Grapevine December 3, 2021: The Lithuanian legacy

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 JUDAICA COLLECTOR Zeev Zelig (L), Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel Lina Antanavičienė (C), and Schatz House manager Jimmy Lewensohn light the Hanukkah candles on Monday night. (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
JUDAICA COLLECTOR Zeev Zelig (L), Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel Lina Antanavičienė (C), and Schatz House manager Jimmy Lewensohn light the Hanukkah candles on Monday night.
(photo credit: STEVE LINDE)

THERE’S A small pedestrian mall off Jerusalem’s King George Street in which a high-fenced stone building that dates back more than a century, stands opposite a modern coffeehouse. The door in the fence is usually closed, and most passersby would not pay much attention to number 3 Bezalel Street, or even realize that they actually were on Bezalel street, which is the much broader continuation of the mall and open to motorized traffic. This address, 3 Bezalel Street, is historically very important, not only to Jerusalem, but to Israel in general, and to Lithuania, the birthplace of the original occupant of 3 Bezalel Street, who is credited with being the father of Israeli art. It was in this almost magical house that Boris Schatz established the Bezalel School of Art in 1906, which has since evolved into the Bezalel Art Academy. The name honors the memory of the Biblical artisan Bezalel Ben Uri Ben Hur, who fashioned the sanctuary in the wilderness after the Children of Israel left Egypt.

Like all new ambassadors, Lithuanian Ambassador Lina Antanaviciene, when she came to Israel some two-and-half years ago she was interested in discovering links with her homeland. When she came to 3 Bezalel Street some three months after her arrival in the country, and learned that the man who had given Jewish art a whole new meaning, had been born and raised in Lithuania, she was amazed that she had never heard of him, and then discovered that  before settling in Jerusalem after a meeting with Theodor Herzl, he had become famous in Bulgaria and before that in Paris. But what was important to Antanaviciene was that Schatz had been born and raised in Lithuania. She felt that Lithuanians ought to know about him and commissioned art historian Dr. Jolanta Širkaite to engage in research about Schatz for the purpose of introducing him to the Lithuanian public. The result was a booklet, Getting to Know Schatz; the 28-page Hebrew translation of which was launched at the Schatz House in Jerusalem on the second night of Hanukkah for two specific reasons. One was that Schatz was born in 1866 on the second day of Hanukkah and the other that he opened his art school on the second day of Hanukkah on his 40th birthday.

Širkaitė would have loved to have been present in person for the launch, and she was both surprised and thrilled by the fact that a Hebrew edition of her booklet had been published. Because of travel restrictions in relation to new virus threats and fears, her participation, while in Lithuania, was via Zoom.

Schatz House is no longer residential, but is maintained as a museum, gallery, cum-studio by Schatz’s great great nephew Jimmy Lewensohn. The last person to live in the house was Shatz’s daughter Zahara, a great artist in her own right, who designed the six branch menorah that is the Yad Vashem logo. A huge portrait of her is featured on the wall of a room at the entrance to the building.

One might wonder how a multi-generational Jerusalemite comes by the name of Jimmy. Actually it’s an uncommon diminutive for Benjamin, though most Benjamins are known as Ben or Benny.

 ORDER OF MERIT of the Italian Republic is awarded to Chemi Peres, chairman of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. (credit: CHEN SHENHAV) ORDER OF MERIT of the Italian Republic is awarded to Chemi Peres, chairman of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. (credit: CHEN SHENHAV)

Asked about his day job, Jimmy said that he was a crop protector, which he explained is the politically correct terminology for a pest exterminator.

There were quite a few Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews) and people with Litvak roots or other Litvak connections who came for the launch and to view the Schatz original paintings and sculpture reliefs. Among them was Honorary Lithuanian Consul Shai Schnitzer whose late grandfather, Moshe Schnitzer, was one of the founding fathers of the Israel Diamond Industry and of the Israel Diamond Exchange. He was also a chairman of the Israel Diamond Institute and honorary president of the Israel Diamond Exchange and the World Federation of Diamond Bourses. Needless to say, Shai Schnitzer is also in the diamond business.

Also among the guests was Dutch Ambassador to Israel Hans Docter, who loves history and historic places. He was very pleased after a long, mostly Zoom season to be at an in-person event.

Given the importance of the date, it was only natural that there would also be a candle lighting ceremony and that the Hanukkiah used for the occasion would be a Boris Schatz original. It was supplied by Judaica collector Zeev Zelig, who said that it dated back to around 1910. Part of it looked as if it had been inspired by the Statue of Liberty. Zelig explained that because it had been created during the period of Turkish rule, Schatz and other Jewish artists had to be careful not to show too much Jewish nationalism in their works of art. Zelig invited Antanavičienė to join him in lighting the candles.

■ IN THE 70th anniversary year of its inception, Italy’s highest honor was conferred on Chemi Peres, the chairman of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Jaffa, established by his late father Shimon Peres. New Italian Ambassador to Israel Sergio Barbanti, acting on behalf of his President Sergio Materella, this week, went to the Peres Center to confer the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy, known by its Italian acronym OMRI. Awarded in the fields of science, humanities, arts and economics, it is also conferred  in recognition of meaningful work in public roles and for noteworthy endeavors in social, philanthropic and humanitarian causes. One of the long term projects run by the Peres Center, Saving Children, which each year helps thousands of Palestinian children receive lifesaving medical care in Israeli hospitals, is largely funded by Italian donors.

In accepting the award Peres said that it places a great responsibility on his shoulders, and he pledged to do his utmost to be worthy of such an honor.

Barbanti, who was accompanied by his wife Letizia, was confident that the Peres Center would continue with its tireless dedication and commitment.

■ TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS notwithstanding, a New York mission led by UJA-Federation President Amy A.B. Bressman and Itzik Shmuli, director-general of UJA’s Israel office toured Israel this week prior to continuing onto the United Arab Emirates. Among the prominent Israelis who they met was President Isaac Herzog, who several members of the mission knew from his period as chairman of the Jewish Agency, while others knew him even longer. Herzog was visibly excited to greet so many friends and acquaintances.

“There are so many friends here that I am happy to see: Consul-General Asaf Zamir, who is a longtime friend, and Itzik Shmuli, who is a longstanding friend and colleague. I have also had a relationship with many of you in my previous capacity, and I welcome all of you,” said Herzog.

In voicing appreciation for the meeting, Shmuli said: “We want to thank the president, who is a dear friend of so many in this delegation. We look forward to working alongside him to build stronger bridges between Israel and the American Jewish community, as well as strengthening Israeli society from within.”

■ PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett is having a tough time with the women in his life. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who used to be Bennett’s political twin joined at the hip, is at odds with some government policies, and certain political pundits have forecast that she will eventually be the cause of the fall of the government. The recent appointment of Arab affairs commentator Shimrit Meir as Bennett’s political advisor may cause a rift between Bennett and Shaked. Meir is a graduate of the elite IDF intelligence unit 8200, and has worked with several media outlets including those that publish and broadcast in Arabic. Her political views are not right-wing, and she has publicly stated that, while she thinks that Bennett is an admirable politician, she would never vote for his party. And then there is the problem of his wife Gilat, who contrary to the advice that Bennett gave the nation to desist from flying abroad at this time, took their children on an overseas vacation.  From time to time despite declarations that he is not like former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett sure follows in his footsteps. Netanyahu, during a long career as prime minister, frequently had to defend his wife on account of things she may have done or said, and it looks as if Bennett will be spending much of his time in office defending his wife. The problem is that if his wife acts in defiance of her husband, how can he expect the rest of the country to follow his advice or his regulations?

■ IS ARMY Radio getting yet another reprieve? For years now, a series of defense ministers and IDF chiefs of staff have sought to close down the station which is a burden on the Defense Ministry’s budget, but perhaps more importantly, because too many of its broadcasts are politically oriented and frequently critical of the government, which is not exactly the role of an army radio station, regardless of the fact that this is where some of Israel’s best journalists began their careers. The general idea was to either permanently close or privatize the station. The anticipated date was this past summer – but that didn’t happen. Instead, in August, Galit Alstein was appointed as acting commander. It was presumed from the start that this was a three months stop gap appointment, but last month, it was extended. There has been no head hunting for a permanent commander, and Alstein’s temporary tenure could be extended indefinitely every three months.

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