Grapevine: A passage from India

This week's social news.

Vinod and Reena Pashkarna with Indian entertainers (photo credit: Courtesy)
Vinod and Reena Pashkarna with Indian entertainers
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Indian Ambassador Kavan Kapoor is his country’s eighth ambassador to Israel since full diplomatic relations were established in 1992. But long before there was an official Indian ambassador to Israel, there was an unofficial ambassador in the person of restaurateur Reena Pushkarna, who arrived in Israel with her husband, Vinod, a former ship’s captain, in 1983.
The Pushkarnas introduced Indian food to Israel through a series of restaurants that they owned, and were quickly befriended by the political, business and social who’s who. In the process, they became celebrities themselves, but never lost their grace and charm, or their Indian identities.
Reena Pushkarna has cooked for presidents and prime ministers, as well as for every Indian ambassador to Israel, and it was only natural that when Air India’s maiden flight from Delhi to Tel Aviv via Saudi Arabian airspace landed at Ben-Gurion Airport last week, Ephraim Fortis, the owner of Open Sky, which represents Air India in Israel, should choose the Pushkarnas’ famed Tandoori Restaurant in Herzliya to celebrate the occasion. Several members of Air India’s top management had been on the flight, and those who had not been to Israel before had a taste of home away from home.
Guests among the 150 invitees of course included Ambassador Kapoor and his wife, Aradhana.
Among the Air India representatives were Air India chairman and managing director Pradeep Singh Kharola, Michael Nobert and Anant Nener. Israel’s Foreign, Transportation and Tourism ministries were also well represented.
Reena Pushkarna clad as always in traditional Indian garb, happily welcomed the guests and proudly displayed the buffet in which all the offerings, including the desserts, were in the colors of the Indian flag. She also provided Indian entertainment.
In the speeches, credit was given to the Indian and Israeli governments for the new, historic flight route which reduces travel time by more than two hours, but there was consensus that it would not have happened without the input of prime ministers Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Air India people presented their company symbol – a maharaja – to Pushkarna, who now has an additional emblem of India in the decor of the restaurant. Based on business cards, there was also a raffle during the meal in which the winner received two tickets to India – flying Air India, of course.
For a couple of years the Pushkarnas, in addition to their restaurants, operated a food processing plant and supplied Indian meals to El Al, Air India and Air Korea.
■ PRIOR TO entering politics, National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz was a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Haifa. Thus, it was natural for him to be interested in Greece, the cradle of philosophy and democracy. When he was about to get married and his future bride asked where they were going for their honeymoon, his answer was “Greece of course – the home of Socrates and Plato.” They spent a little over two weeks there, and nine months later their first son was born. Naturally, he too studied philosophy and economics, Steinitz last week told the renewed Israel- Greece Chamber of Commerce and Industry at a gala reception at the Tel Aviv Hilton, attended by Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (who arrived after Steinitz left); Greek dignitaries Nikos Pappas, minister of digital policy, telecommunications and media; Alexis Haritsis, alternate minister of economy and development; and George Tsipras, head of the Economic Office of the Greek Prime Minister; several Greek businessmen and journalists, and Greek Ambassador Konstantinos Bikas.
Also present was Anne-Laure Kiechel, a partner of the Rothschild Bank and head of Sovereign Advisory to Greece, whose decidedly French accent indicated that she was neither Greek nor Israeli.
The Israeli hosts of the event, seeking to please their Greek guests, ordered a sumptuous Mediterranean buffet with numerous fish dishes, plus a variety of salads and cooked vegetables – all of which are part of Greek culinary tradition.
Master of ceremonies for the evening was Cobi Bitton, who is the CEO of the renewed chamber, and the opening speaker was chamber chairman Sabby Mionis, who was born and raised in Athens and is well known in both Israel and Greece for his many and varied accomplishments and his philanthropy.
Both Mionis and Bitton were gratified by the huge turnout of representatives of Israel’s business community.
Mionis emphasized that Greece and Israel share much more than the waters of the Mediterranean, but have a long historic past in the region, and that the cultures of their two peoples have contributed more than any other in the shaping of Western civilization and the values of freedom and democracy.
All the speakers – both Greek and Israeli – concurred that Greece is well on the way to recovering from its economic crisis, and that in view of this, the revitalizing of the chamber of commerce was a timely decision.
It was also emphasized that commonalities between Greece and Israel exist not only in an ancient past and an exciting present – via, among other things, the natural gas pipeline, which will be one of the largest in the world – but also a promising future on many levels.
■ WHEN HE was in Israel last week, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev made quite an impression with his sincerity, eloquence and pride in that Bulgaria had refused to surrender her Jewish citizens to the Nazis, and his regret that it had not been able to rescue Macedonian Jews. Israelis of Macedonian background were not quite ready to accept the apology, saying that Bulgarian and Macedonian Jews were related to each other by blood and not just geography. But Bulgarians in Israel were very proud of him, and he of them.
Speaking at a breakfast meeting at the King David Hotel hosted by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, Radev said that his itinerary during his two-day visited had been so packed with variety that he felt as though he had been in Israel for two months.
A major-general in the reserves of the Bulgarian Air Force and its former commander in chief, Radev, who trained in the United States, flew F-16s and holds a doctorate in military sciences, praised the Israel Air Force as “one of the best in the world.” The first foreign leader to have visited Israel’s Cyber City, he was excited by what he saw, and said that Bulgaria wants to adopt the Israeli model in this and other respects.
Bulgaria currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union and, generally speaking, follows EU policy – but it seems that not on everything. Asked about special labeling of goods from the West Bank, Radev said that this was not a problem in Bulgaria.
When asked whether he could use his influence in countries such as Poland, where Jewish religious rites such as circumcision and kosher slaughter were being curtailed, he said that Jews had full rights to practice their religion in Bulgaria, but added that he would speak to both the president and prime minister of Poland on the issue of its legislation on criminalizing anyone who referred to Polish involvement in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
As for following the American example and moving the Bulgarian Embassy to Jerusalem, Radev said that Bulgaria’s position is to facilitate the diplomatic process in order to bring about peace. Moving the embassy is only one part of peace, he said, and in this respect Bulgaria follows EU policy. “We insist on open dialogue and negotiations, but Bulgaria will be the first to support the positive results of negotiations.”
■ THE EVENT at the President’s Residence on Sunday evening was ostensibly a tri-generation pre-Passover affair, which included the launch of the Mishael Cheshin Bible, named for the late Supreme Court justice, who died in September 2015. But it was more than that.
It was very much a Jerusalem get-together because so many of those present either were born in Jerusalem, live in Jerusalem, work in Jerusalem or a combination of all three.
Ruth Cheshin, who for 40 years headed the Jerusalem Foundation, is, like President Reuven Rivlin, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite.
Dan Meridor, who was there in his capacity as a former chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation, was also a chairman of the board of the Israel Museum, which is the jewel in Jerusalem’s crown. Meridor grew up in the Rehavia neighborhood in which Rivlin also grew up, and both attended Gymnasia Rehavia, albeit not at the same time, given the eight-year age difference. Both later studied law at the Hebrew University, and both were members of the same political party.
A little trivia about Meridor, who has held important ministerial positions in addition to senior executive positions in a number of organizations and institutions: Unlike several other ministers who trade on their military backgrounds, Meridor, who left the IDF with the rank of captain, seldom if ever refers to his own army service. He fought as a tank commander in the Six Day War and in the Yom Kippur War, but that barely makes a ripple in his CV. He has a long list of other accomplishments.
Rabbi Benny Lau, who heads the 929 Bible study movement, was present because the launch of the Cheshin Bible was within the framework of 929. He lives and works in Jerusalem. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut works in Jerusalem. Former Supreme Court president Miriam Naor lives in Jerusalem, and another former Supreme Court president, Dorit Beinisch, used to live and work in Jerusalem. Retired Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein lives in Jerusalem.
Until his twilight years, Mishael Cheshin, a second-generation Supreme Court justice, also lived in Jerusalem and, after graduating from the Hebrew University, returned there to teach for close to 40 years. Shortly before his death, he urged all his colleagues on the bench to fight corruption with all their might.
Curiously, at the Yediot Aharonot conference earlier in the day on Sunday, Rivlin refused – regardless of all the scandals involving public officials – to accept the notion that Israel is a corrupt country. “The State of Israel isn’t corrupt,” he declared. “It is one of the only states in the world that knows how to deal with corruption.” Alluding to some of the senior figures who have served jail time, Rivlin said that in Israel everyone is equal under the law.
■ THE ANNOUNCEMENT by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat that he would not stand for a third term did not exactly come as a surprise.
Local Jerusalem papers had already published his decision last Friday.
Barkat leaves his post in the midst of construction chaos, presenting his successor with the challenge of sorting out the mess. There are other problems involved. Barkat set a precedent of being a shekel-a-year mayor. Mayors in other parts of the country earn as much as a Knesset member or a minister. Will his successor be prepared to work for a shekel a year? Then there’s also the possibility that Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin may want to be mayor.
But even though he’s reportedly weighing the possibility, Elkin doesn’t live in Jerusalem. Would he follow Moshe Lion’s example and move? When Lion ran against Barkat in the last election, many Jerusalemites thought that his taking up residence in the capital was a publicity stunt and a strategy to ensure his eligibility to run in the mayoral race. When he lost, the general expectation was that he would return to the Coastal Plain. But he surprised everyone and stayed in Jerusalem, initially as an opposition member on the city council and subsequently as a member of Barkat’s coalition. Moreover, he has gone to almost everything to which he’s been invited, so he’s become a recognizable figure in the streets of Jerusalem. He’s also known in synagogues, where he does a very fine reading of the Torah.
Since Barkat’s announcement, new names have been added to the list of potential contestants. Meir Turgeman, who like Lion was considered to be a front-runner, is out due to his legal problems. But the names of Pepe Alalu, Dudu Amsalem and Eli Yishai have been bandied about. Yet, in the final analysis, it all depends on voter turnout, and which sector of the population will be most represented at the polling booth.
Barkat actually had the best deal, because he was mayor during the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, and he will still be mayor during the 70th anniversary of the state. Even though a lot of the things that he did were not popular, the greatest changes taking place in Jerusalem in half a century were on his watch. Though Teddy Kollek was considered to be the greatest builder of Jerusalem since Herod, under Barkat the whole image of the city has changed. Just the bureaucracy has remained the same.
■ FEW THINGS cause more audience excitement in a movie theater than when the star of the show, or the author of the book on which the movie is based, shows up in the cinema. Though seasoned world travelers and well acquainted with the rich and the famous, close to 300 leading business contacts of the Tel Aviv Hilton, who last Sunday evening came to the hotel’s annual pre-Passover reception in the Glilot movie hall, were thrilled by the presence of Yossi Ghinsberg, author of Back from Tuichi, the true story of his terrifying ordeal when he got lost in the Amazon jungle. The movie that they saw before the reception was Jungle, which is based on the book and stars Daniel Radcliffe as Ghinsberg.
“Life is the adventure itself, and we are just writing the story,” Ghinsberg said. “I didn’t believe that an international motion picture with the Harry Potter actor [Radcliffe] as myself, using such an Israeli name like Yossi, would ever materialize, but it did,” he declared, grinning broadly.
■ IN THE international Modern Orthodox community, one of the most prestigious events of the year is the annual Guardian of Zion Award conferred by Bar-Ilan University’s Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies. This year’s honoree is former chief rabbi of Israel and recently retired chief rabbi of Tel Aviv Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who will deliver the Distinguished Rennert Lecture. Lau, who is arguably Israel’s best-known Holocaust survivor and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, has titled his lecture “From Shoah to Revival: Reflections and Conclusions Regarding Dramatic and Historic Events.”
Lau was a child Holocaust survivor who, as a newly liberated prisoner in Buchenwald, described himself as “a pair of living eyes looking out among the dead.” He was an eight-year-old who said of himself that he could neither cry nor laugh. He and his older brother, Naphtali (the father of Rabbi Benny Lau), were the sole survivors of their immediate family. At one stage, Naphtali carried the very young Yisrael on his back in a potato sack. They came to pre-state Israel, where they were educated, and Yisrael carried on the multigenerational family tradition of becoming a rabbi, a visionary who brought and brings the message of Torah and the love of Torah to Jews the world over, says Rennert Center director Prof. Joshua Schwartz .
Lau was born in 1937 in Piotrków, Poland, where his father, Rabbi Moshe Lau, was chief rabbi. During the Second World War, the family was torn apart by the Nazis. Yisrael, or “Lolek” as he was known then, was eventually deported to Buchenwald, from where he was liberated by the Allies in 1945, having been saved time and again by Naphtali, who died in December 2014. Their father, who was the last chief rabbi of Piotrków, was murdered in Treblinka, and their mother in Ravensbrück.
Yisrael Meir Lau studied at Kol Torah in Jerusalem, Knesset Hizkiya in Zichron Ya’acov and Ponovitz in Bnei Brak. He was ordained in 1960 and had a long and prestigious career in the rabbinate. He was congregational rabbi at Or Torah and at Tiferet Zvi in north Tel Aviv. Later, he was the regional rabbi of north Tel Aviv, chief rabbi of Netanya (1979), a member of the Chief Rabbinical Council (1983), chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa (1988) and chief rabbi of the State of Israel (1993- 2003). In 2005 he was reappointed chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and he retired from this position in 2017.
He has published numerous articles and books, such as Practical Judaism; three volumes of responsa; Rav Lau on Pirkei Avos; The Festival of the Giving of the Torah: Explanations, Halachic Insights, Customs of the Festival; and The Passover Haggadah: Around the Seder Table. In 2005, on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald, he published Do Not Raise Your Hand Against the Boy (Hebrew, translated as Out of the Depths), on his Holocaust experiences, on growing up in Israel, and on the influence of his childhood experiences on his way of life as leader and rabbi.
Lau has received numerous prizes, including the prestigious Israel Prize for lifetime achievement (2005), the French Legion of Honor (2011) and the Israel Presidential Commendation (2014). All his sons are rabbis, and one of them, Rabbi David Lau, is currently chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, carrying on the family tradition.
The Ingeborg Rennert Center was established in 1995 by US Jewish community leaders Ingeborg Hanna and Ira Leon Rennert as an expression of their heartfelt commitment to the preservation and advancement of Jerusalem’s unique heritage. Integrating studies on the history, archeology, geography, demography, economy and sociology of Jerusalem, the center has become the foremost academic center in the international academic community studying aspects of Jerusalem’s past and present.
Since its inception, Yisrael Meir Lau’s has been the most familiar face at the annual March of the Living.
The Holocaust has been a constant shadow in his life and is frequently referenced in his oratory.
Lau is a compelling speaker and a wonderful storyteller, even when he speaks of painful incidents. The award will be presented to him at the Guardian of Zion dinner at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Tuesday, May 22.
This is the 22nd year in which the Rennert Center is conferring the Guardian of Zion Award, honoring people who are dedicated to the perpetuation and strengthening of Jerusalem.
Last year’s awardee was newly appointed US National Security Adviser John Bolton. Other previous recipients have included World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder; former US senator Joe Lieberman; Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; Israel Museum director James S. Snyder; the Antiquities Authority and its late director, Shuka Dorfman; Dore Gold; Malcolm Hoenlein; Caroline Glick; Norman Podhoretz; Dr. Daniel Pipes; the late William Safire; Arthur Cohn; Dr. Charles Krauthammer; Cynthia Ozick; the late A.M. Rosenthal; Herman Wouk; and the late Prof. Elie Wiesel.
■ IT’S INTERESTING that Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who heads the Tzohar organization which works hard to make traditional Judaism more palatable to secular Jews, should choose of all things to publicly state that cloned meat is not subject to the same rules that apply to regular meat, and can even be consumed with dairy products.
Making such a statement so close to Passover gives a whole new meaning to the question “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Instead of the traditional answer, what future generations of Jewish youngsters may hear is “Tonight we eat pork.”
When schoolchildren are taught the Ethics of the Fathers, there is a verse that advises the scholar to build a fence around the Torah.
This is not a literal fence. It’s a strategy of strictures to ensure that people do not become too casual in their observance of Jewish law. For instance, how long will it take before people substitute genuine pork for cloned pork? We’ve been living with kosher “bacon” and kosher “shrimp” for years, and when someone for a brief period introduced kosher “cheeseburgers” to Jerusalem, haredim were lined up on Jaffa Road for more than two blocks – and this was not a protest demonstration.
During Passover, for some years now, we have been able to eat what looks like bread rolls. People buy them because they can’t live for a whole week without bread.
The whole concept of Passover is that everything should be different from what it is throughout the year.
That includes food. Women used to pride themselves on the marvelous Passover sponge cakes they made with 12 eggs and potato flour instead of regular flour. Some eateries have tried making Passover pizza, but it doesn’t really work, because the base is soggy matza that’s been smoothed on a pizza tray, decorated with cheese, olives and ketchup, and stuck in the oven until the cheese melts and the soggy matza dries out.
In suggesting that Jews clone food products resembling meat of animals forbidden to Jews, Cherlow has opened a can of worms.