Archive | August, 2013

Vikings, Germans, Italians in Galilee

31 Aug

The year: 1970

The place: Northview High School, Covina, California.

I’m seated on a green lawn under a tree.  It’s lunch time.  Students line up to get burgers and fries.  Originally from Israel, it’s my second year in California, more specifically, Covina, some 25 miles east of Hollywood, in smoggy San Gabriel Valley.

Doretta with her daughter Angela and her son-in-law, Stefan

Doretta with her daughter Angela and her son-in-law, Stefan

The school’s mascot, the Vikings, is painted on the school wall.  I bite into my tuna sandwich and watch the horns on the Viking’s helmet.  The Vikings crossed the Atlantic to America centuries ago.  As a 15 year-old, I’m in a new land as well. Behind me, I hear a lively conversation.  It’s not the content, but the heavy accent that catches my attention.  It’s foreign.  Foreign?  Could there be another “alien” on campus besides me?

Bride and Groom

Bride and Groom

I turn around.  A girl, blond, is seated cross-legged, hippie-style.  She’s talking to another girl. They giggle.   “Hello,” I offer.

The blond girl introduces herself: “I’m Doretta.”

I tell her and her friend my name.  I soon realize she’s not American. “Where are you from?”

“Roma, Italia,” she says.  She detects my accent, most likely.  “And you?”


And so began a friendship that spans more than 40 years.

I later learned she was an exchange-student for the year.  Her friend Beverly was her American host.  Doretta was a Junior then; I a sophomore.  During the school year we hung out together, spoke of our “Mediterranean” background, marveled at how Americans were strange yet wonderful.  We spent some weekends together playing tennis, eating fast food, lounging by the swimming pool in my apartment complex.  1970: Funny bathing suits.  Chlorine.  Weird hairstyles.  Rock and Roll.  Big cars.  Smog.

Bride and Groom in traditional Moroccan costume

Bride and Groom in traditional Moroccan costume

And then it was over.  She returned to Italy at end of the school year.  A year later, in 1971, I returned to Israel.

For the next three years we became the best of pen pals; she in Rome, I near Tel Aviv.  We sent each other long letters, colorful postcards from our travels, gifts, record albums.

“Surprise! I’m coming to Israel,” she announced in one of her postcards.

Doretta arrived in the summer of 1974 with her friend, Claudia.  I had them over my house, took them to the beach, to the south, to the north, to Jerusalem.  They then decided to tour the Dead Sea on their own.  Doretta sat at a bus stop, saw an Israeli soldier in uniform, fell in love.  Must be something about uniforms and guns that make women swoon.

She went back to Rome only to pack her things, and returned to Israel, to her man, David.  Doretta, a Christian, converted to Judaism, studied the Torah inside out.  She’d become Jewish.

Who was have guessed?

In 1982 I attended her birthday party in Israel.

I did not see her again until some 13 years later, in 1995.  My wife Pnina and I vacationed in Rome.  I told her about my childhood friend.  I reached for the hotel phone book and looked up Doretta’s maiden name, thinking I’d call her mother and tell her to say hello to Doretta in Israel.

Bride and Groom, Prince and Princess for the Night

Bride and Groom, Prince and Princess for the Night

“She’s in Rome,” her mother told me.  “David and Doretta have been in Rome for many years.  They have a daughter, her name’s Angela.”

We rushed out of the hotel and met up with them, spoke about old times.

Three years later, they came to visit us in Los Angeles.

Fast forward to 2013.  Doretta’s on the phone with me.  “Angela got married in Germany last month, to a German, but we’re throwing a wedding party in Israel in August.  You must come!”

And here the story came full circle.  Again I attended a wedding, this time her daughter’s, not half a mile away from where Doretta had wed 30 years earlier.

David, a Moroccan Jew, held the wedding party at Marrakesh, a Moroccan restaurant.  Most of the guests were his extended family and friends.  The groom, Stefan, and all his brothers and family came from Dortmund, Germany.

Doretta watches belly dancer move

Doretta watches belly dancer move

It was the most unusual party starting with Doretta, an Italian who’d become Jewish; David, an Israeli of Moroccan extraction, and a bunch of jolly Germans drinking and dancing to the sounds of Moroccan love songs, shrill cries to welcome the bride and the groom, drum beats, an alluring belly dancer, gold-laced costumes and fez hats from Casablanca.

I looked about the room.

No Vikings.

Moroccan Belly Dancer

Moroccan Belly Dancer

What started out as a casual talk in California by a timid Israeli boy with a good-looking Italian led decades later to a multinational, transcontinental fiesta only writers come dream up.

So, what do you think?  Was it all a random, chance encounter or was it destiny?


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

or at

Second Year’s Report Card from Galilee

17 Aug

This week marks our second year anniversary since we returned to Galilee, Israel after having lived in California for many, many years.  My First Year Report Card spoke of mad drivers in Israel, of crazy road signs, of great coffee, of great people, delicious hummus, and of not so great dust storms, of oppressive summer heat.

Our second year is no longer characterized by shock, but more like getting used to things, liking or disliking things, or just putting up.  It may remind you of your spouse when on the first date he/she burped or picked his/her nose in public.  It wasn’t endearing, but in time it became familiar.

Here are some samples:

Cross-talking: Ten people are sitting at someone’s house.  Everyone’s in good spirits.

The Art of Talking all at once

The Art of Talking all at Once

Coffee and pastry is served.  A juicy watermelon is sliced and diced.  Nuts.  Olives.  Crackers.  Diet Sprite is passed around (everyone carries a gut), sealed beer bottles sweat on tables (very few drink the stuff).  Noise level: High, High, High.  Ten mouths chew.  Then ten mouths talk.  The ears are just mounted on the sides of heads for show.  They don’t work.  “Did you hear about the air-conditioning special at Home Center?”  “Pnina, what did you put in the cake?”  “I almost fell off the bike today.”  “My granddaughter got her first tooth this week.”  “What are your taking for high blood-pressure?”  “Whole chickens are sold out for the holidays.”  “Our water bill killed us last month.”  “Our Toyota gets 16 kilometers to the liter.”  “Moti sold his land to developers at full price.”  “Found a flight to Greece for next to nothing.”

Pass the watermelon, please.

Fruit: Unlike the U.S, where produce has to be trucked across hundreds of miles, here the fruit and vegetables are grown nearby.  Plums, apricots, grapes stay on the vine longer so they arrive at the market ripe and sweet.  Bite into a peach and it squirts.  Tomatoes ooze, cucumbers snap, lettuce crunch.  But bananas are bad.  I really miss American bananas, and how they added zest to my morning cereal.  They were always perfectly shaped and sized.  They ripened so perfectly.  Here the bananas are grown in the Jordan Valley and the Coastal Plain.  They’re finger-size, odd-shaped, odd-colored, either too hard or too soft, bruised; they go from rock-hard to rotten in one day.

Pass the Chiquita, please.

Made in China (For Israel):  China is the world’s factory.  It manufacturers to order.  It produces high quality for the U.S. and Europe and inferior products for the rest of the world.  HoseAt first glance, the products here appear the same, but at closer inspection and use, they’re downright cheap.  Toasters trap bread slices and release pieces of charcoal.  Desk fans spread more noise than air.  Garden hoses twist in knots, pee a few droplets.  Refrigerator doors don’t stay shut.  Beach chairs collapse after one use.  Plastic cups crumble.  Dinner plates chip.  Sunglasses bend.  Shirts shrink.  Buttons pop.  Zippers fall off the track.  Shoes pinch.  But you could pay more for American-designed, Chinese-made jeans ($120), shirts ($70), shoes ($200).

Paper-Size:  Coming to Israel, I brought reams and reams of paper from the U.S. — all letter-size, 8 1/2 by 11, known here as Imperial Standard (think King of England).  

European A4   Vs. U.S. Letter-Size

European A4 Vs. U.S. Letter-Size

Americans are still in love with inches and feet.  Everyone else is on Metric.  Last month I ran out of paper.  Had to go and buy what they sell here: European A4.  The dimensions are different.  The paper is narrower at the hips (8.2) and it has longer legs (11.7).  You don’t realize how weird it looks until you hold one.  Makes a manuscript read like the Magna Carta.

Newspaper Headlines:  



Sensationalism takes center stage.  Headlines take up 1/3 of the newspaper page followed by a giant photograph image to back up the obvious headline, followed by eye-popping font.  In the past, the main newspapers were more restrained, respectable.  Now they have to compete with the free, flashy newspapers handed at grocery stores, gas stations, bus terminals.  “BLOODSHED IN CAIRO.”  “INFANT DIES IN SEALED CAR”  “HOUSING PRICES AT RECORD LEVEL”  It’s Noise wherever you turn.

Restaurants:  Tel Aviv is a long way off.  But even here in Galilee, restaurant food quality is a pleasant surprise.  Israeli RestaurantThe decor is airy, bright.  Tables and chairs are of high quality (Made in Italy), the silverware is top-notch even at modestly priced restaurants, and the service is impeccable.  The food arrives fresh, in large quantities and in large varieties.  The prices?  Breakfast: eggs, great salads, cheeses, tuna, dips. freshly baked bread, great cup of coffee, fruit juice — $12.  Falafel on the go — $4.  Shawarma — $6  Hummus — $7.  Sit down luncheon: $16.  Dinner: $20.  Consider that Israelis make less than 1/2 of Americans and eating out takes a big bite…

Gas Prices and Cars: After two years in Israel and it’s still a shocker at $8 per gallon.  

Gas Prices in Shekels per Liter

Gas Prices in Shekels per Liter

This explains why most cars on the road resemble washing machines on wheels.  They’re small, noisy, unattractive.  And expensive.  A simple Toyota Corolla will cost you $36,000.  The Koreans and Japanese, lifting a page from the Chinese operating manual, manufacture the most basic cars and with the least frills.  Floor mats are a joke.  windshield wipers struggle.  Car seats send you to the chiropractor.  Yet these sluggish car engines sip gasoline with a straw.  Five people pile into a tiny Hyundai (with their camping gear).  Taking your legs along for the ride – optional.  We chose to “export” our American-made Toyota Camry to Israel.  That was a mistake.  I sweat every time I fill up the tank.  I break into hives every time I have to navigate this “limo” in Tel Aviv’s alleys.  Parking? Forgetaboutit

Israelis: In my youth, living in Israel, in a Tel-Aviv bedroom community, I believed there were mostly two kinds of Israelis: 1.  Those that came from many lands (my parents included), and 2.  Those that were “true” Israelis, the native-born Sabras.  Decades later I find Israel to be more complex.  They include the Tel Aviv hipsters, the High-Tech wizards and darlings of Wall Street, the tycoons who control much of Israel’s money, the after-the-army-service-I’m-going-to-India-Thialand-Bolivia-Peru and-I’m-going-to-smoke-pot-till-I-drop crowd, the Ultra-Orthodox, the knitted-kippa, the Sephardi Jews, the Ashkenazi, the Israeli-Arabs in the big cities, in the villages, the farmers, the ex-kibbutzniks who cherish old kibbutz life and those who detest it, the million-plus Russian immigrants who added spice to an already overly spiced country, the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who’d come from the former Soviet Bloc, and from war-torn Africa.  It’s eight million Israelis wedged between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River and they all want to swim, eat, pray, love, vacation – while Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank around us go up in smoke.

So I decided to conduct an unscientific survey of my family.  “After 2 years in Israel, on a scale of 1 to 10, how would you say you adjusted?

I'm doing great.  How about you?

I’m doing great. How about you?

Pnina:     6

Maurice:    6

Maya, age 14:   6

Romy, age 14:   6

Max, our American dog: 10+

Pass the Kibbles, please.


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

or at

Into the Night Has Been Added to Book Club Reading List

7 Aug

Into the Night offers book clubs a beautiful, Ukrainian single mother’s struggle to escape from the grips of sex trafficking in Tel Aviv, Israel. Will Alina be able to return home, to reunite with her father and son? The clash all ends in an unpredictable climax.

via Into the Night Has Been Added to Book Club Reading List.

Your Jewish name might be hazardous to your Job

3 Aug

Scene: Job interview.  I’m seated across my interviewer.  He taps his pencil on the desk.  The air-conditioning hums.

Location: Office in Galilee, Israel

Time: Mid-morning.

My interviewer, a bald man in his late 40s, pushes his glasses up his sweaty nose, scans my resume once again.  I sense he’s uncomfortable.  He’s dying to ask me “the question.”  It’s an itch he can’t resist.  The legs of his chair skid on the floor as he plants his elbows on his desk.  He asks in the most casual tone: “Tell me, Maurice, what’s your background?”

Map of Sephardic Jews Migration

Map of Sephardic Jews Migration

He couldn’t resist, the temptation too strong.  By “background” he means whether I’m Sephardi (Jews who trace their ancestry to the Iberian Peninsula – Spain and Portugal – as well as all of North Africa to include Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia – as well as the Middle East to include Lebanon, Syria, and as far as Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria) or whether I’m Ashkenazi (Jews who trace their roots to mostly Europe – Germany, England, Poland, Russia, and all the former Soviet Republics as well as all the Jews who’d originally lived in Europe but migrated to Argentina, Mexico and even Australia).  France and Italy had both Sephardic and Ashkenazi at different periods while Jews from Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, India are “lumped” with Sephardi.

By “background” he doesn’t want to know whether I come from a family of doctors, fishermen, lumberjacks, bricklayers, people with four ears, three legs, a tail, or a circumcised penis.  No, he wants to know where my parents were born.  He doesn’t use the no-no word “origin,” (Motzah, in Hebrew).  That would be overly direct; that would be a violation of my privacy rights, although employers here routinely cross the line by asking a person’s age, marital status, hometown.

"Lavi" - Lioness

“Lavi” – Lioness

Ashkenazi Migration in Europe

Ashkenazi Migration in Europe

I gaze confidently at my interviewer.  The resume in his hands baffles him.  He’s trying to figure out the “origin” of my last name: Lavi, in Hebrew.  It means Lioness.

Up until the 11th century, there were no Jewish last names to speak of.  Jews went by their birth order: “Joseph the son of Moshe,” for example.  Then last names began to pop up in Spain, France, Italy and North Africa.  They weren’t complex.  Heads of families were named after their profession: “Attar” (pharmacist), “Shohet” (ritual slaughterer), or how they were regarded in the community: “Haviv” (favorite), “Katan (small), “Bracha” (blessing), “Yerushalmi (from Jerusalem), in Sephardic countries.

Later, in Europe, for the purpose of taxation and census, Ashkenazi Jews in Poland, Germany adopted last names of their own: “Goldberg” (Gold Mountain), “Tishler” (carpenter), “Shneider” (tailor).  Last names that ended in “vich” – the son of – meant the family came from Romania or Poland.  Names ending in “Stein,” Man,” “Berg” came from Germany.  “Ski” endings came from Russia, Ukraine.

Could it be that my Lavi forefathers in North Africa were regarded as ferocious, courageous, worthy of the “Lioness” title?

“Lavi” is as genuine Israeli last name as they come.  It’s mentioned 7 times in the bible, mostly by prophets.  In the Book of Joel, chapter 1, it says: “For a great nation overran my land, immense and countless, its teeth those of lion, its jaws those of lioness.”

Kibbutzim, parks, and office complexes are named after “Lavi”.  It was also the name of the much-acclaimed Israeli fighter jet.

It’s no wonder many Jews who’d immigrated to Israel in the last 100 years wanted to shed their “Diaspora-sounding” names and to adopt a strong Hebrew name.  Lavi is common enough, but not overused.  And it’s “uni-origin” – It’s both Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

Where did you say your family was from???

Photo of Maurice Labi (Lavi)
Where did you say your family was from???

And here lies the problem for my interviewer.  He can’t tell my “background” from my last name nor from my appearance.  I might just slide under the radar as an Ashkenazi.  I don’t have bushy eyebrows, my stubble, when not shaved, isn’t thick or dark, my complexion is “medium” — there are European, Ashkenazi Jews who are fair-skinned, and there are some who are quite dark.  I’m dressed professionally in slacks and a crisp white shirt, my shoes are polished.  That offers him no clues.  Nor do I carry an accent or dialect from “home” that might hint of my “country of origin.”  If anything, some of the words I use come across as “American-sounding.”

The interviewer scratches his head, taps the pencil again.  He wants to know if I’m part of his “team” or if I’m with the “others.”  If he can’t go after my last name, why not try the first: Maurice.  He pronounces it the same way I did when I first introduced myself, the “French” way.  That throws him off course.  I could very well be from France (Ashkenazi or Sephardi, remember?), or I, or my family, could be from the former French colony of Morocco, and therefore Sephardi.

Yes, but he’s still unsure because my resume shows my place of birth as England (Ashkenazi?), and educated in Israel and in the U.S. (Martian?  extraterrestrial?)

I lean forward slightly and repeat his question word for word: “You want to know my ‘background?'”

He senses he’s overstepped his boundaries and we move to talk about something else.

But why this quest to know the “origin?”  We’re all guilty, at one time or another, of wanting to compartmentalize and pigeon-hole things and people.  It creates order.  And in Israel, a country divided on so many fault lines: Orthodox Jews vs. secular Jews, the right vs. left, Jews vs. Arabs, the Haves vs. Have-nots, it’s only natural that Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews don’t always agree on things.

But why don’t they get along?

Other than several thousand Sephardi Jews who’d always lived in the Holy Sites: Jerusalem, Tiberias, Sefad, the land of Palestine under the Ottoman Empire was largely inhabited by Arabs, Bedouins, nomads.  At the end of the 19th century, at the onset of the Zionist movement, thousands of Ashkenazi Jews flocked to Palestine to escape persecution.  They were the first to arrive; they purchased land, established kibbutim, tilled the soil, built Tel Aviv on the sand dunes.  They had a head start of about 50 years over the Sephardi Jews who, for the most part, came after Israel’s founding in 1948.  The Arab nations, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, now hostile toward their Jewish population, dispossessed them of their property, their money.  They kicked them out with whatever they could carry on their backs.

The Ashkenazi Jews, generally, were better established and better capitalized.  Naturally, they did business with their own kind.  During Israel’s first decades, they controlled banks, newspapers, TV, entertainment, universities, business, government posts.  They still do.  They grabbed the lion’s (lioness’?) share.  The Sephardic Jews arrived late to the party, were handed out scraps and bones.  They were sent off to remote border towns, far from the center of power, of money.

Sephardi Jews have been playing catch-up ever since.  They protest against discrimination, prejudice, cronyism.  Which is why, even today, each group looks out to help its own “members.”  Which is why my interviewer – I never asked him of his origin – wanted so desperately to know the Name of my Club.

I rise from my chair and shake his hand.  Whether he’s an Ashkenazi or Sephardi, I could only label him an idiot.  He’s still bound by Tell Me Where You’re From rather than Tell Me Where You’re Going.

Outside the office building the air feels good.  As Lavi, the lioness, I rush home to rejoin the pride.  I need to feed my cubs.


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

or at