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IDF Chief Voices Optimism at New York Gala

A satellite question-and-answer session with Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon was a highlight of the March 15 Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Gala Dinner, attended by more than 1200 Israeli army supporters from around the country. I had quick chats with Malcolm Hoenlein, Raphael (Rafi) Rothstein, Joshua Matza, Fanya Heller, Sam Bloch, Gabriel Erem, Marc Podwal and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who introduced me to Rear Admiral Eli Marum of the Israeli navy.

Army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon (whose impressive credentials list “participation in battles in the Yom Kippur War in the Suez Canal”), praised “our sons and daughters in the military.” Expressing “cautious optimism,” he said, “We will judge [the Palestinians] not by words but by acts… I have done all in my power to defend… not only Israel, but the Jewish people.” Later, Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, told me: “Ya’alon, [retired major general] Itzhak Eitan, — chief of central command during the intifada — and I knew each other as children. We three grew up 200 meters apart in Kiryat Chayim.”

The black-tie guests at The Waldorf-Astoria were treated to live via satellite interviews with Israeli army soldiers, a montage of film clips of FIDF-sponsored programs (care packages, summer camps, bar and bat mitzvahs for children of fallen soldiers), and an interview with Kobi, a young Ethiopian Israeli who recently lost a leg. “When I finish this business with my leg, I’ll return to the army,” Kobi vowed, not unlike some of the American soldiers described by Nancy Gibbs in her March 21 Time magazine article, “The Lucky Ones.” “… there are… soldiers so committed to their comrades and their calling… they have petitioned to go back to Iraq the moment they learn how to work a new hand, a new leg,” she wrote.

Osnat Vishinsky, whose riveting “A mother remembers her son” tribute to her son, Lyor, had young uniformed Israeli military women near me tearing. “When he said he was going to serve in the front lines… we were terrified. But he was so motivated, so determined, I could not tell him, ‘Don’t go there….’ He loved Israel. On May 12, 2004… a personnel carrier… a direct hit… cut off the life of my 20-year-old Lyor and four of his comrades…. He sacrificed his life so Jewish people can live in peace.… Thanks to the IDF, we have a place to return to.” As she sang a heart-rending “Eli Eli,” photos of 19- 20- and 22-year-old fallen Israeli soldiers scrolled across the screen.

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The Israeli film “Walk on Water” is an intriguing, though puzzling, thriller. Movie hunk Lior Ashkenazi plays Eyal, a ruthless Mossad agent assigned to find/abduct an aging Nazi criminal. The only link to his Nazi quarry is the grandson, Axel Himmelman (Knut Berger), who has come to Israel to visit sister Pia (Carolina Peters), who loves Israeli circle dances at the kibbutz where she appears to be performing redemptive service. (Did anyone else notice the persona resemblance between the avuncular kibbutz director (Hugo Yarden) and the FDR-dopplegangerish director of the rest camp where the Joads found respite in the 1940 film, “The Grapes of Wrath”?)

Eyal, undercover as a tour guide, and Axel bond as they travel through Israel. A charming, self-proclaimed gay lad who admits to “never having been with Germans” but seems to have neither physical nor political problems with Palestinians, Axel discusses the fine points of circumcision and gay love techniques thereby adding a racy tang to a film that thematically deals with death — not just Holocaust-level mass murder, but small-scale singular execution and the suicide of Eyal’s wife (which, director Eytan Fox told me during our brief interview, “is based on a true story”). The film resonates with hints obvious and oblique — concentration-camp-inspired striped silk pajamas and Axel’s casual mention that his family’s estate is “near Wannsee.” Unless your memory banks include the knowledge that Wannsee is where — on January 20, 1942, at the invitation of Reinhard Heydrich — a meeting lasting 85 minutes decided The Final Solution, it’s likely that filmgoers will think it’s just an upscale suburb of Berlin. Though intrigued by the film’s tempo, twists and turns, what I did find unsettling was having Eyal, the Israeli/Jew, seeking forgiveness from the grandson of a Nazi. When I queried Fox about this dissonant resolution, his explanation, if I understood it correctly, is that Eyal represents, “the new Israeli, the new Jew.”

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Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, founder of Hineni, schepped nachas as Patricia Cayne, her Torah student (for 19 years), was honored at the 92nd Street Y Global Citizenship Award Dinner, held March 2 dinner at The Waldorf-Astoria, at which 207 guests helped raise $1.4 million for the Y’s programs.

Cayne, a speech-and-language therapist whose credentials include a doctorate in educational neuropsychology and membership in the Middle East Forum, and who looks too young to be a grandmother of four, accepted the award, a tzedaka box (hand crafted by John Cogswell), from fellow “Y” board member Michael Steinhardt. He touted Cayne as “a Torah scholar” who “devotes herself as much to tutoring kids from Harlem as she does to support[ing] Jewish education.”

Keynote speaker Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary, disclosed that “working at the White House was the most challenging and rewarding job ever.” He ascertained, “I think it’s important to have the heart of a liberal and the mind of a Republican.” Fleischer amplified: “My parents hoped that my being a Republican was a phase I was going through and that I’d grow out of it. They thought that if their son was going to rebel, it was better to become a Republican than a drug dealer — but not by much…. When I moved to Texas and introduced myself as ‘Ari,’ people asked if that was ‘R.E.’ like ‘J.R.’… President Bush called me ‘Ari Bob.’” More insightful disclosures may be offered in Fleischer’s new book, “Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House” (William Morrow).


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