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What Hunter Biden’s memoir tells us about Melissa Cohen, his Jewish wife

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There’s a lot going on in Hunter Biden’s new memoir, Beautiful Things.

First and foremost, it’s a love letter to Hunter’s brother, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015. The book starts with a recollection of Beau’s last moments, and ends with the 2020 election and the birth of Hunter’s son, whom he named after his oldest brother.

It’s an unvarnished account of Hunter’s years of substance misuse and his behaviour as an addict, and a glimpse inside a political family whose steadfast support of its prodigal son is one of its most compelling qualities.

It’s also a brusque dismissal of all concerns about Hunter’s involvement in Burisma, a Ukrainian natural-gas producer whose board he joined in 2014 with seemingly no qualification except being the son of America’s then vice-president. (“I did nothing unethical, and have never been charged with wrongdoing,” is most of what Hunter has to say on the subject.)

And it gives new insight into Melissa Cohen, the South African filmmaker Hunter met at the depths of his addiction and married days later. Since joining the Biden clan in 2019, Melissa has deleted her social media and kept a low public profile — some of her first public appearances came during the inauguration festivities. Here’s what Beautiful Things told us about her.

She grew up in Johannesburg.

In Beautiful Things, Hunter gives us an overview that is perhaps purposefully broad. As a toddler, he writes, Melissa lived in a “children’s home” for a year before being adopted by a Jewish South African family with three sons. He notes that she’s fluent in five languages including Italian and Hebrew, and describes his wife as an “activist” and “aspiring documentary filmmaker”. Melissa was briefly married to Jewish Los Angelean Jason Landver, and met Hunter just after ending another two-year relationship. On the day of their first date, she’d just returned from visiting her brother to recover from the breakup.

When they met, Hunter was at a breaking point.

In 2019, with Hunter deep in the throes of his cocaine addiction, the Bidens staged an intervention, confronting him at the family home in Delaware. Hunter agreed to check himself into a rehab facility, but as soon as Hallie Biden (Beau’s widow, with whom Hunter had a brief relationship) dropped him off in the lobby, he hopped in an Uber and boarded a plane to Los Angeles. There, he lived in a series of hotels, occasionally getting blacklisted for receiving guests in the wee hours of the morning or leaving drug paraphernalia out for staff to see. Any efforts at recovery seemed futile.

“I was a crack addict and that was that,” Hunter writes.

At the same time, Rudy Giuliani was making a series of “unhinged” accusations of corruption over Hunter’s involvement with Ukrainian natural-gas producer Burisma. Hunter was worried that his business dealings and inevitable revelations about his drug problem would affect the 2020 campaign. So, when New York writer Adam Entous called, looking for the truth about the Burisma situation, he saw an opportunity to clear his name and pre-empt future negative press. But interviews for the piece, which turned into a deeply personal profile, became a kind of therapy and, Hunter believes, primed him for a new beginning. “I honestly believe I wouldn’t have been capable of seeing Melissa for what she would become to me if I hadn’t explored my most meaningful relationships during those interviews.”

Melissa ghosted him – sort of.

The Biden-Cohen meet-cute sounds less like an event in the life of a political scion than a plot point in a dramedy about a political scion. Just after getting the boot from the Petit Ermitage, a swanky Los Angeles hotel, and while sitting on the rooftop pool figuring out where to go next, a drunk and high Hunter struck up a conversation with a group of hipsters, who all seemed to think that he needed to meet one of their friends: Melissa Cohen. Late that night he texted her, asking to meet up for drinks. She countered with an offer to meet for coffee the next morning – but didn’t show up until dinnertime.

Hunter describes his first glimpse of Melissa, who arrived with “oversized sunglasses pushed atop her honey-blond hair” as a “bell-ringer”. Within a few minutes, he told her she had the same blue eyes as Beau, his brother. Then, he announced he was in love with her. An hour later, he confessed to his drug addiction.

Melissa, according to his recollection, was unfazed. “Not anymore,” she said. “You’re finished with that.”

She helped him to kick the addiction.

Beautiful Things details a slew of rehab programmes that never quite worked. Instead, it took Melissa’s care to catapult Hunter into his current sobriety. A day after meeting him, she disposed of all his drugs. She confiscated his car keys, wallet, computer, and phone, deleting all contacts except immediate family members. When drug dealers knocked on the door, she “turned to steel” and dispatched them unceremoniously.

After a difficult period of withdrawal – Hunter doesn’t specify how long this lasted, but credits Melissa with putting up with “my whining, crying, and scheming” – he slept for three days. On the fourth day, Hunter popped the question “like a trial balloon, light and breezy: ‘We should get married!’” That night, the two visited destination tattoo parlour Shamrock Social Club, where Hunter got the tattoo The Schmooze can’t stop talking about: the word “shalom” inked on his left bicep, which matched one of Melissa’s pre-existing tats.

The Bidens welcomed Melissa.

“Shalom” tattoos tend to usher in major life decisions, and the next morning, Hunter and Melissa decided to get hitched – that day. Wedding preparations were slapdash: Hunter located a “marriage shop”, and paid its owner to hurry to Melissa’s apartment in rush-hour traffic. Yet, he said, there was no sense of haste. “The decision never felt rash or hare brained or reckless. It felt urgent. I felt like I’d been given a reprieve.”

Before starting the ceremony, Hunter called his father to give him the news. It was the first time anyone in the family had even heard about Melissa, so we have to give the elder Biden kudos for his poised response. “Thank you for giving my boy courage to love again,” he said, echoing the words with which his own grandmother had welcomed Jill Biden into the family.

  • This article was originally published on ‘The Forward’.

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Israel

Skies between SA and Israel could open soon, says Israel’s COVID-19 chief

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South African Jews and their relatives in Israel are battling yet another travel ban implemented by Israel at the beginning of May, which forbids travel to South Africa and seven other countries. Yet Tomer Lotan, the executive director and policy chief at the Government of Israel National Coronavirus TaskForce, told the SA Jewish Report it might shift soon.

“I think it will change pretty soon. The policy is based on the idea of opening as much as we can inside Israel, but being very strict with our borders. We call it the ‘inverse watermelon’ – the inside is green and the outside is red. It sounds much better in Hebrew!

“We went through two to three months of relief in daily activity and opening our economy,” he says. “This was mainly through the ‘green pass’, a project that I was privileged to lead [allowing those who are vaccinated access to daily life, sport, and cultural events]. There were about six to seven phases of relief to get our economic activity as close as we could to daily routine.

“But the other side of the equation has been to keep our borders as strict as possible. It’s a challenging balance. We’ve been more conservative about our borders than before because we want to maintain the achievements of our vaccination project. We don’t want to risk it with a ‘variant scenario’ [a COVID-19 variant entering the country.]”

He says an Israeli High Court decision two months ago ruled that “we cannot block Israeli citizens from travelling back to Israel. This means we had only one option left: to have a differentiated approach to different countries. This is why we created these criteria, focused on countries that are more dangerous for Israel because of the presence of variants of concern. We also looked at the traffic between these countries and Israel.”

In the case of South Africa he says, “the South African COVID-19 variant is still a concern according to our Ministry of Health. However, I must say, over the past week or two, we have seen more evidence that the South African variant may be less dangerous than we originally thought. So I’m more optimistic that in the short term, Israel will update its knowledge on the South African variant. We hope that the evidence will give us confidence that it won’t affect those who are vaccinated, and then the policy [on travel between South Africa and Israel] might change. But we’ve been very conservative because no one wants to make the mistake of ‘reading the map’ incorrectly.”

Lotan says South Africa’s recent low COVID-19 numbers don’t have a big impact on Israel’s assessment of its travel ban. Rather, the traffic between the two countries and strong family ties between people has more of an impact.

“But we want to emphasise that the health ministry and Israeli government are very aware of the need to reconnect communities and families. We hope to make sure that over the coming weeks and into the summer, there is more traffic between South Africa, Israel, and other countries, not only for the Israeli economy, but also because of the very important ties to these Jewish communities. We are making an effort and it’s ‘on our table’. We are putting a lot of effort into updating policies.”

So is Israel’s fight with the pandemic coming to an end? “Most Israelis feel that ‘corona is over’. They act like it’s over, and there is much sense in that as we are really close to normal routine,” he says. “And our numbers are dramatically, fantastically low. The only question mark is the fact that the world is still suffering terribly from COVID-19. So it’s still premature to say that it’s over.”

He says the Israeli government will soon “pilot groups of tourists to start tourism again in Israel. That’s the next step. We’ve done things gradually, in a cautious way. We aren’t running forward [without thinking things through].”

Regarding sectors of Israeli society that may have been resistant to vaccines, Lotan says “the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] do vaccinate. They are at least 60% vaccinated, which is high compared to the rest of the world.” He points out that they haven’t experienced an increase in COVID-19 numbers after the large gathering at Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer.

“Arab Israeli citizens also have very high vaccination numbers. It took a while to increase numbers – it started slowly, but after we adjusted our messaging and created greater accessibility in Arab villages, there has been increased compliance.” These efforts have extended from East Jerusalem to Bedouin families in the Negev. Lotan says Israel has also vaccinated 200 000 Palestinian workers that come in and out of Israel. Although it’s in Israel’s interest that all Palestinians are vaccinated, this responsibility falls to the Palestinian Authority.

Regarding the large numbers gathered at Mount Meron, Lotan says, “for so many years, the event has been unmanaged. It’s like a ‘no man’s land’. We concluded COVID-19 restrictions for Meron based on the green pass –allowing only those who are vaccinated to attend, restricting numbers, and so on. The plan was agreed with the relevant ministries and the police.

“But then it was disputed at operational level. Who would enforce it? Who would check the green passes? And then the formal restrictions weren’t voted in by the government. It was a very good plan, but no one signed it. So the event was unmanaged.”

He says this failure is a symbol of “the failures of the Israeli system. It’s not just political, it’s about the weakness of authorities. So the miracle [of Lag B’Omer] didn’t happen this year.”

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The Jewish woman behind CJ Langenhoven’s legacy

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They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and in the case of Sarah Goldblatt and the Afrikaans literary legend CJ [Cornelis Jacobus] Langenhoven, it couldn’t be more true. But who was Goldblatt, and why isn’t she known or celebrated by the Jewish and Afrikaner communities that she belonged to and identified with?

These are some of the questions that spurred local lawyer and author Dominique Malherbe to explore the story of her great aunt, who she only met once, and why Goldblatt has been hidden from history. The result is her newly released book, Searching for Sarah: The Woman Who Loved Langenhoven. Milton Shain, emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, calls it “a forensic tour de force” in which “secrets are unveiled and silences broken”.

The book tells the story of how Afrikaans literary icon CJ Langenhoven (who wrote the words of Die Stem) named Sarah Eva Goldblatt executrix of his extensive literary legacy, much to the surprise of the Afrikaner establishment.

Langenhoven died suddenly at the age of 58 in July 1932, but “she kept his legacy and work alive as long as she was alive”, says Malherbe. By the time Goldblatt passed away in 1975, more than two million copies of Langenhoven’s books had been sold, one of the greatest literary successes ever in South Africa. But her role in this success was never acknowledged. Meanwhile, it’s assumed that she had a relationship with Langenhoven, but there is a mystery about whether they had a child together. The author set out to discover Sarah’s story, reclaim her for posterity, and try to find her son.

Malherbe, whose mother is Jewish, explains her connection to Goldblatt. “Sarah arrived in Cape Town from London in 1897. She was my grandfather’s sister, so my mother’s aunt. We have a large family in Israel. My grandfather, David Goldblatt, was instrumental in getting the Yiddish language recognised in South Africa. Sarah was very devoted to him and to Yiddish, which she spoke growing up. But at some point, there was a falling out in the family and David went to New York City, where he did quite well. Sarah never heard from him again. There is a lot of mystery around why he left.”

She explains that during her research, “from a Jewish point of view, there was the least amount of information about her. There was one book on the Jews of District Six, and there is one photograph of David in it”. But besides for traces of Sarah Goldblatt in academic theses, no one had explored her fascinating story in full – until now.

“Much of what she did was hidden from public view. We have to think about the time she lived. There was a lot of antisemitism in South Africa and around the world,” says Malherbe. “She met Langenhoven, and quickly followed him to Oudtshoorn. She started working for him when she was 21 and he was 35. It’s clear they had a strong bond. They worked together on a newspaper – she was the editor. This was when there was a thriving Jewish community in Oudtshoorn.” As part of her research, Malherbe travelled to Oudtshoorn and was saddened to see barely a trace of the Jewish life that once blossomed there.

“When the ostrich industry collapsed, Sarah had to leave, and began a long teaching career in Cape Town,” says Malherbe. “But all the time, she would also work on Langenhoven’s manuscripts. He was a prolific writer, parliamentarian, and lawyer. He wrote everything from science fiction to limericks, and played a key role in getting Afrikaans recognised as a language.”

Just like her father attempted to get Yiddish recognised, here was another man championing a language, and again, Goldblatt became deeply involved. “She was devoted to Afrikaans,” says Malherbe. In fact, many knew her by her Afrikaans nickname, ‘Saartjie’.”

Langenhoven went on to marry, but whenever he came to Cape Town, he would stay with Goldblatt. “Over a 20-year period, they corresponded almost every day. In the Stellenbosch library, I came across 21 volumes of letters that he wrote to her,” says Malherbe. “But in her catalogue, there are gaps of time. I was intrigued, and from family members and stories over the years, I gathered that those gaps might have been when a child [that they had together] was mentioned.”

Malherbe set out to find out if she had a long lost cousin. “All I had to trace him was a strange Afrikaans name, and I knew the person didn’t have family. He was born in 1925.” The results of her discoveries will need to be read in the book.

Malherbe emphasises that just because someone isn’t included in an official record doesn’t mean they don’t have a fascinating and important life story. This is especially true for women.

“Even the late John Kannemeyer – the great Afrikaans biographer who wrote Langenhoven’s life story – made sure that Sarah assumed her place, which was nowhere. The fact that she was a woman, Jewish, and Langenhoven’s mistress didn’t fit well with the story, so he described her as a mad woman. He totally dismissed her.” But Malherbe feels that “we need to celebrate people and recognise their contributions to this country, especially Jewish women”.

As someone who has written two memoirs, Malherbe chose to write the story in the style of a memoir. “I essentially wrote the story as I was discovering it. There was so much to explore, and as a lawyer, I’m interested in finding answers and seeing justice in the world. All of that culminated in this book.”

Did she find what she was looking for? “I think for the most part, I did. But I think in the telling and reading of the story, more will emerge.”

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Grandpa Witkin’s memoir offers sage advice for any generation

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A zaida’s wit and wisdom, the measured acumen of a South African private equity pioneer, and the strength-in-vulnerability of a cancer survivor are some of the formidable facets of Arnold Witkin.

Now, they have culminated in the business icon’s debut book, It’s not a Big Thing in Life, which offers “strategies for coping”. Although framed as “considerations for my adult grandchildren” they are, in fact, universally applicable.

Nevertheless, Witkin’s grandchildren, ranging in age from seven to 16, while still too young to fully imbibe his insight and delight in the wonders of life, are the inspiration behind the work that awaits their perusal.

As Witkin’s eldest grandchild recalls, “When I was a very young child and living in London, my grandpa and I would sit in these big chairs in his and my grandma’s house and ‘contemplate the universe’.”

Witkin, currently based in Cape Town, expresses his enjoyment at being able to engage with his grandchildren in debate and conversation as they find their emerging voices. “We are able to have that kind of relationship where we can really talk about meaningful ideas,” he says. Yet, this is counterbalanced by their hunger for tales from his own experience, “always asking for stories of what happened to me at different ages”.

It’s from this combination that Witkin, aged 76, takes inspiration for the book, which blends personal anecdotes with his musings on various topics. It’s peppered with illustrations by Dov Fedler, and includes an array of references from Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham to Kahlil Gibran and the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. At times, the book even offers some key ideas in list form, something which Witkin decided was suitable after realising that even the ten commandments were in bullet points!

Witkin says he has always written notes to himself and as such, the book was essentially decades in the making. However, he did use the time spent in lockdown, when he couldn’t play his beloved golf three times a week, to focus on the project.

The dozens of topics in the book range from success, work, and money, to coping with problems, making decisions, and love, relationships, and sex. The latter, says Witkin, was the hardest section to write as a grandparent. Yet, he felt that it remained a key aspect of experience and as such, to “not say something would be to slice out a gigantic part of people’s lives”.

Witkin also offers much practical advice – one of his proposals being a return to the lost art of letter writing.

He illustrates his point with a poignant story of an interaction between himself and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. At the time, Sacks had been at the centre of controversy following a misleading article published by The Guardian. Via a friend who knew them both, Witkin heard that Sacks was depressed about the matter, and he decided to write him a letter in spite of the two never having met.

After receiving the letter, Sacks wrote back expressing his gratitude for the gesture. Three years later, they met at a function, and Witkin introduced himself, mentioning he had once written the chief rabbi a letter.

“He said, ‘I remember it well. I filed it in my ‘good news’ file. Whenever I get a bit low, I open the file, and page through it.’”

Witkin says he remains deeply moved by this example. “Sacks could have walked into his library, opened the pages of hundreds of books, and got divine inspiration. But he was so human.” This is the power of letter writing: “Just the words of strangers can move you.”

Ultimately, Witkin hopes the core message of his books is distilled as an understanding that, “You are responsible for yourself.”

With the exception of a criminal act or extreme tragedy, “Whatever happens to you, you can’t blame anybody else. If you’re in a situation in which you don’t know what to do with your career, relationship, or living situation, you can get help, but you are responsible for getting the help. Moreover, you can have expectations if you want, but you may be disappointed. Ultimately the only question facing you is, ‘What are you going to do now?’”

Even what looks like inaction is a “decision until you change it. There is no such thing as nothing.” This viewpoint helped put life in perspective, says Witkin, pointing out that he has come to realise that most things in life aren’t “a big thing”.

Yet, “If a very big thing happens, acknowledge that it’s a big thing in life. But then, how long does it stay a big thing in life?” is his next question. The answer to this remains a choice. Here’s where his literary example, Miss Havisham – a woman who after being jilted at the altar, spends the rest of her life waiting in her wedding dress, overseeing the rotten remnants of her wedding feast – becomes a critical point of contemplation.

Witkin has tackled some struggles himself, having undergone five operations in the past 18 years following prostate and thyroid cancer. “The definition of inner conflict is when your body and your mind aren’t in the same place. Now [with cancer treatment], my body was here [undergoing an operation in hospital] and my mind was saying, ‘My G-d. I wish this wasn’t happening.’ So, to get my mind to where my body was, there had to be acceptance. There was nothing I could do about this situation, so I had to get on with life.”

For example, after one operation, Witkin was left in immense pain for weeks. He decided to plan how to cope with this reality. One of his strategies was to tell himself, “I love you exactly as you are.”

“‘I love you’ are powerful words. Most of us don’t think we love ourselves. So, to say this to yourself, at a time when you are feeling miserable and sorry for yourself and looking terrible, it makes you feel protected. You are both being loving and being loved.”

His reflections in the book are combined with humour. For example, following an operation that affected his vocal cords, Witkin lost the use of his voice for some time. During this period, he would open business meetings by declaring, “don’t let the softness of my voice detract from the seriousness of my purpose”.

Indeed, Witkin’s hypothesis is that the barometer of any relationship should be how often you share a genuine laugh.

As to his best witticism, it comes down to wordplay: “What do you call an inexplicable phobia of intricately designed groups of buildings?” he teases.

“It’s called a complex complex complex,” he offers with a hearty laugh.

  • Details on where to purchase Witkin’s book can be found at www.arniewitkin.com

Witkin shares a mantra that he uses to cope with difficult situations:

•     Stay calm.

•     I’m safe.

•     I’m in good hands.

•     Surrender to the process (let go).

•     I’m strong.

•     I will get through this.

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