Grapevine: A cause for celebration

ALTHOUGH 15 years is generally not considered to be a milestone number, several of the countries that were part of the former Soviet Union and that soon after its demise formed diplomatic ties with Israel, have thought it necessary to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the sealing of those relations. The most recent celebration in this genre was hosted last Thursday at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv by Farkhod Ibragimovich Khakimov, the ambassador of Uzbekistan. He was excited by the fact that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would be on hand to represent the government. What he didn't count on was the foreign minister's lack of punctuality. Bukharan-born Shas MK Amnon Cohen was there exactly on time. Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman arrived within ten minutes of the start of the reception and hung around for an hour - spending most of the time on his cell phone even though Russianspeaking diplomats, anxious to engage him in conversation, hovered around him. Most prominent of these was Andrey Demidov, counsellor at the Russian embassy who was eager to hear details of Lieberman's visit to Russia earlier in the week. Also keen to exchange a few words with Lieberman was Lithuanian Ambassador Asta Skaisgiryte Liauskiene, who coincidentally presented her credentials at Beit Hanassi in September last year on the same day that Khakimov presented his. Israel recognized the independent state of Uzbekistan on December 25, 1991 and opened an embassy in Tashkent in November, 1992. Formal diplomatic relations between the two countries were established on February 22, 1992. Shimon Peres, who was then foreign minister, visited Uzbekistan in July, 1994, and in April, 1998, Uzbeki Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov visited Israel. But the major breakthrough in relations was the visit to Israel in September, 1998 by President Islam Karimov. Like most other countries, Uzbekistan is interested in upgrading its economic relations with Israel. The bilateral volume of trade in 2006 was $26 million, with imports and exports reaching near-equal levels on both sides. However, both countries realize that the potential for increased trade is enormous. Uzbekistan is a promising market for Israeli telecommunications technology and equipment, in addition to which it offers ever growing joint venture opportunities in telecommunications, oil, textiles, agriculture, aviation and tourism. Between 2004 and 2006 more than 400 citizens of Uzbekistan studied in business, agriculture, public health and education courses in Israel. Uzbekistan prides itself on the fact that although it is a Muslim country, it has never discriminated against its Jews, and moreover harbored many Jewish refugees during World War Two. The fact that Jews have lived in Uzbekistan in harmony with their neighbors for more than 2,000 years was one of the points made by Livni when she finally did arrive, some half hour before the event was due to terminate. Israel Foreign Ministry personnel kept telephoning her aides to check on her progress while Khakimov and other members of his embassy valiantly stood their ground at the entrance to the reception hall waiting for her to make an appearance. And that's basically what it was - an appearance. While other ministers invited to diplomatic affairs spend considerable time talking to the host before, during and after the official ceremony, Livni arrived with the look of a naughty school girl on her face, and her grin broadened as Khakimov bravely but painfully struggled through his speech in Hebrew. She kept looking over his shoulder as he spoke, amazed at the fact that he was reading it not from a transliterated text, but in Hebrew. When she remarked on it, Cohen called out: "Let's hear you say something in Uzbek." Of course she couldn't - and even if she could, there weren't too many people left around to hear it. Khakimov noted that Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the independent Republic of Uzbekistan. In a reference to the immigrants from Uzbekistan who brought their culture with them to Israel and still feel connected to their birthplace, Livni said that it was good to be connected, especially in view of the long history of Jewish life in Uzbekistan and the fact that it gave refuge to so many Jews fleeing from the Nazis, but it was also important to work towards enhancing the relationship between the two countries and making it flourish. ALSO PLANNING a 15th anniversary celebration is Georgian Ambassador Lasha Zhvania, who is not sure whether it will be at the end of May or early in June, depending on the arrival in Israel of senior ministers in the Georgian government. Meanwhile, says Zhvania, Israeli business people are flocking to Georgia to take advantage of investment opportunities in Georgia's fast growing economy. IT'S JUST as well that there were no social workers or representatives of the National Insurance Institute at the 80th birthday celebration of Max Weil. Had there been, they would have promptly cancelled all the visas of foreign caregivers whose septuagenarian and octogenarian employers had no difficulty in dancing with great joy while cradling a heavy Torah scroll. The dedication by Weil and his wife Jenny of a refurbished Torah scroll, with a glorious new silver crown, started off the festivities which continued for more than seven hours in two different venues. The dedication ceremony, attended by some 20 rabbis in addition to several hundred relatives and friends of the Weils', took place at Jerusalem's Hanassi Synagogue, and moved on to the Great Synagogue where the Weils hosted a sumptuous banquet that was well punctuated by music and emotional speeches. The youngest of four children of two medical doctors (although his mother didn't practice), Weil fled his native Germany in 1938 as the rule of the Third Reich became increasingly menacing, and went to England and then to America with his family. At age 22, he became a pioneer in mutual funds and pension planning, and several of the guests at his 80th birthday party who were old friends from New York, now living in Israel, owe their financial independence to his expertise. According to his wife, "Max takes the cake as a workaholic. He doesn't know what it means to relax." Indeed when Weil came to Israel, he designed his spacious apartment that overlooks the Israel Museum and the Knesset, established a Kolel of his own because he couldn't find one that suited his taste, got involved with numerous charitable causes and was a leading activist in the fight to prevent American retirees from being taxed in Israel on their American incomes for which they were also being taxed in America. But one of his most ambitious and successful projects was reuniting the scattered branches of his family. His great grandparents, Noah Avraham and Hannah Felsenstein of Fuerth, Germany, had 12 children, and had been famously photographed with their children ranged around them in clock formation. Naturally, many of their descendants lost contact with each other, and were not even aware of each other's existence. Weil spent years tracking them down in many parts of the world, and organizing a family reunion in which participants ranged from haredi to non-Jewish. As it happened, the reunion coincided with the first intifada, which had a drastic impact on tourism to Israel. However, more than 650 members of the Felsenstein clan showed up with only a handful of dropouts. Recalling the tremendous success of the reunion, Weil's brother-in-law Dr. Sol Weintraub - who came from America as did Weil's older brother Sigi to participate in the 80th birthday festivities - described Weil as a man of stamina, drive, intelligence and fortitude. "He's a bit of a yekke and he likes to coordinate others as well as himself. People were more afraid of Max than of Arafat." Among the many speakers were Weil's son Danny and daughter Judy who both live in Jerusalem and between them have given him 14 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, yet another triumph over Hitler's failed plan to exterminate the Jews. DURING THE Purim festivities in which there is always the sobering message that throughout the centuries there are those who seek the annihilation of the Jewish People, there was yet another reminder of the triumph over such ambitions at the annual Yiddishpiel Purimshpiel, where more than 50% of the people who filled the banquet hall at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv were Holocaust survivors. The NIS 800 per couple event was a fundraiser aimed not only at ensuring the future of Yiddishpiel, but also of building a permanent home for the theater company which receives so many enthusiastic reviews at home and abroad, and continues to attract new, young actors and full houses despite continued dire warnings that Yiddish is a dying language. Fundraisers were greatly encouraged by the pledge by Science and Culture Ministry Director-General Eitan Broshi that he would increase the allocation to Yiddishpiel by NIS 1 million. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who was on hand to present the greetings of the city, proved that he too knows a little mama loshen, and in the course of his address saluted one of his predecessors, the legendary Shlomo Lahat, who in 1987, in his capacity as mayor, was one of the founders of Yiddishpiel. Lahat, a polished raconteur who can tell jokes or relate marvelous anecdotes in Yiddish, Hebrew and English, told the assembled guests: "You know why it's called mama loshen? Because the father can't get a word in edgewise." Among other well-known personalities present were Israel's fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, who despite his Moroccan background and the fact that he heads the National Authority for Ladino, has a wonderful command of Yiddish. Also seen thoroughly enjoying themselves both on and off the dance floor were Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Boim, Environmental Quality Minister Gideon Ezra, Labor MK Avishay Braverman, former Labor Party secretary-general and diplomat Lova Eliav, singer Rivka Zohar, Bruno Landsberg, the founder of Sano cleaning products, and former Tel Aviv police chief Gabi Last, who is a prominent member of the Friends of Yiddishpiel. One of the toughest jobs of the evening was that of Gadi Iagil, who was master of ceremonies, translator from Yiddish to Hebrew, joke teller and singer. Among the jokes that go over best in Yiddish these days, he said, are those that pertain to senior citizens. To prove his point he related one chestnut about the late, enormously popular actor Shmuel Rodensky, who when visiting a retirement home, stopped a woman in the corridor and asked: "Do you know who I am?" "No," she replied, "but if you go the reception desk, they'll tell you." A group of young multi-talented actors, mostly from the former Soviet Union, but including Orly Teri, a sabra of Moroccan parentage, presented a Yiddish musical skit based on the theme of the evening "Beggars, Thieves and Wealthy Men." Other performers included Jacob Bodo, who stars in most Yiddishpiel productions, Sassi Keshet, who sang in Polish, and Dudu Fisher, who at Lahat's request sang the nostalgic "Moishele Mein Freind," for which he received a standing ovation and praise from Lahat, who went up to the stage and kissed him. One of the most outstanding performances of the evening was by the diminutive Maya Smirnhof, who did a remarkable impersonation of Edith Piaff - singing in Yiddish with French overtones. Though not yet a household name, Smirnhof is destined for greatness. HULDAI WENT almost directly but not quite from one theatrical event to another. He will be in Washington Thursday for the gala banquet to be hosted by Dr. James H. Billington, librarian of Congress, and Marjorie Anne Billington together with the International Society of the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv to celebrate the Cameri's production and performance of Hamlet in the Washington Shakespeare Festival. The dinner will be held in the members' room of the Library of Congress. Chairing the event is Anne Ayalon, president of the Washington Committee for the Cameri Theater and the wife of Israel's former ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon, and Tel Aviv-based international lawyer Amina Harris who chairs the International Society of the Cameri Theater. Israelis who went to Washington for the four-day Cameri Washington Experience forked out $5,000 per person in a double room at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. The substantial itinerary included a reception with Ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor, a briefing with former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who is now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, lunch at Capitol Hill followed by a private tour and reception, a private tour and pre-theater dinner at the Museum of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Cameri Theater's gala performance of Hamlet at the Signature Theater, a post-performance reception and meeting with the actors, a private tour of the US Holocaust Museum, a private tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library, a tour of the Supreme Court, a black tie banquet at the Library of Congress, a private tour of the Phillips Collection, America's first museum of modern art, a private tour of the Library of Congress, and a reception and dinner with the cast of Hamlet at the residence of British Ambassador Sir David Manning and Lady Catherine Manning. BECAUSE THE wedding of their daughter, Sarina, to Raj Sundarason is taking place not in Israel but in Singapore, the home of the bridegroom, celebrity restaurateurs Reena and Vinod Pushkarna could be as liberal as their hearts desired with the wedding invitations. Not that they would have minded if a planeload or more of Israeli invitees would join them at the festivities in Singapore's Indian Quarter this coming Saturday - but knowing the unlikelihood of such a move, they spent a lot of time distributing the elaborate invitations before leaving for Singapore themselves. Reena Pushkarna, who for years has been a frequent flyer between Israel and her native India, will henceforth include Singapore in her itinerary. Not that she hasn't done so before. She has a brother living in Singapore. But now, with a daughter living there as well, Singapore is bound to feature more frequently in her travels. By the way, for those who might suddenly get the urge to surprise the Pushkarna family and turn up at the wedding, don't forget to read that part of the invitation that specifies that the dress code should conform to Indian custom. IT'S A common practice for Hadassah groups visiting Israel from the US to have people living in Israel sitting with them at Friday night dinner. More often than not, the Sabbath guests are American expatriates who made aliya. This past Friday, guests included veteran Zionist activist Bill Levine and his wife Marva, who sits on the executive board of Hadassah Israel. Marlene Post, the vivacious, synergetic president of Hadassah International, hosted the event, and as always urged her guests to say something about themselves and what brought them to Israel, and to share some of their most vivid memories of life in Israel. When it was Bill Levine's turn to speak, he said that through his work with various Zionist organizations, he had close contacts with a number of Hadassah national presidents from the US, the first of whom was Rose Halperin, noted for her large, magnificent hats. In those days, in the 1960s, differences between the political Right and the political Left were not limited to raised voices, but included actual physical altercations. When this happened once at an on-stage meeting of the World Zionist Organization, Halperin, who by that time was walking with the aid of a cane, felt that things had gone a little too far. Seeking to put a stop to the fisticuffs, she declared that enough was enough, and lashed out with her cane in all directions, striking assailants of both the Left and the Right. Sure enough they stopped fighting. It was at that moment that Levine realized the power and the strength of Hadassah. ANOTHER MEMORY lane story concerns Yaron Deckel, the Israel Broadcasting Authority's Washington-based roving reporter in America. Deckel was one of the guests on the first program hosted by Yaron Enosh, who returned to the Israel Radio airwaves last Friday after a two-year absence. To celebrate the occasion, Deckel decided to tell an anecdote which he said he was relating for the first time. It was about how he could have killed President George W. Bush. Accompanied by a two-man crew, Deckel went to Texas to interview Bush on his ranch for Israel Television. The trio underwent several security checks from the entrance to the ranch until they were finally ushered into the house. During the security process they were asked to dismantle their equipment and their van was searched by a security officer and a sniffer dog. It was only after they were waved through following the final search of their van that the penny dropped. No one, all the way through, had conducted a body search on them. "We could have been carrying a penknife or some other forbidden instrument with which we could have killed the most important man in the world - but no one gave us a body search," declared Deckel. "There were intensive searches of the van and the equipment - but no body search." "It couldn't have happened here," respond-ed Enosh. "We're a well-run country."