Grapevine: Adventures in Bibleland

In the holiday spirit, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev posted a video on her Facebook page that showed her and others at the opening of the biblical theme park in Katzrin. She said that she was thrilled to learn that so many thousands of people had visited the park, and encouraged more to do so and to enjoy themselves as much as she had.

The park features many attractions for adults and children alike, including the story of creation, Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel and the Pyramids of Egypt. There were also many videos, trivia games, ancient olive presses, dancers and musicians and much more, with park employees engaged in the various themes, wearing period costumes relating to biblical periods.

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Regev obviously had a fun time, and so did the many visitors for whom this was not only an exciting free-of-charge experience but also a wonderful opportunity for parents and children to interact with each other on a voyage of biblical knowledge and discovery.

TO ISRAELIS, at least those who frequent the concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the name of violin virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman is well known because Huberman was the founder of the IPO, and in creating the orchestra succeeded in saving the lives of many great European musicians, who in all likelihood would have remained in Europe only to be murdered by the Nazis. Huberman recruited them and brought them to Tel Aviv.

To Poles who honor the memories of their great classical musicians, Huberman is a source of pride, and to the classical music lovers of Czestochowa, the city of his birth, Huberman’s memory has been perpetuated with a biennial violin competition in his name, which is held at the Czestochowa Philharmonic Orchestra’s Bronislaw Huberman Hall. The building is constructed on the former site of the city’s main synagogue, which was burned down by the Nazis in December 1939. The Philharmonic Orchestra’s premises were built on the ruins of the synagogue in 1965. There are two bronze engravings at the entrance to the impressive building. One is a depiction of Huberman, and the other memorializes the synagogue that once stood there.

Holocaust survivor Sigmund Rolat, 88, who was born in Czestochowa but lives in the United States, is a philanthropist, art collector and successful businessman who has contributed much to the revival of Jewish life in Poland in general, and in Czestochowa in particular. He was one of founding donors to Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of the Jews of Poland, and he has contributed to many of Czestochowa’s cultural and memorial projects and continues to do so. He was the patron of this year’s Huberman Festival, which opened this month and is still running. He was present at the opening, together with the mayor of Czestochowa, Krzysztof Matyjaszczyk, the director of the Philharmonic, Ireneusz Kozera, and 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, as well as an appreciative capacity audience.

Israeli violin virtuoso Shlomo Mintz, who was actually born in Moscow, but came to Israel with his family when he was two years old, opened the festive concert and received such an enthusiastic ovation from the crowd that he played a series of encores in response to the ongoing applause.

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ALMOST IN tandem with the 74th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, the bloodstained atara (decorative neckband) of a tallit was discovered beneath the wooden floor boards of what had once been a synagogue in the ghetto. It is currently housed at Shem Olam Institute, which was founded in 1996 by Rabbi Avraham Krieger and is located on Moshav Kfar Haroeh.

This is not the first time that Shem Olam Institute has received material evidence of Nazi bestiality against the Jews of Lodz. Dariusz Dekiert, a devout Polish Christian who lives in Lodz, wanted to learn about things Jewish, and became so immersed in Jewish history and culture that he became fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic, and in addition to working as a university lecturer is an official translator of material from Hebrew and Yiddish to Polish and vice versa. Some years ago, he came across numerous photographs taken of Jewish life and its destruction in Lodz. The photos were from the private albums of Nazi soldiers and officers, and some were even captioned on the back. He brought these and other items to Shem Olam and has made the salvaging of Holocaust-related material his life’s work.

It’s not certain that he was the one who found the bloodstained atara, but what is certain is that because of him and people like him, much that has not yet been revealed about the Holocaust will come to light and be preserved for future generations.

Lodz had quite a large Jewish community before the war. Nazi forces entered the city on September 8, 1939, and instantly began terrorizing Jews. The total population of Lodz at the time numbered 665,000, of whom 223,000 were Jews. Early in 1940, the Nazis forcibly confined 164,000 of these Jews to the deprivations of the Lodz Ghetto, which was fenced off from the rest of the city and surrounded by barbed wire. There was no electricity or running water. The ghetto was the largest after Warsaw.

Deportations to Auschwitz-Birkenau began in January 1942 and continued till August 1944, when the ghetto was liquidated during the period August 9-28. Of the Jews who had been in the Lodz Ghetto, only 900 survived the Holocaust.

The bloodstained atara that was discovered is believed to be a relic of a pogrom that took place during the Yom Kippur service in 1940.

Shem Olam is one of several institutions in Israel that are dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust through exhibitions, educational programs, organized tours to Poland and conferences in which first-, second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors participate.

In Poland, too, despite the resurgence of antisemitism and the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, there are numerous Holocaust memorial projects and events. The 74th anniversary commemoration of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto was one of many examples of this. The ceremony was jointly organized by the Lodz Municipality, the Jewish community of Lodz and the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization, which has several rabbinic emissaries in Poland whose aim it is to make Polish Jews more aware of their religious heritage.

One such emissary is Rabbi David Sychowski, who serves as chief rabbi of the Lodz Jewish community. Among those attending the commemoration ceremonies at the Jewish cemetery and the Radegast Railway Station, from which the deportations were sent to Auschwitz, were Jewish community leaders, municipal officials, including Mayor Hanna Zdanowska, members of the local Scouts movement and visitors from Israel and elsewhere.

ON A happier note, The Jewish Community Center of Krakow last week celebrated the official opening of its Taube Family Playground and Shana Penn Garden, which will serve the children in the JCC’s Frajda Early Childhood Center. The focus of the new spaces, generously funded by Taube Philanthropies, is educational play and interaction with the natural world. The playground includes a trampoline, stage and built-in memory game.

Attendees of the opening included Taube Philanthropies executive director Shana Penn, for whom the garden is named, JCC Krakow executive director Jonathan Ornstein, US Consul-General B. Bix Aliu, Consul-General of Germany Dr. Michael Gross, rabbis representing the Orthodox and Reform movements in Krakow, Frajda parents and children, members of Krakow’s Jewish community, and friends and supporters from all over Poland.

The Taube Family Playground is named in honor of bay area philanthropist and native son of Krakow Tad Taube, the chairman of Taube Philanthropies and board president emeritus of the Koret Foundation in San Francisco. Born in Krakow in 1931, Taube immigrated with his parents to the United States in the summer of 1939, just months before the outbreak of World War II. In 2003, Taube established a philanthropic program – the Jewish Heritage Initiative in Poland – which supports the revitalization of Jewish culture in the now-democratic republic. Penn has been extremely active in this regard.

“My family and I are proud to have made this fun-filled, much-needed space possible,” said Taube. “The Taube Family Playground and Shana Penn Garden at JCC Krakow will provide a stimulating, educational environment for the youngest members of Krakow’s growing Jewish community. May the children attending the Frajda early childhood center and their friends from the Kazimierz neighborhood and beyond play together and learn together here in the city of my birth, beautiful Krakow,” he said.

Many of those present noted the unique play airplane in the new playground. The airplane is a replica of one in which Taube played in prewar Poland and honors his commitment to Jewish life in the country.

“The plane, as well as the playground, represent the connections between generations of Krakowian Jews,” said Ornstein. “As we build a Jewish future in our city, we draw on a beautiful tradition of Polish Judaism and express our gratitude to Taube Philanthropies for making this playground and garden possible.”

Consul Gross, in his remarks, pledged financial support from the Consulate-General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Krakow for the Frajda preschool and playground and garden, beginning in 2019.

Opened in October 2017 and created in consultation with leading Jewish early childhood education experts from Poland, the United States and Israel, the JCC’s Frajda Early Childhood Center currently provides a Jewish educational foundation to 16 children aged one to six. Expectations are that the number of children will grow.

JCC Krakow was opened in April 2008 by the Prince of Wales and now serves as the focal point for the resurgence of Jewish life in Krakow with more than 700 Jewish members, though non-Jews also attend events there. The center provides social and educational services to the local Jewish community, coordinates programming open to the entire Krakow community to foster Polish-Jewish relations, and acts as Krakow’s Jewish visitors center.

Ornstein has served as executive director of JCC Krakow throughout the decade of its existence. Before that, he lectured in modern Hebrew at Krakow’s famous Jagiellonian University, which has a comprehensive Jewish studies program. Prior to that, Ornstein, a native of New York, lived on a kibbutz in the Negev for seven years, during which time he also spent two years in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces. He is active in promoting Polish-Israeli dialogue as well as Jewish-Christian dialogue, and sits on a board of child Holocaust survivors.

Taube Philanthropies, established in 1981, is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay area, and is active in philanthropic investments in Jewish, civic, and cultural life, primarily in the bay area, Poland and Israel. Through its grants, it supports institution-building, scholarship, heritage preservation, arts and culture and education. It also organizes Jewish heritage tours to Poland and has published illustrated guide books on Jewish Warsaw and Jewish Krakow.

Among the Israel projects of Taube Philanthropies was the dedication in June 2016 of a new entrance to Hebrew Union College, the Jerusalem headquarters of the Reform movement. The ceremony for the naming of the Taube Family Campus was attended by Tad Taube and other members of his family, who contributed $15 million to HUC.

ONE LAST reference to Poland: Internationally acclaimed Australian piano virtuoso Sarah Grunstein, who lives in New York, but is currently back home for recitals at the Sydney Opera House, has a story to prove how fate links Jews from different parts of the world together.

The story was first published in 2016 by J-Wire, an Internet media service relating to Jewish life in the antipodes, and republished last week in advance of Grunstein’s Sydney recitals.

In 1983 Grunstein, who had moved to New York to study at Juilliard, stepped onto the curb on West 57th Street. There were seven empty taxis coming along. She got into the first, an old yellow checker cab.

New York at the time was dangerous and racist, filled with street crime. Grunstein asked the driver to take her to East 78th street. The driver, who she estimated to be about 60 years old, began to drive, all the while staring at her in his rearview mirror. At every traffic light he turned around and stared at her some more, entirely fixated. She was very uncomfortable, so much so that she wanted to exit the cab and get into another. But there was no time for that, she thought.

The driver asked her if she was from England. “No, Australia”, she replied. She realized that as he spoke to her, he stared at her less, so she engaged in conversation, feeling more comfortable with dialogue than in the gaze of this strange man’s prolonged stare.

“I know people in Australia,” said the driver. Grunstein wondered whom he could know out of a population that then numbered some 14 million. He mentioned five names, but none of them were familiar to her.

He asked whether she was from Sydney or Melbourne.

When she replied that she was from Sydney, the taxi driver said: “No wonder you don’t know those people; they are all from Melbourne.” He continued that he knew two people in Sydney but couldn’t remember their last names.

Grunstein acknowledged that this would make it difficult for her to be able to tell whether she knew them, but she asked about their first names anyway.

Trying in vain to search his memory, the taxi driver rammed his hands on the steering wheel, muttering: “Last name, last name, what was their last name? First names, Hania and Bolek; I can’t remember their last name.”

“Who are they?” asked Grunstein.

Still lamenting that he couldn’t remember the last name, the taxi driver told her that during the Second World War he had been in concentration camps with Bolek in Poland and Germany. “Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, we were in several concentration camps together.” All in all he mentioned five concentration camps. “Bolek came from Warsaw. We escaped, got captured again. After the war we were all together in a Red Cross Displaced Persons’ Camp in Eggenfelden, Germany. Hania and Bolek, they were at my engagement of my wife and myself in Eggenfelden. Then Hania went to Sweden. I don’t remember why she went to Sweden. Bolek tried to follow Hania to Sweden, but for some reason he couldn’t get there. Then Bolek got papers to Australia. So he sailed to Australia in 1949, and she followed him in 1950. Then they got married the next year. They had a dress factory. Bolek and Hania… I am trying to remember their last names… their last names….

By this stage, Grunstein began to shake almost uncontrollably.

“Was their last name Grunstein?” she asked.

A light dawned in the taxi driver’s memory.

“You know them!” he exclaimed.

“Those two people are my mother and father!” said Grunstein.

The driver slammed his foot on the brakes. He had just told Grunstein her parents’ detailed history from 1943-1951. She was still shaking.

Before she left the taxi, he said to her, “I didn’t know if you were in the entertainment business, but you look exactly like your mother.”

On the following Shabbat, at the taxi driver’s home in Queens, he gave her photos of her mother and Uncle Jozef, taken at Eggenfelden in 1946 at the taxi driver’s engagement party.

The new owner of Time magazine is Marc Benioff, the billionaire co-founder of Salesforce, the cloud computing company. Benioff made the purchase together with his wife, Lynn, just ahead of his 54th birthday, which he celebrated on September 25. The acquisition cost him $190m., which is actually chicken feed compared to his estimated worth of $6.6 billion.

There must be something special about wealthy Jewish families in the San Francisco Bay area, because Benioff, like Taube, likes to give away large chunks of his fortune. He also encourages the people whom he employs to engage in philanthropic activity. Toward this end he created the 1-1-1 of corporate philanthropy, by which companies contribute 1% of equity, 1% of employee hours and 1% of product to the communities that they serve. As far as the employee hours are concerned, this is equivalent to hands-on philanthropy, whereby company employees tutor high school students or even younger schoolchildren, serve the needs of senior citizens, coach sports teams or help out in museums and art galleries.

Benioff, who is widely regarded as a genius, started his first software company while in his mid-teens and made a comfortable income from it. The money was more than enough for his college tuition fees.

THERE IS more than a little concern in religious and political circles that there may be some fragmentation of the Eastern Orthodox Church. A possible breakaway in Ukraine prompted Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov to this month pay a visit to Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III in Jerusalem’s Old City to discuss the importance of unity among the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Viktorov was very much aware of the perilous situation in which Christians throughout most of the Middle East find themselves. Not only do clerics and their followers suffer persecution, but their shrines are desecrated and destroyed. Viktorov stressed that Russia will do its utmost to provide security for Christians in the region, not only in terms of trying to ensure their safety but also in preserving their religious values.A few days prior to his visit with Theophilos, Viktorov laid flowers at the tomb of V. Timoteev, the first vice consul of the Russian Empire in Palestine. The tomb is situated in the grounds of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission church in Jaffa.

AT THE South African Freedom Day reception that he hosted at his residence in Ramat Gan this year, South African Ambassador Sisa Ngombane announced that this would be the last time he was hosting such a reception, as he was nearing the end of his tenure, which began in February 2013. Not too many ambassadors spend five years in any given country. There had already been rumblings from Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement activists, including the grandson of Nelson Mandela, urging that the ambassador be recalled and that relations between South Africa and Israel be downgraded. Ngombane fearlessly spoke out against BDS, recall and downgrading of relations.

But four months ago, in response to events in Gaza, he was recalled, and Pretoria announced that it would no longer have an ambassador in Israel, until the conflict with the Palestinians was resolved.Particularly upset about Ngombane’s recall were members of the executive of Telfed, the South African Zionist Federation movement in Israel, who had enjoyed an excellent relationship with him, and who published a statement condemning what they called “a misguided decision” on the part of the South African government.

However, despite all the bluster, Ngombane this month returned to Israel without fanfare. It’s particularly interesting that Pretoria decided to send back a seasoned ambassador with Israel experience rather than a replacement.

HASSIDIC SINGERS are increasingly expanding their repertoires to include operatic arias and hits from Broadway musicals, which help to propel them into international stardom. Among them is Brooklyn-born Belzer hassid Shulem Lemmer, 28, whose first album includes “Bring Him Home,” from Les Miserables, and “Jerusalem of Gold.” Move over, Dudu Fisher and Shuli Natan, here comes a rising star. Lemmer recently sang the American national anthem to a massive crowd that had come to watch a Red Sox/Mets game, and before that he sang the anthem at the baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Arizona Diamondbacks. That particular game started with Chabad envoy Rabbi Yosef Langer blowing the shofar.

APROPOS CHABAD, which is generally regarded as nonjudgmental and accepting of all Jews, Rabbi Moshe Havlin, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Gat, who happens to be a Chabad hassid, created a storm when he banned members of the Ethiopian community who for years had been working in a mehadrin catering establishment from doing any cooking, on the grounds that their Judaism was in question. This caused a furor way beyond the Ethiopian community, with charges of racism, which Havlin denies.

Every cloud has a silver lining, and as a result, 1,000 Ethiopian Jews who have been living in limbo for 15 years waiting for the Israel government to honor its pledge to bring them to Israel will now be reunited with their families who are living here – provided, of course, that the prime minister this time keeps his promise.

But there will still be 7,000 Ethiopian Jews waiting for their turn to come. Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, who celebrated his 58th birthday Saturday, has called on the government to bring them all to Israel, but unfortunately chances are slim that this will happen.

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