Archive | December, 2012

The End of a Generation

30 Dec

You’re holding a drink in your hand and you’re making the rounds at your 20th or 30th high-school reunion.  The senior you were in love with — let’s call him Rob — is now a shadow of his former self.  Or the bubbly cheerleader — let’s call her Lizzy — who was the envy and scorn of all your classmates is now in need of cheering up herself.  Time was not kind to them.  Would it not have been better if you had skipped the reunion?  To remember them at their best in the school’s yearbook?

And this leads you to think about yourself.  Were the years kind to you or did they take their toll on your face, body, mind, spirit?

Uncle Tino, left.  Joseph Labi, right

Uncle Tino, left. Joseph Labi, right

A couple of weeks ago, saddled with these thoughts of aging, I get into my car and make the one- and-a-half hour trip from Galilee to the coastal city of Netanya.  The night before, my father, Joseph Labi, had called from his home near Tel-Aviv and asked me if I wanted to visit his brother, Tino Labi, at the nursing home.  “Yes, I’ll come,” I said instinctively   It was too late to back out.  And deep down, I did want to see what has become of my “British” Uncle Tino.

In Netanya I meet up with my father and together we drive to Beit Ami Nursing Home.

From outside, the nursing home looks like a three-star hotel in a typical seaside resort.  In fact, at one time it was.  In the lobby we meet the nursing home’s director and the woman social worker.  She’s surprised by my father’s apparent good health, his posture.  She directs us to the elevators, says, “The first and second level are for the able residents.  The higher up you go, the more help they need.”  I press 5.

The doors open to a wide recreation room taken up by rectangular tables.  Old men and women are seated in wheelchairs.  Some of them stare vacantly at the large windows beyond, or the wall-mounted TV with the volume muted.  Some are asleep in their chairs, others sip tea and nibble on biscuits.  I scan the room from side to side, wanting to pick out my uncle, a Rock Hudson look-alike.  My father points him out and walks toward him.  I follow.  Uncle Tino has his back to me.  I come around and see his face.  The shock in my face is unmistakable.   What has become of his movie star looks?

I approach him and shake his pudgy hand.  He looks me over, slowly begins to recognize my face, makes the connection with his brother at his side.  “How come you still have all your hair?” he says in his English accent.  I smile.  He smiles back, reveals a set of even dentures.  The decades melt away.  I pull up a chair and ask about his health.  He recently fell, broke his hip bone, underwent surgery.  A brace is wrapped snugly around his large midsection.  My father, hard of hearing, relies on lip-reading to keep up with the conversation.

Tino's Nursing Home Lobby

Tino’s Nursing Home Lobby

In the 1950s my father and mother, newlyweds in the still-young Israel, packed up and immigrated to England.  Tino followed.  Dark, not-so-tall and handsome, girls fell for his Mediterranean features.  James Dean would have killed for his hair.  Tino (and my father) greased their wavy, strong hair with Brilliantine.  Joseph started a family (me!).  Tino went without, the consummate playboy.  He did marry an Englishwoman once, the wedding ceremony held in Scotland.  Upon their return, her parents said they didn’t want him.  He wasn’t English.  Tino had a son by her, did not see him until some thirty years later, told him he was the father.  The son told him to go F*** himself.

My father offers to wheel him downstairs to the patio, to take in some winter sun.  Tino smiles eagerly, happy to be taken beyond his prescribed area.  Once on the patio, he lifts his feet off the wheelchair’s footrests, rests his large house slippers on the floor.

Tino always liked food, and lots of it.  He spent his life as a cook in many of London’s restaurants.  At night he gambled his earnings on racing horses and racing dogs.  He spread the love, the wealth on Friday, was broke on Monday.  He moon-lighted in his mini-cab in the streets of London.  He drove drunks home after the pubs closed.  He drove waitresses home late at night to their government-subsidized housing, much like his tiny flat on the East End.  In the mornings, unable to sleep, he fed the ducks in Victoria Park with day-old Jewish bagels.

I had stayed at his flat with friends in 1979, on the way to America.  He had began to lose his hair then, his scalp was full with hair plugs.  “It cost me a bloody fortune,” he tells me now and runs his hands over his bald head.  He’s preoccupied with hair.  “Your father still has some, the son-of-a-gun.”

For the past ten years, he’s been a snow bird, living in London in summer, flying to Israel in winter.  That changed three years ago.  He became sick, chose to live his remaining days in Israel.  My father, age 85, and Tino, 82, are the only surviving brothers from a family of 18 brothers and sisters (two mothers, one stud of a father).  Everyone’s gone.

A former hotel, now a nursing home

A  former hotel, now a nursing home

Tino’s mind is lucid at times.  More often it’s murky.  His money’s running out.  My father is unable to handle his brother’s financial affairs.  He recently signed over legal custody to the State of Israel.  The State will have the final say about his physical needs, help keep him in the nursing home.

We say good-bye to Tino.  My father drops off fruit and cookies my mother had baked.  We leave.  We stroll through Netanya’s famous outdoor market.  The sun’s kind.  We lunch at a typical Jewish North African restaurant, order Libyan couscous with a medley of vegetables, spicy fish in red sauce, rounds of beer.

My father boards the bus, goes home.  I get in the car and return to Kfar Tavor, thinking I didn’t run into Rob or Lizzy, but somehow I’d taken part in a family “reunion.”

Be healthy, father.  Be good, Uncle.

I am sad to report my Uncle Tino died yesterday, 27th of January, 2017.  An end of a generation, indeed.


Two Passports to Paradise?

16 Dec

Open any of Israel’s daily newspapers and on the back pages you’ll find stamp-size ads that promise a better future.  They’re listed at the bottom in bold type: GET YOUR EUROPEAN PASSPORT.  The ads are a barometer of the national mood.  There’s more of them, it seems, when things in Israel aren’t going well, i.e., the recent week-long war against Hamas terrorists in Gaza, the upcoming national elections in January 2013, the spike in the price of housing.

Polish Passport

Polish Passport

The idea is simple: if your mother or father, or grandparents, alive or dead, were at one time citizens of, say, Poland, and you can prove it, then you, as the applicant, can claim a Polish passport as well.

As an Israeli/Polish citizen, the doors to the European Union (EU) are now wide open.  You may study abroad, in Poland or in Oxford, England, work in Vienna or Helsinki, buy real estate in Berlin.  And you can buy Belgian chocolate for your not-as-fortunate left-behind family members when you come to visit them during the summer in Israel, in the “old country.”

European Union

European Union

Behind these small newspaper ads there’s a small army of service providers that include attorneys, contractors, notary publics, interpreters, translators, photographers, national archive researchers, website developers, advertisers, bill collectors — and that’s only in Israel.

To get the coveted passport/citizenship you may have to jump through more hoops than a circus horse.  And eat plenty of hay.   The TO-DO list is long and expensive.  Online companies offer to hold your hand while putting their other hand in your pocket.  You’ll have to provide original birth/death certificates of your family tree, be fingerprinted, photographed, notarized,  interviewed.  All has to be completed in Polish, in triplicate, please.  Pull out your wallet, pay from $600 to $1000 at the cash register.  Take a seat on that bench in the corner for the next 18 months, and don’t call for status during the Polish Holidays.

And yet, many Israelis go though this ordeal.  From 2000 to 2007, according to Dr. Yossi Harpaz from Tel Aviv University School of Sociology, 100,000 foreign passports (!) were issued to Israelis by Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and other European countries.  Not everyone is happy.  Even those that are eligible choose not to apply.  They accuse their Ashkenazi brothers of selling short their homeland and going back to the countries that sent them to the death camps.

Seeking such passports when Israel was first established would have bordered on treason.  The country and its people from the world over were united then around key goals: Nation-building and defending against the Arabs.

German Passport

German Passport

Today the threads of the nation’s quilt are getting frayed in some places.  Everyone’s in one bed, pulling the blanket every which way.  The goals have changed.  The Arabs cannot defeat Israel.  Its citizens are preoccupied with sectarian politics, the Orthodox, the Arab minority, education, jobs — all the symptoms of a nation that’s showing its age.

And this is why getting a European passport is no longer creating an uproar.  Everyone’s looking for an edge, real or imagined.

Dr. Harpaz, the son of Romanian parents and who’d gotten his own Romanian passport, doesn’t see it as an act of betrayal.  His scholarly research shows that fewer than 10% actually follow through on their plans to immigrate out of Israel.  In today’s global economy, it’s all about having the right connections and assets, and the European passport is one such tool in the toolbox.  He cites Switzerland and Holland which have as small populations as Israel and without threats of war and still, they experience negative migration.  Young, upwardly mobile people from Zurich and Amsterdam are staking their future elsewhere.

For the highly professional Israelis, the economic lure of Poland or Hungary, for example, is non-existent.  They earn much more at home.  For them, the U.S. and Canada is the place to be, and a Polish passport will not admit them there.

The Sephardic Jews in Israel don’t call on these passport ads.  They don’t have this “privilege.”   In the early 1950s the governments of Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, etc, stripped them of their citizenship, their passports, forced them to get the hell out —  to Israel.  Millions of Israelis of Sephardic background are UNABLE  to “get back” their citizenship from these Arab regimes.  This led to the Ashkenazi Jews who are seeking a European passport to be labeled as the “Exodus of the Able.”

Let’s get a second passport, this “Just in case” gene is embedded deep under the skin of the  Wandering Jew.  Throughout history we had the horses saddled and the engines running to make a quick get away.  We slept uneasily.  We saved for a rainy day when the sun was out.  Jewish chicken soup might help the common cold, but a European passport might be the ticket out.

It may not help, but it can’t “huit.”


What about you?  If you had a parent who was born outside the country you were born in — would you get a second passport?  Why?

Lionel Messi of Barcelona Scores Big in Galilee

6 Dec

It’s three in the morning in Galilee.  I’m a passenger inside a tiny Honda that races past dark fields and meadows.  I’m sleep-deprived, caffeinated, bundled in a coat and scarf.  At this hour small talk is small with my wife’s brother-in-law, Hezi, and his two sons, Yaniv and Ido, ages 35 and 29.  We’re all heading to the airport to take part in a four-day, three-night soccer expedition to Barcelona.

Barcelona Harbor

Barcelona Harbor

“You’re crazy and why can’t you watch the game on TV” — my father’s words from the night before — echo in my head as I go past airport security and take a seat on board the charter plane.  We’re one of three flights — 900 passengers — leaving this morning for Barcelona.  There isn’t a single Spaniard, American or Englishman on board.  We’re all Israelis with one purpose in mind: to see Boy Wonder, Lionel Messi.

After we land, a convoy of buses awaits, whisks us to our hotels near Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s pedestrian-friendly boulevard.  At the Rialto hotel we inch our way to the reception desk to get our keys.  There are about 100 Israelis and 100 suitcases in line.  These soccer fans range from young to old, from couples to buddies (us), to toddlers.  Toddlers?  They’re wearing Barcelona’s football club jerseys, red and blue stripes.  Around us, Hebrew is dominant.  We own the place, talk about the upcoming game tomorrow night.  The hotel clerks are calm; they must have seen it all before; they pepper their instructions with “Toda” and “Shalom.”

We venture into the streets.  It’s frigid, scarves and woolen hats all around.  Hezi, whose arm was injured during Yom Kippur War of 1973, chooses to wear one tight leather glove on his good hand.  It’s not long before we sample the many tapas bars and the one beer in town: Estrella.

Barcelona Soccer Game

Barcelona Soccer Game

Israelis are everywhere.  By their numbers in the streets and bars you’d think Israel is ten times its size.  Souvenir shops carry signs in Hebrew along English and German.

The big night arrives.  The Barcelona stadium, Camp Nou, is filled with 90,000 fans, a near sell-out for a league game against Athletic Club Bilbao.  The people of Barcelona hate being labeled as Spaniards; they’re from Catalunya.  In fact, many wish to separate from Spain, form their own nation.  Their language is different as is their food, their music, their culture.

Lionel Messi and his teammates enter the stadium through the tunnel.  They’re warming up on the green pitch.  It’s a frenzy of screams and shouts.  The Israelis behind me join in, call out his name from the stands.  Some wave Israel’s flag, possibly wanting to adopt him as their own.  Messi continues to stretch, to hop and skip.

The whistle blows.  It’s kickoff time.  The game clock ticks. Barcelona tapas At 17:14 the crowd suddenly erupts into song.  Ido tells me they chant at every game at the same exact minute and second — 17:14 — to commemorate the last time, the year 1714, the Catalans were independent.  Eventually they were crushed by the French, later taken under the Spanish flag.

It isn’t long before the team from Bilbao is crushed.  By half-time Barcelona leads 2:0.  The game ends 5:1.  What a treat to see Messi score twice, to hear the crowd roar, to watch the locals question the referee’s every call, to watch all the Israelis become one with Barcelona.  After the game we celebrate with rounds of Estrella at nearby bars.

Initially I thought the Israeli presence was restricted to Barcelona.  I was wrong.  The next morning our Israeli tour guide takes us on a day-long bus tour to Monserrat, a multi-peaked mountain range an hour away.  The limestone rocks jut out like fingers pointed at the heavens.  Against the rocks there’s a beautiful monastery with depictions and paintings on the exterior walls.  The words Jerusalem, Hebron, Nazareth are inscribed on the walls.  At closer inspection I see another set of words: Mount Tavor.  Its significance to Christians worldwide is undeniable.  Hezi, the brother-in-law, appears to take pride in that Tavor is “our” mountain, seen from our window at home.

We return to the bus past the souvenir shops and the cheese artisans.  I can’t believe my ears.  The herdsmen and farmers are describing the goat cheese, the soft and the hard kind, the herbs – in Hebrew!  The guide tells us they sell the most cheese to Israelis, chose to learn key words to drum up more business.

Gaudi Cathedral

Gaudi Cathedral

By the fourth day, I miss home.  I’ve had enough of tapas in glass displays, of beer, of soccer talk, of my three male partners, of Gaudi’s wild (!) cathedral, of seeing pig legs hang from every hook known to man.

It’s not long before I start to hum the lyrics to Elton John’s song: “Rocket Man”

“I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight”

The bus to the airport arrives.  We catch a red-eye back to Mount Tavor, back to Galilee.  Still early in the morning, I climb into bed and pull the blankets over me.

Good night, Messi.