Within two days of Israel winning the Eurovision song contest with the song “Toy,” it seemed as the toy concept had transferred itself to the inauguration ceremony for the new US Embassy in Jerusalem. There were so many standing ovations by the guests in attendance they were beginning to resemble a Jack-in-the-Box assembly line. President Reuven Rivlin brought a grin to the face of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he gave a Hebrew or even Russian pronunciation to the surname of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, making it sound like that of the latter’s distant relative, world-renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin. In fact, what was closer to the original pronunciation of the name appealed so much to Netanyahu, he used it when making his own speech.
Lionel Rolfe, a nephew of Yehudi Menuhin, confirmed in a December 2016 article on Huffingtonpost.com that Mnuchin is indeed a member of the family.
It seems that Rolfe’s grandfather Moshe confounded the clerks at Ellis Island who didn’t know how to spell his surname, so he anglicized it to “Menuhin.” No one else ever had the name. In the course of research, Rolfe learned that his uncle came from a famous Jewish family called Mnuchin, “with a strange Hebraic pronunciation.” Much later, he met a few people with that name, and they all knew that they were related to the Menuhins whose forebears had landed at Ellis Island in 1916, but didn’t quite know how. So Rivlin and Netanyahu were both right when they reverted to the authentic pronunciation of the treasury secretary’s name.
When speakers at Monday’s events spoke of how deeply ingrained Jerusalem is in the Jewish psyche, even among unaffiliated Jews, it was not empty hype. With a few exceptions, reaction on social media was not only positive but emotional. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said at an Orthodox Union-sponsored event in the morning that the embassy move to Jerusalem had elevated Israel’s international status. Despite widespread condemnation of the Gaza deaths on the day of the US Embassy’s Jerusalem inauguration, it looks as if America, Guatemala and Paraguay will not be the only countries with embassies in the capital by this time next year. Hopefully, long before that, a means will be found to neutralize Gazans attempting to enter Israel without resorting to live ammunition.
■ ONE OF the most excited people at the ceremony in Jerusalem was lawyer Marc Zell, the head of the Israel branch of Republicans Abroad who, before the US elections, voiced absolute faith in the promise made by then-candidate Donald Trump to move the embassy to Israel’s capital. Zell, a consistently loyal Trump supporter, was able to say something akin to “I told you so” in an interview with Reshet Bet’s Arye Golan on the day before the official transfer. In six weeks’ time, Zell, who lives in Tekoa, will not have to travel as far as in former years to celebrate American Independence Day. Ambassador David Friedman has not yet brought the festivities to Jerusalem, but he has brought them closer to Jerusalem, and they will take place on July 3 at the Avenue Conference Center in Airport City.
■ WHAT A wonderful gift for Israel on Jerusalem Day, and what a wonderful gift to the world is Netta Barzilai, who set an example for all those who have too many misgivings about their looks and their abilities to simply be themselves. It’s diversity that makes the world an interesting place, and with her win Netta became a spokesperson for the acceptance of diversity. Before, during and after every Eurovision contest, it is customary for radio and television anchors hosting Eurovision-related programs to talk about the song and the performer. Never has there been so much accumulated goodwill as there was for Netta, even before she won. Everyone who was anyone was sure that she would triumph.
In fact, she already had triumphed by making it to the finals. As President Rivlin told her, “Whatever the end result, for us you are a symbol of success and we’re proud of you.” He and his wife, Nechama Rivlin, gave Netta 12 points even before the start of the voting and Prime Minister Netanyahu and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev were each among the many Israelis burning the midnight oil to see how Netta fared, and were quick to call and congratulate her. It wasn’t just a personal victory for Netta, it was a political victory for Israel at a controversial moment, almost on the eve of the relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem and Nakba Day for the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab population. Although Netta had been tapped as a winner by mavens at home and abroad, there was always the chance it wouldn’t happen.
■ HAVING EXPERIENCED a major disappointment or two in his lifetime, Rivlin, wanting to give Netta a feel-good moment less than an hour before the finals, heaped well-deserved superlatives on her. Israeli merrymakers in Lisbon later sang Am Israel Hai – “The People of Israel Lives.”
Netanyahu told Netta he had two words for her: Kapara Aleich! which literally translates as “Atonement on you,” but in Israeli jargon means “You’re awesome!” However the Microsoft translation program took the word kapara too phonetically and translated it to mean, “Netta you’re a real cow.” In the strange manner in which expressions take hold and are given meanings that are far from literal, calling someone a cow might become a compliment. Israel being Israel, there’s always someone who wants to put a spoke in the wheel – in this case Kan 11’s Dov Gil Har. He kept raising the issue of the supposed inability to have Eurovision in Jerusalem next year because the finals always take place on a Saturday night and can’t be organized without desecration of Shabbat, which would meet strenuous haredi (ultra-Orthodox) opposition.
This would be a great time to include Christians, Muslims and Druse in Israel’s Eurovision work crews, so that any work that needs to be done on Shabbat will automatically be done by them. With almost a whole year to prepare, there shouldn’t be much left to do on Shabbat. It was obvious from the line of repetitive questions that Gil Har was not interested in a solution. What he wanted was to create a problem. However, Netanyahu confirmed that Jerusalem is the venue for the next Eurovision. Alluding to past years when Europeans were careful to say “Israel” rather than “Jerusalem” when getting the decision of the Israeli jury, Netanyahu said, “Whoever didn’t want Jerusalem at Eurovision will get Eurovision in Jerusalem.”
Izhar Cohen, Israel’s first Eurovision winner, who thinks Netta is fabulous, was inundated by calls from radio and TV stations. “These days, there aren’t too many things that unite us despite our political differences,” he said. “Eurovision is one of those that does. It takes us back to the days when we were one people with one heart.”
■ WORLD LEADERS keep coming to Jerusalem whether or not they officially recognize the capital. Austrian Ambassador Martin Weiss confirmed in a recent tweet that Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz will be coming to Israel next month.
“And it’s official now: Chancellor Kurz visits Israel in June. He will be accompanied by the Austrian Minister for Science and Education Heinz Fassmann. This is the third Israel-visit of Sebastian Kurz during my term as ambassador, albeit it’s his first as Austrian chancellor,” wrote Weiss.
■ IT’S BEEN a week in which history is both being made and remembered. The return of the Guatemalan Embassy to Jerusalem also churns up memories of UNSCOP, in which Guatemala played such a crucial role. In slightly more recent times, people who lived in Israel during the Six Day War, or fought as soldiers in the IDF in June 1967, are almost literally coming out of the woodwork to tell their stories. Prof. Naomi She’ar Yashuv Cohen, who lived with her late husband, Rabbi Eliyahu Yosef She’ar Yashuv Cohen, at 21 Balfour Street in Jerusalem, came to share her memories with members of the Hazvi Yisrael Synagogue, among whom she and her husband were original congregants. Attendance at the lecture was much higher than anticipated, attracting many non-members because of the popularity and status of the speaker. Synagogue president Oded Feldman, who spoke before Cohen and had been a paratrooper during the war, said the paratroopers had been ordered to wear their uniforms, replete with berets at all times, in order to allay fears and boost the morale of the population.
It seems in every apartment complex where there is a house committee there are problems that seem insurmountable – and so it was where the Cohens lived. Even though the rabbi was a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, obstacles stood in the way of getting a bomb shelter ready. The problem was cost. The sum involved was quite reasonable, but no one wanted to spend the money. Moreover, one of the occupants worked for the Foreign Ministry and confidently stated there would be no war. Nonetheless, Naomi Cohen persevered in her determined efforts to prepare a shelter. It took all the negotiating skills she could muster. In the long run, she succeeded getting a shelter built, and she and her neighbors ended up spending quite a lot of time together in it. Cohen remembered that prior to the Six Day War, when Jerusalem was divided, Amman was considered by the population of east Jerusalem to be far more important than Jerusalem. Immediately after the war, the Cohens, like so many other Jerusalemites, entered the Old City to pray at the Western Wall.
There was no plaza like there is today, said Cohen, so it was impossible to take in the full impact of the Wall, especially its height. There were also impediments to seeing its width, which then was visible more or less to the size of the Cohens’ dining room, “which was nice but small.”
■ THAT EVENING at the Talbiyeh home of Amnon and Lynn Gimpel, who each year hold an open house on the eve of Jerusalem Day, another veteran of the Six Day War, Eliyahu Avihud, who fought at Ammunition Hill and was among the first of the Israeli soldiers to set foot on the Temple Mount, told his story. It included a gripping account of face-to-face combat with Jordanian soldiers at Ammunition Hill. Jeremy Gimpel, one of the Gimpels’ three sons – all of whom have rabbinic ordination – spoke of the miracle of our times. It’s not like learning about the Maccabees, he said, but simply knowing that your neighbor across the hall was part of the miracle of reuniting Jerusalem.
■ AT THE Yakir Yerushalayim awards ceremony at the Tower of David, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said that as always, he approached the annual event with excitement. But this year – his 10th as mayor – it was more exciting, because earlier in the day he had been present at the inauguration of the US Embassy. He commented that this was also his last Yakir Yerushalayim ceremony in his capacity as mayor and declared that even though he was leaving City Hall, he would never leave Jerusalem. Although there were four rabbis among the honorees, at least two of who were haredi, plus other rabbis in the audience, the entertainment included a female singer and several female dancers. No one objected, and no one walked out.
■ MEMBERS OF the Cailingold and Avner families and their extensions will congregate at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, May 16, at the Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem for the rededication of the entrance, which in the future will bear the name of Esther Cailingold, who arrived there in December 1946 to take up a position as a teacher of English. Born in London to a religiously observant family, she was a staunch Zionist who believed that her place as a Jewish woman was in the Jewish homeland.
Among her siblings is Mimi Avner, whose late husband, Yehuda Avner died three years ago and was a long-term diplomat who inter alia served as ambassador to the Court of St. James in London and as ambassador to Australia. He was also an adviser to several prime ministers. Avner was an eloquent speaker and a most engaging writer.
His book, The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership, is an insider’s story and has been made into a movie. Recently, the Hebrew edition of the book was launched at the Begin Heritage Center, a most appropriate venue, considering that Menachem Begin was one of the prime ministers Avner advised. In the months following her arrival in Jerusalem, Esther Cailingold, whilst immersing herself in the local culture, witnessed growing street violence, the imposition of curfews and other restrictions on movement, plus attacks on Jews and Jewish property. She joined the Hagana in October 1947, but continued teaching while in training for combat. In January 1948, she left Evelina de Rothschild and became a full-time Hagana soldier.
In addition to military duties, she was the announcer for the Hagana’s English-language broadcasting service. She was with the last convoy that entered the Jewish Quarter of the Old City on May 7, 1948, where she was wounded on May 16, during a sustained Jordanian attack. The injury was not sufficiently serious to prevent her from returning to her duties. However, she was seriously injured in an explosion on May 26 in which her spine was shattered. After the Jewish surrender on May 28, she and others who were wounded were moved to the Armenian school outside the Jewish Quarter. During this period, she fell into a coma and died in the early morning of May 29. The last letter she had written to her parents, six days before her death, was passed from hand to hand until it reached its destination. She is buried in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl. Memorials named for her include a forest at Kibbutz Lavi; a scholarship fund at Yeshivat HaKotel; rooms in Emunah houses for children; and various libraries in England where there is also an Esther Cailingold Society as part of Emunah UK.
■ FRIENDSHIP SOMETIMES suffers from the overbearing nature of one of the parties. A case in point is Mike Evans, founder of the Friends of Zion, who doesn’t do things in an understated manner. By way of thanking President Trump for publicly recognizing Jerusalem and moving the US Embassy to the capital, Evans launched a billboard campaign in Jerusalem in which he had 150 large signs affixed to buildings, buses and utility poles. Aside from the signs being larger and brighter than most of those put up by locals, thereby upstaging them, the signs put on utility poles are much too low and wide – especially where the pole is on narrow pavement. Youngsters on bikes can get a nasty head injury from the protruding sign boards, as can pedestrians who are above average height. Enthusiasm and giving thanks are all very well, but not when they come at the expense of human safety. Apparently, being a friend of Zion is one thing, while being a friend of Zionists is another. A little responsibility and basic consideration for the people who live in Jerusalem would not go astray.
■ FANS OF Haim Gouri, long-regarded as Israel’s poet laureate, can attend a memorial tribute to the famed writer on Thursday, May 17, as part of the Israeli Poetry Festival taking place in Metulla. In addition to poets Agi Mishol and Yonadav Kaploun, Gouri, who witnessed the history of the state for nearly all of its 70 years prior to his passing in January, will be eulogized by his friend, former combat pilot Zeev Raz, with whom he developed a friendship in the twilight years of his life.
■ AMONG THE distinguished authors who were in Israel last week as participants in the International Writers Festival was best-selling Australian author Graeme Simsion, who didn’t actually begin writing until he was 50. It was his first visit to Israel, where some of his works have also been translated into Hebrew. Simsion is married to novelist Anne Buist, who is also a researcher and practicing psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health. It was actually Buist who was invited to the Festival, but because of some professional obligations in her non-literary field, she was unable to take the time to come to Israel, so Simsion traveled in her stead. Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan is a great admirer of Simsion and invited him to his residence to talk about his work. A live-wire speaker with the delivery of a stand–up comedian, Simsion delighted the audience as he spoke about how he constructs his characters from bits and pieces of the personalities of real people whose idiosyncrasies he weaves together to create a new personality to fit his story. Cannan had brought out his own copies of two of Simsion’s books for the author to autograph, but hadn’t counted on receiving a signed copy of Two Steps Forward, which Simsion wrote together with his wife after having walked for 87 days from Cluny, France, to Santiago de Compestala, Spain. When planning a book, Simsion devotes much thought to deviations from the central plot. Every possible scenario follows the question, “What if...?”
Cannan was off to London the following day, but not before joining fellow diplomats in the annual mini-mondial organized by the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, which brings together Palestinians, local Arab and Jewish youngsters, sports celebrities, mayors and members of the diplomatic community. Chemi Peres, chairman of the Peres Center board of directors, told the several hundred people gathered at the Herzliya Municipal Stadium, “Today, with the security tensions, you are proving to everyone that there is hope for coexistence, tolerance and partnership – for the children and the next generation, who are our future.”
■ IN THE evening, several of the participants in the mini-mondial presented a somewhat more elegant picture in their smart business- suit attire at the Europe Day reception hosted at his residence by Ambassador Emanuele Giaufret, who heads the delegation of the European Union. Giaufret, who previously served in Israel some 10 years ago, said he enjoyed the familiarity of coming back. Despite the changes, particularly in the Tel Aviv skyline, he felt as if had come home. Turning to Europe, which has coped with the economic and refugee crises, he spoke of the threats confronting EU member states on European soil, warned against complacency and declared that unity is today more important than ever. Referencing racism, specifically antisemitism, which is again on an upsurge in Europe, Giaufret said antisemitism must be eradicated because it is not only a threat to the Jews but a menace to a liberal society.
Giaufret also alluded to Israel’s 70th anniversary of independence, saying Israel, which was born with the vision to be a free nation in its own land, has seen that dream fulfilled and is a thriving country to which Jews are historically committed. The Palestinians also want to be a free people in their own land, he said, adding that Europe supports a two-state solution while being fully committed to Israel’s security and Israel’s right to defend itself. “We believe that conflicts can be solved through negotiation,” he said. “That’s why we support the implementation of the agreement with Iran.”
National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz left a security cabinet meeting in order to keep his promise to attend the EU reception.
Iran shooting rockets into Israel from Syrian soil is a new phenomenon, he said, and warned that Iran wants to establish air, missile and naval bases in Syria. Steinitz charged Iran with causing instability in the region, and told the ambassadors of EU member states, “You don’t want Iran with one leg in the Eastern Mediterranean.” He pledged that Israel will not allow Iran to transform Syria into an Iranian military outpost.