Grapevine: A birthday party for the world

Every year, on the 25th of Elul, Maureen Kushner hosts a Birthday Party for the World in her small, walk-up, penthouse apartment in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda.

Rosh Hashana honey (photo credit: Karen Cohen)
Rosh Hashana honey
(photo credit: Karen Cohen)
Every year, on the 25th of Elul, Maureen Kushner hosts a Birthday Party for the World in her small, walk-up, penthouse apartment in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda.
Her apartment is a walk-up in every sense of the word. After walking up to her front door, visitors have to keep walking upstairs to get to her kitchen cum- living room.
Then, if they want to go and look at the view from her rooftop garden, where she holds regular Hallel prayer sessions to welcome the new Hebrew month, they have to walk up more stairs.
Yet despite the diminutive size of the apartment, and the huge crowd of people who keep coming up the stairs, there is somehow room for everyone – as there was in the ancient Temple. Not only that, but Kushner, a native of New York, has an incredibly diverse collection of friends and acquaintances of different ages, ethnic and national backgrounds, and various streams of Judaism.
They all find a harmonious common denominator in her home, a factor noted by both Yaacov Nana, the rabbi of David’s Tomb and Mount Zion, and Rabbi Mordehai Machlis, who for years have been attending her birthday parties marking the creation of the world.
Nana, a multi-generation Jerusalemite, recalled that before the creation of the state, most of the residents of the city were poor, and two-parent families with as many as eight children lived in a two-room apartment – spreading mattresses across the floor every night. But they always found room to accommodate a visitor. If a child asked his mother whether he could bring a friend to stay the night, her response was, “We’ll put out another mattress.”
Today, said Nana, people live in large apartments in which every child in the family has his own bedroom, and parents have their own bedroom. Yet, when a child asks to bring home a friend to stay the night, the mother says, “But where will we put him?” Using Kushner as an example, Nana said, “If you have room in your heart, you always have room in your home.”
Another example of this room in the heart makes for room in the home is Machlis, who together with his family is famous for hosting up to 100 guests at his Shabbat table in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ma’alot Dafna.
Originally from New York, Machlis and his wife, Henny, have 14 children and numerous grandchildren, and for more than 25 years have been hosting guests, both invited and casual, who have heard about their hospitality and wandered in.
Machlis stands in the doorway and personally greets each guest.
Kushner actually called him a modern Abraham, but Machlis smiled and said that with all her good intentions, she is insulting the patriarch. He then praised Kushner for providing an opportunity for people to get together to reflect on the beauty of the world, which too often is taken for granted.
There was a communal reading of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, which tells the story of creation, and the event was enlivened by the singing of Carlebach melodies by Binyamin Steinberg, whose voice and style of delivery are remarkably similar to that of Shlomo Carlebach; and Rachel Rubin, who might best be described as a kosher Joan Baez, with the plus that she is also an inspired Torah teacher. Steinberg and Rubin sang separately and together while everyone clapped to the music, played the drums or shook tambourines and maracas.
People were sitting on the stairs leading up to the roof, and lining the stairs leading into the living room, but everyone was obviously having a good time.
Steinberg will be appearing at the 12th-annual Moshav Fair on Monday, September 23, Hol Hamoed Succot, at Mevo Modi’im – known as the Carlebach Moshav, because it was founded in 1976 by Carlebach and a large group of his followers. Their progeny now represent the third and fourth generation on the moshav.
■ IT SEEMS that US Ambassador Dan Shapiro is making a tradition of returning to Israel from the US just in time to host a party. He and his wife, Julie, returned just in time for the Fourth of July festivities, and last Wednesday, he came back from Washington the night before hosting a toast to Rosh Hashana.
On the night of his return, he and his family watched archival footage of Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a dream” address, which, as he told his guests the following evening, continues to move him to tears whenever he hears it.
Shapiro had very little time to relax. Early Thursday morning, he was interviewed on Israel Radio. Later that day, he and US Consul-General in Jerusalem Michael Ratney met with the Council of Religious Leaders in the Holy Land, an ecumenical umbrella representing the Chief Rabbinate, Christian churches and the Wakf Muslim religious trust, which Shapiro noted are working together to build bridges across religious communities, by combating intolerance and promoting peace and coexistence.
On Thursday night, the hundreds of people who congregated in the ambassador’s garden included former Israeli ambassadors to the US, heads of diplomatic missions in Israel, politicians, peace activists and people of different faiths – including Muslim women, who were easily identifiable by their hijabs.
In welcoming the guests, Shapiro mentioned only one by name and previous rank: former chief of general staff Lt.-Gen.(res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, who arrived with his wife, Ronit, in a chauffeur-driven car with a bodyguard.
One wag guessed that the bodyguard was a perk from his old job, and the chauffeured car a perk from his current job as chairman of Shemen Oil and Gas Exploration.
There was also quite a sprinkling of haredim, who in their traditional black-coated garb must have felt very uncomfortable in the acute humidity of Herzliya Pituah. One of them was Rabbi Ezra Bar-Shalom, a son-inlaw of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who though a personality in his own right could not compete with his wife, Adina, a well-known educator and peace activist who was warmly greeted from all directions.
Two of the three Shapiro daughters, Shira and Merav, entertained the guests. Shira tried valiantly to blow the shofar, producing only a feeble sound – but the crowd gave her an A for effort. Merav sang a traditional Rosh Hashana song in English and in Hebrew. For the benefit of those not familiar with Jewish law and lore, their father explained that Rosh Hashana is the anniversary of the creation of the world, a period of taking stock of one’s actions and attitudes and a time to look forward with optimism at new horizons and opportunities.
It was predictable that something related to the renewal of peace negotiations would follow – and Shapiro did not disappoint.
He said he was proud of America’s role in the breakthrough, which enabled the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Shapiro also presented a brief homily based on the story of the binding of Isaac, the Bible portion read on Rosh Hashana.
Shapiro noted that when Abraham answered the call of God, he did so with one word: “Hineni” or “Here I am.” He had been called to do more than could be expected of any father. Using this as a paradigm, Shapiro said: “When we’re called to do more, we must answer ‘hineni!’”
■ HIGH HOLY Day congregants who have not paid for seats in synagogues are often embarrassed when someone with a seat-designating card says, “Excuse me, you’re sitting in my seat.” Sometimes, the eviction is not quite as polite. One congregation in which this will not happen is that of Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg, the leader of Chabad of Rehavia, who in an email that went out far beyond his regular congregation wrote: “Why pay to pray? We are very happy to welcome you and your family to join our activities and services, which will be held in the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, 55 King George Avenue, on the basement level.”
Goldberg has also placed highly visible English and Hebrew signs around his neighborhood, telling potential congregants, “We’ve kept a place for you.” How much more welcoming could any congregation be?
■ THE JERUSALEM Great Synagogue is getting a surfeit of the Lau family. On the first day of Rosh Hashana, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau will deliver the sermon, replacing his father, Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who has held sway in the Great Synagogue for some 20 years. But the Great Synagogue is not too keen to let him go, and therefore on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Lau, Senior will deliver the sermon both on Kol Nidre night and on the following day, before Yizkor.
In the interim, another member of the Lau family, Rabbi Benny Lau – a well-known educator and a first cousin to the current chief rabbi – will be launching his book, Jeremiah, on Tuesday, September 10, and will speak about the book in English.
If anyone thinks that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef is being sidelined by the Great Synagogue – it isn’t so. He delivered the sermon at the Selichot service last Saturday night.
■ ACCORDING TO Tuches Oifen Tish, a New York-based website serving the Orthodox Jewish community worldwide, the official Sephardi anointing of Yitzhak Yosef, the Rishon Lezion, may prove to be a departure from former ceremonies of this kind, and will undoubtedly cause some embarrassment to many of the guests. The ceremony, which is due to take place immediately after Rosh Hashana at the Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, may be subject to a change in procedure – barring some form of reconciliation between the Yosef family and former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar.
Both Amar and former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger were conspicuous in their absence when the new chief rabbis took the oath of office, at a ceremony at the President’s Residence. But Amar’s absence from Yohanan Ben Zakai will be even more conspicuous, as according to Sephardi custom, Amar is supposed to transfer his cloak of office and his ceremonial headgear to Yosef, and help him to put them on. If he is not there to do so, who will take his place? The feud between Amar, once a faithful disciple of Ovadia Yosef, and the Yosef family, with which he has an in-law relationship, erupted when Amar decided to lend his support in the chief rabbi stakes to Rabbi Tzion Shalom Boaron – instead of to Yitzhak Yosef. In the Yosef family, this is regarded as an act of treason – and treason is unforgivable.
■ IN ADDITION to the special sermon on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, which is known as Shabbat Teshuva – the Shabbat of Repentance, or Shabbat Shuva – the Shabbat of Return, immediately following the two days of Rosh Hashana, the capital’s Great Synagogue and Yeshurun Synagogue have joined forces to present two additional teshuva lectures.
The first will be on Monday, September 9, at 8 p.m. at the Yeshurun Synagogue, where Rabbi Ari Berman will speak on the topic: When rabbis and leaders sin, is teshuva possible? The answer is obviously in the affirmative, and Shas leader Arye Deri is the proof of the pudding.
Deri paid a heavy price for the corruption charges on which he was convicted. In addition to serving time in prison, he was suspended from political activity for several years, and only this year was he able to return to the political arena and be voted back into the Knesset. During the period of his political exile, he voiced no bitterness, at least not publicly, and said he accepted whatever was meted to him with love.
Some people would regard that as a form of teshuva. There are others who no matter how much time passes or what Deri does, will not acknowledge that he has paid his debt to society. People who are so unforgiving should think twice before asking the Divine Creator for forgiveness for their own sins.
On Wednesday, September 11, Chief Rabbi of Efrat Shlomo Riskin will be somewhat less controversial than Berman, when he speaks at the Great Synagogue on the message and the meaning in the call of the shofar in a world of tragedy. On Shabbat Teshuva, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Lau will deliver the sermon at the Great Synagogue.
Last week, he visited Rachel’s Tomb, accompanied by Rabbi Aaron Pearl of Alon Shvut and Gush Etzion Regional Council Head David Pearl. After praying at the tomb, Lau made a point of blessing the members of the Border Police for protecting the site and keeping the area safe, so that all those who want to pray there can do so in security.
■ THERE ARE certain liturgical melodies sung in synagogues on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that are seldom heard at services during other times of the year.
This helps to add a unique flavor to the festival.
London-born cantor Simon Cohen, who came on aliya in 1995 and lives in Ra’anana with his wife, Nechama, and their three children, has just released a new album, Songs of Praise. It includes tunes sung on Rosh Hashana, and offers a rich variety of 10 cantorial themes with inspiring orchestral arrangements written for symphony orchestras.
In Reform synagogues, cantors sometimes sing to musical accompaniment, but not in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues; however, an orchestral background helps to create a more spiritually uplifting aura.
The orchestras, with more than 120 players, and the large choirs accompanying Cohen are from Prague, and perform under the name SFY. The conductor is Dr.
Mordehai Sobol, who has had a profound influence not only on Cohen, but on several of Israel’s high-ranking cantors. Like many top-notch cantors around the world, Cohen has a vast multilingual repertoire, which in addition to traditional cantorial classics includes opera, folk songs and even Broadway melodies.
As a youth, Cohen was strongly influenced by his late grandfather, cantor Eliezer Spector, and by his father, Stanley Cohen. He first began singing publicly in synagogue as a boy soprano.
Later, he studied at the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute under internationally renowned cantor Naftali Herstik, who for many years was the chief cantor at the Great Synagogue.
Cohen subsequently continued his studies under Sobol.
Cohen is the chief cantor of the Mill Hill Synagogue in London, where he sings on the High Holy Days and on selected Shabbatot throughout the year. He has sung in concert with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as with several major orchestras in various parts of the world. Like many leading cantors and opera singers, he occasionally takes on the role of producer/director – which he does annually for Emunah Jerusalem. During the last quarter of each Gregorian calendar year, he hosts a cantorial concert to raise money for the Emunah Neveh Michael Children’s Village and for the Emunah Jerusalem Fund for children of families in distress.
This year’s concert on Wednesday, October 9, in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theater, will feature the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Roi Azoulay. IDF chief cantor Shai Abramson and baritone Colin Schachat will join Cohen in classics, Broadway hits and of course, liturgical songs, with Raymond Goldstein as the musical director.
Another highlight of the evening will be French-Israeli classical violinist Gabriel Chouraki.
This year’s concert is dedicated to Yehudit Huebner, the first president of Emunah Israel, who was a pioneer among Israeli women diplomats who served as ambassadors. She was ambassador to Norway and Iceland; other positions she has held include Emunah Israel chairwoman, deputy director-general of the Interior Ministry, and vice mayor and deputy mayor of Jerusalem.
She has also been the recipient of several awards.
■ FRANCE’S FORMER ambassador to Israel Christophe Bigot – who was still in Israel last week to escort French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to his various meetings with Israeli dignitaries – has been appointed director-general for External Security, France’s external intelligence agency.
Although his appointment became effective on September 1, Bigot delayed his departure from Israel in order to be in the country for Rosh Hashana, enabling him to attend the pre-holiday reception hosted by President Shimon Peres. Bigot confirmed that in his new post, he will be visiting Israel quite often.
The General Directorate for External Security is subordinate to the Defense Ministry and works in close cooperation with the Central Directorate of Interior Intelligence, engaging in paramilitary and counterintelligence operations abroad. A career diplomat, Bigot has extensive international experience, having served as a member of the French Permanent Mission to the UN in New York; the French Foreign Ministry’s deputy director for Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean; deputy ambassador in Tel Aviv; and adviser to the foreign and European affairs minister – after which he returned to Tel Aviv to take up the position of ambassador.
His tenure here was extended by a year.
■ ACTOR AND storyteller Yossi Alfi is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his Storyteller’s Festival, which takes place every Succot at the Givatayim Theater.
The various segments of the storytelling marathon are recorded by the Israel Broadcasting Authority, for use on radio and television. Thus, people have never made it to Givatayim get a chance to enjoy any number of storyteller’s festivals long after they are over. And of course, people who were there and want to hear the stories again can do so.
Though Alfi is a charismatic raconteur himself, he likes have people tell ethnic stories, army stories, stories about religion and national leaders – and so much more. He has a great store of themes, for which he finds suitable sets of storytellers. This year’s festival runs from September 19-28 and will include some 800 stories told by some very well-known personalities, such as Lea Koenig, Natan Datner, Guri Alfi, Uri Orbach, Dalia Dorner, Jonathan Gefen, Gavri Banai, Uri Banai, Nitza Shaul, Hani Nahmias, Dan Almagor, Shlomo Bar, Kobi Oshrat, Amir Peretz, Yehoshua Sobol, Haim Guri, Yaacov Ahimeir, and present and past MKs Reuven Rivlin, Dalia Itzik, Yuli Edelstein and Avraham Burg, who have all served as speaker of the Knesset.
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