Grapevine: Sderot is suddenly popular

SDEROT IS in the news for many reasons these days - not the least being that it is the town in which Labor chairman Amir Peretz was raised, and where Peretz, a former mayor, still lives. Sderot is also the hometown of singer and novelist Kobi Oz, who showed up at Labor headquarters on Sunday to announce that he, members of his family and some of his Teapacks band would be joining the party. Oz, who now resides in Tel Aviv but frequently returns to Sderot, has known Peretz for several years, and said he would do anything he could to help him. If that's the case, it doesn't take much guesswork to figure out who will write and perform Labor's campaign song. Given the following that Oz has among younger voters, he could make a major contribution to Labor's election results. It will be interesting to see which other popular entertainers get recruited by competing political parties. ALTHOUGH IT is still not certain whether Peretz will be able to rely on the help and guidance of former Labor chairman and former prime minister Shimon Peres, he does have a senior mentor in the person of Lova Eliav. Eliav, 84, is one of the living legends of Israel, a former diplomat and secretary-general of the Labor Party who many years ago came to Sderot as a volunteer teacher. To some extent Peretz can also rely on the wisdom and experience of former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, who has advocated that Labor and Meretz run on a joint ticket. Sarid, who was a long-time member of the Labor Party before joining Meretz, was also a volunteer teacher in Sderot, but was ousted by the Education Ministry after his aggressive questioning of Education Ministry director-general Ronit Tirosh reduced her to tears during a meeting of the Knesset Education committee. The irony is that Sarid is a former education minister whose father once held the position today held by Tirosh. POLITICAL RUCTIONS notwithstanding, it was inexcusable on the part of Labor Knesset member Ofer Paz-Pines, who was still Internal Minister, to bypass the Latvian Independence Day reception at which he was to represent the government. Guests waited around, made small talk, sampled more morsels from trays carried by passing waiters and waitresses, and could not understand the delay in the formal part of the reception. Though several guests commented afterwards that Latvian ambassador Karlis Eihenbaums was clearly "cheesed off," the ambassador succeeded in maintaining his diplomatic cool as he stood before the microphone at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv to announce the change in plans. Welcoming the guests to the 89th anniversary of his country's independence, Eihenbaums said there was bad news and good news. Paz-Pines was supposed to come, "but as you all know, there's a slight mismanagement in the country - so he won't come." The good news was, "We'll skip the speeches." The only remaining formality was for the black-clad children of the American School in Kfar Shmaryahu to sing the Latvian and Israeli national anthems, for which each child was rewarded with a large slice of the cake that had been decorated by hotel pastry chefs to resemble the Latvian flag. Guests surmised that Eihenbaums had worked hard on the speech that he didn't deliver. In fact, it was an important speech, because it would have referred to the project sponsored by his country's education ministry (along with other ministries and state institutions) whereby all children in Latvian schools were encouraged to learn about the Jewish communities that had thrived in pre-Holocaust Latvia, and to draw their impressions of the synagogues of the community that is no more. Some of those works of art graced the walls of the hotel. The project is one of the most meaningful attempts at atonement - it is simultaneously eradicating prejudice while teaching history, and is one of several Latvian projects dedicated to the study of the history of Jewish communities. Even if Paz-Pines had the most legitimate of excuses for not attending, the government, in conjunction with the Foreign Ministry, should have made sure he was replaced by another minister. In fact, there was a former minister present - Victor Brailovsky - who was briefly minister of science, but in representing the government, an ex-minister is not quite the same as a sitting minister, especially when his party is no longer part of the coalition. AMONG THE guests at the Latvian reception was Irish Ambassador Michael Forbes, who took the opportunity to congratulate Malcolm Gafson, the Dublin-born, newly elected chairman of the Israel Ireland Friendship League. After serving for the past nine years as vice chairman and general organizer of events, Gafson was unanimously elected at the League's annual general meeting. During Gafson's conversation with Forbes, they each reflected on the fact that the majority of Ireland's Jews have Latvian or Lithuanian roots. Gafson's grandmother was born in Latvia's capital - Riga. One of several hundred Irish expatriates living in Israel, Gafson made aliya in 1980. When not preoccupied with Irish affairs, he manages Atmosphere, the El Al Inflight Magazine's English media section. Gafson's four children have a richly mixed heritage - his wife, Leah, is of Yemenite background, and her family came to Israel via Operation Magic Carpet. The IIFL was initially established to foster friendship and improve social and cultural understanding between Israelis and the Irish. This has become much easier since the establishment in 1996 of a resident Irish Embassy in Israel. One of the happy discoveries for Forbes, who has been in Israel for only a few months, was the local popularity of Irish music (not to mention Irish beer). ALSO AT the Latvian reception was retired diplomat Jakob Rytter, who was twice Denmark's ambassador to Israel, and who speaks fluent Hebrew. Following his retirement from the diplomatic corps, Rytter, who has many friends in Israel, purchased an apartment in Netanya. Over the past four years he has spent six months of every year in Israel. DURING HIS recent visit to Israel to participate in the Saban Forum, former US ambassador Sam Lewis suddenly remembered that when he was stationed here during the Begin administration, his children had come across an ancient stone, and brought it home to their mother as a birthday present. After checking with the Antiquities Authorities, Sally Lewis received permission to keep it in the garden of the residence, but not to take it out of the country. And so it survived a series of US ambassadors. During the Kurtzer period of tenure, Sheila Kurtzer, the ambassador's wife, had a rock garden installed. It occurred to Lewis that perhaps in the process of transforming the garden, Kurtzer might have inadvertently gotten rid of the antiquity. He asked their mutual friend Miriam Ben-Haim, a frequent guest at the US ambassador's residence (regardless of who happens to be ambassador of the day) whether the stone was still there. Ben-Haim didn't know and asked present incumbent Richard Jones, who thought it might still be there, but wasn't sure. Fortunately, Sheila Kurtzer was in town at the same time as Sam Lewis, and in the course of her visit met up with Ben-Haim and other old friends. Kurtzer immediately confirmed that the stone was still in place, and Ben-Haim was thus able to allay the fears of Sam Lewis. Kurtzer's wider circle of friends, who may have missed out on seeing her this time around, will be pleased to know that she will be returning to Israel at two- or three-month intervals. It will almost be as if she never left. HE'S HEARD the Israel national anthem often enough to sort of know it. And anyone watching television during the visit of former US president Bill Clinton will have seen him apparently singing Hatikva at all the functions in which it was played. Actually, he was mostly mouthing and having a little trouble with it, as anyone who knows the words by heart could tell - his mouthing was simply not in-sync with the lyrics. ONE HEARTWARMING thing that Clinton did do during his visit was help assuage the wounds suffered by Shimon Peres in his most recent political defeat. As soon as he saw Peres, Clinton embraced him, and during all their subsequent meetings, of which there were several both in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Clinton made a point of draping his arm around Peres's neck or shoulder in as vivid and visible a show of empathy and camaraderie as anyone could wish. What is it that they say about a friend in need being a friend indeed?