Grapevine May 28, 2023: The Shavuot Madonna?

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 RONIT RAPHAEL (left) with Victoria Bonya. (photo credit: DANIEL VENTURELLI)
RONIT RAPHAEL (left) with Victoria Bonya.
(photo credit: DANIEL VENTURELLI)

■ IT WAS widely reported in the period leading up to Shavuot that the singer Madonna would be in Israel for the festival weekend and would go to Safed to visit the graves of major kabbalists. An enthusiastic student of Kabbalah to which she was introduced by the late Rabbi Philip Berg, who also imparted some of the esoteric of Judaism to other Hollywood personalities, who, like Madonna, were not necessarily Jewish, it was presumed that she would also visit his grave.

Though born in Brooklyn, New York, Berg, who was Dean of the World Kabbalah Center, is buried in Safed. He died in 2013, at the age of 86. Madonna made international headlines, in 2004, when she came to the Tel Aviv Kabbalah Center for Rosh Hashana. At that time, there was an international gathering of 1,200 people from 22 countries, who had specially come to Israel for that purpose.

■ MANY OF the descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal, assimilated and eventually converted, though some kept certain Jewish customs handed down from generation to generation, often without an explanation. Even without the Jewish customs, some of these descendants born into Catholic families never felt quite comfortable with the Catholic religion, and in exploring their families’ pasts, learned that they were descended from crypto-Jews, who pretended to be Catholic, but who practiced their Judaism in secret.

One such person is Genie Milgrom, arguably the best-known descendant of crypto-Jews from Spain. A determined genealogist, Milgrom has not only discovered her own Jewish roots but has also helped other descendants of crypto-Jews to find their roots. The ongoing digitization of the Inquisition archives is important to the future of the Jewish people, she says.

Milgrom and her husband, Michael, will be in Brussels in the first week of June and invite people to join them at Sabbath morning services at the European Synagogue, at 10 a.m. There will be a kiddush at 12:30 p.m. followed by an address by Milgrom, who will share some of what she has discovered about her forebears.

Israel's community of Indian descent

■  ISRAEL’S JEWISH community of Indian descent is very excited about the projected laying of the foundation stone, on Thursday, June 8, for the auditorium of the Jewish Indian Heritage Center (JIHC), which is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel in 2017, he said that it was important to have a center for the heritage of Indian Jews.

The JIHC will be located in Moshav Nevatim in the Negev, which is home to Jews born in Cochin, or whose parents or grandparents were from Cochin.

The first Indian Jews to migrate to Israel soon after the establishment of the state, Cochin Jews consider themselves to be part of the oldest Jewish community in the world.

Although Cochin will feature prominently in the JIHC, the history, culture and traditions of Jews from other parts of India will not be overlooked. The decision to build a heritage center was a joint one taken some years ago among the Jews of Cochin.

Nevatim already has a museum that showcases artifacts dating back to the 16th century. There is also a beautiful and colorful synagogue where the bimah and the ark are from Cochin synagogues, and the ceiling and women’s gallery are replicas of the Kerala synagogue, which was the original synagogue in Cochin.

The museum has joined forces with the JIHC to expand its vision and to incorporate other Indian Jewish communities, such as the Bene Israel, the Baghdadi Jews and the Bnei Menashe communities. The auditorium will be the first stage. Funds for this were donated by residents of the moshav, the regional council, the Israel National Lottery and members of the Indian Diaspora from around the world.

THERE WAS a time when it was more or less forbidden to cut down an old tree in Jerusalem. But times have changed, not only to make way for light rail routes but also for real estate projects which will bring a lot of revenue to the municipality by way of rates and taxes. David Zwebner, a long-time resident of the capital, laments a decision by the Jerusalem Municipality to cut down a lovely old fruit-bearing tree because some passer-by had knocked his head on a branch.

According to Zwebner, the victim obviously didn’t look where he was going, and after he complained to the municipality, Zwebner was ordered to cut down the tree. If he doesn’t do it, then in all probability, the municipality will take the matter into its own hands. Zwebner has deliberately parked his motorbike by the tree to ensure that future passers-by will be far enough away from the branch so as to avoid bumping into it. Of course, if more people kept their eyes on the road or the sidewalk instead of peering at their mobile phones as they walk, such accidents would probably not occur anyway, because pedestrians would see whatever obstacles might be in their way. Zwebner says that the tree is pruned regularly.

A municipal inspector came by last week to tell Zwebner that the person who lodged the complaint keeps calling to have the tree removed. Zwebner consulted an expert, Yisrael Galon, a town planner, who says that the tree is alive and well, and could live for at least another 25 years.

Perhaps more interesting than the information outlined above, is the number of times that the municipality has ignored petitions and protests by groups of residents in certain areas of the capital who object to changes that the municipality wants to make in their neighborhoods. Yet when one man bumps into the branch of a tree and complains, the municipality takes notice and demands that the tree be removed. One cannot help but wonder how much clout this person has in order to merit such goodwill on the part of the municipality.

■ IRON DOME inventor Dr. Daniel Gold, Holocaust survivor Emil Fish and the Yeshiva University (YU) class of 2023 – the leaders of tomorrow, were honored last week at Yeshiva University’s 92nd Annual Commencement Ceremony.

 The Iron Dome air defense missile systems is seen during operational trials conducted following the conclusion Operation Shield and Arrow on May 14, 2023 (credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
The Iron Dome air defense missile systems is seen during operational trials conducted following the conclusion Operation Shield and Arrow on May 14, 2023 (credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)

Gold, a retired Brigadier General and head of Israel’s Defense Research and Development Directorate (DDR&D – MAFAT) at the Israel Ministry of Defense (IMOD) and Israel Defense Forces (IDF); was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate, as was Fish, who is a philanthropist and visionary.

The ceremony, where more than 1,700 degrees were awarded, took place at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

Gold said that he was proud to be in the presence of the next generation of bright minds. In his present role, he continued, “it is my privilege to witness what brilliant young people are capable of. Their creativity, innovation and drive result in cutting-edge technology developed thanks to their talent, but more importantly according to their values. The students here are receiving the tools and education they need to lead and I look forward to their future accomplishments.”

A survivor of Bergen Belsen, Fish became a successful businessman in Los Angeles and dedicated himself to remembering the victims of the Holocaust.

He founded YU’s Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which educates today’s teachers to effectively transmit the history and lessons of the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective.

Gold was awarded YU’s Presidential Medal for Global Leadership.

 “As Israel celebrates its 75th birthday, it is particularly fitting for us to host one of the heroes who stands as a role model for our students for his deep dedication to the Jewish state and impactful leadership in safeguarding its vitality and security,” said YU president Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman.

■ IN ADDITION to members of Israel’s entertainment industry who were invited to the Cannes Film Festival, among those featured on the red carpet was cosmetics guru Ronit Raphael, who strode the carpet together with Russian television personality Victoria Bonya, who has more than a million Instagram followers. The two were invited to the premiere of the new film Jeanne du Barry starring Johnny Depp.

As in the past, Raphael hired a luxury yacht in Cannes that was temporarily transformed into a beauty therapy clinic for the exclusive use by film stars.