Remembering Yitzhak Rabin

By Masha Leon

Published November 18, 2005, issue of November 18, 2005.
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“Of all the leaders I dealt with, I most admired Rabin,” keynote speaker Dennis Ross recalled at the October 30 American Friends of Rabin Medical Center dinner. Held at the Pierre, the event occurred just days before the 10th anniversary of the leader’s assassination. “He was the embodiment of Israel,” mused Ross, who played a leading role in shaping American policy in the Middle East in the administrations of both Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush. “He spent his life as a warrior who did not aspire to be a warrior but a statesman…. He had a profound sense of responsibility to the future of Israel.” Ross underscored, “He was the father of the separation fence, not Sharon.”

In response to a question from the evening’s emcee, Larry King, Ross replied: “The CIA was burned by overestimating Iraq and is underestimating Iran.” Reflecting on other world leaders, Ross called Hafez al-Assad the most difficult to negotiate with and Yasser Arafat the most maddening. “He put the Palestinians on the map,” he said, “[but when] he died, 60% of the Palestinians were optimistic about the future. He died and they got optimistic. What does that tell you?” Apropos George W. Bush’s religious “rigidity,” Ross cited an Israeli’s reply: “The evangelicals want to convert us all after Armageddon…. I can wait.”

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s wife, Nava Barak, president of Friends of RMC (Rabin Medical Center), was aglow in a bare-shouldered, red-sequined gown: “I know of no two countries who so care for each other” as do Israel and the United States. Dan Oppenheim, CEO of RMC (now Israel’s leading hospital for organ transplants), informed, “More than 1 million patients come through our doors annually.” The evening’s honorees were Patricia and Philip Frost, M.D. The latter is chairman and CEO of IVAX Corporation, the fourth-largest generic over-the-counter drug company in the United States. IVAX has 30 plants worldwide and sells products in 80 countries. His wife is a community and cultural leader.

Juggling statistics (“More Israelis die in road accidents than in war or terrorist attacks”), introductions and humor, King kept the crowd chuckling with such asides as “A surprise member of [The Jazz Museum All-Star Band, the evening’s entertainment], Paula Zahn, just arrived, schlepping her cello…. And she married a Jew, too!”

* * *

On October 24, 1995, I was privileged to chat with Yitzhak Rabin and his wife, Leah, aboard the USS Intrepid. It was an evening ablaze with military pomp, helicopters landing on the carrier, the U.S. Coast Guard Idlers singing “Havah Nagilah” and “Shalom Chaverim” and the U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps playing “Hatikvah.” After he received the Intrepid Freedom Award, Prime Minister Rabin spoke hauntingly of “the silence of the moment after and the terrifying silence of the moment before” he issued orders for hundreds of military operations when he was military commander. “I shall always remember… the hush as senior officers slowly rise from their seats, the sight of their receding backs, the sound of the closing door and then the silence in which I remain alone. That is the moment you grasp that as a result of the decision just made, people will be going to their deaths…. And they still don’t know it…. At that hour, they are still laughing and weeping, still weaving plans and dreaming about love, still musing about planting a garden or building a house — and they have no idea these are their last hours on Earth. Which of them is fated to die?” Nine days later, Rabin was dead at the hands of an assassin.

* * *

“Illness is a family affair. We don’t lie in hospital beds alone,” said Meredith Vieira, honoree at the October 25 dinner of the Heuga Center at the St. Regis Hotel. Moderator of the TV gab-fest “The View,” and host of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” Vieira said of her co-honoree and husband, Richard M. Cohen — whom she knew had multiple sclerosis before she married him — “I loved this person, [but] I didn’t know the club I was joining.” A former producer for CBS News and CNN, and an Emmy winner for his special, “Inside Conspiracy-American Terrorists,” Cohen is the author of “Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness: A Reluctant Memoir” (HarperCollins, 2004), in which he details the challenge his family faced through 30 years of coping with M.S. A mysterious, unpredictable chronic disease of the nervous system affecting young people — two-thirds of them women — M.S. can lead to muscle weakness and paralysis.

The Heuga Center, a nonprofit organization that conducts programs for people and families living with M.S., was founded in 1984 by Olympic ski racer Jimmie Heuga. He was diagnosed with M.S. in 1970. Defying conventional wisdom “to avoid physical activity,” he developed CAN DO, a program of exercise, nutrition and psychological motivation that has become a model worldwide. At the dinner, teary-eyed CAN DO graduates touted their ability to lead productive lives. Among them was actress Teri Garr (“Young Frankenstein,” “Tootsie”), who took 20 years to discover that her illness had a name. In her memoir, “Speed Bumps: Flooring It Through Hollywood” (Hudson Street Press, originally titled “Does This Wheelchair Make Me Look Fat?”), Garr details, often with humor, the havoc that M.S. wreaked on her life.

* * *

On November 9, I saw Susan Nanus’s play “The Survivor,” which is based on the memoirs of Holocaust survivor Jack (Jacek) Eisner. The production was presented by the Junior Players of Great Neck North High School on Long Island. My grandson, Steven Cohen, who did the lighting, invited me. (The school’s production was specially titled “The Survivor: A True Story of Teenagers in the Warsaw Ghetto.”) Bravo to drama teacher and producer-director Laura H. Stern, who, weeks before opening night, took the cast to Washington, D.C., to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Steven called me at the end of the museum tour and said, “There was a lot of crying.” My sense is that the museum visit left its imprint on the suburban-born teenagers, as could be seen from their moving performances. Standouts were D.J. Smolinsky as Eisner and Doug Goldring as Rudy, one of the teenage smugglers in Eisner’s gang. Kudos to Jasmine Dillmanian for nailing a Polish-Yiddish accent as she presented between-the-scenes segments of black humor. In 1980, I interviewed Eisner for the Forward. I was at the February 28, 1981, opening of both the play’s original Broadway production at the Morsoco Theatre — starring Zeljko Ivanek — and its 1985 film adaptation (known as “War and Love”). I told young Eisner portrayer Smolinsky, “Jack would have applauded you.”

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