Grapevine March 25, 2020: A small wedding

Movers and shakers in Israeli society

SHIR COHEN and Nir Shmueli at their wedding at the Prime Minister’s Residence. (photo credit: ISRAEL BARDUGO)
SHIR COHEN and Nir Shmueli at their wedding at the Prime Minister’s Residence.
(photo credit: ISRAEL BARDUGO)
Members of the public who were unaware that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had something to celebrate last Thursday might have guessed, considering that at his nightly television appearance he was not wearing his red or his blue tie, but a more festive and formal tie and a more formal suit. The reason was the wedding of his spokeswoman Shir Cohen to Nir Shmueli.
Like most weddings, this one was planned well in advance, but like many weddings over the past month, plans had to be drastically changed. It is not customary in Jewish tradition to delay a wedding once the date has been set and made public, so many bridal couples had to change the venue from a wedding hall to a private home and to reduce the number of guests initially to 100 and more recently to 10.
Cohen was in the latter category. So she asked her boss whether she could have the ceremony in the Prime Minister’s Residence. Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, readily agreed, and were happy to have a bridal canopy put up in the grounds of the residence. Chief Rabbi David Lau officiated, and as Netanyahu said afterward on television, it was a very small affair, but a very happy affair.
He also posted a congratulatory message on his Twitter account, in which he said that he and his wife had been excited to celebrate with Cohen and looked forward to the day when they could celebrate with all of the couple’s friends once the crisis is overcome.
Cohen joined the prime minister’s staff in 2012 on completion of her army service. She had served in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit at the same time as Yair Netanyahu, but it is not known whether he had anything to do with her employment. Although they knew each other, they were not actually friends.
Cohen was initially assistant to Liran Dan, who was Netanyahu’s adviser on communications; and when Dan left, she worked with Boaz Stambler, when he was Netanyahu’s spokesman, and concurrently completed a degree in political science and communications at the Hebrew University.
When Stambler left, Cohen was appointed in his stead in December 2017. She is the first woman and the youngest person to serve in this capacity for a sitting prime minister of Israel.
“WHAT A Diff’rence a Day Makes” is the name of a popular song that was written in Spanish in 1934 by Maria Grever. The English lyrics were written by Stanley Adams in the same year, and it was subsequently recorded in English by numerous singers, including Dinah Washington.
The difference a day makes has special relevance in the coronavirus context, as in the case of cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman, who had some 100 guests, including several past and present cabinet ministers, at his son’s bar mitzvah, which was celebrated on the night that it was announced that attendance at events would be limited to 10 people. The festivities were already under way when the announcement was made, and did not go into effect till the following day, so Braverman cannot be accused of breaking the rules.
ESSENTIALLY, THERE are three subjects in the news these days. Regardless of whether one reads newspapers, watches television, listens to the radio or peruses social media, the No. 1 subject is coronavirus, followed in Israel by the crumbling economy and the political situation, or the lack of it.
Because not much else is happening, some newspapers have become thinner for paucity of news to publish, coupled with a decline in advertisements; or if they are maintaining the number of pages, they are rerunning old stories.
Yediot Aharonot, for instance, last Friday published an October 1997 interview with Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu when both were more amenable to journalists. Also published in the same Friday edition were excerpts of interviews with Avigdor Liberman, Shari Arison, Assi Azar, Rotem Sela, Pnina Rosenblum, Erez Tal, Moshe Kahlon and Omer Adam. The most interesting, of course, were the two major political interviews.
Liberman was interviewed by Anat Talshir in July, 1996, shortly after he became director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office. He was essentially asked about the security checks that had determined whether he could have the job.
The Netanyahus, who even then were battling against juicy gossip that was not always true, were interviewed by Rami Tal. Contrary to the many stories bandied about to the effect that Sara had set out to trap Bibi into marriage, according to the article it was he who wanted her, more than she wanted him. Early in their relationship, Bibi asked her whether she was going out with him because he was a politician. Her reply was “I’m interested in you despite the fact that you’re a politician.” Her father had told her to distance herself from politicians, and she would have actually preferred a professor or a psychologist.
While she was still working as an air hostess, Sara was offered a job by the Mossad. She was interested because the pay was so much better than what she was earning at the time, and she didn’t have to give up her airline job, because it was a good cover for any operations she might carry out for Mossad. But Bibi, who wanted to marry her, and have her be the mother of his children, vetoed the idea, and the world was thus deprived of what might have been a thrilling story under the title of “A spy called Sara.”
THE NATIONWIDE balcony tribute to doctors and nurses was well deserved, and hopefully in future will be reflected in their salaries and working conditions, but another group of people also deserves high praise, particularly in light of the many cutbacks that have been imposed on it in recent years. Foreign Minister Israel Katz, in an early broadcast on Sunday, paid tribute to the members of the Foreign Ministry who he said have been working 24/7 in an effort to bring home Israelis stranded abroad, and are leaving no stone unturned. They are using all the diplomatic resources at their disposal, as is Katz, who has also recruited Prime Minister Netanyahu to join in the mission. Israel’s diplomats have often been called soldiers without uniform, and it’s high time that they are officially recognized as such.
While Israel, England and France are actively engaged in trying to bring home their stranded citizens, American travelers who are stuck in different parts of the world complain that their government is not doing enough to help them.  One of the countries in which many Americans and citizens of other countries are currently grounded is Morocco, where David Fischer, the US ambassador, has stated that not all the Americans who are complaining are registered with the embassy, and therefore the embassy cannot help them, because it has no record of their presence in the country.
The lesson to be learned from this experience is that people travelling abroad, no matter for how brief a period, should email their embassies in those countries in advance with their names, passport numbers, arrival and departure dates and contact details in those destinations. One never knows when an epidemic, a war or some other crisis situation will erupt.
The present situation caused El Al to cancel its maiden flight to Melbourne which was scheduled for next month, but this week El Al was expected in Perth on the other side of the island continent, to bring home some 100 Australians who were participants in the Zionist Federation of Australia’s Masa program in Israel, and on the full return flight to take home Israelis stranded in Australia.
El Al, whose own history is so strongly intertwined with that of the state and includes several incredible airlifts, deserves every commendation. Despite its deep financial troubles and the fact that it is no longer a state-owned company, El Al functions in the capacity of a reserve soldier who is always ready to come to the rescue when the need arises.
EVERYONE IS entitled to at least one personal miracle in a lifetime, and that’s what happened to model and actress Yarden Harel, who for years underwent painful, exhausting and futile fertility treatments. Finally, she and her husband, Omri Shalom, gave up and decided that their only option for starting a family was through surrogacy. They started the process approximately a year ago, and just over a month ago their twins, Gefen and Lenny, were born. But even before the infants came into the world and into their parents’ lives, Harel, in the course of a routine medical checkup, learned that she was pregnant. The pregnancy was natural and totally unplanned, but the most welcome news that she and her husband had ever received. She is due to give birth within a couple of months, and as she wrote on Instagram, her heart is full and her family will now be complete.
Her case is not all that unusual. Long before surrogacy became an option, childless women, who had been barren for years, discovered after they and their husbands had adopted a baby that the woman became pregnant.
This kind of miracle dates back to biblical times, when Sarah, unable to bear children, told Abraham to sire a baby with her hand-maiden. It was only after Ishmael was born that Sarah became pregnant with Isaac, whose name means “he will laugh,” because Sarah laughed in disbelief when she learned that she was pregnant. Throughout the centuries, previously barren women have been laughing with joy for the same reason.
AMONG THE more unpopular health measures is the closure of open markets, which is psychologically disturbing. Yaron Tzidkiyahu, one of the veterans of Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, accepted the dictum as something that couldn’t be helped, but then it occurred to him that open-air markets are actually safer than supermarkets, because supermarkets are indoor areas in which the same air and germs keep circulating, and people stand in line at the checkout counters without maintaining the required social distance. In the open markets, there is no standing around. Vendors are paid on the spot, and customers move on to buy something else somewhere else. For most of the period they spend in the market, they’re in the open air. The added benefit is that many vendors sell similar produce, so it’s much easier to maintain social distance by moving to stalls where there are few, if any, other customers. In supermarkets products in each category are grouped in only one section, and even if there is a separate grouping for organically grown fruits and vegetables, it is right next to the regular products. When several people want to buy the same vegetables, there is no possibility of maintaining social distance in the supermarket.
FREQUENTLY CRITICIZED in this column for interrogating his interviewees and having a style of questioning that borders on hysteria, Asaf Liberman has toned down and is trying to dispel the atmosphere of panic created by health authorities, saying that the economic situation is much more frightening than coronavirus, because people who have lost jobs or who have been sent home on unpaid leave will drive themselves sick with worry to the point of endangering their lives.
Nonetheless, Jews have a remarkable ability to laugh at themselves under the worst of circumstances. Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg, one of the many Chabad representatives in Jerusalem, tells the joke that hits a little too close to home about a man who asks his employer for a raise in salary, noting that he has contributed greatly to his employer’s success in business, but has not received a salary increase in 10 years. Much as he likes working for and with his employer, there are four other companies chasing him, he says. The employer gives the matter some thought, then tells the man that he is right and that he deserves a pay rise of 10%, which the employer is prepared to give him. The man is naturally very appreciative. “By the way,” asks the employer, “which four companies are chasing you?” The man heaves a sigh and says: “The gas company, the electricity company, the water company and American Express.”
ANOTHER JOURNALIST, Yair Weinreb, related that as he left home a few days ago, he saw a large notice on the door of the opposite apartment. The text read: “Hello, we are your new neighbors. We noticed that most of the people in this building are senior citizens who should not be leaving their homes. We are very happy to run errands for you and do your shopping, and even though we don’t know you, we do so with love.” The note lists the phone number for neighbors to call.
CRISES BRING out the best and the worst in people. So far there has been greater evidence of the best, with organizations, individuals and synagogue and student groups going out of their way to help people in isolation or in the vulnerable age group. In addition, many rabbis are giving religious classes on social media and are also in telephone and email contact with their congregants.
The English-Speaking Residents Association is providing friendship and emotional support for people finding it difficult to cope with the ongoing situation, as well as financial support for people who are facing economic hardship. Anyone who needs ESRA’s services should call Sandra (054-422-4066); Mary Shea (Netanya area; 053-255-1508); Glenis (054-773-4392); Susan (052-698-9088); Cecily (050-373-1302).
Similar services are available from the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. The contact is
In Jerusalem, Chabad of Rechavia has an emergency hotline for senior citizens and a team of volunteers who will go shopping for them and take care of urgent matters that they are unable to undertake themselves. Call 052-731-8777.
In Haifa, Rabbi David Arias and Ethan Kushner, the vice president of the Moriah Masorti congregation, have set up a series of lessons, study groups and prayer meetings relayed live via Facebook, plus a Kabbalat Shabbat which concludes before candle-lighting. Arias, who has a degree in music, also sang several Shabbat songs to the delight of his congregants. The younger members of the congregation are delivering meals on wheels to the needy and the elderly.
BEARING IN mind that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef encouraged people to leave their phones on last Shabbat, and will probably do so again as the situation gets worse before it gets better, coupled with the fact that some rabbis are discouraging women from using the ritual baths (mikvaot), perhaps another religious rule should be temporarily broken on Seder night. In many families, only parents and children who live in the same house or apartment will be sitting together around the Seder table. In many more households, only the husband and wife will be sitting at the Seder table, and in the case of widowed, divorced and never married people, there will be only one person at the table. For some, this will be an extremely traumatic experience, and therefore the Seder should be broadcast on television stations and social media, and should be sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate.
Another option, for people living in apartment buildings, is to leave the balcony door open so that people can at least hear their next-door or upstairs or downstairs neighbors, and that everyone in an apartment building should come out onto their balcones at some stage, sing the Passover songs and wish one another “Chag Sameach.”
It’s bad enough when people have to spend the Sabbath in isolation, but on Seder night it’s customary to have family, friends and even strangers at one’s table. As this practice is discouraged this year, the rabbinate must give the public some leeway to prevent a massive scale of depression.
FOR POET Meron Isaacson, who chairs the Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Herzliya Pituah, where Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is a regular congregant, as was Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, the concept of shuttering the synagogue to prevent the spread of coronavirus was heartbreaking. The closure was a controversial subject. There were some members who, like Isaacson, felt that the synagogue should continue to function, whereas others were more interested in the health of the body than in health of the soul.
But Isaacson could not imagine not attending synagogue on the Sabbath before the beginning of the calendar month of Nisan, which not only heralds the spring, but is also the month of the exodus from Egypt, and in which the weekly Torah reading is about the building of the Ark of the Covenant. So he and his son walked a very long distance to another Herzliya synagogue which had not closed.
DEATH IS always tinged with sadness, even when the deceased has been very ill and death has released his or her suffering. But death these days is sadder than ever because relatives and close friends who would want to be with dying persons to bid farewell to them as they leave this life are unable to do so, nor can they pay their last respects at funerals due to the limits placed on the number of persons who can attend.
Thus Holocaust survivor Aryeh Even, the first coronavirus fatality in Israel, who under ordinary circumstances would have had quite a large funeral, was accompanied on his final journey by only a handful of mourners who requested that nobody visit them to offer condolences. The request was related to fears of spreading the virus.
Last week, popular radio and television personality Eli Israeli, who died of complications from a lung disease, also had a very small funeral. Ordinarily, when anyone from Israel’s world of entertainment dies, a very large representation of the entertainment industry attends the funeral. But here again, the virus prevented Israeli from receiving his final honor.
Israeli was closely identified with Army Radio and with Hapoel Tel Aviv. He is also credited with bringing Brazilian music to Israel. He learned to love Brazilian music when his father was sent as an emissary to Brazil when Israeli was 17 years old. After two years, he returned to do his army service, was wounded during a military exercise and discharged, after which he studied drama at Tel Aviv University. During his studies, he also worked as an announcer on Israel Radio, got married and went to South Africa, from where he returned in 1974 and began broadcasting on Army Radio.
Throughout the years he hosted many programs, including songs from foreign hit parades, but the music he played most frequently was Brazilian, and it caught on like wildfire. Despite his popularity, he was dismissed from Army Radio four years ago when he turned 67, and the parting was angry and unpleasant. He insisted that he had not retired, but that the guillotine had been applied to his neck. He was not out of work for long. Radio 103 was very happy to take him on, and he became a sports commentator.
Another small funeral that would in ordinary times have brought masses of people together was that of David Ehrlich, owner of Jerusalem’s legendary Tmol Shilshom café, frequented for more than a quarter of a century by the capital’s literati.
While travelling in the United States, Ehrlich came across bookstore cafés which were then gaining in popularity there, and decided that this was an ideal business-cum-culture venture for Jerusalem. A writer himself with a great admiration for Israel’s first Nobel Prize laureate, S.Y. Agnon, he called his enterprise after one of Agnon’s best-known works. Agnon had resided in Jerusalem, so the name of the café was a perfect fit.
Over time many well-known and lesser known writers wrote and launched their books at Tmol Shilshom, and gave readings there. The restaurant was also an excellent venue for Jerusalem writers festival events. In addition, it was a great favorite with certain political figures, with tourists, and even with some religious personalities, because it was kosher.
Yet another cultural icon who died this week could likewise not receive the last respects due to him. Niko Nitai, the Romanian-born stage and screen actor who pioneered Israel’s fringe theater housed in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, died on Monday at age 88. Only close family members were permitted to attend his funeral.
Thanks to modern technology, funerals, weddings and other important events can be videoed and watched in real time on Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media outlets. As there is little likelihood of tombstones being erected until after the corona crisis, the consecrations can be attended by people who were unable to attend the funerals.