplied by the applicant in an envelope labeled with the applicant’s name, ID and phone numbers, and deposit it in a box in the presence of the applicant. Everything would move much faster, with less tension.

Even in the good old days, regular passports were not issued on the spot but arrived in the mail between three days and two weeks after the applicant had met with an Interior Ministry official. But that was when there were adequate postal services, and the postal service was much more efficient.

■ APROPOS EFFICIENCY, banks, which had reduced almost everything to technology, which not all their clientele could master, are returning to in-person service.

Hanan Friedman, the CEO of Bank Leumi, is telling clients that if they don’t receive proper service, they should WhatsApp him on a number that he broadcasts in commercials, and he will personally see to it that they get the service they need and want; while the cheerful countenance of actor Dvir Bendeck, peering out of newspaper and magazine advertisements for Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, assures readers that this is where they will get the best service.

Are we on the way to a utopian era in which different enterprises will compete to see which can truly give the best service? Now that would be a real treat.

■ THE GRIM Reaper waits for no one. Since the beginning of this year, two former members of the editorial staff of The Jerusalem Post – Yitzhak Oked and Gershom Gale – have died.

Oked, who was born in Venezuela and educated in America and Israel, worked as a reporter in the Tel Aviv branch of the Post from the 1960s to the 1990s. He was the kind of reporter who remained eternally addicted to news.

There was a radio in every room of his home to ensure that he could listen to news bulletins in whichever room he happened to be. His day began with reading a newspaper. In February of this year, while crossing the road to the shopping mall near his home in Be’er Yaakov in order to buy a newspaper, he was hit by a car and sustained serious head injuries, from which he died.

Gershom Gale, born in Canada as Tom Gale, while coming home from college to spend a weekend with his family, and speeding along the highway, momentarily took his eyes off the road. The crash left him with most of his bones broken. He was sedated for weeks, and his chances for survival were minimal. But survive he did, and he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

The eldest of four siblings, Tom grew up in a Christian home, but his mother never went to church, never explained why, nor why she was a staunch supporter of Israel. But he had an aunt who was Jewish and a grandmother who hid a box of matzah under her bed.

Following his accident, Tom began to explore his spirituality. He also met and married Katherine, a girl from a Christian family.

For no reason that he could explain, Tom began to study Talmud and other Jewish religious literature. His wife joined him in reading Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book The Living Torah, and found it to contain the truth that she had been seeking all her life. The couple found an Orthodox rabbi to help them convert. It took five years, but they emerged from the process as Gershom and Dina and, with their two young sons, moved to Israel, where Gershom was hired by the Post to work as an editor. He remained with the Post for 25 years.

What Gershom’s mother, born Miriam Zimmerman, had never told him was that she was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1943, thanks to the kindness of a Christian woman, Christine Panek, Miriam’s family was able to obtain false papers on which they lived throughout much of the war, but they were never able to overcome their fear of the Nazis, and often hid in suffocating circumstances. Her father was killed, after which life became a nightmare.

Even though her Polish-Christian identity was not questioned, Miriam was sent to Buchenwald, where an SS officer kicked the side of her face, broke her jaw and caused her to lose half her teeth. In 1945, as the Red Army approached, Miriam was forced by her Nazi captors to join in a death march, in which 85% of the prisoners did not survive.

Miriam, her mother and sister were later sent to a DP camp, where Miriam met Canadian soldier Arthur Gale. Their friendship developed into love, and after learning that Miriam was Jewish, Arthur said he didn’t care. Miriam’s sister, Helen, met an American Jewish soldier in the DP camp, and they had a Jewish wedding.

So traumatized was Miriam by her wartime experiences that she swore her mother and sister to secrecy. They had to keep pretending to be Christian.

Miriam maintained contact with the woman who had saved her family, sent her gift packages and even went to visit her. On a final visit in 2007, Miriam broke down and told one of her daughters: “We are not who you think we are.

We are Jews.” But she also swore her to secrecy. Three years later, when her other daughter got engaged to a Jewish man, the secret was again revealed, and Miriam told her daughter, “You may as well have a Jewish wedding.”

Gershom had long suspected that his mother was Jewish and often asked her, but she denied it. Finally, the whole family returned to its roots. Gershom, who was half-paralyzed, and who, because of his injuries, had to be hospitalized from time to time, died in the hospital in April – halachicly Jewish not as a convert, but from birth.

■ ANOTHER HOLOCAUST-related story was told during a poignant meeting between Philippine Ambassador Pedro R. Laylo Jr. and 92-year-old Ralph Preiss, whose family was saved during the Holocaust thanks to the open-door policy of Philippine president Manuel Quezon. Under this policy, nearly 1,300 Jews found refuge in the Philippines between 1937 and 1941.

During the meeting, Preiss recognized his mother in a photo. It was an emotional moment for all present.But the most intriguing aspect of the meeting was a beautiful wedding dress made of a special fabric crafted from the fibers of pineapple leaves. Ralph’s mother, Margot, had sent the dress from Manila to Connecticut to Marcia Splaver, for her marriage with Ralph on June 27, 1954.

Both of Ralph’s daughters, Lisa and Jacqueline, wore the redesigned dress during their weddings in 1988 and 1994.The dress was a tribute to president Quezon and a symbol of the family’s gratitude for his help during such a difficult time.

At the recent wedding of Ralph’s granddaughter, Jordan, she chose to wear the same Manila dress as an expression of the family’s enduring appreciation for the president’s kindness.

■ A RECENT Grapevine item about Yiddish theater generated responses about Yiddish theater in Romania, Russia and England. Now there’s another response about Yiddish theater in the United States.

George Medovoy writes: “During the American Depression, the Roosevelt administration sponsored relief projects for the unemployed, including theater folk who were out of work. Thus, between 1935 and 1939, Americans could enjoy everything from Shakespeare to puppet theater under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project, which included the first-ever national Yiddish theater.” Just a gentle alert on semantics. It may have been the first national Yiddish theater in the United States, but possibly not in the world.

YIVO is arguably the best source of information about the history of Yiddish theater. In its encyclopedia there is a reference to state support for theater in the Soviet Union soon after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

According to YIVO, “by the 1930s, nearly 20 branches of the State Yiddish Theater (GOSET) existed in the Soviet Union, with major theaters in Moscow, Kharkov, Minsk and Birobidzhan Autonomous Region, staffed by graduates of a State Yiddish Theater School established in 1929. The crown of these companies originated out of a group of young theater activists headed by Aleksandr Granovski that first assembled in Saint Petersburg just before the revolution. Relocated to Moscow in 1920, they became the Moscow State Yiddish Theater.”