THE MANY GOODBYES FOR DEPARTING ISRAELI AMBASSADOR ARYE MEKEL
“None has served with such personal modesty and clarity of purpose,” said UJA executive vice president John Ruskay of Israel’s departing consul general, Arye Mekel, at the joint UJA-Federation of New York/Jewish Community Relations Council of New York’s July l7 leave-taking reception. “[His was] the more elegantly distinguished approach of representing Israel… and everyone ought to know that no diplomat on U.S. soil has a sense of humor like his,” declared JCRC’s executive vice president and CEO, Michael Miller.
UJA’s immediate past president, Morris Offit, presented Mekel with a photo album of the Diaspora. “I must conclude on a funny note, or my reputation is ruined,” Mekel responded. “I was born to a 17-year-old mother… on a train crossing Kazakhstan. Recently I met the [the country’s] ambassador and asked him: ‘A man is born in Kazakhstan, but his feet never touched [its] ground. Can he get citizenship?’ A few weeks later, he calls me. ‘I checked with my capital. You are entitled to become a citizen of Kazakhstan. My driver will arrive with the forms.’ I thanked him, but said, ‘Israeli citizenship is enough.’” “He was not bringing you citizenship forms but New York City tax forms,” Edward Cardinal Egan joshed. “You call yourself an Israeli. We call you a New Yorker. You had 2 1/2 million Jews to take care of; I have 2 1/2 million Catholics to take care of. I know a little Hebrew, the beautiful language of Moses and David. Learned it in a seminary in Rome, taught by a Croatian in Latin from a German textbook.” Spotting Ruth Mekel in the crowd, Egan joshed, “The wife is more important.” He then went over to her to kiss her on the cheek. Mekel had the assemblage roaring with an aside, “And the cardinal knows about kissing wives!”
Mekel said that he’d been with the Israeli government for 40 years. “I’m 61 and still working for the government. At 19, I was head of [Israel Broadcasting Authority] Always for the Jewish state and the Jewish people. Crediting “Bibi [Netanyahu**] for extending retirement from 65 to 67— to save a few shekels,” Mekel noted that it made the diplomats happy. He admitted to being “happiest as consul general in New York, which includes Connecticut and New Jersey. There is nothing more important for the Jewish people [than] that we are one. That’s how I feel.”
This was one of a series of tributes in what seemed like the “longest goodbye” for an Israeli diplomat. At the June 21 American Jewish Committee luncheon, David Harris, the committee’s executive director, lauded Mekel’s “effective representation of Israel” in the United States, “dating from his time in Atlanta, the U.N. and most recently in New York.” There was the July 23 Anti-Defamation League adieu luncheon at ADL headquarters, followed by the July 25 reception hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which took place at the Madison Avenue headquarters of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Mekel applauders included conference executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein and past chairman Mortimer Zuckerman (who wears many hats, one of which is committee chairman and editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report), who introduced Cardinal Egan as “a major player and major voice in the life of New York City and the Catholic church.” The cardinal responded: “I have a soft spot for the ambassador [Mekel].… He visited me in my residence, and I see him as a man fulfilling a call, a vocation.” (Once again, the cardinal gave Ruth Mekel a kiss. He compared her to “another Ruth”, Ruth Raab — wife of the late Maxwell Raab, “one of America’s greatest ambassadors” who, from 1981 to 1989, served as the American ambassador to Italy under then-president Ronald Reagan’s watch.)
“It was not easy keeping up with you,” said France’s consul general, François Delattre, who expressed his thanks for Mekel’s help in August 2004, “when I was desperately trying to talk to anyone during a difficult time.” Delattre praised Mekel as a “wonderful representative of your country,” and noted the many initiatives for friendship between France and Israel.” He recalled a concert held at the consulate when both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Hatikvah were sung the by the American, French and Israeli guests. Germany’s consul general, Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth, said he “cherished his meetings with Mekel.” New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly touted the excellent relations he has with the Israeli police concluding with a “Mazel tov.” Among the guests were the ADL’s national director,Abraham Foxman and Holocaust survivors and activists Roman Kent and Sam Block. “I’m grateful. I’m overwhelmed,” Mekel responded. “New York is Israel’s largest demographic mission in the world. It’s bitter sweet.… It’s good to go home. New York is the greatest city in the world, next to Jerusalem…. Why wait till next year? [Make it] ‘This year in Jerusalem.’”
YIDDISH-SPEAKING CARDINAL LUSTIGER REMEMBERED
I greeted Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger with “Sholem aleichem, vos makht a yid?” on October 20, 1998, at a reception hosted by John Cardinal O’Connor at his residence for the Jewish-born archbishop of Paris. Lustiger (who died August 5 at age 80) smiled. O’Connor seemed amused, as was Rabbi Rene-Samuel Sirat, then chief rabbi of Paris. Several of the guests blanched. Lustiger (ne Aaron, a Levi who converted to Catholicism at 14) relaxed when I asked him, “Are you a Litvak or Galitzianer?” Lustiger, keynote speaker at that evening’s Nostra Aetate lecture (held at Sutton Place Synagogue and sponsored by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University at Fairfield, Conn.), told me in Yiddish that his family was from Bedzin near Sosnowitz.
Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor who was one of the evening’s speakers, stated that both his and Lustiger’s mothers perished at Auschwitz. “The numbers engraved on my arm are my theological credentials.” He posited, “If Jesus Christ and his mother and the 12 Apostles had been with me in Auschwitz, their fate would have been the same.” Introducing Lustiger, whose speech was titled “Jews and Christians Tomorrow,” O’Connor offered a “whimsical” caveat: “When [Lustiger] was supposed to speak at a church, the church burned down; the current lecture was to have taken place at Central Synagogue — and that burned down. I will never invite Cardinal Lustiger to speak at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
Among the guests that evening was conductor Gilbert Levine, who in 1994 led the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the Vatican for “The Papal Concert To Commemorate the Holocaust.” Levine, who had just returned from Europe, told me that over the years he’d had many talks, meetings and dinners with Lustiger. “During one of our walks, he recalled preparing for his bar mitzvah. His father had brought home a rabbi or a teacher. Still, he felt strongly that he could not fulfill the obligations — the mitzvoth — and announced this to his father.… Already at 12, he knew — he was questioning.… He was a prince of the church, the Catholic Archbishop of Paris, a member of the Academie Française… I witnessed him celebrating Mass in Notre Dame — he believed in the Catholic liturgy, [yet] he was a positive force for Catholic-Jewish relations… Lustiger was good for the Jews.”
Also present at that 1998 Nostra Aetate lecture was Dasha Rittenberg, who survived the Bedzin ghetto and five concentration camps. Rittenberg, who is distantly related to the Lustigers, told me this past week, “They were a very religious family and owned a soap-making factory in the town.” Not sure if any of the family members survived. She still cherishes “the hug” she got from the cardinal — her distant cousin.