Grapevine: Back to the land of the Nile

The Egyptian deputy chief of mission is bid farewell, my painful mistake spurs a touching tribute, and an Orthodox women’s dance company premieres to an all-women audience.

egyptian ambassador 311 (photo credit: Ron Friedman)
egyptian ambassador 311
(photo credit: Ron Friedman)
EGYPTIAN AMBASSADOR Yasser Reda and his wife Nahla did not host a National Day reception this year. But some of the guests who last week attended a farewell party that the couple hosted at their residence in Herzliya Pituah in honor of deputy chief of mission Dr. Sameh el-Souefi and his wife Dina wondered whether the farewell, though smaller in size, was a substitute for the reception, given that all the guests who attended the farewell would most certainly have been invited to the reception had there been one.
As is often the case with events hosted by the Redas, there was a sizable turnout of Egyptian embassy staff, all smartly attired in business suits, while the Israelis by and large opted for something more casual.
Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled, who appears to have a special relationship with both Reda and el-Souefi, opted for faded jeans and an open-necked shirt, but judging by the general turnout, the latest dress code for Israeli men is black shirt and pants, often topped by a black jacket, but sometimes by a jacket of a different color.
Both the host and the guest of honor made emotional speeches about the friendship they feel for each other, and Reda spoke highly of el-Souefi’s professional qualifications, saying that he deserved to be an ambassador. That’s not going to happen just yet. El-Souefi is returning to the Israel Desk at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, where he worked before coming to Israel four years ago, but he has been promoted to number two in rank, and in that capacity he will, in all probability, visit Israel several times a year, thus maintaining contact with his many friends.
El-Souefi joked that he’d learned what it means to be number two when his wife Dina was elected head of the Diplomatic Spouses Club. Suddenly, instead of her being introduced as his wife, he was introduced as “Dina’s husband.” El-Souefi was profuse in expressing appreciation for the friendship and help of Reda and his wife in both good times and difficult times. His successor is career diplomat Moustafa Elkouny, a brother of former Egyptian charge d’affaires Tarek el-Khouny, who held the fort during the period in which there was no Egyptian ambassador to Israel.
■ IT WAS a double whammy last Wednesday for Yossi Maiman, Peru’s honorary consul to Tel Aviv. In the morning he was in Jerusalem, being honored at Beit Hanassi by the Council for a Beautiful Israel, and in the evening, together with Peruvian Ambassador Jose Luis Salinas, he was co-hosting the Peruvian Independence Day reception at his spacious Merhav headquarters in Herzliya Pituah. The Merhav Group of companies specializes in energy, petrochemicals, infrastructure, agriculture and dairy projects, electronics, tourism, air cargo services and financial services, and the impressive premises, especially the garden area, are often used for charity events and for anything and everything associated with Peru. Under the circumstances, quipped Maiman, his Peruvian title should be changed to include Herzliya Pituah. As is customary, the official proceedings began with the national anthems of Israel and Peru. Some people sang “Hatikva,” some sang the Peruvian anthem and Maiman was one of the very few who sang both. In fact, it was one of those rare occasions when the guest anthem rang out stronger than “Hatikva.” Remarking on the fact that he had caught himself singing one anthem in Hebrew and the other in Spanish, Maiman commented on the symbolism in that the lyrics of both referred to freedom. Salinas noted that 189 years have passed since Peru was proclaimed a democracy. He was pleased that Peru has emerged relatively well from the economic crisis and attributed this in part to the country’s abundance of natural resources, not the least of which is gold, which is regaining its importance on world markets. Peru ranks third among the world’s largest gold-producing countries, he said. In addition, biotechnology is one of Peru’s areas of expertise, and protection of the environment is at the top of Peruvian priorities. He was happy to report the popularity of Peruvian cuisine, which he said is now everywhere, and suggested that visitors to Lima should go there for the annual gastronomic festival, and while there should take in the many Peruvian archeological sites, not limit themselves to visiting only the famous Machu Picchu. He also voiced appreciation to Mashav, the international training division of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, for the assistance it has provided to Peruvians working in the fields of agriculture, technology health and education.
Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin, who represented the government, underscored that Israel’s good relations with Peru go back to before the establishment of the state when Peru, in the crucial United Nations vote of November 1947, voted for the reinstatement of the State of Israel in its ancient homeland. Begin lauded Peru as “one of Israel’s best friends in Latin America” and revealed that Israeli investments in Peru amount to “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Begin delivered the last paragraph of his address in very passable Spanish, to the delight of the crowd, which demonstrated its approval with warm applause and enveloped him with congratulatory comments after he left the stage.
■ IF SWISS Ambassador Walter Haffner ever decides to retire from the diplomatic service, he’ll have no problem finding work as a stand-up comedian. He’s a natural. Haffner drew a lot of laughs from the many guests he invited to join him in celebrating Swiss National Day at the Arab-Hebrew Theater in Jaffa with his glib, straight-faced comedy routine. Though officially ambassador for Switzerland, Haffner could just as easily be the ambassador for Jaffa. Last year he celebrated Swiss National Day at Na Lagaat, the Jaffa-headquartered blind and deaf theater, and this year he chose the Arab- Hebrew Theater primarily because it initiated a project with a group of Arab and Jewish teenagers from the Ajial High School and the Ironi Tet High School, who worked with Swiss organization Salam Shalom to produce an Arab-Hebrew version of The Deserted Lot, a play based on Gottfried Keller’s novel Romeo and Juliet in the Town Square. The story line is about a fight between neighbors over a plot of land, but the text could equally apply to the Israeli and Palestinian narratives.
Because the theater is small, there were two performances – the premiere before the official reception and the second performance after the reception. Director Dalit Bloch, who lives in Switzerland, came to Israel and worked with the group for five weeks on a daily seven-hour basis. She praised the youngsters for sacrificing their vacation time to come to rehearsals. The play will go on tour in Switzerland and other parts of Europe next year. The décor inside the lobby of the theater as well as outside in the courtyard was all in the red and white colors of the Swiss flag. Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov, who represented the government, went along with the theme, and like Haffner, wore a red tie with a white shirt.
There was varied cuisine served from a number of white booths labeled “Hot Dogs and Mini Hamburgers,” “Sushi and Oriental,” “Kosher,” “Fish,” “Vegetarian,” “Cheese and Bread,” “Potatoes,” “Pasta and Pizza” and “Chocolates and Mini Desserts.” No one went home hungry, especially as everyone was also given a goody bag with an exceedingly generous quantity of Swiss chocolates, plus packages of breakfast cereals and jars of jam.
Israelis are always looking for ties with other countries that extend beyond the 62 years of the existence of the modern State of Israel, and Meseznikov was no exception. How fortunate for him that it was at a Zionist Congress in Basel that Herzl declared the creation of a Jewish State. On a more serious level, Meseznikov emphasized the 1,500 plus days that Gilad Schalit has been in captivity and denied visits by family or the Red Cross, which is headquartered in Switzerland. He called on Switzerland and other European countries to exert pressure on Hamas for Schalit’s release. Haffner confessed that he had been searching for something unique and meaningful to say on the 719th anniversary of Switzerland’s Confederation and the best thing he could come up with was that Switzerland was the only team that beat Spain in the World Cup.
■ AS HAS been written before in this column, the most effective means of getting feedback is to make a mistake – and this time it was the kind of mistake that cuts to the core. In a feature article about Piotrokov, Poland published at the beginning of this week, the writer of this column made the mistake of describing as non-Jewish lawyer Monika Krawczyk, the CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. In fact Krawczyk is Jewish by the most stringent of halachic standards and in a pained letter containing a list of references that included inter alia Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Naphtali Lavie and Michael Freund among others, reminded me that we had met in Poland some 10 years ago at an education seminar conducted by her teacher, the late Joy Rochwarger.
In Orthodox Jewish circles it is believed that nothing happens, not even a leaf floating on the wind, without Divine intervention. Joy Rochwarger-Balsam, a cancer victim who died at age 37 in New York in May 2004 and is buried in Israel, had devoted a large slice of her life to traveling across Poland to teach Judaism to lost Jews coming back to the fold. Not all the people she taught were halachically Jewish, but she wanted to give them the tools with which to find their way to Jewish identity. She was a dedicated, passionate and beloved teacher who succeeded in transmitting a tremendous amount of knowledge in a relatively short space of time. It amazed me at that seminar to witness the Hebrew reading proficiency of the participants and their ability to effortlessly follow the Sabbath prayers in the siddur. The most sincere apologies are due to Krawczyk, but there was Divine Providence in the mistake in that it gave cause to pay tribute to the memory of Joy Rochwarger, through whom many Poles rediscovered their Jewishness.
■ DURING THIS incredibly hot summer season, when in most places even nighttime temperatures offer little relief, if any, from the heat and humidity, the coolest place to be in Israel in more ways than one is the roof of Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem. Heichal Shlomo, adjacent to the Great Synagogue, once housed the Chief Rabbinate, but is now the home of a Judaica Museum, and also offers facilities to several religious organizations. Lectures, seminars and singles events have long been conducted at Heichal Shlomo, and the television program Tuesday Night Live is videotaped in Heichal Shlomo’s auditorium. But management also wants to include concerts that appeal to both religious and non-religious audiences in its repertoire of attractions, and has therefore launched a series of rooftop musical events based on shtetl nostalgia, replete with a backdrop of the kind of wooden hut that was home to poor Jews living in the small villages of Europe.
This week the highly entertaining Kinor David klezmer quartet was joined by Yung Yidish founder Mendy Cahan, who is also a consummate performer with a marvelous rapport with his audience.
There was something almost ethereal about the ongoing appearance of more and more people on the roof, almost like ghosts emerging out of the past to recapture the memories of “der alter heim” and the Yiddish language, though not everyone present on the crowded roof understood Yiddish, and Cahan had to pepper his patter with Hebrew. Haredi men are rarely seen at mixed-audience concerts, but there were quite a few black-garbed and bearded haredim on the roof, adding a sense of authenticity to the environment.
Aside from the cool breeze and a thoroughly enjoyable performance, which ended with a hassidic Hebrew medley with everyone singing “Oseh Shalom” as a grand finale, the view from the roof was spectacular, with Jerusalem stretching out in all directions like a giant birthday cake.
■ THE PREMIERE of a new dance company might be just another rave or another yawn, except that in this case it was the culmination of a 12- year struggle. Modesty rules within Judaism prevent observant women from singing or dancing in the presence of men. But there are religious women who were born with stage talents, and they wanted the opportunity to express themselves. There are already all-women bands, singing groups and thespians who perform only for female audiences – and now there’s a dance company as well.
Some of the women in the Noga Dance Company, which had its premier performance at The Lab (or the Hamaabada, as it’s known in Hebrew) in Jerusalem this week, were not always observant, and for them it was extremely difficult to give up dance. The logical alternative was to find an outlet that was not in conflict with their new lifestyle. But there were also FFBs who wanted to dance – not just the mitzvah dances that help to get rid of nervous energy at weddings, but also jazz, along with classical and modern ballet. Now, they’re finally doing their thing. The dancers at the premiere were Yasmin Meshulami, Avital Ben-Gad, Tsipi Nir, Dina Davidson, Naomi Shafir, Racheli Hadad and Bracha Miriam Laniado. One of them, Avital Ben- Gad, is also a choreographer. The other two choreographers are Siona Haskell and Efrat Nehama. Two of the members of the company come from English-speaking backgrounds.
Sionah Haskell’s parents made aliya from England a year for she was born, and Bracha Miriam Laniado’s family came to Israel from Canada, but she was born here.
Most of the audience was religious, from many parts of the country and attired in the particular layered looks that have become the signature of women who are identified with the settler community, but there were less observant women who came in pants and short sleeves or sleeveless tops with scooped out necklines. No one cared because attention was riveted on the dancers, who were light-footed and extraordinarily expressive in their movements. If this is what they were doing for openers, one can only imagine how far these talented young women will go in the course of time. It’s just a pity that none of the men in their lives can come to watch.
■ IT’S A historic fact that parents are more inclined to make sacrifices for their children, than children for their parents. There’s an old Jewish saying that one mother can take care of 10 children, but 10 children can’t take care of an elderly mother. For awhile it looked as if the gist of that might be reversed when Amnon Nadav, the former long-time head of Israel Radio, took up the position of chairman of the Council of the Second Channel Television and Radio Authority. But a ruling by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein placed his tenure in limbo. What was barring his way was the fact that his daughter Eliel was working for Radio Acco 99. Eliel promised to step out of the way, but when push came to shove, she couldn’t do it. The reason: her work at the radio station, which her father found for her several years ago, had initially been a form of therapy after she returned to Israel from the United States, where her first husband and high school sweetheart had been killed in a road accident very soon after their civil marriage. Eliel had also been in the car.
Her work at the radio, which initially was just a means of getting her out of the house and into some kind of a routine, turned out to be the best possible therapy. She quickly proved her competence in everything she did, and her career zoomed. It was also at the radio that she met her second husband. The upshot of the story is that Nadav, who had already taken up his new post on condition that his daughter left hers, last week wrote a letter of resignation to Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who will now have to find another candidate.
■ THE HEBREW word for charity is hessed, which translates as loving kindness. Certainly that is the most appropriate description for the project that Jerusalemite Dorit Perry has taken upon herself. Realizing that few people now visit the graves of soldiers buried on Mount Herzl who fell in battle in the War of Independence, Perry decided that on Remembrance Day for the Fallen she would make a point of visiting those graves, especially as many of those soldiers were Holocaust survivors, who in some cases had been the sole survivors of their families. It bothered her for a long time that one particular soldier, Yosef Lahana, who fell in Jenin, had no details of his family background or date of birth on his headstone. For five years Perry came, lit a candle and put flowers on his grave, but wanted to do more.
This year, she came again two months later and met Uri Sagi, who had written a book in memory of his friend Shmuel Weiss who had also fallen in Jenin. The book contains details of other soldiers who fell in that battle, but Perry told Sagi that it was incomplete because there was no information on Lahana. Together they mounted a search, and discovered in the Zionist archives that he had a brother Gershon in France who, in 1952, in the hope of tracing Yosef, had written a letter to the Zionist organization. The brother is no longer alive, but Lahana’s nephews confirmed that they had an uncle they’d never met who had come to Israel. He had been born in 1921 in Arta in Greece and his parents were Nissim and Esther.
Further research confirmed that he had arrived in Israel in 1945 on the SS Demitrius and had initially settled at Kibbutz Mesilot near Beit Shean. Later, he had moved to Kiryat Motzkin, where his last known address was Barak Street 15. The Defense Ministry has agreed to put up a new headstone for Lahana, but Perry and Sagi are keen to find a little more information. They have reason to believe that Lahana was a member of the Greek partisans and that he may have even fought in the Greek army prior to the Nazi invasion of Greece. They’re looking for anyone who may have known him. Towards this end, Perry contacted Yaron Enosh, whose search for missing persons program on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet has yielded extraordinary results in the past. Perry is hoping to give the almost anonymous Yosef Lahana a history.