Returning to Israel: memories of my youth and new discoveries

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Times & Places

The minute I read Sagi’s email that his father Uri, my cousin, had died, I knew I had to return to Israel to be with his widow, Aliza.

Uri had been on a trip to Vienna with his sons, Sagi and Tamir, and on the plane home, he had a heart attack. The plane landed in Belgrade but it was too late. He was 77. Irwin and I had just returned from Portugal and I was still jetlagged. I would put the September issue to bed and leave the day before it came out. Air Canada was offering flights through Toronto, a total pain, but when I got to Trudeau airport, my name was called and I was transferred to a direct flight, which saved time and trouble.

On the way back, I had to go through TO, and almost missed the flight. Try to get a direct flight, no matter what. I took the train from Ben Gurion Airport to Haifa and Aliza picked me up and we drove up Mount Carmel to her house on Einstein St. where she and Uri have lived since they were married 54 years ago. My connection with the family runs deep.

When I was 22, considering settling in Israel, they invited me to live with them and helped me find a job teaching English. Uri’s father and my grandfather were first cousins but we became much closer than that in the four years I remained in Haifa. Now I was back in the same house on Einstein spending three weeks in Israel, back in the room I had when I was 22. It has been eight years since Irwin and I were here and much has changed.

Among my old haunts, I discovered an abundance of new cafés and shops. My favourite haunt was Shimon’s or as it is called Top Topi, a tiny sandwich joint where I used to sit after work and drink Café Hafooh, Upside down coffee, called that because you put the hot milk in first and then the coffee and the milk rises to the top. In some ways, Israel is far more sophisticated than Canada or even the USA. A small example is the menu in one of the restos, a tablet with all the options, like a search engine. You can click on salads, vegan, gluten- free, vegetarian, fish.

There are overlaps and there is a photo of each dish with all the ingredients, this “patent” both in Hebrew and English. “Patent” is a Hebrew word for “new idea or innovation.” Another day, I visit a hairdresser in Merkaz Ha Carmel, Carmel Center and retrace my steps 46 years ago walking up and down Shderot Hanasi, (President’s Way) the main street, checking out which shops remain. Almost everything is different but I can visualize it as it was then. After all, we are very impressionable when we are young.

In the evening, Aliza’s cousins Itzik and Avital, take me to Hof HaCarmel, Carmel Beach, a boardwalk extending about six kilometers along the Mediterranean. There are restaurants and playgrounds, an amphitheatre and a huge expanse where mostly 50+ couples dance on Saturday evenings. My hosts tell me this goes on all along the coast of Israel, in the winter on Saturday mornings and on summer evenings.

The dances are complex but the dancers seem to know them all. This dance activity, like other Israeli pastimes, cannot be replicated elsewhere. It’s like the Friday morning breakfasts when Israelis enjoy 10 or more little bowls of cheese, tuna salad, guacamole, labenah, finely-chopped salad, bread, pastries, eggs done to your order, fresh juice and coffee. A “one-person” portion (about $20) is definitely enough for two.

Friends come every day to visit Aliza; some of them I haven’t seen in over 40 years. None have divorced. It doesn’t exist among Aliza and Uri’s friends. We discuss politics, namely the upcoming election. None are pleased with Bibi Netanyahu but afraid that the Kahol Lavon (Blue-White) party hasn’t got the experience to lead the government. At least Bibi keeps us safe, says one friend. All agree he is corrupt and will be prosecuted.

One morning, I take the bus up to Dalyat El Carmel, the main Druz village beyond Haifa University, the tallest point in Haifa. I pass the university, now composed of several buildings. There was only one when I studied there in 1972/73, as one of the first students to enter the Master’s Program in English Literature. El Carmel is more populated but otherwise, the same dust covers the souvenirs in the shop at the top of the hill and the same owner, more wizened but still friendly, sells his wares.

Everything I pick up has dust on it as though it hasn’t moved in 40 years. And this is not an antique shop. I walk into a restaurant offering Israeli/Druz fare and choose a variety of “salads” for 45 shekel ($20) Little plates begin to appear, Baba Ganoush, Hummus, Tahini, Fattoush Salad, lentils and rice, beets, and pita. But the “salads” are enough for two. I leave Dalyat El Carmel feeling too full, with souvenirs for gifts packed into my purse, and take the bus down through Isfiya, the other Druz town.

I notice that many of the women in Dalyat El Carmel are dressed more modestly than I remember, with their white “hijabs” covering their mouths. I asked one girl of 23 why that is and she answers that it’s because these women including her are “more religious.”

It seems that religion is stronger now than ever, even among the smaller religions like Druze. The Druze are a complex and interesting group but it’s best you look them up on Google to understand the intricacies of their relationship with Israel and their way of life.

Gvaot Bar near Be’er Seva and the Bedouin City nearby A few days later, Aliza and I travel by train to Gvaot Bar, 15 kilometers from Be’er Sheva, about 80 kilometers south of Jerusalem. The community is gated, about 1,000+ residents. Sagi and Shani live in a sprawling two storey house, which they built five years ago. Shani tells me the average number of children per family is four.

The house is surrounded by a garden, in which fruit trees and herbs abound. You can pick at various times of the year, grapefruit, pomegranates, bananas, pomelos, tangerines, lemons, feijoa, persimmons, papaya, loquats, kumquats, mango, peaches, apricots, pitanga, guava, grapes, figs, pears, mulberries, and plums. And if you like herbs? Zaatar, sage, lemongrass, basil, rosemary, and lavender.

On Shabbat (Saturday) we visited the Bedouin City, Rahat, population 80,000, interesting because all the houses look enormous and are made of stone and then there are the minarets that dot the city and finally the slums where the Bedouin seem to live much like they did 50 years ago. T

he city is made up of tribes who still fight but they all seem to agree that garbage around them is fine, as long as it is not in their houses. They are lovely people and the youth seem innocent. Sagi tells me they don’t speak much Hebrew and about a company that moved to Rahat called Soda Stream that employs many Bedouin. The BDS movement complained about the company being in Palestinian territory and so they moved to Rahat and now the BDSers complain about the company being on Bedouin land. Funny because it’s a Bedouin City whose residents benefit enormously from the presence of the company.

It’s impossible as I see it to understand Israel without being in places like Rahat and seeing the co-existence of Israelis and Arabs. We had brunch at a sprawling restaurant and playground complete with trees and huge tents called Vadhan Ranch just outside Rahat and waited in line a half an hour to eat Labeneh (cheese-yogurt) in Bedouin pita, something like Druz Pita, thin and wrapped in layers, accompanied by lots of Zaatar.

There are many cultures in Israel, and many food cultures that overlap. Little bowls of things are the unifying feature. At Sagi’s home, I saw an interesting video about Bibi Netanyahu or Bibi the King as it was called, a clever analysis of how Bibi is good for the country and strong and rules the police force and the IDF and that is just the problem. Bibi is a king and with a king there is no democracy. Biblical Israel had kings but now Israelis don’t want or need a king, or do they? An interesting take on the political scene here.

On the following Tuesday, Election Day, it was not at all clear whether Israelis prefer a king to democracy. And it’s still not clear. Last days in Haifa When I returned to Haifa from Jersualem a week later, I realized I had caught a cold and because I didn’t want to pass it on to Aliza, I decided to move to the Crowne Plaza on Yefe Nof or Panorama street in the Carmel Centre. The hotel is luxurious, $205cdn a night for a beautiful room overlooking Haifa and the Mediterreanean. I had this view from my bed and kept the window open to catch a lovely breeze. It was a nice place to spend a couple of days.

The next day I meandered through the Hadar (the downtown) halfway to the port, where I used to hang out in the 70s. It’s changed but still has its charm. There are a lot of Russians there, probably because it’s cheaper than the Carmel. I love the atmosphere and the people. I met a Frenchman married to a Russian in their jewellery shop on Herzl St. the main shopping street and tried not to give them my cold while I picked out presents for friends and family.

The Carmel Centre is not what it used to be, but it’s fun to try out the cafés and ice cream shops, where I found sugarless ice-cream. Back at the hotel, I ordered room service for the first time in my life. I called at 9:30pm and ordered an Israeli breakfast for a reasonable 45 shekel or $17. I couldn’t believe the amounts and variety of cheeses that came with tuna salad, hard boiled eggs, chopped vegetable salad, and cream cheese dips, with OJ and my favourite Café Hafooh. The young woman who delivered the meal to my door couldn’t believe I wanted breakfast at night.

Why not? It’s the best thing on the menu, I told her. A special thanks to Chen (pronounced Hen), Grace in English, who looked after me from her front desk and attended to all my needs including a mat in the too-high bathtub.

Something tells me it won’t be another eight years before I return to Haifa, my favourite city perhaps because it holds memories of my youth, and simply because it’s a beautiful city built on Mt. Carmel facing the sea, a city not to be missed when you next plan to visit Israel.

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