Grapevine: Just don't call them 'Sir'

Honorary knighthoods for Peres and Ofer, Diana Lerner's Tel Aviv vignettes and Sammy Davis Jr.'s 'Yes I Can' precedent.

peres honorary doctorate 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
peres honorary doctorate 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
AFTER ALL the speculation as to whether or not President Shimon Peres would receive an honorary knighthood from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II during his current visit to London, a spokesperson from the British Embassy revealed that the matter was never really in doubt. The knighthood will be conferred in recognition of his promotion of ties on many levels between Israel and Britain. As of Thursday, he will become an honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. But he is not the only Israeli to earn the honor. It was announced last week that shipping magnate Sammy Ofer will receive an identical honor in appreciation of his munificent philanthropy. Ofer, who served in the Royal Navy during World War II, has donated well in excess of 20 million pounds towards the preservation of Britain's maritime heritage. A final date for the ceremony honoring Ofer has yet to be set, but it is believed that it will be sometime in December. Ofer and his brother Yuli are magnanimous contributors to numerous educational, cultural and social welfare institutions and projects. Sammy Ofer had been willing to contribute a sum similar to that which he contributed to Britain's Maritime Museum to the Tel Aviv Museum. However, according to many media reports, the contribution to the TAM was conditional on the museum being renamed for Ofer and his wife Aviva. Long time TAM supporters, especially those who were among the founders and who contributed valuable collections to get the museum going, immediately raised a loud protest, claiming that to name the museum after the Ofers was tantamount to negating everything that other contributors had done for it. Some went as far as threatening to reclaim their gifts to the museum. The controversy became so heated and widespread that Ofer wiped his hands of the deal, and took his money elsewhere. An impressive new wing at Britain's National Maritime Museum will be named the Sammy Ofer Wing. Similarly, a gallery beneath the Cutty Sark will be named the Sammy Ofer Gallery. Fire almost destroyed the ship last year, and the work involved in its conservation was very costly. Ofer came to the rescue and provided much needed funds. Repairs are expected to be completed by 2010. Because they are not British citizens, neither Peres nor Ofer will have their names prefaced by 'Sir'.
  • BOTH MEN are octogenarians, but no one examining the volume and pace of work that each of them gets through in a single day would ever believe it. After attending several Rabin memorial events and delivering addresses at three of them last week, Peres flew to New York for the UN Interfaith Conference, where in addition to addressing fellow participants, he also had a series of private meetings and attended networking events. Briefly back home, he fulfilled other commitments and also addressed the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities before setting off for London, where he may persuade a member of the royal family to pay a state visit to Israel. The late Princess Margaret secretly crossed the border from Jordan many years ago and Prince Philip, together with his sister Princess George of Hanover in 1994 attended a Yad Vashem ceremony honoring their late mother Princess Alice, who had given refuge to Jews in Athens during the Second World War. Prince Charles attended the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; and Prince Edward visited Israel in September last year, but this too was not an official visit. The Duchess of York, more commonly known as Fergie, a direct descendant of King Charles II, and with quite a lot of blue blood via other family genes, was in Israel for the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Peres Peace Center. But here again the visit was not official, aside from which she is not regarded as a genuine royal, having married into the royal family and later divorcing Prince Andrew, with whom she has two daughters, aged 18 and 20, who are regarded as genuine royals. Still the fact that Prince Charles, who celebrated his 60th birthday last week, was born in the same year as the State of Israel, provides Peres with an excellent hook for an official invitation when the two meet after Peres's meeting with the queen - though it is doubtful that it will do much good.
  • WITH BARELY time to get his bearings again after returning to Israel, Peres will host Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who will arrive next week on a state visit. Peres issued a face to face invitation to Napolitano when the two met in Rome in September last year. The invitation has since been reiterated via Italian diplomatic circles. Napolitano will be accompanied by a 100-member-plus business delegation that will include Claudio Scaiola, Minister for Economic Development, and Italy's most powerful woman Emma Marcegaglia, who runs her family's steel manufacturing business which has 6,500 employees, and who also heads Confindustria, the Federation of Italian Employers. Among the other members of the delegation will be Umberto Vatani, President of the Institute for Foreign Trade and Italy's former permanent representative to the EU.
  • VETERAN JOURNALIST Diana Lerner, who reluctantly yielded to the persuasions of her family and close friends to write a memoir spiced with family history but primarily about her early childhood in Hungary, her growing up years in New York and her adventures as a journalist in Israel, Europe and the US, received such positive feedback for her book "I Must Have Come Out Of An Eggplant" that she decided to produce a booklet as her contribution to Tel Aviv's centenary celebrations. These officially begin next year, but are already making waves. Her booklet "My Tel Aviv," which contains a number of amusing vignettes, also pays tribute to several Tel Aviv personalities who are members of her peer generation, but who in most cases, unlike the indefatigable Lerner, are no longer working. All of them in their respective fields were well known not only in Tel Aviv but nationwide, and each of them brought honor and glory to Israel abroad. Lerner quotes Ruth Dayan, 92, as saying: "People are always asking me, 'What are you doing these days?' What do they expect of a 92-year-old person who all her life has been working with people and their projects besides being involved with the problems of home and family?" In other words, the energetic Dayan is still a busy lady. Other thumbnail biographies are devoted to Lithuanian-born Yiddish poet Rivka Basman Ben-Haim, who arrived in this country in 1947, the year that Lerner first set foot in Tel Aviv; iconic artist Yosl Bergner, who came on aliya with his wife Audrey from Australia in 1950, settling initially in Safed and moving to Tel Aviv 40 years ago; pharmaceutical industrialist Czech-born Eli Fischer, who came to Tel Aviv as a three-year-old; Gottex founder, Hungarian-born Lea Gottlieb, who put Israel on the world fashion map, and who at 90-plus still travels to Milan to look at new fabrics; Romanian-born Raya Jaglom, who for more than quarter of a century was president of World WIZO and arguably the best fund-raiser that WIZO ever had; Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a brilliant orator, the scion of a dynasty of Polish rabbis and the youngest survivor of Buchenwald; Hungarian-born Judith Miller, who was a pioneer of Israel's perfume industry and whose products, stored in hand-painted bottles that looked like Roman glass, were in high demand as blue-and-white souvenirs; Orna Porat, Israel Prize laureate and first lady of Israel theater, who has received numerous awards in Israel and abroad; Esther Rubin, who as a teenager in the US won an essay competition which gave her a round trip to Palestine, and inadvertently a shipboard romance with noted Romanian-born painter Reuven Rubin that led to marriage; Haim Topol, the internationally renowned stage and screen actor who was actually born in Tel Aviv and who at age 73 continues to jog along the promenade on the Tel Aviv beachfront; and Yaffa Yarkoni, one of Israel's best-known singers at home and abroad. Lerner also gives space to conductor Zubin Mehta, who though not a resident of Tel Aviv, has done so much for the city in his capacity as director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Lerner, whose byline has frequently appeared in The Jerusalem Post, has freelanced for almost every daily publication in Israel and also contributes to a variety of overseas publications. Audacious, with a keen eye and ear for detail, she has met and interviewed an extraordinary number of people whose names have been in headline news. In most instances, she has photographs as proof. She interviewed Helena Rubinstein in Tel Aviv, Indira Ghandi at the UN, Jeff Chandler in Jerusalem and Donna Karan in Ramat Gan, to name but a few. It's impossible to walk down a street in Tel Aviv with Lerner without meeting someone she knows every few steps of the way. Just as Lerner writes about people who she considers to be the backbones of Tel Aviv, many Tel Avivians also evidently see her as part of the scenery.
  • KOLDOR DIRECTOR Tova Serkin, who has initiated many next generation activities in the Jewish world and who sees the KolDor network as a bridge between Jewish institutions and grassroots movements, was annoyed, almost to the point of anger, that neither she nor any other KolDor representative was invited to participate in the United Jewish Communities' General Assembly discussion on Engaging the Next Generation. "What's the point of talking about the next generation if they don't want to listen to us?" she said in a coffee shop conversation.
  • PRECEDING THE GA was the International Lion of Judah Conference, which brought 1,200 women from around the world to Israel. Thirty of the Israeli Lions hosted their colleagues from abroad at dinners in their homes. Dale Ophir, chair of the Israel Lions, wanted to give her guests a special treat and asked her friend Anat Ifar, who is renting an apartment on the 64th floor of the Ramat Gan tower opposite the Diamond Exchange, if she could borrow the premises. The reply was affirmative and guests had a magnificent view of Tel Aviv and the surrounding area from the windows. After dinner Ophir invited them to have an even better view from the roof above the 68th floor of the building. The elevator took them only to the 66th floor and they had to walk the remaining two floors. What they hadn't been told was that the path from the doorway to an exterior staircase leading to the roof did not have a solid floor and that they would have to cross a grille. Not an easy task for those wearing stiletto-heeled shoes, and painful for those who removed their shoes to make the crossing. But the magnificent panorama of Tel Aviv and beyond illuminated by night lights was worth the effort, even for two women afraid of heights. At the opening of the GA, Lori Klinghoffer Chair of National Women's Philanthropy, announced that the Lions of Judah had raised $16 million, which represented a 13 per cent increase over the previous year. All Lions wear a large, prominently displayed gold lion'' head as a pin or a pendant. Israeli Lion Doreen Gainsford, who lives in Herzliya Pituah, was explaining to the cab driver who took her to the Lions' conference in Tel Aviv what the Lions of Judah do to advance the status of women, especially Ethiopian women in Israel. Once inside the hotel, she found that her pin was missing. She called her son, who told her that if she had flagged down the cab in the street she could forget about seeing the pin again. But there are honest and responsible taxi drivers in Israel. The driver found the pin, took it to the hotel and described his passenger, to whom it was returned.
  • IN THE family of former Labor chairman Amir Peretz, they're quite familiar with the philosophy of "win some, lose some." Although his wife Ahlama did not win the mayoral elections in Sderot, she did gain a seat on the city council, which means that she will not be without influence. His sister Flora Shoshan, who ran for mayor in Mitzpe Ramon, had 50.40 percent of the vote and her opponent Yitzhak Zargari 49.60 percent before the counting of soldiers' votes - but in the final analysis, Shoshan won by 40 votes. However, no one reaped more success in the municipal elections than Zichron Yaacov mayor Eli Abutbul, who scored 5,283 votes - 100 percent of all the ballots cast.
  • IN THE wake of Barack Obama's US presidential success, his slogan "Yes we can" has been widely adopted in political and other circles. Prior to and in the immediate aftermath of the launch last Friday of Israel Television's revamped weekend magazine, hosted by Ayala Hasson and Ben Caspit, the promos featured Hasson saying "Yes we can." Former Beersheba mayor Yaacov Terner attributed his defeat and those of other mayors of his generation to the Obama syndrome; and Jewish Agency chairman Zeev Bielski, talking about the Israel-Diaspora partnership to meet Israel's needs, concluded his address to the plenum at the opening of the GA in Jerusalem with the words "Yes we can." "Yes we can" was not coined by Obama or anyone on his team. It's the grammatically singular, rather than plural title, of the autobiography of Sammy Davis Jr., who for much of his life was a victim of racial intolerance. "Yes I Can" Davis once quipped to someone else complaining of discrimination: "You got it easy. I'm a short, ugly, one-eyed black Jew." The book, first published in 1965 as a soft cover paperback, was so popular that it had to be reprinted several times in soft and hard cover versions. One of the most versatile of entertainers, who could dance, sing, act and play various musical instruments, Davis converted to Judaism after almost losing his life in an automobile crash in November, 1954. Although he didn't lose his life, he did lose his left eye. While he was recuperating in hospital, Eddie Cantor, a great Jewish entertainer, visited him and told him about parallels in Jewish and black culture. Davis was fascinated and began studying Jewish texts. He became so caught up in what he learned that he decided to convert. That didn't stop him from marrying non-Jewish women. Thrice-married, Davis caused both controversy and hostility when he publicly dated and subsequently married Swedish actress May Britt. At the time they were wed in 1960, inter-racial marriages were illegal in 31 US states. The couple had a daughter and two adopted sons before they parted in 1968. Just as he thumbed his nose at the legal authorities and white supremacists who sought to prevent his marriage to Britt, Davis, with his "Yes I Can" attitude was a pioneer in the breaking down of yet another racial barrier. In the early years, when he and big time African American entertainers such as Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Count Basie and other international household names were not permitted to stay in the hotels or play in the casinos where they performed, nor allowed to have dressing rooms, Davis swallowed his pride because he needed the money. But after he became a star he refused to perform in any place that practiced segregation and his determination gradually led to the cessation of undisguised bias in Las Vegas and Miami. The incorrigible Davis was once barred from entering a night club because he wasn't wearing a tie. So he bent down, removed one of his shoe laces, fastened it around his neck - and was promptly admitted.