The Jerusalem Post
‘What I’m doing for his legacy is for us as a nation’
Like many offspring of statesmen, politicians and diplomats, Erez Navon has not followed in the footsteps of his father, Yitzhak Navon, who was all of the above and more, and served as the country’s fifth president. But he does work assiduously to preserve and disseminate his father’s legacy.
In a sense he started doing this long before his father died in November, 2015.
Erez was 19 when his mother, Ofira, succumbed to cancer in August 1993. It was then that Erez realized that so much had been left unasked and unsaid, and that he could no longer dwell on his mother’s wisdom and experience. This realization drew him much closer to his father, forming a relationship in which his father was not only his mentor and role model, but also his friend.
Their common ritual was going out for dinner together every Thursday night to discuss every possible subject that came to mind.
April of this year marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yitzhak Navon. There was no fanfare, and if there were any state ceremonies, they were so low key that hardly anyone knew about them.
Does this bother the son of Yitzhak Navon?
He wants his father to be remembered for his teachings and the example that he set, and not necessarily because of the date of his birth or through monuments or streets that may bear his name in perpetuity.
Although the relatively new Jerusalem Railway Station
at the entrance to the capital has been named the Yitzhak Navon station, Erez is much prouder of the fact that more than 30 schools have been named for his father.
Surprisingly, his father was already well past middle age when he discovered the Gregorian calendar date of his birth.
A regular at the once iconic, now-defunct Shemesh restaurant in Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda Mall, Navon when dining there one day was recognized by one of the other patrons, who happened to be an astrologer. The man asked Navon when he was born, and Navon replied April 19. The astrologer charted his horoscope, but somehow it did not jive with Navon’s character, his history, or what was happening in his life. Always curious, Navon wondered how the man had been so off course, and it occurred to him that perhaps he had not been born on April 19.
In his family they lived by the Hebrew calendar. He knew that he had been born on Rosh Hodesh (the first of the month of) Nissan and that it had been a Shabbat. Checking out the corresponding Gregorian calendar date, he discovered that it was April 9 and not April 19. He went back to the astrologer and apologized for inadvertently misleading him. “Ah,” said the astrologer, “that explains everything.”
This is one of the anecdotes that Erez Navon likes to tell about his father. Many others are contained in A Life in Stories, an anthology Erez Navon published a year after his father’s death.
Some of these stories were initially immortalized in Navon’s ever-popular stage musical “Bustan Sephardi” (Spanish Orchard), which has been playing on and off for more than 30 years at Habima Theater, with a new production currently underway. The dialogue is in Ladino and through story and song tells the tale of the vibrant Sephardi community of Jerusalem’s Ohel Moshe neighborhood in the second quarter of the 20th century. It is based on Navon’s personal memories. According to Erez, his father wrote it because he thought that Sephardi culture was being ignored. “In the 1960s and the 1970s, this was more relevant than it is today,” says Erez. “In our house, it was never relevant.”
Whether relevant or not, it continues to attract both Sephardi and Ashkenazi audiences. Over the years there have been more than 3,000 performances attended by more than two million people, says Erez.
He explains that its ongoing popularity is due to the fact that it reflects “what we were, what we would like to become and what we forgot.”
The vibrancy of this small neighborhood derived from the diversity of its population: Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, Arabs, Orthodox, secular – “what we were and what we should be – shevet achim (a tribe of brothers).”
Yitzhak Navon was known as the people’s president. During his five years in office, he received more than 300,000 visitors at the President’s Residence, made more than 300 trips across the length and breadth of the country, meeting with hundreds of thousands of citizens of all ages, bringing them moral support, encouraging them to study, assuring them that regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds, each in his or her own way was making a contribution to the country, and perhaps most of all treating them as equals.
He was a great advocate for people learning the culture of the other, which he perceived not only as an enhancement of knowledge and a bridge to a career, but also as a tool for understanding and acceptance and bringing people of diverse backgrounds and heritage closer together.
Erez Navon cites as an example what his father did before undertaking his historic visit to Egypt in 1980; He abstained from regular presidential duties for a whole month, brought in academics, and Israeli citizens who grew up in Egypt, and learned everything he could about Egyptian culture and traditions. It helped that he was fluent in Arabic, and when he got to Egypt, and displayed so much familiarity with all that was Egyptian, and spoke to people in Arabic that the Egyptian people simply took him to their hearts.
Erez Navon will be participating in a panel discussion dedicated to his father at the annual Lo Bashamayim (Not in Heaven) Multi-Disciplined Culture and Music Festival taking place in the Upper Galilee on July 20-22. The panel discussion will be on July 22, at which time he will also mention the Navon Heritage Center, which the Navon Association hopes to build in the Neot Kedumim Biblical Nature Reserve near Modi’in.
When Navon was working as political secretary for founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who though irreligious was a biblical scholar, the two realized the significance of Neot Kedumim in drawing both secular and religious Jews to the land and to its biblical history and heritage.
The actual building housing the Navon Heritage Center will be relatively small and modest, and will be used to promote national unity, encourage people to think differently, be curious and to learn about and accept social responsibility, including living together and building confidence and trust.
“But there will be no politics,”
He and his sister, Naama, have the distinction of having been the only children who were actually living full-time in the President’s Residence. But their parents made sure to instill in them the knowledge that they were not special. They were simply there because their parents were on a five-year mission, which when it ended, they would resume living like the rest of the population.
Although his father was pure Sephardi, whose ancestors on both sides lived for generations in Jerusalem, Erez’s mother was a first-generation Ashkenazi Israeli, who descended from Russian stock. So how does Erez view
himself? Is he more Sephardi than Ashkenazi, or more Ashkenazi than Sephardi?
“I see myself as a Jew and as an Israeli citizen – nothing more,” he replies. He acknowledges that from the perspective of acquiring knowledge and different experiences, it’s a good thing to have more than one cultural background.
Through people that he meets, he is constantly discovering new things about his father.
“The more I learn about his legacy, the more I realize that what I’m doing is not for him, but for us as a nation.”