Tag Archives: Maurice Labi

Tribute to Old Man and the Sea

7 May

My father, Joseph Labi, 88, always loved the sea.  As a child in Benghazi, Libya, he frequented the seaport and watched boats sail in and out of the Italian, Fascist-controlled harbor.

Joseph Labi today

Joseph Labi today

Many years later, in Israel, I recall my father taking me to the sea in Bat-Yam, our hometown outside Tel-Aviv.  We waded into the blue water until our toes could no longer touch the sand below. Then we floated and awaited for the waves to roll in from the deep.  We body-surfed the waves, our arms swinging like windmills to catch the cresting wave, carried to shore, and back again, and back again.

Joseph and wife Yvonne today

Joseph and wife Yvonne today

It is fitting, then, that last week the Holocaust Memorial documentarian chose to film my father with the sea behind him as a backdrop.  I look at my father and I can’t believe his age, nor mine — time did fly.

Joseph Labi at 15 in Italian village

Joseph Labi at 15 in Italian village

It was not until 1968, shortly after my Bar Mitzvah that I fully learned of my father’s horrific experience at the hands of the Nazis.  I was in the Israeli-equivalent of the Boy Scouts and I was asked to volunteer my father to speak of his ordeal in front of the “troops.”  It was a hot summer evening.  My father, dressed fashionably as he always did, fanned his face with a folded handkerchief.  I sat speechless long after he’d finished talking.  The images didn’t add up.  How was this stong, muscular, handsome man who stood before me was tortured to near nothingness by the Nazi machine?

Two years before, in 1966, and some twenty years after the end of WWII, my father, mother, sister and I visited a remote village in the Italian mountain range near Reggio Emilia.  “This is where I spent my childhood as an orphan,” he said.  Here in the village, Castelnovo Ne Monti, my father was interned by the Fascists and Nazis for two years.  Walking with him then in the picturesque cobblestone streets shrouded by mountain mist, I couldn’t imagine what he’d endured as a 15 year-old boy before the Nazis put him on a train to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

Joseph with Isael's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Joseph with Isael’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

That same night he and I sat at the Italian village outdoor cafe and watched on a grainy black-and-white TV the 1966 soccer World Cup final game between England and Germany.  While the Italian crowd rooted for their Germans war-allies, my father and I jumped for joy when England won the game and took the cup. That night my father couldn’t be happier, a small revenge of sorts.

Years passed.  He sometimes spoke of his experience at Bergen-Belsen, of his hunger, of his loneliness, of his humiliation, and his desire to live.  After liberation by the Americans, alone, he wandered the bombed-out cities

Joseph, at far left, with Special Combat Forces

Joseph, at far left, honored by Special Combat Forces

of Europe, finally returning to his port city of Benghazi, and the sea.  But it was no longer his home.  Almost everyone he’d known had scattered. He made it to Egypt with a childhood buddy, and from there, dressed as a British Jewish Brigade soldier he was smuggled into British-controlled Palestine.  For two years at a kibbutz he learned to tend to crops, milk the cows; learned to shoot a rifle, learned to read and write Hebrew before being drafted as a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence.

Joseph honored by his family at Holocaust Memorial Stage

Joseph honored by his family at Holocaust Memorial Stage

The rest is history.  The number of Holocaust survivors is diminishing worldwide.  Soon there will be no one left to give first-hand testimony.  This week my father was honored as one of six survivors to light the torch at the Holocaust Memorial Services in Jerusalem.  He met with Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, finally awarded a stage on which to tell his story.  He owes thanks to his son-in-law Israel who’d campaigned for him for years, and to his grandson Daniel.  My younger daughters, Maya and Romy, 17, honored their grandfather by heading an Israeli delegation to Bergen-Belsen.  There they found his name recorded in the Nazi archives, including the date the train arrived at the camp.

Playing with the latest addition, his great-granddaughter

Playing with the latest addition, his great-granddaughter

My older daughters in America, Michelle and Vanessa, are proud of him, sharing his story with many of their friends of their generation.

The ceremony at Yad Va’Shem is over.  The cameras stopped.  The phone calls to my father from reporters and news crews stopped.  But my father hasn’t.  He will soon put on his soft walking shoes and head to the sea.  There he will stand on the cliff and look into the water, watch the waves roll in.  An old man and his sea.

 

Below there’s a link to my father’s video testimony.

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/remembrance/2016/labi.asp


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 Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/Maurice-Labi/e/B00A9H4XEI

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandn

 

 

It’s Spring – You’re invited to Galilee

5 Mar

No, I’m not Israel’s tourism minister, but now that spring is just around the hill, I feel compelled to

Fields behind our house

Fields behind our house

Max: “I am ready to go!”

share some of the physical beauty of Galilee.  Granted, there are days when the summer heat is oppressive, when winter is wet and cold, when dust storms roll in from the desert, yet I can’t deny that the scent and color of spring makes it almost all worthwhile.  The morning treks just behind our house are glorious.  Olive trees dot the landscape.  The almond trees just completed their pinkish bloom, the farmers are pruning the grapevines, the wheat is bending in the wind, the soil is dark brown-red-black and the sky above is pregnant with fat clouds. Our dog Max sniffs the change in seasons; he’s the first out the door to run in the fields and the last to return.  Judging by his wagging tail, I trust he’s happy to be in the outdoors, to chase after imaginary prey, and to disappear behind tall stalks of wheat and barley.

Wild mustard plants against the hill

olive trees in distance

Out for a walk in the fields

My walking partners

Hanging out in the garden

Purple thorn in full bloom

The Jewish holiday Passover is late this year, arriving at the end of April. This does not keep us from getting a head start in cleaning, arranging, rearranging, fixing, clearing, throwing, dusting, spraying, polishing, and crashing for a much deserved rest.  Cooking by the pot-loads will soon begin in the kitchen. Days are longer, the sweaters and coats make their way back into closets.  The space-heaters in the house are unplugged.  The natural stone pathways and entryway outside our home are given a good scrub-down and wash with a power hose.  The waterproof covers over lawn furniture are removed.  Now the outdoor armchairs and sofas inhale deeply, releasing a long-held winter breath.  Sparrows, hummingbirds, robins come in for a landing on the branches and to suckle from fragrant flowers.  Bees buzz.  Kids on bikes buzz past our front gate.  Spring is here, almost.  Next time you’re in Israel, include Galilee in your itinerary. living room

Stone path

Stone path

iron chairs

kitchen

Kitchen is all ready for cooking

That’s a warm suggestion from Israel’s unofficial tourism minister – me!

———————————–

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 Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/Maurice-Labi/e/B00A9H4XEI

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

 

 

Jerusalem of Gold, Dollars, Euros

29 Mar

The year is 1971 and I’m on board a Greek ship sailing from New York to Israel.  The ship’s captain is throwing a dinner party in the ballroom.  The mood’s festive and gay.  Passengers dance, hold balloons by strings.  Israelis and other nationalities hold hands and circle the dance floor.  Age 16, I sit on a comfortable armchair and watch the spectacle.  Then, the music stops.  Dancers stop in mid-step.  A woman approaches the stage, taps the microphone a couple of times, casts her hand over her eyes to block the stage lights.

Overlooking Jerusalem

Overlooking Jerusalem

She sings “Jerusalem of Gold:”

The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the breeze of twilight
With the sound of bells…..
Jerusalem of gold
And of bronze, and of light
Am I not a violin for all your songs.

 

When she’s finished, there isn’t a dry eye in the house, including mine.  Israelis, Europeans and Americans cheer and clap.

Four years earlier, following the 1967 Six-Day war, Israel, the underdog, wrested East Jerusalem from the Jordanians.   Euphoria was at its peak.

Jerusalem Apartment Building

Jerusalem Apartment Building

Fast forward more than 40 years, to 2014.  Jerusalem is no longer a sleepy town nestled in the Judean Hills.  Instead, it’s home to 800,000 residents, 10% of Israel’s total.  Its population is double that of Tel Aviv, it’s land area is greater than Paris.

And its challenges are greater than all of Israel’s cities.  A Forbes Magazine survey rated Tel Aviv as Israel’s No. 1 city.   Jerusalem was not even in the top 10.

Why?

Jerusalem’s population tells the story.  Depending on your political persuasion, Israel “annexed” “occupied” “liberated” “united” East Jerusalem in 1967.  That came with a price: Arabs and immigration from overseas.

1/3 of Jerusalem’s residents are Arab, mostly all in East Jerusalem.  The remaining 2/3 are split evenly between Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, and Secular Jews.

Imagine you’re the Mayor of Jerusalem, Israel’s state capital.  Given the complexities, try running the city for a day.

Good luck.

Jerusalem apartment interior

Jerusalem apartment interior

My wife Pnina and I are in Jerusalem for a couple of days.  We’re staying at a quaint hotel, taking in the sights, enjoying the food and markets.  We’re also checking out the real estate.

Jerusalem is not Manhattan, but when it comes to home prices, it might as well be.  The prices are closer to God, than to mortals down on earth.

Two women real estate agents greet us at noon.  They’ve prepared a list of homes to view.  We pile into their car and off we go to Rehavia, the German Colony, Bak’a, Ein Kerem, Katamonim – some of Jerusalem’s choicest areas.

The shock is immediate and painful.  Small, cramped apartments in often tired buildings are beyond our pocketbook.  The average 100 sq. meters ( 1100 sq. feet) apartment is going for $1,000,000.  And it’s not even move-in ready.  It’s mostly a shell of a home.

Pnina outside Jerusalem hotel

Pnina outside Jerusalem hotel

Here’s of one the real estate agents talking: “The place has great potential.  You can knock down this wall here, redo the kitchen there, upgrade the bathroom over there and you’ve got yourself a gem.”

The “For Sale” flyer will show the home as having 4 rooms, but in Israel the living room is counted as one, so is the converted, enclosed balcony, and a small space behind the bathroom, fit more for birds and pigeons….

On to the next home, and the next, and the next.  The common denominator is that most apartments are empty.

“Who lives here?” I ask.

Turns out there’s an epidemic of absentee homeowners in Jerusalem.  Many of the apartments remain empty 10 months out of the year.  Rich Jews from Brooklyn, Paris, London frequent their Jerusalem home-away-from-home once or twice a year, mostly during Passover and Rosh Hashanah.  The rest of the time the apartment collects dust.

In highly desirable neighborhoods, it’s not uncommon to see 1/3 of the buildings empty of residents.  It’s a ghost town of sorts.

Who’s got a $1,000,000?

Jerusalem Gay Parade

Jerusalem Gay Parade

Definitely not your average Joseph or Moshe or Sara.  They’re struggling to make a living, barely getting by.  They can’t afford half that price.  Many are Orthodox Jews and Conservative Jews with extended and expanded families.  Gays, squeezed from all sides, choose Tel-Aviv, instead.

That leaves the out-of-town investors from Europe and America to run the show.  Supply is low.  Demand is high.  It’s a market that’s ripe for a price hike.  The locals sell out and move.  For them, it’s as if they hit the Lotto.

Who’s left in Jerusalem?  Mainly it’s the Super rich with their dollars and euros.  And the Super poor with their shekels.  The secular Jews, the middle-class, college-educated, unable to afford a home, are moving to the suburbs of Tel Aviv, taking with them vitality and know-how that’s deeply needed by an overly Orthodox Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Machne Yehuda Market

Jerusalem Machne Yehuda Market

And the city is showing its wear and tear.  The fabric is becoming undone.  I don’t know if the claim is verified, but many say the Arabs (East Jerusalem) and the Orthodox don’t pay their fair share of property tax.  They get government exemptions and subsidies for having large families.  They don’t pay, or they under-pay.  Either way, the neglect in the streets is apparent.

Trash piles up.  Ugly billboards, legal or not, are posted on walls, lamp posts.  Schools underperform.  City services suffer.

Dinner at a Jerusalem restaurant

Dinner at a Jerusalem restaurant

And yet, there’s something “golden” about the city, inexplicable, intangible, holy, captivating.

Olives in Machne Yehuda Market

Olives in Machne Yehuda Market

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father, said during Israel’s War of Independence: “Jerusalem can do without Israel but Israel cannot do without Jerusalem.”

It’s the end of the day.  The sun glistens on the stone-covered buildings.  We say good-bye to the real estate agents and head to Machne Yehuda open-air market.  We settle for freshly baked bread, dates, olives, sit down to dinner and order grilled vegetables, wine.

The price?  Less than a million.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————–

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 Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=maurice+labi&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Amaurice+labi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=mauricelabi&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Amauricelabi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

We are family – all my daugthers and me

20 Jul

In 2011 I packed up our household, myself, Pnina and my twin daughters, Maya and Romy (14) and moved from California to Israel, to Galilee.

Last month my oldest daughter Michelle (29) and her husband Jonathan and my second-oldest daughter Vanessa (26), came to visit me in Israel.  Their two-week stay with me still lingers like a sweet dream.

Vanessa in Jerusalem market

Vanessa in Jerusalem market

Although Michelle and Vanessa had been to Israel several times before, and with

Vanessa, Maurice, Jonathan in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter
Vanessa, Maurice, Jonathan in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter

Birthright, this time was different.  They weren’t typical tourists; they’d come “home” to see and be with me.  We spent mornings together, cooked breakfast, went places, spent time talking into the night.  I couldn’t help but admire how they’d turned out – magnificent women.

Michelle, me - Hanging out in Jerusalem

Michelle, me – Hanging out in Jerusalem

Michelle and Jonathan in Notre Dame -Jerusalem

Michelle and Jonathan in Notre Dame -Jerusalem

We hugged a lot, joked and laughed.  Maya and Romy couldn’t be happier with their older sisters.

Vanessa, me on Tel Aviv beach

Vanessa, me on Tel Aviv beach

Michelle trying on hat in Nazareth

Michelle trying on hat in Nazareth

Michelle and Vanessa got the chance to see how we live in Israel, to meet up with our friends, aunts and uncles, grandfather and grandmother, to sun and bathe on a Tel Aviv beach, to trek in orchards and vineyards in Galilee, to wander through the streets of Nazareth, to witness the wonder that is Jerusalem.

Pnina in Nazareth

Pnina in Nazareth

Fruit Stand in Tel Aviv

Fruit Stand in Tel Aviv

My parents Joe and Yvonne

My parents Joe and Yvonne

Michelle and Vanessa outside grandparents' house

Michelle and Vanessa outside grandparents’ house

The family gang at beach restaurant

The family gang at beach restaurant

My dad and I

My dad and I

Sweet Delights in Nazareth bakery

Sweet Delights in Nazareth bakery

Michelle and Me at the top of Mt. Tavor,

Michelle and Me at the top of Mt. Tavor,

We are family - all my daugters and me

We are family – all my daugters and me

Seniors at Jerusalem Cafe

Seniors at Jerusalem Cafe

In the end, the clock wound down.  Caught us all by surprise.  They packed their suitcases with memories and returned to America.  Until next time.

Lights. Camera. Action.

A day after too much fun

A day after too much fun

Vanessa and me on Mt. TAvor

Vanessa and me on Mt. TAvor

Twins Romy and Maya lounging on Tel Aviv beach

Twins Romy and Maya lounging on Tel Aviv beach

Daughters enjoying a much-deserved break at Carmel Market, Tel Aviv

Daughters enjoying a much-deserved break at Carmel Market, Tel Aviv

Found a Photo of the Labi family in 1976, Israel

While going through photo albums at my parents with my kids found a Photo of the Labi family in 1976, Israel – Mom, Dad, sister, me

Is that Big Brother in your Pocket?

8 Mar

Your neighbor’s raking in millions and you’re struggling to come up with mortgage or rent money.  You drive to work in a beat-up Volkswagen and your boss pulls into his reserved parking space with a shiny BMW.bmw

I ask you: Is that fair?

The handyman who fixed your toilet last month just got back from a week’s vacation in Italy.  Sorry, you can’t step into the elevator with him because it’s taken up with his three Gucci suitcases.

You’re fuming.  You kick the elevator door.  You’re mad.  But then what?

If you’re in Israel, don’t get mad.  Get even.

How?

If you suspect the neighbor, the boss, the handyman is not paying his fair share of taxes — just snitch on him to the authorities and watch him boil in hot (olive) oil.

This is all thanks to Israel’s Tax Authority and its  latest initiative to raise 20 billion shekels (5 billion dollars) in uncollected taxes over the next four years.  Israel, a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean country, wants to model its moral code, according to its fiance minister, after the “honest” countries of Northern Europe (Sweden, Norway).

Good luck.

This tax-collection drive is the latest wrinkle in today’s “share the burden” phenomenon.  The scenario goes something like this:  The Middle Class is being wrongfully squeezed.  It shares the majority of the burden; it pays more in income tax, serves in the military while the well-connected, the Orthodox Jews, and the Arabs get a free ride.

It’s time to level the playing field.

"Justice Hotline"

“Justice Hotline”

The informants are encouraged to call the “Justice Hotline” anonymously and report the cheaters.  Since the “Justice Hotline” was first launched a few weeks ago, thousands of calls came pouring in.  The informants rat on plumbers, repairmen who give a small discount in exchange for getting cash.  No receipts, no invoices, thank-you-very-much.  They snitch on cab drivers who don’t care to turn on the meter.  They inform of dentists who drill a hole in your tooth and in your pocket, of piano teachers who sing all the way to the bank, of  landlords who act like lords, of math tutors who add their own numbers.

Cheaters unable to sleep at night are counting sheep.  And Shekels.

Big Brother is watching.

Greed and jealousy are what drives most calls.  It’s neighbor against neighbor.  Family members who have a score to settle.  On a recent news program the 5 staff members sitting at the Tax Authority switchboard were overwhelmed with calls.

Opponents are quick to criticize the campaign.  “It will collect pennies on the dollar,” they say, while the Fat Cats, Israel’s multi-national corporations (Teva, Osem, etc) use the loopholes to pay little or no taxes.  They say it’s all a smoke screen to divert attention from other pressing problems: housing, education, the political stalemate.

In a sense, the government has turned the average Yossi into its tax-collector.

How?

The original 1.0 Version has been upgraded.

Informants that come forward and identify themselves can share in the loot.  If the tax-evader is found guilty and is told to pay up, the snitcher collects 15% of the total.

Ka-Ching!  Ka-Ching!  Cash registers are ringing from Galilee to Tel-Aviv to Eilat.

It’s doubtful the taxman will be able to collect the monies they’re projecting.  If anything, it’s a powerful deterrent.  People might think twice before they settle for cash only.

Recently hundreds of private tutors received a text message on their cell-phones.  It warned them to report ALL transactions, or else.  It later turned out to be a clever hoax.

Or was it?

As for me, I plan to wire my few Shekels to Switzerland.  After all, it’s pretty close to Northern Europe.

Below is a campaign from the Tax Authority to all citizens to do their “civic duty” for the benefit of all.

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 teen-age 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 Amazon.com or BN.com.

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.