Grapevine: A Torah in the wilderness

Grapevine A Torah in th

Succot reminds us of the period the Children of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness, making it an appropriate festival for the dedication of a Torah scroll. Many Jewish communities in Israel and abroad choose to dedicate Torah scrolls on Succot, but few such ceremonies could be as meaningful as that which took place in the nucleus of the Bnei Netzarim community in Halutza in the most far-flung corner of the Negev, where at night the nearby lights of Gaza and of Egypt are like fireflies in the darkness of the desert. Bnei Netzarim is made up of families who were "disengaged" from their homes in Netzarim four years ago, and who, with the help of World Mizrachi, are rebuilding their lives literally from scratch. When they decided to settle in Halutza, they came to an area devoid of infrastructure. Today, infrastructure is more or less in place, though the 11 families that have so far taken up residence rely on a generator for electricity. Except for the hothouses; the very basic homes standing in a line alongside each other; the small, temporary synagogue, and the much larger work-in-progress synagogue, which looks impressive despite all the scaffolding around it, all that the eye can see on all sides for kilometer after kilometer is desert sand. But the primitive conditions have not deterred those engaged in the Netzarim renewal project, nor did it deter the hundreds of visitors who came from all over the country, including the northern border areas, to participate in the dedication ceremony. The joy of the occasion was stamped on the faces of the scores of children who scampered around in the sand as well as on those of elderly people who came in wheelchairs or with canes, crutches and walkers, just to experience the exhilaration of a new beginning. To those who are nostalgic for Israel's pioneering spirit, Halutza is definitely the place for inspiration - a place so isolated and undeveloped that it is made for dreams that will undoubtedly come true, just as they came true in Gush Katif , until four years ago, when they were overtaken by a nightmare. The Torah scroll was dedicated in the name of Kurt Rothschild, chairman of the board and copresident of Mercaz Olami-World Mizrachi, who, despite his advanced age, has been a tireless supporter of the Halutza project, coming from Canada to the Negev several times a year to check on its progress. As the boys and men danced around the bridal canopy under which the Torah was carried, they were led towards the new synagogue under construction by a station wagon with a trailer in which there sat a keyboard player belting out appropriate tunes on a Yamaha, while he and others sang off-key through a hand-held microphone. After the ceremony, what caught the eye of many of the merry-makers was the children's circular swing-set installed near the houses. It had been salvaged from Netzarim during the evacuation, and brought to Halutza as a talisman for the future, because children are the future, and like the Torah, a sign of continuity. There are already considerably more children than adults at Halutza. THERE'S AN age gap of just under a century between Prof. Benzion Netanyahu and his great-grandson, Shmuel Roth, who was inducted into the faith last Thursday. The senior Netanyahu, who will celebrate his 100th birthday in March was the sandak at the circumcision ceremony. Shmuel is the first-born son of Noa and Daniel Roth. The baby's mother is the daughter of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and former Environment Ministry director-general Dr. Miki Haran, the first of his three wives. His current wife, Sara Netanyahu, was present along with their two sons Yair and Avner. Yair Netanyahu, who is doing his compulsory army service, was given a few hours' leave to attend the ceremony and arrived in uniform. There will be another major celebration in the Netanyahu family next week, when the prime minister, who was born on October 21, 1949, celebrates his 60th birthday. Next Tuesday night, on the eve of his birthday, Netanyahu will be among the speakers at the opening gala of the second annual President's Conference "Facing Tomorrow," where presumably mention will be made of this milestone, and he will be congratulated by numerous dignitaries from around the world. THE NUMBER of glitterati who will grace the Facing Tomorrow conference will be somewhat reduced compared to last year, with fewer figures whose names have been indelibly inscribed in the history of the 20th and 21st centuries. What will be interesting aside from the anticipated topics about Jewish leadership, the global economic crisis, aliya, environmental issues, and so on, will be a series of one-on-one interviews with Israel's master interviewer, radio and television personality Dan Shilon who will be interviewing President Shimon Peres; Guma Aguiar (Israel), vice chairman and CEO, Leor Energy and chairman of the Lillian Jean Kaplan Foundation; Cecilia Attias (France), president and founder, Cecilia Attias Foundation for Women and a former advisor in France's ministries of Interior, State, Economy, Finance and Industry; Andre Azoulay (Morocco) counsellor to King Mohammed VI of Morocco; Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (India), a spiritual leader and founder of the international Art of Living Foundation, which is committed to values of peace, tolerance and human rights; and Jimmy Wales (US), the founder of Wikipedia, which is arguably the world's most utilized source of reference. ANOTHER conference event that promises to be of great interest is a dialogue between two internationally renowned award winning architects: Frank Gehry of the US, whose five-decade career has produced public and private buildings including the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and Israel's own native son Moshe Safdie, who is both an architect and urban planner, and whose building designs include the National Gallery of Canada, the new Central Museum of Yad Vashem and the United States Institute of Peace, which is currently under construction. Both men have also been involved in controversial projects, which hopefully they or the moderator will mention in the course of the dialogue. AMONG THE dignitaries who have indicated they would attend the opening gala of the President's Conference is former British prime minister, current Quartet envoy and controversial front-runner to be the first permanent president of the European Union Tony Blair. Meanwhile, his sister-in-law, Lauren Booth, and her eight-year old daughter Alexandra, have joined cyclists from around the world who are this week participating in the 4th International Peace Cycle to Jerusalem. The biking event, which began in Amman, will take riders through Palestinian villages and refugee camps, where they will stay with Palestinian families, and learn first-hand of the difficulties they experience under the existing political circumstances. The cyclists are also raising funds to establish a mobile eye clinic in the territories. MISSING FROM among the many diplomats who will attend the gala opening of the President's Conference will be Polish Ambassador Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, who will be hosting a cocktail reception at her residence in Kfar Shmaryahu for Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. IT'S ALSO proven to be a time for family reunions. Last week several hundred members of the Chelouche family came to the Eretz Israel Museum to celebrate the fact that their ancestor Aron Chelouche was one of the founding fathers of Tel Aviv. In April there was a smaller family reunion, when some 150 members of the Chelouche family got together with representatives of 65 other veteran Tel Aviv families to reenact the lottery drawing that had taken place a hundred years earlier on the sand dunes of what was to become Tel Aviv. The larger gathering last week at the museum saw an exhibition of Chelouche family photos and learned about family accomplishments, were introduced to the family Web site and saw the screening of a family film prepared by some of the Chelouche clan in honor of Tel Aviv's centenary. This week, the Rivlins, who first came to the Holy Land 200 years ago, are getting together in Jerusalem at the Cinematheque and Binyanei Ha'uma with a program similar to that which had brought so many Chelouche relatives together. The Rivlins have been running a daily radio campaign for several weeks to attract those relatives who may have been overlooked on the invitation list. Of course, one doesn't have to be called Rivlin to be a Rivlin. Aside from obvious people such as Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, organizer of international conferences Gideon Rivlin and comedian Sefi Rivlin, personalities as diverse as actress and talk show hostess Rivka Michaeli and Deputy Education Minister Rabbi Meir Porush are also members of the family. n BEING AN ambassador means having to a learn about all the various subjects that are part and parcel of bilateral relationships. Even so, Larisa Miculet, the ambassador of Moldova, readily admits that she didn't know too much about soccer prior to last Saturday's match between the national teams of Israel and Moldova. So though it was known in advance that Moldova had no chance of winning, it was important for Miculet to learn the rules of the game and the names of the players, and of course, to show up at the match with her entire staff, so that there would be some Moldovans on hand to cheer for the team. Miculet had hoped that Moldova-born Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is a sports fan, would attend, but perhaps he did not want to be put in the position of having to take sides between the two countries - or perhaps he was busy getting ready to once again go abroad. Miculet had also invited ambassadors and staff from other embassies, understanding in advance that they would have to be neutral. It is uncertain which team was favored by those former Moldovans now resident in Israel who attended the match. The game, whose spectators included Romanian Ambassador Edward Iosiper and Oybek Ishanov the ambassador of Uzbekistan as well as several Israeli dignitaries, was unspectacular, with Israel scoring a 3-1 victory. From Miculet's point of view, it wasn't the result that counted. It was the fact that the game exemplified yet another bond of friendship between the two countries. n THE PRIMARY reason that US President Barack Obama was selected to receive this year's Nobel Peace Prize was because he gave new hope to the world. That's something that he has in common with Israel Prize laureate Prof. Reuven Feuerstein, who on Thursday will receive an honorary doctorate from Romania's Babes-Bolyao Cluj-Napoca University, one of Romania's most important institutions of higher learning, with a 55,000-strong student population. The ceremony will take place at Bar-Ilan University, where Feuerstein is a professor of educational psychology and chairman of the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential. Over the years, the Romanian-born Feuerstein, who developed the theory of structural cognitive modifiability, which leads to clearer thinking and improves the ability to absorb knowledge, gave hope to innumerable children who had been diagnosed with low learning capacity. That hope was based on proof that given the right educational framework, change can take place, and hopelessness can be replaced by hope. Feuerstein's methods are used in many parts of the world and have enabled children to discover hidden potential and to become productive adults who contribute to society. Thirteen professors from leading universities in Europe have come to Israel to honor Feuerstein at the conferment ceremony, which is under the patronage of Romanian Ambassador Edward Iosiper. FAMILIAR FACES are fast disappearing from the diplomatic scene. Nigerian Ambassador Dada Olisa and his wife Janet who are hosting a farewell party Thursday to say good-bye to their many friends in Israel, are part of a chain of departures in recent weeks. Czech Ambassador Michael Zantovsky, who took his leave at a farewell party on September 29, was already ensconced in his new post as ambassador to the United Kingdom on October 5 - no time was wasted there. Like many people born in communist Europe, Zantovsky, 60, who is a member of the tribe, and who made the effort to learn Hebrew during his six-year stint in Israel, has had a checkered career. He studied psychology at the Charles University in Prague and at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, graduating summa cum laude in 1973. While working as a research fellow at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague, he published papers in the fields of nonverbal behavior and theory of motivation. From 1980, he worked as a freelance translator and author, and translated more than 50 works of contemporary English and American fiction, poetry, drama, and non-fiction, into Czech, including works by Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer and Tom Stoppard. He also published a book on the life and films of Woody Allen and was a contributor to the samizdat (dissident) press. Then in 1988, he became the Prague correspondent for Reuters, and a year later was a founding member of the Czech chapter of P.E.N., the international organization of writers and translators that had been banned in Czechoslovakia during the communist era. In the same year, he was a founding member of the Civic Forum, an umbrella organization that coordinated the overthrow of the communist regime. In January 1990, he became the press secretary and spokesman for president Vaclav Havel, and was also the political director of the president's office. In July 1992, he was appointed the Czech ambassador to the United States. His diplomatic career was temporarily put on hold in November 1996, when he was elected to the Senate of the Parliament of the Czech Republic from a Prague district. In 1996, and again in 1998 and 2000, he was elected the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security; and in 1997 and in 2001 he was elected president of the Civic Democratic Alliance, a political party. Zantovsky completed his term in the Senate in 2002 and returned to the Foreign Service. As a writer, teacher and translator he continued to pursue his interests in foreign policy and political theory. His more recent translations include works by Henry Kissinger, Joshua Muravchik and Czech-born Madeleine Albright, who is a close friend. In 2003, he co-founded the new Prague-based think-tank, the Program of Atlantic Security Studies (PASS) and served as its first executive director. He has taught American studies at Charles University in Prague and Euro-American relations at the Prague branch of the New York University. He took up his post in Israel in 2003, and in July of this year was notified of his appointment to the UK. But he has made so many friendships and important professional contacts in Israel, that it is doubtful that Israel has heard the last of him. Presumably he will renew acquaintance with Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the Court of Saint James, whom he met quite frequently when Prosor was director-general of the Foreign Ministry before taking up his current position in November 2007 SDEROT HAS produced a relatively high number of singers, musicians and song writers. Now it's going into drama, based on real-life experiences. Tonight, October 14, is the date set for the premiere of Children of Kassem Avenue a dramatization of the rocket experiences of Sderot high school girls who have undergone a year's drama therapy and counseling in the Sderot Media Center's Community Treatment Theater. The curtain will go up at 7 p.m. at the Sderot Youth Center, 4 Chaim Bar-Lev Street. "We took our personal experiences of everyday life in Sderot and incorporated them into the play," said SMC Theater Project director Livnat Shlesinger, whose childhood friend, Ella Abuksis, was killed by a Kassem rocket four years ago. "This project has instilled a sense of confidence in these Sderot actresses and has given them new tools to deal with the stress and pressure of living in a rocket zone." SMC initiated the drama therapy programs in December, with the participation of 40 girls from two different high schools in Sderot. ONE OF the more controversial spokespeople for the Jews of Hebron, Noam Arnon, whose book Hebron 4000 years and 40: The Story of the City of the Patriarchs was published last year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the renewed Jewish community of Hebron, will on November 21 receive the Lion of Zion Award - the Moskowitz Prize for Zionism - at the Hebron Fund annual dinner in New York. His book, originally published in Hebrew, is now available in English. ALTHOUGH SHE is the last surviving granddaughter of famed Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, Bel Kaufman, a writer in her own right, who authored the best-selling book Up the Down Staircase, does not speak Yiddish. Nevertheless, is honorary chairman of the Yiddish studies faculty at Columbia University. Born in Berlin, and raised in the Ukraine up till age 12, when she came to New York where she continues to reside, Kaufman, 98, is flawlessly fluent in Russian, a factor that helps her to appreciate some Yiddish books such as those on Yiddish idioms and proverbs compiled by the Hebrew University's Dr. Yosef Guri. After completing his last two books, replete with Russian and English translations, he sent them to Kaufman, who sent back a note to say how much she enjoys them, and how "enlightened and amused" she was to read the Russian and English translations. Even though some of the sayings were familiar to her, "I am still reading them and chuckling," she wrote.