Grapevine: Speaking the language

GEORGIAN AMBASSADOR Lasha Zhvania, interviewed by Israel Radio's Iris Lavie, prior to the arrival of the Georgian dance ensemble, spoke in flawless and almost accentless Hebrew when describing the authenticity of the dances performed by the famous troupe, now in its third generation. The question that Zhvania is probably asked most frequently is how he came by his excellent Hebrew. The answer is he went to a special school for languages in 1993. He was obviously a good student - though he's not the only ambassador who is totally fluent in Hebrew. Others include Swedish Ambassador Robert Rydberg who makes speeches in Hebrew; El Salvador Ambassador Suzana Gun de Hasenson, who gives interviews in Hebrew; and Swiss Ambassador Francois Chappuis. Other foreign diplomats have varying degrees of fluency in Hebrew, and no doubt there are some whose standards equal those of Zhvania, Rydberg and Gun de Hasenson, but they'd rather not tell anyone. Certainly there are several of less than ambassadorial rank whose Hebrew is more than passable. HOLLYWOOD HAS its Walk of Fame, in which motion picture, television, radio, recording and theater stars are immortalized, and Jerusalem's King David Hotel, currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, also has a walk of fame in which royalty, world leaders, politicians, cultural figures, entertainment stars and sports champions are immortalized. The King David walk - a comparatively recent addition to the passageway between the lobby and the lounge - testifies to the hotel's prestige. Stretching the whole length of the passage is a long row of signature tiles of some of the hotel's famous guests, dating back to 1931, long before the hotel came into the possession of the Federmann family, who turned it into the flagship of the Dan chain. One of the guests in 1931 was Ethiopian Emperor Haile Salassie. Guests in 1934 included Herbert Samuel and Winston Churchill. Most of our prime ministers from David Ben-Gurion to Ehud Olmert also have enlarged facsimiles of their signatures, accompanied in much smaller letters by the name in print and the year in which they visited, though in some cases this is misleading because several of the guests were there many times. Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, signed his name in Hebrew, which may excuse the fact that in the English spelling at the bottom of the tile, there are errors in both his first and last names. Piano virtuoso Daniel Barenboim also signed in Hebrew. Some of the other great musicians featured include Arturo Toscanini, Pablo Casals, Leonard Bernstein, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin and Arthur Rubinstein. Royals include King Hussein of Jordan, Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, King Juan Carlos of Spain and King Mahendra of Nepal. Among the world leaders are Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schroeder, Angela Merkel, Bruno Kreisky, Francois Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, Nelson Mandela, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George Bush father and son, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Eduard Shevardnadze, Vaclav Havel, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair. Some hotel guests are completely oblivious of the establishment's walk of fame. Others step along the edge as they carefully read the names, and there are those who deliberately put a foot on each signature, as if to signify their own superiority. WORLD ACCLAIMED Jerusalem-based nuclear physicist Gerald Schroeder, a former professor of nuclear physics at MIT and a former member of the US Atomic Energy Commission, is used to getting letters from people who have become excited by his books - especially Genesis and the Big Bang. Schroeder, who in recent years has devoted himself to demonstrating the harmony between the Bible and science, has admirers and disciples in many parts of the world, but never imagined that he had one in the South Pole. His latest fan mail includes a letter from Chris Harkness, a 27-year-old ironworker who has been stationed in Antarctica for several months. Harkness, who was raised in a Christian home in which there were constant arguments about evolution, came across Genesis and the Big Bang in the local library and wrote Schoeder that "the book has officially blown my mind away." SOME PUBLIC speakers say most of what they want to say in their addresses, and supplement these remarks with brief answers to questions. Not so former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel, who after giving an in-depth assessment to the Foreign Press Association of peace prospects between Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians, provided a long, comprehensive and non-evasive answer to every question. All-in-all he spoke for an hour and 40 minutes, and could have gone on much longer, but there was a time limit for the meeting. However he aroused so much curiosity that after the meeting came to a close, journalists eager to hear more surrounded him - and he was quite happy to oblige.