Grapevine: Cantor's charisma

Anniversary celebrations at the Great Synagogue, Rabbi Lau remembers his savior, the Olmerts in China.

grapes 88 (photo credit: )
grapes 88
(photo credit: )
  • IN ORTHODOX circles, the nameYitzhak Meir Helfgot is as iconic as that of any great opera singer or pop star in the secular world. A Ger Hassid with a glorious voice, a smiling demeanor and a modest personality despite his global fame, Helfgot - at the invitation of Cantor Chaim Adler who leads the services at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue - led the services last Shabbat in celebration of the synagogue's 27th anniversary. It was not the first time that Helfgot had participated in services at the Great Synagogue, but it was the first time that he had sung the full service, and his admirers came not only from many parts of Jerusalem, walking in some cases for well over an hour to hear him, but also from other parts of the country and from abroad. Hotels in Jerusalem did quite well not only out of Helfgot's appearance in the capital but also the appearance of the Yuval choir conducted by Mordechai Sobol, which harmonized wonderfully with the Great Synagogue choir conducted by Elli Jaffe. The Great Synagogue itself had never been so crowded - not even on Kol Nidre night. People all-but scrambled over each other to get into the building, and at least 200 who couldn't get in on Friday night, conducted prayers in the large synagogue plaza. Even larger crowds turned up on Saturday morning. People coming from all directions could be seen scurrying toward the synagogue as early as 6:30 a.m. to ensure that they could get inside. Synagogue vice president Zali Jaffe several times during the service mounted the rostrum to ask worshipers to clear the aisles and the exits - but to no avail, because there was really nowhere for them to move. An extraordinary number of Ger Hassidim - mostly yeshiva students - joined the congregants and filled at least one of the aisles. Some of the people denied entry by security guards, when the crowd inside had swelled beyond belief, even entered the building through a broken basement window. This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Mevorchim, the blessing of the new month in the Hebrew calendar which this time will be Elul, the month of contemplation toward greater service to the Almighty, a time of self-accounting and penitential prayers and a period in which Jews traditionally mend fences with anyone whom they've offended, whether deliberately or unintentionally. Thus the name of the month also serves as a Hebrew acronym taken from the verse in Song of Songs: Ani ledodi vedodi li (I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me). In the case of Adler and Helfgot it has a more literal meaning in that Helfgot is Adler's nephew, and the word for uncle in Hebrew is dod. Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who delivered the Saturday morning sermon and who has known Adler since they were both young men, recalled that they had both been in Germany on November 9, 1998 for the 60th anniversary commemoration of Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass that resulted from assaults on and looting of Jewish premises in Germany and Austria. Adler had sung a soul-searing rendition of "Ani Ma'amin" (I Believe), the song with which so many religious Jews had gone to their deaths during the Nazi regime. Lau translated the words for German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and told him how Jews had travelled on the death trains chanting this affirmation of their faith. Three months later at the funeral of King Hussein of Jordan which Lau attended in his capacity as chief rabbi of Israel, someone came up behind him and grabbed him. Momentarily traumatized, Lau turned around to see that the person who had caught him in a strong embrace was none other than Schroeder, who told him that he could not get the memory of "Ani Ma'amin" out of his mind. Lau also paid tribute to the late Maurice Jaffe who had envisaged the Great Synagogue and had lived to see the realization of his dream. Returning to the moment at hand, Lau, putting his hand around the shoulder of the young boy standing next to him, said: "You will remember your bar mitzva all of your life. You never expected to read your parsha in front of so many people," Lau told Ya'acov Gazin, who with his parents Gennady and Rose Gazin had specially come from Kiev for the occasion. Among the male congregants were Oscar-winning film maker Arthur Cohn, former justice minister Moshe Nissim, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, singer and actor Dudu Fisher and Canadian parliamentarian and international human rights activist Irwin Cotler, who went first to pray at Hazvi Yisrael, because he was told that there would be no room at the Great Synagogue, and after services concluded decided to try his luck. By this time a lot of people had left because, as much as they had enjoyed the singing, a five-hour service was just a little too much. Cotler who loves hazanut and was returning to Canada the following day, was fortunately admitted as others exited. He was leaving Israel on a high, he said, because he would go with all the hazanut reverberating in his head. At the conclusion of the service, Jaffe reeled off a list of people who had contributed to the success of the enterprise, most importantly synagogue director Rabbi George Finkelstein, without whom, said Jaffe, this amazing event could not have taken place.
  • ALSO AMONG the congregants at the Great Synagogue was former Jerusalemite Moshe Goral who served as director-general of Beit Hanassi during the presidential term of Moshe Katsav. Asked about Katsav's upcoming trial, Goral said that even if he wins his case, the media has already prejudged him and will find him guilty. What annoys Goral, not only with regard to Katsav but in relation to all public figures who come under police investigation, is that the media are generally so quick to mount a lynching campaign that any good that these public figures may have done is completely ignored. Goral agrees that where anyone is guilty of a crime, he or she should be punished, but at the same time his good deeds should not be overlooked because there are many sides to people's characters and it is unfair to portray only the negative side. His argument sounds like an echo of entertainer Dudu Topaz who, while acknowledging some of the unpardonable things he's done, pleaded from his prison cell that the public should not forget the good.
  • AFTER AN emotional morning at Yad Vashem last week, Yulia Selutina and Yelena Belayaeva, two sisters who came from Russia to accept the Righteous among the Nations medal and certificate awarded posthumously to their late father Feodor Mikhailichenko, were shepherded in the afternoon to Beit Hanassi to meet with President Shimon Peres. They were accompanied by the chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and his wife, Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev, former Supreme Court justice Ya'acov Terkel, chairman of the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous among the Nations, and Yad Vashem staff members. Mikhailichenko had saved Lau's life by looking after him when he was a seven-year-old prisoner in Buchenwald. Lau, then known as Lolek, was separated in the camp from his older brother and sent to a block where children were incarcerated. Mikhailichenko, who was imprisoned in the same block, stole food for the young Lolek and a sweater from which he fashioned ear muffs for the boy. While the group waited for Peres, language problems notwithstanding, the sisters and the Laus kept telling each other how they were forever part of each other's families. Judging by the facial expressions, it was more than just lip service. There was a bond that overcame religious, national and linguistic differences. Lau, who has repeated his story countless times in the year in which he discovered the identity of his rescuer, and who, according to his wife, had frequently spoken of this totally selfless man without knowing his name, told the tale to Peres with all the eagerness of someone telling it for the first time. Shalev said that although he has already heard it more than 50 times, he is riveted with emotion each time he hears it anew. The sisters, who grew up hearing the story from their father's perspective, said that he was always worried about Lolek, fearing that he must have been killed by the Arabs, and regretting that the little boy's brother (Naftali Lavie) had not allowed him to take the child to Russia and had gone instead to "Palestina." Mikhailichenko went on to become a famous geologist whose reputation went far beyond Russia, but for all that he never forgot the child he'd last seen in Buchenwald. Peres, who absorbed the saga detail by detail, and influenced by the credo that he who saves a single life is as one who saved the whole world, said that no figment of the imagination could be more powerful than this true story. "This is the height of humanity," he told the sisters. "We have to remember that in looking out for Lolek, your father risked his life each day. There was no reason for him to take such risks. And he saved someone with so much potential - a man whose own attitude to humanity mirrors that of Feodor. No one who hears this story can remain dry-eyed or indifferent. It's a story that should be told not only in your family circle, but in the whole world. Every young person should be spiritually nourished by this story." Natasha Movez, a shy Yad Vashem employee who had assisted with putting the file together and whose mother tongue is Russian, was spontaneously recruited to take on the role of interpreter - and did an excellent job, which she found so emotionally draining, even though she was familiar with the material, that at the conclusion of the meeting she burst into tears.
  • MARRIAGE OBVIOUSLY agrees with business tycoon Idan Ofer, who did it for the fourth time when he wed his long time significant other Batya Perry in a romantic seaside ceremony presided over by a rabbi on the Greek island of Mykonos last week. Guests from many parts of the world attended, including some 150 relatives and friends whom Ofer flew in a Sun D'Or chartered plane from Israel to Mykonos and back. The bride was serenaded on her way to the bridal canopy by Marina Maximillian Blumin, who later sang the song "Smile" to the bride and the groom. The latter didn't have too much to smile about in recent weeks due to all the hype surrounding a television documentary by Mickey Rosenthal which cast the Ofer family in a bad light. But new business interests and a new bride did give him cause for happiness. After the formalities the newlyweds hosted their guests at one of the most highly reputed restaurants on the island. Entertainment after the first course was provided by Glikeria. The Ofers plan to have a larger celebration this coming Friday at their home in Arsuf. Among the merrymakers in Mykonos were the parents of the bride Mattis and Rosetta Horodishtianu, Eyal and Marilyn Ofer, Liora Ofer and Loni Rafaeli, Udi Angel, Orit Freedman, CEO of Goldman Sachs Israel, and her husband Doron, Pini and Tzipi Rubin, Ran and Hila Rahav, Ram and Etti Caspi, Eli and Hannah Jonas, Akiva and Anat Mozes, Nili and Shai Agassi, and Ya'acov and Osnat Perry.
  • MEMBERS OF the Ofer family as well as other leading business figures will no doubt be recruited by Udi Angel to open their checkbooks and contribute to the Ralph Klein Memorial Fund which will help young athletes, especially basketball players, to realize their potential by freeing them to some extent from financial worries. The establishment of the fund was announced by the Rupin Academic Center on the first anniversary of Klein's death. Klein was the country's most famous basketball coach and, in his time, a great player. The fund was established by his family, friends, the management of the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Club and players that he coached at Maccabi Tel Aviv, among them the legendary Mickey Berkowitz, Moti Aroesti and Shuki Schwartz. Berkowitz and Angel have undertaken to be the key fund-raisers.
  • ALTHOUGH HE'S not the only living former ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel seems to be widely recognized as the most authoritative voice and is frequently called upon by both the electronic and print media to give his take on some current bilateral development or Egyptian event. This past week he was in greater demand than usual as the media sought his opinion on the foiled assassination plot on the life of Ambassador to Egypt Shalom Cohen. Because he is multilingual Mazel was sought after for interviews in Hebrew, English, French and Arabic. He didn't mind, according to his wife Michelle, who also was approached and penned an op-ed piece in The Jerusalem Post this week, but it was a bit much when the phone calls with requests began at 6.30 a.m.
  • FORMER PRIME minister Ehud Olmert has not allowed his health concerns or his legal problems to interfere with his enjoyment of life. He was at the Davis Cup tennis championships and at the Maccabiah and is currently vacationing in China with his wife Aliza and some of their close friends. Olmert has roots in China. When he was there for the first time some five years ago, he visited his grandfather's grave in Harbin, and over the years has maintained contact with members of the former Jewish community of Harbin, many of whom stayed in touch with each other regardless of where they were scattered in the world. Olmert's family fled from Russia to Harbin to escape Russia's anti-Semitic manifestations and his parents, who grew up and were educated in China, spoke fluent Mandarin. As prime minister, Olmert visited China in January 2007 to mark the 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Although his current weeklong trip is largely a holiday, he will also combine business with pleasure and meet with leading Chinese businesspeople to investigate potential bilateral opportunities for trade or representation. Before leaving, Aliza Olmert participated with their daughter Dana in the demonstration organized by the gay community in response to the as yet unsolved murder of two of its members. Dana, a lecturer in literature at Tel Aviv University, is also a human rights activist and a lesbian. Her parents always accepted her sexual orientation and welcomed her partner into the family.
  • IT'S NOT just seeing that's believing - it's also tasting. Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz thought his palate had deceived him at a wine and cheese tasting event at the Adir Winery and Dairy Products plant in the Dalton Industrial Park in the Galilee last Friday when he learned that the ice cream that he was eating with great enjoyment was made from yogurt produced from goat milk. The taste was so unusual that he had to have a helping of fruit salad to neutralize his palate, before turning his attention to the wines. Among the many people from all over the country who swarmed to the event was fellow Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz. Proprietors Avi and Yossi Rosenberg, disciplined in their own consumption, had a great time pouring and toasting for their many distinguished guests.