The sudden passing of James Gandolfini at age 51 from an apparent heart attack is reason enough for pause. His larger than life presence on any stage or screen was not due to his bulk, height or everyman look, but due to his incredibly nuanced acting skills, giving us a fitting viewpoint from which to observe the President’s Conference of 2013.
One of my favorite all time movies included him in a role as a pacifist general who is part of a power play in the international scene. A trailer from “In the Loop” is here, but it is the overall concept of the movie that brings to mind the current doings at the International Convention center in Jerusalem.
A tempting menu of panel discussions and a host of movers, shakers, birthright participants, and a sprinkling of celebs will keep many of the 5,000 participants rubber-necking and picture taking on the impressive amount of gadgetry in evidence, but the not-so-surprising unstated agenda seems to be to reinforce the Weltanschaung of the birthday boy, President Shimon Peres, who is celebrating his 90th birthday.
As in “In the Loop,” one can only wonder what is going on behind the scenes with so many great thinkers, deep pockets, and power insiders all in town at the same time.
With the entry of President Peres into his tenth decade, it is worth considering the appropriate words of the bard:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”
At 90, Peres is far from evidencing anything approach the seventh age. Regardless of whether one shares his dreamy post-national outlook of the world, one cannot fail to admire his remarkable fitness and zest for life. He is not alone, friends and fans joining in this year’s conference, a veritable salute to the President.
Also evergreen and a crowd pleaser, diminutive sexologist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, at 85, was a welcome change from the panoply of assessments of the changes in the region, ranging from the bleak to the absurd.
It was a a kalaeidoscopic feeling bouncing from panel to panel. My day started with an early exchange between former UN ambassador Dore Gold, a proponent of what he calls a realistic approach to peace negotiations comparing the qualities of a dove and a fox vis à vis the recent elections in Iran, and former US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, emphasizing the exposed derrière of an ostrich with its head in the ground and preferring the perspective of the eagle which can take in the broader scene from high above and distant from the complexities below. One can draw conclusions about their different perspectives based on where they and their children lay their heads at night.
Hearing a panel moderated by Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet magazine, on campus life as a crossroads for the Jewish student, featuring Natan Sharansky, praises were sung for the success of various programs bringing in knowledgeable students and activists to universities, with one member of the audience calling for the Israel Prize to be given to The Birthright Program.
It was a telling moment in the Q & A period that Newhouse herself, needed the Hebrew name of the program “Taglit” tranlsated for her. If such a committed and presumably knowledgeable American Jew lacks the Hebrew vocabulary to handle this level of communications, what does that say about the priorities of the Diaspora?
Most impressive to me was Andi Gergely who is chairperson of the European Union of Jewish Students. She pointed out that, other than in England, European colleges do not have campus life in the same sense as in the US with most students living at home. Their groups of voluntary activists, typified as grassroots and small-budgeted, recently successfully challenged Twitter in court in France to require them to reveal who or what organization is behind virulently anti-semitic hashtags.
Mark Yudof, president of the University of California, spoke of the importance of ensuring that First Amendment protected freedom of speech continue on the campuses, despite the anti-Israel activities and voices, saying: “these kids are smart, they will sort it all out.”
Gidi Mark, a former representative at the New York consulate for Israel, shared the impressive statistics for the Birthright program. He stated, amongst other significant information, that the rate of intermarriage rate was reduced by 46 % amongst participants. He went on, like a kvelling (proud and happy) yenta, to point out the presence of a birthright grad who met her husband on the free trip, now heavily pregnant with her first child. A big “B’Shaah Tovah” rang out through the hall (literally meaning “a good hour,” a traditional Jewish wish for the birth). What better secondary agenda than a little match-making, which, in Israel, is unofficially practically a national sport?
Back to Dr. Ruth. After discussing the state of research on sexual practice of Americans, generally, she offered her opinion on a proposed medication to raise the libido of a woman artificially. Basically, she said, a woman’s interest in sex is directly related to the state of the underlying relationship, and the “pill” she most preferred is the one she says always works, tell her she is the best. With onion rings as a lead-in topic (use your imagination), she alone amongst my day’s choice of panels assigned homework: go home to your husband or wife and shake up the routine, and come back to report on your new discovery and report to her – she is always ready to learn something new.
Maybe she is on to something. “Make Love, Not War” was the theme of an earlier generation unhappy with the politics and choices facing them. Of course, it takes two to tango.
As Dore Gold pointed out during question time, it could be that it is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who is not interested in negotiating at this time of regional turbulence, a point of little concern to his co-panelists who see in the roiling changes glimmers of new opportunities, calling for Israeli inducements to negotiations such as another round of settlement freezes, something tried and failed.
So, are there two to tango? Or are all these very knowledgeable seasoned diplomats again negotiating with themselves?
Awarding -winning actor and director Woody Allen, who has never visited Israel, may have an appropriate observation to address this concern: “Don’t knock masturbation — it’s sex with someone I love.”