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A Jewish dreamer

Prof. Aviad Hacohen

Ever since he was a little boy in the Polish town of Vishnyeva (now in Belarus), late President Shimon Peres was a dreamer.

He never forgot his roots and always knew where he was headed, even after becoming a celebrity on the world stage. He was proud of his grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, who attended the famed Volozhin Yeshiva.

In his book “A New Genesis” he called upon the treasured gems of our heritage, the Bible and the Talmud, as the foundation for understanding the present. True to his eternal optimism, he viewed them as a prism through which one can look into a brighter future. That is why he would always write the Hebrew date next to the Gregorian date, never violated Shabbat in the public sphere and always revered the rabbis.

It was only symbolic, then, that our last encounter was at a very Jewish setting. Just before Passover last year, he attended an event organized by Limmud FSU, which runs educational programs for Jews from the former Soviet Union.

He arrived with his trusted aide, his daughter Tsiki and her husband Rafi. He entered the room and immediately began working the crowd, not missing a single handshake and chatting briefly with each person, until he finally sat down. Several minutes later, he spoke about the future of the Jewish people and the importance of Jewish-Zionist education. Despite being 92, his age was barely noticeable once he opened his mouth. He looked young and vital again, with all his puns and witty metaphors.

Several hours later, he gave a toast at a bar mitzvah for a boy who was nearly 80 years his junior. Peres all but ignored the others in the room, choosing to talk directly to the newly minted 13-year-old for 20 minutes. True to his brand, he spoke off-the-cuff and succinctly, sharing his vision with the young boy and explaining that the Hebrew words for a fighter, a breadwinner and a dreamer share the same three-letter root, with slight variations.

He told the boy that earlier generations were the fighters and breadwinners, and that his generation “already live in a revived and victorious Jewish state whose economic problems are smaller, so now you have to take care of the third variation of that root: be a dreamer, and focus on the distant future.”

In classic Peres fashion he then waxed poetic about the wonders of the high-tech industry, space programs and solar energy. His constant focus on such topics made him stand out among people his age, who normally prefer to watch television, read a book or just go on a cruise. But not Peres — he was the ultimate Energizer bunny, who kept on going and going, despite accomplishing so much — creating Israel’s defense industries, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and having a long political career despite never having attending university.