Grapevine May 31, 2023: A triple-digit age

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 MORDECHAI SPIEGLER of Israel gets entangled with Vietnam's goalkeeper in an international match at the National Stadium, Ramat Gan in 1964.  (photo credit: MOSHE PRIDAN/GPO)
MORDECHAI SPIEGLER of Israel gets entangled with Vietnam's goalkeeper in an international match at the National Stadium, Ramat Gan in 1964.
(photo credit: MOSHE PRIDAN/GPO)

It’s hardly surprising that Henry Kissinger, the master of realpolitik and shuttle diplomacy, who celebrated his 100th birthday last Saturday, has lived to a triple-digit age. Both his parents lived well into their nineties, so longevity is in the genes.

Though he never denied his Jewish origins, Kissinger is Jewish more in name than in deed. It’s not known whether his first wife, Ann Fleischer, was Jewish, but his second wife and former student, Nancy Maginnes, is not, and next year they will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their marriage. Although Kissinger’s track record on Soviet Jewry and on Israel was not always popular with Israeli and Diaspora leadership, Shimon Peres, as president of Israel, in June 2012 presented Kissinger with Israel’s Presidential Medal of Distinction, which at the time was Israel’s newly minted highest civilian honor. It was bestowed on Kissinger in recognition of his contribution to the State of Israel and to humanity. The two men had been friends for decades.

Only a week earlier, Peres himself had received America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom from US president Barack Obama.

Incidentally, as far as triple-digit birthdays go, in August of this year, the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation will celebrate the centenary of the birth of its founder. Unfortunately, Peres, who had a bevy of international dignitaries and former world leaders at both his 80th and 90th birthday parties, did not live to enjoy an encore on his 100th birthday. He died in September 2016.

In presenting the medal to Kissinger, who had already received some of the world’s and America’s highest accolades, Peres said: “You are an inspiration for those who seek peace and those who seek understanding between nations and peoples. I am old enough to know that people are no less important than ideas. The world has learned to say thank you, and the time has come for us as well to thank great people who have served as examples for the younger generation so that we might pass on the message that every person can be as great as his deeds and his ideas.

 FROM LEFT: Rani Rahav, Amos Shapira and David Atias. (credit: Yifat Pe’er)
FROM LEFT: Rani Rahav, Amos Shapira and David Atias. (credit: Yifat Pe’er)

“You were able to understand strength without being paralyzed by its awesome power,” Peres told Kissinger. “This award, while being delivered from my hands, comes from the hearts of my people. I feel that I am handing it not to a friend, but to a brother.”

Visibly moved, Kissinger, his voice breaking slightly, said that his parents would have been prouder of this honor that he had just received than any other that had come his way.

There’s an old Yiddish saying that no matter how assimilated any Jew becomes, a glimmer of dos pintele Yid (a tiny spark of Jewishness) always remains.

Israeli protests turn to heckling

■ SOMETIMES THAT spark is kindled the wrong way by overzealous Jews promoting or defending a certain cause. Ugly examples were seen this week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. At Tel Aviv University, Simcha Rothman, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, was loudly heckled and almost physically attacked. In Jerusalem, Deputy Mayor Aryeh King, who is not exactly known for tolerance toward gentiles and certain Jews, led a demonstration of Orthodox Jews protesting against a Christian ceremony at the City of David. What happened to civilized debate and freedom of religion? Don’t hotheads on either side of the political and religious divide realize that whatever happens in Israel has repercussions in the Diaspora?

Concerns for ALUT – the Israeli Society for Autistic Children

■ IN 1974, Leah Rabin was among the founders of ALUT – the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, which now also provides services for autistic adults. It wasn’t the only organization that was close to her heart. She was a passionate and effective fundraiser for several social welfare projects and programs, but ALUT, of which she was the chairwoman, was her special baby.

Sharing her concerns for ALUT was public relations celebrity Rani Rahav, who cared even more for her than for ALUT. The two were so close that she was his second mother and he was her second son. After her death, in November 2000, Rahav not only maintained his connection with ALUT, he strengthened it, and never failed to attend ALUT’s annual Leah Rabin Memorial symposium. Rabin continued to chair ALUT until she died. Rahav’s wife and business partner, Hila, is also heavily involved with ALUT and with several other social welfare and cultural organizations on a voluntary basis. The Rahavs are so appreciative of the work being done by members of the ALUT staff that this week they provided four scholarships for them.

The symposium is always held in conjunction with the date of Leah Rabin’s birthday. This year marked the 95th anniversary of her birth. Members and friends of the Rabin family were in attendance, as were Amos Shapira, outgoing chairman of the ALUT Public Council, who was presented with a special citation, and his predecessor Meir Shani. Representing the ALUT administration were Lilian Shafran of the Welfare and Social Affairs ministry, David Atias, the CEO of ALUT, parents, executive members, and ALUT employees. Leah and Yitzhak Rabin’s granddaughter Omer Rabin presented prizes to outstanding workers and commended them for their compassion and empathy.

The theme of this year’s symposium was innovation in the sphere of discerning and treating autism. An enlightening survey was presented by clinical psychologist Dr. Sagit Blumrosen-Sela, who spoke about adults with autism who are working in high-ranking positions, and the difficulties in trying to determine whether such people are fulfilling their professional potential or experiencing terrible difficulties which they simply don’t talk about.

Rahav, in his address, spoke to Leah Rabin as though she were still living, and said to her: “Who would have imagined that every 75th child in Israel is born on the autistic spectrum. There is no doubt that we still have a lot of work to do.”

There was also a musical performance by students from the Gil School in Tel Aviv, which is specifically geared to youngsters with special needs, plus a recital by singer Roni Ginossar, who is on the autistic spectrum.

Diplomacy becomes a woman's job

■ JUDGING BY what’s happening in Ireland, it would seem that diplomacy is becoming a woman’s profession. Following recommendations made in November 2022 by Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, once all the appointments are in place, 52% of Ireland’s diplomatic missions will be headed by women, including Ireland’s incoming ambassador to Israel, Sonya McGuiness, who since 2019 has been her country’s ambassador to Turkey, and has also been accredited to Iran, Azerbaijan and Pakistan. She should be able to compare impressions of Azerbaijan with President Isaac Herzog when she presents her letter of credence to him. He is presently on a two-day state visit to Azerbaijan. McGuiness is married to Feilim McLaughlin, an ambassador in his own right, who in the past served as ambassador to India, but more recently has served as a counselor in the Development Cooperation and Africa Division. He will accompany his wife to Israel and serve as Ireland’s representative to the Palestinian Authority. They are not the first diplomatic couple in which one partner serves as ambassador to Israel and the other as representative to the PA or ambassador to another country. There was a Chinese ambassador to Israel whose wife was ambassador to Syria, and the two used to meet at the border.

Women rise in Israeli academia

 ■ WOMEN ARE also rising in prominence in academia. The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology reported that during last year’s academic year, seven out of 13 dean positions had been filled by women, while female students accounted for 44% of new enrollments.

In 2018, Christian Arab Mona Khoury-Kassabri made history as the first female Arab dean at an Israeli university, when she was named dean of the Hebrew University’s School of Social Work and Social Welfare. Born to illiterate parents and raised in one of the poorest crime- and drug-infested neighborhoods in Haifa, she was an ambitious youngster and a diligent student, a factor that took her beyond high school to an academic education and career. Like other Arab women who have reached high levels in academia, she is a role model for other young Arab females who are striving to realize their potential.

In September, last year, Prof. Karen Abraham took up her position as the first female dean of medicine at Tel Aviv University. At Bar-Ilan University this month, Prof. Orly Avni has been appointed dean of the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine.

 More than 50% of the dean positions at BIU are now filled by female researchers (six out of 11). This year 50% of the elected members of the University Senate – the highest-ranking academic governing body – are female faculty.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has a similar gender ratio and a long record of encouraging Bedouin women to seek higher education. Fifty percent of the new deans at BGU are women. Prof. Reli Hershkovitz, the new dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, was previously chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Soroka Medical Center. Prof. Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby is dean of humanities; Prof. Orna Braun-Lewensohn is dean of the Kreitman School of Advanced Graduate Studies, and Prof. Orna Almog is dean of students. It should also be remembered that Prof. Rivka Carmi was president of BGU from 2006 to 2018.

Iconic Tel Aviv restaurant closes

■ AFTER FORTY years near Dizengoff Square, the iconic Tandoori Restaurant, which was opened by Reena and Vinod Pushkarna, has closed. But Tandoori has remained afloat. The premises, which have witnessed some very historic moments in the spheres of politics, diplomacy and even romance, have been reclaimed by their owners. Though sorry to leave so much nostalgia behind, the Pushkarnas, who are no strangers to tough challenges, took this one in their stride, and went looking for another suitable location, which they found at Lands End.

No, they haven’t packed up and gone to Cornwall. They spent six months in search of a site and another six months rebuilding their dream. This time, they’re setting up their new venture on Herbert Samuel Street by the beach, and have planned things in such a way that on the day that they close at Dizengoff, they will open up at Herbert Samuel. Regular clientele have already been informed, and the word will get around quickly among lovers of Indian cuisine. The Pushkarnas are quite excited about what they term “a new beginning.”

The appeal of gardens

■ PART OF the appeal of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens is that it contains flowers, shrubs and trees that are not indigenous to Israel, but have been gathered from many parts of the world and have somehow been adapted to the Israeli climate, so that imported seeds and saplings planted here have grown and flourished. Presumably, something similar can be counted among the triumphs and attractions of botanical gardens in every country.

But Australia has gone one further with the planting of an Israeli peace garden in the Melbourne suburb of Glen Eira in honor of Israel’s 75th anniversary of independence. The garden was officially opened to the public last week by Glen Eira Mayor Jim Magee and Zionism Victoria president Yossi Goldfarb. The garden, adjacent to the Glen Eira Town Hall, is a gift from Zionism Victoria to the city of Glen Eira, which has a sizable Jewish population, and is more or less the heartland of Jewish Melbourne. The garden contains a number of Israeli species, some of which are also common to Australia, with an almond tree rather than an olive tree as the centerpiece.

Efrat turns 40

■ TO MARK the 40th anniversary of the city of Efrat, the Efrat Development Foundation is hosting a festive dinner in honor of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbanit Vicky Riskin, who are also celebrating the 40th anniversary year of their aliyah. The Riskin family came from New York to Efrat in 1983, and were followed by many of Rabbi Riskin’s congregants from the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where in 1964, at age 23, he became the rabbi and built up a huge following.

Fearless in defending women’s rights to study Torah and Talmud, compassionate in speaking out on behalf of agunot, and farsighted in encouraging prenuptial agreements that would take much bitterness out of divorce settlements, in the event that the marriage would be terminated, Riskin expanded religious educational opportunities through the founding of a rabbinical seminary for men and Midreshet Lindenbaum for Women, plus a network of high schools, colleges and outreach programs under the umbrella of Ohr Torah Stone. He has also extended the hand of peace, friendship and understanding to Efrat’s Palestinian neighbors, and has advocated love toward the convert and Zera Israel – namely, children of Jewish fathers and a non-Jewish mothers. While he has not gone as far as Reform Judaism in accepting Zera Israel as declared Jews, he does not reject them, and sees them as part of the nation of Israel.

He believes that the Israeli Rabbinate, while adhering to Halachah – Jewish Law – could be less stringent in its attitude to converts who have sacrificed years of their lives to studying Judaism and identifying as Jews. In honor of all this and much more that he and his wife have accomplished, the foundation will host a festive evening in honor of the Riskins as well as four Builders of Efrat families for their ongoing contributions to the city. The dinner will be held at Efrat’s Neve Shmuel Event Hall on June 13.

Biblical comparisons on Shavuot

■ WITHIN THE context of its special program lineup for Shavuot, KAN Reshet Bet Radio had Liat Regev interview some prominent Israeli women about whom they considered to be the strongest women in the Bible. Not everyone chose one of the four matriarchs, and actress Gila Almagor-Agmon chose Hagar, with whom she has identified since she was a child, to the extent that she named her daughter Hagar. To those readers not familiar with the name, Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid, whom she gave to Abraham for the purpose of conceiving a child at a time when Sarah believed that she herself would die childless. Left alone in the wilderness with no sense of direction, Hagar put her faith in prayer. Against all odds, she and Ishmael survived, and their descendants grew into a mighty nation. To Almagor-Agmon, who had a very sad and lonely childhood, Hagar is among the strongest of the women mentioned in the Bible.

A history of Israeli-Iranian soccer

■ IN THE period prior to the revolution and the overthrow of the shah of Iran, Jews and Muslims lived quite well together, although according to some Iranian Jews, there was always an undercurrent of tension, which was felt somewhat strongly in May 1968, when Iran hosted the Asian Nations Cup soccer tournament. Matches were held in Tehran, and the Jewish community was very excited that Israel's national team were one of the participants. At the same time, they were fearful of what might happen to them if Israel won, and beseeched the Israelis to lose, recalled star player Mordechai Spiegler in a radio interview last week. The Israelis were in a quandary. They didn’t want to deliberately lose the game, but neither did they want to be responsible for a possible bloodbath. In the end, a higher force stepped in and Iran defeated Israel 2-1. Israel had not thrown the game, and had at least scored one goal – but most important, the result averted a possible catastrophe.

■ THE POWER of social media is often reflected in the positive outcome of the unexpected. When Maor Cohen, Ezer Mizion’s “Lego Man,” saw a post by the mother of nine-and-a-half-year-old Refael Yotam, he immediately phoned Schneider Children’s Medical Center for Israel, Petah Tikva, to find out when he could bring the young leukemia patient a Lego set as a gift. But less than a sentence into the conversation, he understood that Refael wasn’t in Israel at all, and that he had traveled to New York for medical care. Cohen then contacted Refael’s mother, Ravit, who told him: “If you were nearby, it would really have made Refael so happy to see you.”

Cohen turned to some close friends, and, together with Ezer Mizion, all rallied to the cause and quickly raised the money needed to cover his trip to New York. As it happened, another five children whom Cohen visits regularly were then also hospitalized in New York, so they, too, experienced a surprise visit from Cohen that they won’t forget. He came complete with gifts of Lego sets!

Refael has been fighting leukemia since he was two-and-a-half years old. Through the years, Cohen, has been coming to bring him Lego sets, play and build together, cheer him up, and put a smile on his face. They have become good friends.

“It was a special thrill. I couldn’t believe that Maor would decide to suddenly come. It was amazing. It’s hard to describe our feelings and the huge positive impact of Maor’s visit on Refael. It really put a smile back on his face,” said Ravit.

“I didn’t understand what was going on,” said Refael. “Suddenly Maor walked in. I never thought for a moment that he would turn up in New York. It was the happiest surprise I ever had in my whole life.”

When Cohen arrived in New York and learned that another five children whom he had been visiting for years were also hospitalized locally, he went to a Lego store and bought all of them special Lego sets.

“To meet six Israeli kids across the ocean who are going through such a rough time and to be able to put smiles on their faces – that’s a whole world for me,” he said afterward.

“When Maor called us, we didn’t hesitate for a moment. It was clear to us that we wouldn’t give up on a single child. And Maor, of course, didn’t think twice,” said Dr. Bracha Zisser, director of Ezer Mizion Oranit Center for Cancer Support. “He put everything aside, picked up and went. Every child is an entire world for him – and we’ll do everything we can to get to them and ease their struggle with cancer, even if it’s complex and challenging.”

Cohen has been Ezer Mizion’s “Lego Man” for 13 years as part of the comprehensive support system that Ezer Mizion provides to families coping with cancer. He visits children in the oncology wards of hospitals, bringing them Lego sets that have been sponsored by caring donors to Ezer Mizion, and also runs a Lego Club at Ezer Mizion’s cancer patient guest home in Petah Tikva, which serves cancer patients and their families.

■ DURING COVID and in the immediate aftermath, thousands of people working in hi-tech lost their jobs. Many for whom the door had closed looked for windows of opportunity and found employment with other companies – sometimes at a salary considerably higher than what they were earning before, and sometimes at a lower salary, which was better than no income at all.

But hope springs eternal, and at a meeting that Innovation, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis had this week with senior members of the Israeli Chamber of Information Technology, he was briefed by Shalom Daskal, Eli Frank and Yoram Eldar, who told him about new initiatives designed to provide 15,000 new employment slots in the hi-tech industry over the next year. They impressed on Akunis the need for his ministry to use the chamber as a liaison to hi-tech companies in order to facilitate implementation of the ministry’s programs. They also discussed establishing platforms for the ecosystem of Israeli innovation.