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AN INTERFAITH group from Israel.(Photo by: Courtesy)
Grapevine: A flame of unity
The Maccabiah torch that on July 6, 2017, will launch the 20th Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem was brought into the President’s Residence on Monday by Israeli Olympic bronze medalist judoka Or “Ori” Sasson and aspiring taekwondo athlete Asaf Yasur, who hopes to represent Israel in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. Yasur, a courageous and accomplished teenage athlete, lost both arms after being electrocuted.

President Reuven Rivlin underscored the importance of having what he called “the Jewish Olympics” take place in the Holy Land, where thousands of Jews from around the world will come together. He found it symbolic that the torch run within Israel was taking place during Hanukka, the festival of light and of Jewish courage, the festival that stands for Zionist values and Jewish nationhood, freedom and the continuity of the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland. Hanukka is also a symbol of the victory of the few over the many, said Rivlin, alluding to the anti-Israel vote taken last weekend by the United Nations Security Council.

Rivlin had particularly warm words for the two athletes who had brought him the flaming torch. He told Sasson that he was the pride of Jerusalem – a champion and a fearless gentleman. Rivlin told Yasur that he had heard that there is a slogan “Winning with Asaf.”

One doesn’t triumph over Asaf, he said, “one triumphs with Asaf.

No decision of the United Nations can move the Jews who have returned to their home after 2,000 years of exile, said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Jerusalem, the eternal city, is the heart of the Jewish people and the capital of the Jewish homeland, “and nothing will change that,” he declared.

The Maccabiah Games, which will be held in conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebrations of the reunification of Jerusalem, will attract people from all over the world and will link the Jews of the Diaspora with Jerusalem, Barkat stated.

Amir Peled, chairman of Maccabiah 2017, pledged that this would be the biggest and most meaningful Maccabiah ever, with at least 10,000 athletes from 80 countries, and hopefully 90 countries. Peled said that the torch would be carried throughout the Jewish world over the next seven months, before it is returned to Jerusalem.

Among the athletes who were present at the ceremony at the President’s Residence were Paralympics gold medalist Noam Gershoni and Alejandro Eskenazi, who said that he was the only Jewish baseball player on the Cuban baseball team, and that he was invited to come and coach baseball in Israel, after having represented Cuba at the 19th Maccabiah Games.

Also present were various World Maccabiah officials, including Maccabiah honorary president Morris Kahn and Yair Hamburger, chairman of the Maccabi World Movement.

Following the Hanukka candlelighting ceremony, people were vying to be photographed with Sasson and Gershoni. The torch will be brought Wednesday morning to the Tombs of the Maccabees for a special Hanukka candlelighting ceremony.

■ PRESUMABLY , UKRAINIAN Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who is a practicing Jew, was looking forward to this week renewing his acquaintance with Rivlin, whom he met in September when Rivlin visited Ukraine to participate in the 75th anniversary commemoration of the Babi Yar massacre. In all probability, Groysman was also looking forward to placing a note in the Western Wall, despite the Ukrainian vote at the United Nations Security Council. In Yiddish, “Groysman” means “big man.” But when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled Groysman’s visit, he cut him down to size.

■ IT’S NOT only young men who are braggarts who tend to shoot themselves in the foot. At age 84, and given his knowledge that journalists can seize on a word or a sentence and build it up into a mega-story, Haim Yavin, aka Mr. Television, should have been a little more circumspect when speaking of a much earlier and in his view more liberated period when, in a worst-case scenario, a lewd comment or a pinch on a woman’s backside might have elicited a slap on the face by way of reaction – “and then it was all over.” Today, he lamented, anything that might be construed as sexual harassment has women running to a lawyer.

Yavin’s nostalgia did not find an echo among females who had been employed at the Israel Broadcasting Authority on Yavin’s watch. His comments went viral, and quite a number of women who had chosen not to speak out when harassed by Yavin began to tell all. A former Yediot Aharonot journalist, who used to cover the IBA, and later went to work there, confided to former colleagues that she was terrified to get into an elevator with Yavin unless there were other people acting as buffers. After being bashed on social media for several days, Yavin conceded that he may have been unwise in his nostalgic musings.

■ NOTH ING LASTS forever, but sometimes, the end can be postponed. For instance, the veteran Smadar movie theater in Jerusalem’s German Colony has once again received a reprieve. The theater, believed to be the oldest in Israel, was scheduled to close at the end of this week, but the Lev Cinema network reached some kind of accommodation with the Jerusalem Municipality that enables the theater to keep functioning till May 1. Senior Lev management is hopeful that a solution to the financial problems of the theater will be found before that date, and that it will continue to be a source of entertainment instead of being converted into a medical center.

Meanwhile, just as veteran Cameri Theater director Noam Semel was celebrating a collaborative production with the Gesher Theater, the identity of his successor was made public.

Semel, who has been the director-general of the Cameri since 1992, announced a half a year ago that he is stepping down. The Cameri board, headed by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, decided that Shmulik Yifrach,the director of the Beersheba Theater, was the best of four finalists.

Then came the bombshell announcement – on the day of the actual 80th anniversary concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra – of the retirement of legendary musical director maestro Zubin Mehta. But thankfully that doesn’t become effective for almost another two years. The joy of the concert, attended by Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, was marred somewhat by the news that after more than half a century, Mehta, who was born in the same year as the orchestra, was making way for someone else. Rivlin delighted the audience with a robust rendition of “Maoz Tzur.”

■ WHEN ISRAEL’S fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, completed his tenure, he had the opportunity to serve a second five-year term.

Prior to the current presidency law, the term was for five years, with the option to serve a second term – namely, 10 years altogether.

Only with Ezer Weizman, the seventh president, did it change to one seven-year term.

Navon chose not to serve a second term but to return to politics and to serve instead as education minister.

Navon was a teacher in his soul. At various stages in his life, he taught Arabic, Hebrew literature, and he even taught Spanish to Ben-Gurion.

He spoke several languages, including Yiddish, even though he was Sephardi on both sides of his family. He was very pedantic about Hebrew, and when thought was given some time prior to the first anniversary of his death as to how to best honor his memory, promotion of correct Hebrew appeared to be most appropriate.

What was strange was that the concept of this memorial was promoted by the Betar Zionist youth group, which politically was as far as could be from Navon. Its reasoning was that Jabotinsky, like Navon, believed that Hebrew is the key language of the Jewish people and must be preserved and promoted. It then approached the Atid network of schools, which was very receptive to the idea, as was Navon’s son, Erez, who was well aware of how much his father had cared about proper use of language.

Contestants were required to spell, read, define, pronounce and supply the correct grammar for words that were not all part of everyday speech. One of the three finalists was Daniella Shapira, whose mother tongue is Russian.

■ FOLLO WING PUBLICAT ION in the Hebrew media that outgoing US Ambassador Dan Shapiro wants to stay in Israel until the end of the school year so that his eldest daughter can complete her matriculation exams, Michelle Mazel, the wife of former Israel ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel, recalled that Edward Walker, one of Shapiro’s predecessors, had been confronted with a similar problem. He was ambassador to Egypt, and his daughter was enrolled at Cairo American College. In 1997 he was posted to Israel. Remaining in Cairo was not an option for him, so his wife, Wendy, remained in Cairo with their daughter in housing graciously provided by the embassy. A few months later Wendy Walker returned to the official residence to pick up some items that she had left behind. The marine at the entrance initially refused to admit her and gave her a thorough grilling as to who she was and what she wanted.

She’s not the only spouse to undergo that kind of humiliation. When Shimon Peres was foreign minister, his wife, Sonya, paid him an unannounced visit. The security personnel at the entrance to the Foreign Ministry compound did not know who she was and, until they were able to verify her identity, would not let her in.

Even worse was an incident that befell the writer of this column many long years ago when she was sent to interview Israel Pollak, the founder of the Polgat textile plant in Kiryat Gat, which in its time was the largest enterprise of its kind in Israel. When the guard at the entrance to the sprawling factory was told by the reporter that she had an appointment with Pollak, he said there was no such person working there. “He’s the man who pays your salary,” said the reporter. Convinced that she was fabricating a story in order to gain entry, the guard remained adamant in his refusal to allow her inside. This was in a pre-cellphone era, so she could not telephone Pollak’s secretary to explain her predicament. But after arguing for some time with the guard, she was able to position herself in a manner that afforded her a look inside his booth, and she saw a telephone. She suggested that he call the switchboard to check her story. He did this with great reluctance, asking if there was an Israel Pollak on staff. His face registered disbelief, then shock, at the reply that he received, and he very sheepishly opened the gate, already fearful that he might lose his job.

■ EVERY YEAR, the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association holds a Balfour Dinner, which is the major event on its calendar and features as speakers a prominent personality from Britain and another from Israel.

This year, due to the planning of a series of events for the gala centenary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration, IBCA decided that instead of a Balfour Dinner, it would hold a Balfour Brunch, and in so doing also moved away from the actual anniversary date of November 2 to December 25, which this year coincided with the first day of Hanukka.

There were a few Christians in attendance, and for them it was also merry Christmas.

IBCA chairman Prof. Alex Deutsch announced that although there was not yet a fixed date for the Balfour Centenary Dinner next November, there was at least one fixed speaker, Lord Jacob Rothschild. Given the fact that the letter signed by foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour had been sent to Lord Walter Rothschild, it was entirely appropriate that the speaker at the centenary be a titled member of the British branch of the Rothschild family.

According to Dr. Alan Webber, a member of the IBCA executive committee and a past chairman, it is hoped that the first of the IBCA centenary events will be held at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the reason being that Balfour not only attended the official opening of the Hebrew University in April 1925, but was also one of the speakers. In fact, there’s a wonderful photograph of him at the university with Lord Allenby and Sir Herbert Samuel.

A guest speaker was Steve Linde, the special features editor and former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, who had been scheduled to speak about the American elections, but because so much had already been said and written about the nature of the elections and their outcome and there had been such an outpouring of derogatory comments about President-elect Donald Trump, Linde decided to minimize his remarks on that particular subject and to talk about people whom he had met in his journalistic career and the impressions that they made on him.

Two people who had a profound effect on him and who will remain uppermost in his memory are Shimon Peres and Elie Wiesel.

Because both were of an advanced age and yet had so much of themselves to give, Linde used Peres as an example of making use of every precious moment in life, “because we never know what may happen.” Peres, only a few hours before his collapse, had been in fine form, delivering a speech. Just a few weeks earlier he’d been to South Africa. The underlying message was to treasure the people and the moments in our lives and not to judge others until after they have been put to the test.

In this context, Linde was referring to Trump, not the brash, ruthless man who had been out on the hustings, but a man with a warm heart who had responded to a cry of anguish. Linde then proceeded to read a testimonial by Rabbi Hershy Z. Ten of Los Angeles testifying to Trump’s graciousness and goodness of heart.

Some 30 years ago Ten’s three-year-old son, Avraham Moshe, was suffering from a severe lung condition. The family was living in Los Angeles, where doctors were at loss to find a remedy for his pain and suffering. Ten looked to his former home New York in the hope that a fresh medical opinion could offer hope for his child. But no private or commercial airline would take the risk of flying the sick infant to New York.

In desperation, Ten phoned Trump, told him the situation and asked for the use of his plane on a mission of mercy. Trump, without knowing Ten, unhesitatingly agreed, and a week later the plane landed in Los Angeles, then flew Ten, his wife and son with three ICU nurses to La Guardia Airport in New York.

Unfortunately, there was no cure for Avraham Moshe, and he died. But Ten has never forgotten Trump’s instant act of grace and kindness, and they have remained friends ever since.

Linde also touched on the Balfour Declaration and the role of Chaim Weizmann, who later became Israel’s first president; and on the need to set up a modern Sanhedrin that would include the best brains in the Jewish world to combat antisemitism and anti-Israel incitement.

■ WHEN TIME permits, Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, are avid bookworms. Thus three months back, when Nechama Rivlin read in the literary supplement of one of the Hebrew newspapers that it was the 100th anniversary of the birth of S. Yizhar, the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky, the pioneer of modern Hebrew literature, she told her husband that he must host an event to commemorate so great a writer with such an extraordinary command of language.

Last week the Rivlins duly hosted members of the Smilansky family along with several of the writer’s friends and colleagues, including sculptor and Israel Prize laureate Dani Karavan, poet, novelist, filmmaker and Israel Prize laureate Haim Guri and prizewinning novelist and writer of children’s books Meir Shalev.

S. Izhar based most of his fictional works on facts. The best known and most controversial of these is Khirbet Khizeh, a novella published in 1949, which is a first-person tale about a group of IDF soldiers who entered a fictional Palestinian village during the War of Independence and, at gunpoint, forced all the villagers out, including women, children and elderly people. Fortunately, no one was killed, but all were herded into trucks bound for a destination across the border and fated never to return. Smilansky was an intelligence officer in the War of Independence, and he was aware of such scenes and haunted by them.

In civilian life, he was also an educator teaching in Yavniel, Ben-Shemen, Rehovot, the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.

Additionally, he was a member of the first Knesset and, with a couple of breaks between elections, served as a legislator for a total of 16 years.

Khirbet Khizeh, in a sense, laid the foundations for the Palestinian and Israeli-Arab commemoration of what they consider the Nakba, the catastrophe. For many years Khirbet Khizeh was compulsory reading in school curricula, perhaps to prove that the price of statehood includes sometimes doing things that go against one’s conscience.

For all that, noted Rivlin, despite his strong left-wing leanings and the controversy stirred by Khirbet Khizeh, Smilansky was never labeled a traitor by the Right.

Harking back to when he himself first became a member of Knesset, Rivlin said that he was advised by other MKs to read some of the speeches made by former legislators.

While he did not agree with Smilansky on many issues, he was captivated by the richness of his language, and concurred with someone else who was present that when Smilansky wrote an article in a newspaper, the article found its way into right-wing homes.

Smilansky’s family and friends were tremendously appreciative of Rivlin’s gesture, having previously attempted to get the Culture and Sport Ministry to hold some kind of event in his memory, in recognition of the fact that he was a cultural icon and a national treasure. They were fobbed off and sent to the Knesset or to some educational institution.

However, for them it was important that Smilansky be recognized as a cultural figure, because it was in culture that he had left his mark. The fact that Rivlin, whose politics were completely at odds with those of Smilansky prior to his becoming president, had chosen to honor Smilansky’s memory was a noble deed in the eyes of all present.

Netanyahu visited the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem last week to convey Christmas greetings and to voice his pride in Israel’s relations with Christian brothers and sisters around the world.

He wondered, in the case of those Christians who have visited Israel, what lingered most in their memories: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa, the Sea of Galilee or Nazareth? He was certain that they had been moved deeply by these and other Christian holy sites bonding them with Israel, “because we all know that this land of Israel is the land of our common heritage. It changed the story of humanity, it changed civilization.

What a magnificent heritage it is.”

Netanyahu then turned to the less pleasant aspect of common fate, mentioning that Israel is under attack, that the forces of intolerance and barbarism that attack all religions attack Christians with particular vehemence.

“We stand with you, and I’m proud of the fact that in Israel, this is the one place in the Middle East that the Christian community not only survives but thrives ,” he said, attributing this to Israel’s commitment to religious freedom.

ICEJ executive director Dr. Jürgen Bühler responded by wishing the prime minister Happy Hanukka and presenting him with a silver Hanukka dreidel.

■ JERUSALEM -BASED, New York-born art teacher Maureen Kushner, whose Peace Through Humor traveling art exhibition has been to literally hundreds of cities around the world, was in Krakow in early November for yet another showing of how Jewish, Christian and Muslim children in Israel, including those of Ethiopian background, view peace.

After she returned to Israel, with the exhibition still hanging in Krakow, the Krakow Jewish Community Center hosted representatives of the Council of all Faiths of Israel. The group was composed of leaders of all of Israel’s religions, including Jewish, Muslim, Bahá’í, Druse, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, Ahmadi and Maronite leaders. The group was accompanied by representatives of the Interior Ministry.

JCC executive director Jonathan Ornstein and Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich spoke to the about Krakow’s Jewish revival and introduced them to community members present at the luncheon that they enjoyed on the JCC’s premises. Ornstein also told them about the important interfaith work being done in Krakow by the JCC and drew their attention to the Peace Through Humor exhibition from Israel which was still on the walls around them. Though not present herself, Kushner could not have wished for a more meaningful group of viewers.

■ SEASONED JOURNAL IST Henrique Cymerman, who for close to 20 years has covered Christmas in Bethlehem for Spanish television, reported that it was much more festive this year than it had been in the past, with an incredible number of Santas wandering in the streets and playing with the children. There were also Christians from Gaza who told him that they had received special permission from the IDF. They also told him that their numbers had dwindled drastically over the past year, and that some of them intended to remain in Bethlehem and not return to Gaza, because life was intolerable under Hamas.

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