MANY OF the people who attended the gala 30th anniversary celebrations of the newly renovated Beth Hatefutsoth - the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, gasped in delighted amazement at the magnificent transformation of the entrance lobby. (It was a shame, however, that the revamping did not include the main auditorium, which for some years now has proved too small for its purpose.) Emcee Michael Greenspan, broadcast journalist, film-maker and script writer, who in the 1980s was Israel and Middle East correspondent for CNN, said that when he came to Israel from his native Philadelphia, he thought he knew enough about the Jewish People, but his first visit to Beth Hatefutsoth really opened his eyes. Greenspan, who is usually heard in English, spoke in a mixed patter of Hebrew and English, but since he's been in Israel for more than 25 years, his fluency in Hebrew, albeit with a strong American accent, was no surprise. What was surprising was that philanthropist Leonid Nevzlin, who is chairman of the museum's International Board of Governors, delivered a speech in flawless Hebrew with correct intonation, even though he couldn't quite get rid of his Russian accent. Nevzlin said that it was extremely emotional for him to be able to make a presentation in Hebrew on "the ancient legacy of our people" for the first time. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Museum's Board of Directors, quipped that one can come from all over to Israel, but to be part of the museum one had to come from Russia. As it happens, his Russian accent is more pronounced than Nevzlin's, although he has been in Israel for much longer. Sharansky paid tribute to former prime minister Ariel Sharon for all that he had done to keep the museum afloat when it was in danger of closing down for lack of funds. He recalled that Sharon's courage and his ability to take on any challenge had been a source of inspiration to Soviet Jewry, enabling activists to stand up to the KGB. Sharansky related that when he and Yuli Edelstein had their first stint as government ministers, they were talking to each other in Russian and Sharon, who was also a minister, overheard them and warned them to be careful about what they were saying because he understood Russian. Sharansky praised Sharon's phenomenal memory and said he didn't need a reference book. "He had everything in his head - and he remembered it all." Although there were many issues on which he and Sharon disagreed, said Sharansky, he always respected Sharon for the emphasis he placed on Israel's relations with the Jewish diaspora. "He saw Israel as belonging to all Jews." When Sharansky was chairman of the ministerial forum for the diaspora, most of the members rarely showed up, but Sharon, before he was prime minister, came to every meeting. After he became prime minister he sent Sharansky to university campuses around the globe to talk to Jewish students. "Jewish identity was important to him and when he heard about the difficulties confronting Beth Hatefutsoth, he became a full partner in finding a solution." Sharansky and Nevzlin presented the former prime minister's son Gilad Sharon with a huge citation of appreciation to Ariel Sharon. For many in the audience who had worked with the former prime minister in one way or another, it was an extremely moving moment.
US AMBASSADOR James B. Cunningham and his wife Leslie hosted a concert at their residence in Herzliya Pituah in tribute to the Wall Street Journal's South Asia Bureau Chief American-Jewish journalist of Israeli descent Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered in Karachi, Pakistan in 2002. Cunningham noted that in addition to being a fine journalist, Daniel Pearl was also a musician and that there have been more than 2,000 worldwide concerts in his name that have helped to transform a tragedy into a bridge between peoples. "We hope it will lead us all to reflect upon the ideals upon which the concert is built," he told his guests, who included Pearl's aunt Hanna Ranen, Nobuko Takeuchi, the wife of the new Japanese ambassador and Edie Roodman, former director of the Jewish Federation of Oklahoma City, who was in Israel for the Lions of Judah and GA conventions. There was also a message from Pearl's parents Ruth and Judea Pearl, who live in Los Angeles and who established the Daniel Pearl Foundation to further the ideals which inspired his life and work.
Among the Foundation's activities are the Daniel Pearl Music Days. The 18-member Shani Girls Choir, founded and conducted by Pnina Inbar, is made up of girls aged 13-18 who attend the Jezreel Valley Center for the Arts. They include Christian and Muslim Arabs from villages in the Central Galilee as well as Jewish girls. Their repertoire includes classical and folk music as well as popular Hebrew and Arabic songs, their voices are angelic, and in the words of Ruth and Judea Pearl, "their combined voices resonate in sharp defiance of the forces of division and hostility that took Danny's life, and will reinforce our unshaken conviction that at the end of the day, humanity will triumph and harmony will prevail."
LITHUANIAN AMBASSADOR Asta Skaisgiryte Liauskiene was so proud that the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theater was opening the season at the Israel Opera in Tel Aviv with Salome, arguably the most appropriate production for this part of the world, that she invited many of her friends from the diplomatic community, as well as numerous Israelis of Lithuanian background and other Israelis with whom she has established close relations, to come to the opening night performance at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. Yitzhak Eldan, the Chief of Protocol at the Foreign Ministry, arrived an hour after landing in Israel from Panama, where he had been attending a diplomatic conference. Although he was exhausted, he knew how important the event was to the ambassador and did not want to disappoint her.
The Israel Opera's director-general Hanna Munitz and her Lithuanian counterpart Gintautus Kevisas traded compliments, though each said that the other was not the easiest person to work with. The ambassador, who was introducing people to each other, broke off to tell the members of the opera that they were "unbelievable." The Israel Opera will travel to Lithuania next June and will stage Rigoletto in Vilnius.
NOBEL PRIZE laureate and world acclaimed writer Elie Wiesel was in Israel during the GA, but he was not among the participants who gathered in Jerusalem. Instead he went north to be honored at the Yemin Orde Youth Village near Haifa for the dedication of a new center that was named for him and his wife Marion by donors Elisa and Jack Klein of San Francisco. The facility will be home to some 25 immigrant youngsters who have come to Israel after a variety of traumatic experiences and have nowhere else to go. Wiesel was approximately the same age as these youngsters when he was deported from Sighet (in what was then Transylvania and is now part of Romania) to Auschwitz, Buna, Buchenwald and Gleiwitz. After the war, he spent several years as a stateless person before being granted American citizenship.
For much of his life, Wiesel has concerned himself with Jews and other groups who have been persecuted and often killed because of their religion, race or national origin. He has been outspoken on the plight of Soviet Jewry and on Ethiopian Jewry and continues to defend Israel's interests. Looking around at the youngsters from different backgrounds, Wiesel commented: "Here we see the reflection of what is so deep in our tradition: to emphasize the humanity of the human being and to appeal to what is noble and pure in the other."
Marion Wiesel, a keen activist in advancing the integration of Ethiopian immigrants into mainstream Israeli society, said that when she thinks of Israel, "I think of the brainpower, military and culture, but when I think of Israel's heart, I think of Yemin Orde." Founded in 1953 in memory of Orde Wingate, the British officer who ardently supported the Zionist cause, Yemin Orde provides a home and educational opportunities for hundreds of at-risk immigrant youth who lack a stable environment.
Tamar Dadesheva, an 18-year old, who arrived at Yemin Orde after immigrating from Tblisi, Georgia, welcomed the chance to meet the Wiesels, describing it as "truly special to be able to say we've seen him in person and know he has this close association with this place we call home." Kidist Tkaltzadek, originally from Ethiopia, has more than met the Wiesels. She has a photograph of herself with Elie Wiesel as a lasting reminder of her contact with a great man.
PERHAPS IT was because he realized that his party in the Knesset was going along the same track as Power to the Senior Citizens did in Tel Aviv (fading from the largest faction with six seats on the previous City Council to not a single mandate in the elections earlier this month), Gil Party chairman Rafi Eitan took time out during the election campaign period to go watch a movie. It wasn't just any old movie, but a new documentary by Micha Shagrir, tentatively titled Phoenixes, which tells some of the success stories of Holocaust survivors and their contributions to Israel's development. The documentary premiered at Massuah, the Institute for Holocaust studies at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak, in the presence of Massuah's director-general Aya Ben-Naftali, Massuah chairman of the board Shraga Milstein and several Holocaust survivors who appear in the film. Among them are Israel Prize laureates, senior IDF officers and public figures, such as former Governor of the Bank of Israel Moshe Zanbar, Israel Prize laureates Professor Andre Haidu and Dan Reisinger, General (Res.) Yitzhak Arad, one of the founders of Yad Vashem, theater director David Bergman, sports expert Prof. Shaul Ladani, who as a child was liberated from Bergen Belsen and later became an Olympic athlete who competed in the ill-fated Munich Olympics in 1972, and physician Dr. Abie Turk. Although Milstein is active in the battle for Holocaust survivors to receive their entitlements, he is unhappy about the fact that the image of Holocaust survivors is that of people in need. While there are indeed survivors who fall into this category, he says, there are many who contributed to the creation and development of the state and what they have done should not be overlooked or forgotten.
ACCORDING TO Jewish tradition, no prophet is heard in his own city. Internationally renowned Polish-born architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the controversial Jewish Museum in Berlin and who is the son of Holocaust survivors, was among the finalists in the subsequent design competition for the Warsaw-based Museum of the History of Polish Jews, but lost out to the Finnish firm of Lahdelma & Mahlamaki - thus giving credence to the old adage. He has been commissioned for other prestige projects in Poland, but not for museums or anything else specifically Jewish such as the Danish Jewish Museum, the Jewish Museum of San Fransisco, the Jewish Veterans Memorial in Toronto or the Maurice Wohl Convention Center at Bar Ilan University, which all bear his imprint.
Now he has been commissioned to design another major Jewish building in Germany, this time in Munich, which is home to Germany's second largest Jewish community after Berlin. On Kristallnacht, Libeskind announced that he would create a new structure for the Beth Shalom Congregation in Munich. The announcement was made to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the original synagogue's destruction on the Night of Shattered Glass. The site for the new building has not yet been determined, but there is talk of putting it up on the site of Munich's first synagogue, which was built in 1850. Libeskind is due to unveil the plans some time within the next six months and construction is expected to take several years.
Libeskind might not be who he is today had his parents not come to Israel in the 1950s. At that time Libeskind was a promising musician who won a scholarship to study in the US. After a while, he decided that music was not his forte and switched to architecture.
AT A meeting with the Foreign Press Association this week, Minister for Internal Affairs Meir Sheetrit reiterated several times that the peace process has stopped and that there are no negotiations. Finally, one journalist decided that perhaps the minister should be updated and told him that while he was meeting with FPA in one part of Jerusalem's King David Hotel, Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators were meeting in another.
IT MUST have been somewhat embarrassing for Ben-Gurion University to open last Friday's Yediot Aharonot and read about the alleged improprieties of Beit Lessin Theater Director Tzipi Pines, who is scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate from BGU on December 3 in recognition of her significant contribution to Israeli Theater and her promotion of culture in the south of the country. Others to be conferred with honorary doctorates are eminent Holocaust historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, retired Supreme Court Justice and current President of the Israeli Press Council Dalia Dorner, who headed the recent State Commission of Inquiry into Government treatment of Holocaust survivors; world acclaimed neurobiologist Prof. Michal Schwartz of the Weizmann Institute, who has made remarkable breakthroughs in researching Central Nervous System Regeneration; and World Jewish Congress President and philanthropist Ronald Lauder, who inter alia is a former United States ambassador to Austria who has held several senior positions in the American government and business world, as well as leadership roles in Jewish communal life. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation was extraordinarily influential in bringing highly assimilated Jews in Eastern and Central Europe back into the fold. Many such Jews, after discovering their heritage in study programs sponsored by the Lauder Foundation, subsequently chose to live in Israel. Lauder is a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and President of the Jewish National Fund, in which capacity he has been enormously dedicated to making the Negev green. He is a member of the International Society for Yad Vashem and the International Board of Governors of the Tel Aviv Museum. As Chairman of the Jewish Heritage Program of the World Monuments Fund, he is involved in restoration of landmark synagogues around the globe. At the awards ceremony, former Beersheba Mayor Yaakov Terner, who was defeated in the recent municipal elections by his own protege Rubik Danilovitz, will receive the Ben-Gurion Negev Prize.
WHEN HE'S not anchoring a late night news broadcast or presenting Globus, a weekly intellectual program that deals with thought-provoking subjects, Israel Television broadcaster and newsman David Witztum is often engaged in music. A string musician with an impressive classical repertoire, Witztum is frequently called upon to emcee chamber music events. His most recent Globus program was devoted to composer Giacomo Puccini, who was born 150 years ago. Round-figure anniversaries of famous people tend to excite anyone with a healthy respect for history, and certainly Witztum, who is occasionally ribbed by his colleagues for his penchant for subjects related to music, has a strong regard for history per se and for the history of music and musicians in particular. He was a month early in paying tribute to Puccini, who was born on December 22, 1858 - but he had a good excuse: the state visit to Israel this week by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, whose presence here has inspired a number of cultural and business events. And there was another excuse: Puccini died November 29, 1924, which, though it wasn't a round figure year, was a good enough reason to honor the memory of the composer of some of the world's most popular operas.
IN A private tete-a-tete with Napolitano soon after his arrival at Beit Hanassi, President Shimon Peres alluded to the fact that his guest had switched from one party to another, but had never forsaken his principles. "Parties change; principles remain," said Peres. He might just as easily have been talking about himself.
THE HEBREW advertisement for the International Conference on Contemporary Issues and Halacha, which opens at Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem on November 30, and which is being held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of Israel's first chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, carries the catchline: "They'll be there, will you?" "They" are 50 well-known personalities, including Chief Rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, along with their immediate predecessors Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi Doron, IDF Chief Rabbi Avraham Ronski, Yitzhak Peretz, Chief Rabbi of Raanana, lawyers Dr. Yaacov Weinroth and Prof. Yaakov Neeman, MKs Rabbi Michael Melchior, Rabbi Moshe Gafni and Zevulun Orlev, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein and retired Judge Zvi Tal. Conspicuous by their absence are the Herzog grandsons, whose photographs do not appear in the advertisement and whose names are not listed among the lecturers whose discussions will focus on rabbinic leadership, halachic legislation, medicine and halacha, technology and halacha, economy and halacha, agriculture and halacha, the military and halacha, the rabbinical courts, kashrut and ecology. However, the family honor will be saved on the opening night by Minister Isaac Herzog, who is scheduled to give a brief greeting in his capacity as Minister for Social Welfare. There is no mention of the fact that he is a Herzog grandson or that he also holds the portfolio for Diaspora Affairs and Fighting Anti-Semitism. His cousin of the same name, who has both Yeshiva qualifications and impressive law degrees, is also not listed.
THE CONFERENCE comes on the heels of the Orthodox Union's National Conference that opens today, Wednesday, at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem and concludes on November 30, with many of the same people participating - among them Rabbi Metzger, Rabbi Lau, Rabbi Menachem Genack and Rabbi Herschel Schachter, with the essential difference that the OU recognizes that women speakers also have important contributions to make. The Keynote address will be given by British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Another highlight for many of the participants will be a visit to the proposed site of the US Embassy, if and when it finally moves to Jerusalem. Which raises the questions: Will George W. Bush sign the move on his last day in office or, alternately, will Barack Obama implement the change to which his immediate predecessors paid lip service?
NOVEMBER 29 is a very important date in the history of modern Israel, and particularly for former government minister and civil rights activist Shulamit Aloni, who will celebrate her 80th birthday.