Grapevine November 18, 2020: Not quite as bad as we thought

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

AUSTRALIAN AMBASSADOR Paul Griffiths presents his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin. (photo credit: GPO)
AUSTRALIAN AMBASSADOR Paul Griffiths presents his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin.
(photo credit: GPO)
Most of the stories about Jews in the former Soviet Union were related to persecution, discrimination, denial of exit visas, imprisonment and clandestine gatherings for the dissemination of Zionist ideology, Hebrew lessons and Jewish tradition. But it wasn’t all bad, as evidenced by Soviet immigrants with high academic qualifications and artistic talents who came to Israel and contributed to science, music, theater, politics and more.
There used to be a joke that every Soviet immigrant left the plane carrying a violin. While several such people were accepted into the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and other well-known orchestras, many others became street musicians, often providing concerts of their own outside the nation’s concert halls.
Prizewinning founder of the Gesher Theater Yevgeny Arye, who is a director, playwright, scriptwriter and set designer, and who will celebrate his 73rd birthday on November 28, was a theater and television director in the Soviet Union before migrating to Israel in 1991. There were other Jewish personalities associated with stage and screen, among them beloved satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky who died in Moscow on November 6 at the age of 86. His death was widely reported in the Russian media.
Despite the hardships endured by the Russian people during the Communist regime, Odessa-born Zhvanetsky got them to roll with laughter at their own misfortunes as they listened to him perform his monologues that poked fun at everyday life in the Soviet Union.
Other Jewish comedians also used more than 300 of his monologues and sketches for their own acts. Among these comedians, who also wrote their own material, were Arkady Raikin, Roman Kartsev and Viktor Ilchenko.
In the late 1980s, Zhvanetsky founded the Moscow Theater of Impressions, where he and his colleagues performed hilarious monologues that were critical of Communism, yet they did not suffer the fate of so many others who dared to criticize the system. In fact, most of them, including Zhvanetsky, received prestigious awards.
Beginning in 2002, Zhvanetsky had his own very popular TV show, Duty Man of the Country, from which he recently resigned, saying “A person must know when to go home.”
■ THE INDIVIDUAL does not necessarily represent the pack, but when the individual achieves fame or notoriety, he or she is immediately associated for good and for bad by friend and foe with the country or faith into which he or she was born. This is particularly so in the case of Jews, who, after all is said and done, represent a minuscule percentage of the world’s population. Nonetheless, it is amazing how many accomplished individuals there have been, in any number of fields, whose biographical details, as published by Wikipedia, include mention of the fact that he or she was born into a Jewish family. There are far fewer references to someone being born Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Mormon, etc., although given their political clout, there is increasing mention of Evangelicals.
Getting back to singling out Jews, one can’t escape their presence in the forefront of leading companies in the race to find a vaccine that will prevent coronavirus.
Greek veterinarian and biotechnologist Albert Bourla heads Pfizer, and Moderna’s chief medical officer, Dr. Tal Zaks, is an Israeli who received his doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and gives interviews in Hebrew to the Israeli media.
Both men have been fairly secretive about their private lives. For Israelis, it’s enough to know that Zaks, despite the various high positions that he holds in America, is one of us, but in Greece, especially Thessaloniki, where Bourla and his wife were born and raised, there are mixed reactions. On the one hand, Greeks are proud that one of their own is at the top of the totem pole of a company that will help to save the world from COVID-19. On the other, there have already been vile antisemitic accusations against Bourla and Jews in general, accusations similar to negative comments made by US President Donald Trump about the Chinese.
Bourla comes from a Sephardi family of jewelers and real estate developers which fled Spain and has been living in Greece for more than five centuries. His family members were among the few survivors of the once thriving Jewish community of Thessaloniki, which was all but destroyed by the Nazis. He left Greece when he was 34 to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals and joined Pfizer in 1993. He represented the company in various divisions in different countries, working his way to the top. Although he has been living in America for several years, he continues to maintain a home in Greece.
In April 2019, Bourla was named the most “preeminent Greek leader” of the global pharmaceutical industry by United States Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey R. Pyatt, at the Prix Galien Greece Awards ceremony. As for the defamatory antisemitic slurs that have appeared in some Greek media, these have been publicly condemned by the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece.
■ PASSERS-BY ON the capital’s King David Street last Thursday evening wondered why there were police cars outside the King David hotel, which, like all other hotels, has been closed in line with coronavirus restrictions. General manager Tamir Kobrin confirmed that, other than for official guests, the hotel is closed. The official guest on this occasion was Ekaterina Zakharieva, the foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Bulgaria, who was in Israel to mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and Israel. The reason for the police cars was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was meeting her in the hotel.
Earlier in the day, Zakharieva held a working meeting with President Reuven Rivlin. Naturally, she also met with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who later tweeted: “Thank you my friend on your important visit to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. This year we mark 30 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. I want to thank Bulgaria for its support for strengthening relations between Israel and the EU.”
That was not the only reason that Ashkenazi referred to Zakharieva as a friend. Ashkenazi is the son of a Bulgarian Holocaust survivor, which he mentioned in conversation during their meeting.
■ THE KING David is the flagship hotel In the Dan chain. One of its sister hotels, the Dan Tel Aviv, has also been nonoperational, but has been hosting airline crews. No special provisions have been made by the government for the personnel of foreign commercial carriers. The Dan, therefore, continues to provide services to the flight crews of airlines with which it has had long-standing relationships.
Recently, Dan general manager Rama Oram welcomed members of the Lola Marsh Israeli Indie pop band, who came to the hotel for a photo shoot in advance of the 11th annual International Showcase Festival, which will take place from December 8 to 11.
Due to coronavirus, the festival has been truncated from an eight-day event to a four-day event. In the past, it included approximately a hundred guests from abroad – professionals and decision-makers from the international music scene, including festival directors as well as managers of cultural institutions, record labels, booking firms, festival venues, and journalists and other media personalities specializing in music.
The idea was to give them a generous experience of the Israeli music scene in its various genres, not just as audience, but through night life, meetings with local artists and inspecting venues in which large-scale musical events are held. The festival is a means of encouraging global interaction in the music world.
Unfortunately, there will be no guests this year, and the festival will be an online happening with Lola Marsh, headed by vocalist Yael Shoshana Cohen and keyboard instrumentalist Gil Landau performing on Tuesday, December 8.
Meanwhile, they had the opportunity to explore the Dan Tel Aviv and have photos taken in several public areas as well as the hotel’s famed Royal Suite.
■ IN THE final hours of his last day in office on January 20, 2001, president Bill Clinton pardoned 140 people, including international commodities oil trader, hedge fund manager, financier and businessman Marc Rich, who happened to have been in Switzerland when he was indicted on federal charges of tax evasion, racketeering and other violations. He remained in Switzerland and did not return to the United States, not even for the funeral of his daughter Gabrielle, who in 1996, at age 27, died of leukemia. She was subsequently buried in Kibbutz Einat, where Rich was also buried following his death in 2013.
It is to be hoped that on his last day in office, or preferably as early as next week, President Trump will see fit to grant a pardon to Jonathan Pollard, who was not permitted to leave America after 30 years in prison. Pollard is eager to spend his remaining years in Israel, as is his wife, Esther, who moved from Israel to the US to be with him when he was released on parole. Last year, it was reported that Esther Pollard had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, at which time Jonathan Pollard had appealed to Netanyahu to help him to have his parole commuted so that he can bring his wife back home to Israel.
After all that both husband and wife have been through, particularly in view of the fact that Pollard received a much stiffer sentence than other people convicted of similar crimes, it would be a fittingly humane gesture on the part of President Trump to sign the pardon for Pollard.
■ FOLLOWING NETANYAHU’S rare participation last week in the stormy meeting of the Knesset Committee on Eradicating Crime in Arab Society, Joint List MK Sondos Saleh, who lives on the outskirts of Nazareth, said in a radio interview on Reshet Bet that there is no such thing as a quiet night in the area in which she lives. She hears gunshots every night.
Campaigns for people to deposit illegal firearms with the police or with the army, with promises that no charges will be brought against those who rid themselves of these weapons, have proved futile, she said, because many people carry guns simply because they are fearful for their own safety. It is not the task of Arab society to mount a collection drive for illegal weapons, she stated. That is the task of the police, and in the eyes of law-abiding Arabs, the police are not doing their job.
■ ACCORDING TO Jewish tradition, Jews are responsible for one another and, when times are tough, should stretch out a helping hand. Some people actually do live this way – but not enough. Media outlets are bursting with stories of people who are victims of the bureaucratic system, or who are living in appalling circumstances because they have lost their jobs and have not found work in nearly a year; single mothers with young children who have been evicted from their apartments because they were behind with the rent; elderly people who are sick and starving because they can’t afford to buy food or medications; and the list goes on.
During the economic crisis brought on by coronavirus, not everyone has been drastically affected, and some of the more affluent Israelis who head the Mutual Responsibility Fund led by former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, Matan CEO Ahuva Yanai and founding partner of Pitango Funds and chairman of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation Chemi Peres last week linked forces with Rivlin in a joint initiative to provide more assistance to individuals and families who are enduring severe economic distress as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
“I meet business owners, I see the shops that are closed and are crying out for customers, I see with my own eyes the severity of the crisis that the tourism and cultural sectors are going through,” said Rivlin. “These are real crises. People who have lost their lives’ dreams and their source of income. I call on all the companies, the employers, from the private and the public sectors – lend a hand. Lend a hand in any way you think fit. Help the Israeli economy out of the mud,” said Rivlin.
The Mutual Responsibility Fund was established by Israeli corporate leaders together with Matan – Investing in Community. The fund has raised NIS 10 million so far, and has helped thousands of families across the country, with the support of some 60 companies, including Microsoft, Orbotech, Ndivia, Israel Chemicals, Applied Materials, Cyberarc and Clal Insurance.
In light of the worsening implications of the pandemic, the fund members have taken upon themselves the mission to significantly expand the number of supporting companies in order to be able to give more to people in dire need.
Eisenkot, aware that the situation will get worse before it gets better, expressed the hope that the fund will be able to help people survive these tough times. He emphasized that the effects of the crisis are not just economic, but that mental health is also seriously affected, and that the crisis impacts strongly on social relationships.
“We want to make sure that every contribution received will go in its entirety to those receiving support,” said Yanai. “That is the meaning of the shared Israeli mutual responsibility path, and the meaning of our society as a whole.” The purpose of the fund is to demonstrate concern for each other and to give hope, she said.
Peres explained that the fund has approached companies, individuals and employees, whose income is assured and whose financial situation has not been harmed, with a request “to lend a hand to our brothers and sisters who have lost their jobs, so that they don’t lose their whole worlds.” More than 60 companies have enthusiastically answered the call, he said, listing start-ups, multinationals, companies from the industrial, manufacturing and service sectors, and insurance companies which have all stood up to meet the challenge.
■ ORDINARILY, THE Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce would be hosting a reception to welcome Paul Griffiths, Australia’s new ambassador to Israel, but given the coronavirus limitations, it’s doing the next best thing. In collaboration with the Zionist Federation of Australia, it put together a Zoom event which will begin at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 25.
A video featuring welcome messages from a diverse range of Australians from a variety of backgrounds who are now living in Israel has been made under the auspices of the IACC. The video also features representatives of bilateral organizations. Since some of the people who register for the Zoom event, but were not approached to be in the video, might feel disappointed, the “camera on” feature during the Zoom program will be enabled so that those who wish to be seen will be seen.
■ IN AUSTRALIA last Sunday, descendants of German and Austrian Jews who were deported from England on the military transport ship Dunera celebrated the 80th anniversary of the ship’s arrival in Australia. The event was organized by the Emanuel Synagogue, the Dunera Association and the Duldig Studio. Karl Duldig was an Austrian Jewish tennis player and sculptor. He became one of the most eminent sculptors in Australia.
His daughter Eva Duldig, who was born in Vienna, but who came to Australia as an infant, became a champion tennis player representing Australia at Wimbledon. Following her marriage to a Dutch athlete with whom she lived in Holland for several years before they returned to Australia, she also represented the Netherlands at Wimbledon.
Some of the descendants of the Dunera aliens live in Israel. The event also celebrated the 80th anniversary of the arrival of the Queen Mary, which also carried so-called enemy aliens of German and Italian nationality who had been deported from Singapore by the British authorities.
The late Dr. Wolf Matsdorf, whose legacy includes the annual B’nai B’rith World Center prizes for journalism, was also a refugee from Nazi Germany, who lived for many years in Australia before migrating to Israel. He arrived in the southern island continent in 1938 on board the Niagra, which was destroyed in 1940. A social worker by profession as well as being a journalist, Matsdorf wrote extensively about the Dunera and interviewed many of its passengers, some of whom became prominent figures in Australian Jewry and in Australia in general. The potential of refugees should never be underestimated.
■ ON THE subject of sculptors, Samuel Willenberg, who was one of the organizers and one of the last survivors of the Treblinka revolt, was a sculptor of note, who memorialized some of the victims murdered there by the Nazis by sculpting composites of their likenesses. He also designed the monument for the Jews who were murdered in his native Czestochowa in Poland.
After escaping Treblinka, Willenberg joined the resistance forces. He was a well-known figure in Poland, often leading groups of Israeli students who had come to learn about the atrocities the Nazis committed in Poland during the Holocaust. His heroism was appreciated by a series of Polish governments, and he received several decorations.
He was particularly well regarded by the Czestochowa Municipality, and in Israel he was not only on the guest list of, but also a personal friend of, every Polish ambassador. The residence of the Polish ambassador is not in Herzliya Pituah, Kfar Shmaryahu, Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan, where other diplomatic residences are located, but in Udim, near Netanya, on a large plot of land that was purchased by Willenberg soon after he arrived in Israel.
Alon Goldman, the chairman of the Association of Czestochowa Jews in Israel and vice president of the World Society of Czestochowa Jews and their Descendants, had proposed to the Czestochowa City Council that a suitable memorial for Willenberg, who died in February 2016, be established in Czestochowa so that future generations would know about him.
The unanimous decision of the council was to extend the monument in memory of Czestochowa Jews who had been confined to the ghetto, who had worked in the Hasag forced labor camp and who had been murdered. The idea is the creation of a square to be named the Samuel Willenberg Square.
In the presence of Willenberg’s widow, Ada, and members of Willenberg’s family in Israel, along with Goldman, Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski read out the letter received from Czestochowa Mayor Krzyzstof Matiyaszczyk that had been sent to Goldman to give to Ada Willenberg, officially informing her of the council’s decision.
Ada Willenberg, in expressing her thanks to the mayor, noted that the memorial monument designed by her husband and unveiled in 2009 had been erected at the initiative of another Czestochowa-born Holocaust survivor and honorary citizen of Czestochowa, Sigmund Rolat, who now lives in America, but has financed many projects in Czestochowa. It was Rolat who chose Samuel Willenberg to design and construct the monument.
Since the death of her husband, Ada Willenberg and her daughter, Orit, who is an internationally known architect, have been actively involved in trying to establish a museum at Treblinka.
■ IT’S ALREADY an old story that Israelis who want to pursue a profession in medicine, but are not accepted by Israeli universities, go abroad to places like Hungary, Romania, Italy and Latvia, where they often do so well that they are sought out by medical institutions in many parts of the world. Given the fact that the current crisis has proved that Israel is lacking in sufficient human resources in the various fields of medicine, perhaps Israel should take a leaf out of Hungary’s book and provide free education to members of the Israeli diaspora. Hungary is actively pursuing members of the Hungarian diaspora – namely, Hungarian-born students who were taken abroad as children, or people of Hungarian parentage who are entitled to apply for Hungarian citizenship. The incentive is free university studies with the possibility of earning an internationally recognized degree.
The Hungarian Embassy has disseminated a notice about Hungarian Diaspora Scholarships that were established by the Hungarian government to enable people who are part of the Hungarian diaspora to acquire the qualifications that will help them to realize their professional dreams. Applicants can enroll at any Hungarian university of their choice. For inquiries and applications write to [email protected]
■ ALTHOUGH JERUSALEM does not have an opera house, it does have a light opera studio, where some of the world’s top professionals help emerging young singers to develop their careers. Auditions have already started and are continuing for 2021 for roles in La bohème, L’elisir d’amore and The Magic Flute.
In its program for young artists, the studio has engaged the services of directors and artistic directors of opera houses, such as Dietmar Schwarz (Deutsche Oper intendant) and Roland Kluttig (musical director, Graz Opera).
Winners in last year’s alumni competition were invited to auditions at Teatro alla Scala, YAP in Strasbourg, and Frankfurt Opera House. For more details visit the studio’s website: opera-studio.org/. For further information and application submissions visit www.opera-studio.org
[email protected]