The kids in this room could move you to tears – and that they did for Barbra Streisand on Monday, who came to visit President Shimon Peres as a prelude to the start of his 90th birthday bash on Tuesday night.
The children and teenagers, all of them coping with life-threatening diseases, had arrived as special guests at the president’s house by way of Make-A-Wish Israel, which contacted Peres because some of the kids wanted to meet Israel’s most famous optimist. It just so happened that around the time the children were due to meet Peres, a slightly more famous songstress was due in town.
“Since her visit happened to be during the same week, we asked her if we can put the two events altogether, and right away she said yes,” explained Avi Bar-Aharon, the co-founder of Make-A-Wish Israel. Founded in 1996, the organization has helped grant wishes to approximately 1,800 children suffering from a variety of serious diseases, some of them incurable.
A hushed silence descended on the room as Peres entered with a striking Streisand, wearing a long black, waistless dress with cutouts around the shoulders, extraordinarily high black slingback heels, and a black hat. “Shalom,” she said almost shyly, then proceeded to walk around the semi-circle with Peres and greet each of the twenty children individually. She held one girl’s chin with an almost grandmotherly touch and caressed the hair of a few of the others. And then, when she got to the end of the line, a four-year-old girl named Avigail held out her arms so wide that Streisand bent down and picked her up and the two hugged as if they were family. Soon the president came over to get his kiss as well.
Once seated, the children had a surprise for Streisand. Koral Vedder, 16, of Givat Ze’ev, stood up, took a breath, and belted out a note.
Streisand laughed slightly, taken off guard.
“People who need people,” Vedder continued, and then proceeded to belt out an impressively powerful but shortened rendition of Streisand’s signature tune. Streisand, struck with emotion, crossed her hands across her chest in a sign of being moved. It could have been an awkward moment, the sight of an Israeli teenager trying to sing Streisand in the presence of Streisand herself. But Vedder, who lost a leg to bone cancer three years ago and walks with a limp on a prosthesis, carried it off with aplomb and an angelic voice.
Raphael Agion, a 17-year-old with muscular dystrophy, sang Peres’ praises on the eve of his becoming a nonagenarian. “You give me great optimism, Mr. President. You give me strength every day and that helps me fight my illness. You even give me hope that there will be peace in our country.” Then he added, “And Barbra, it’s a great privilege to be with you too.”
Clearly, a few in the young generation were hearing Streisand’s name for the first time, with the exception perhaps of Vedder, a music student who already knew a few of the America-Jewish diva’s songs. But for some of their parents, especially a few of American origin, it was a particular thrill.
For Cheryl Schockett, the grandmother of little Avigail – who is in treatment for cancer of the spinal cord – it was a moving, once-in-a-lifetime moment. Originally from Long Beach, New York, Schockett came to Israel with her family when she was eight, and has been such a fan of Streisand that she professes to know the lyrics to all her songs, including the entire film “Yentl.” Schockett, of Ra’anana, will be seeing Streisand in concert on Thursday night in Tel Aviv, but never expected to get a more intimate meeting this week. Parents and children were just informed last Thursday that they were invited to meet Peres and Streisand on Monday.
Shira Miller, who is originally from Vancouver and now lives on the Golan Heights, came with her grandson Amichai Hillel, eight, who has recently had a bout with cancer. “I think this was Grandma’s wish come true,” she joked. (Amichai got his wish from the foundation – a trip to Florida.)
Peres said he was looking forward to having Streisand and her “heavenly voice” at his birthday party on Tuesday night. “We trust your voice,” he said. “We pray with you. And we are moved.”
Streisand, who is in Israel for the first time in 29 years, also received an honorary doctorate on Monday from the Hebrew University. She arrived on Saturday night with her husband, actor James Brolin, and her fluffy white dog, whom she described in an interview with the UK’s Independent newspaper a few months ago as being “like the daughter I never had.”
Brolin, who has never been to Israel before, sat down next two curious reporters and shared his impressions. He was struck with Jerusalem’s architecture and how green the city is, he said. As the son of a building contractor, he added, he was impressed by the stonework around the city.
“Looking out our window from the hotel, I’m surprised by how amazing the vista is,” he said. “You can almost feel the history, it’s almost like watching a film.” After the celebrations and two concerts, the famous couple and their dog/daughter will get some sun on the way home – somewhere, they hope, away from the paparazzi.
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