Tag Archives: Tel Aviv

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

 

 

Advertisements

The Chinese are Coming!

19 Sep
chinese laborer

Chinese Laborer

The year’s 1973; I’m eighteen and it’s a late Saturday night and I’m returning home from a night of disco dancing with the gang.  I’m asleep all of four hours when on a very early Sunday morning my father pulls the summer sheets off my bed.  “Get up,” he says.  “We leave for work.”  At six in the morning, my eyes half-shut, I report to a construction site near Tel-Aviv.  Arabic is heard all around me.  I help my father mix cement, haul bricks and blocks up the apartment complex.  By noon several walls have gone up, by late afternoon I pack up my tools and walk home with my dad. This is how I spent my summer vacation, working, speaking nothing but Arabic with a bunch of Arab help from the Gaza Strip.

Fast forward to the 1990s, my dad’s near retirement but he’s still working full-time as a bricklayer, not with Arabs, but this time with Romanians.  Arabs are no longer welcome in Israel after a period of terrorist attacks.  Romanians by the thousands take their place.  They’re reliable, cheap, and do not carry bombs in their lunchbox.  And so begins Israel’s love affair with foreign labor.  Tens of thousands of Filipinos are employed here as caregivers to aging Israelis, thousands of Thai immigrants pick produce from fields.  Most Israelis don’t do menial labor.  My father belonged to a bygone era.  Today Israelis would rather work at high-tech jobs, medicine, military hardware, or develop the next killer-app for Silicone Valley. Getting one’s hands dirty in construction jobs is just that – dirty.

Chinese construction laborers in Israel

Chinese construction laborers in Israel

And so begins the next round of immigrant labor to Israel, this time the Chinese.  Homes in Israel are notoriously expensive.  Americans on average have to work 60-70 months to buy a home. Europeans: 80.  Israelis: 140.  Why?  There are many reasons: Jewish immigrants and investors come to Israel in large numbers, adding to demand.  Majority of land is owned by the Israeli government which has a vested interest in keeping land values high so it can get its share of taxes.  To keep demand high, it doles out land gingerly.  High labor costs add to high cost of homes. Demand outstrips supply. Building projects remain idle for lack of laborers.  Jews don’t want to climb scaffolds, to pour concrete, to plaster.  Arabs from the West Bank are suspect.  What’s a developer to do?  Using their strong lobby, the developers recently petitioned the Israeli government to allow “importing” 30,000 Chinese.  They claim the Chinese earn less than Jews and Arabs, and therefore they can pass on the savings to home buyers. Prices will go down by 5%.

Arabs in Construction

Arabs in Construction

This entire plan smells like a week-old chow mein.  Judging from past “import” of foreign labor, there was no price reduction.  On the contrary, prices are still spiraling out of control.  Developers and contractors will pocket the savings and blame the higher prices on others.  Secondly, why do we need 30,000 Chinese?  It’s common knowledge that these poor immigrants pay hefty “transaction fees” to Chinese and Israeli brokers.  Before these Chinese men lift a single brick, they start out with a debt of thousands of dollars, a modern-day slavery.  Yet these Chinese men are willing to cough up the money just so they come and work.

But what about the Arabs?  According to figures, there are 37,000 Arabs who enter daily from the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) to work in Israel proper, and an estimated 13,000 who enter as undocumented laborers.  Unemployment in the West Bank is high.  If Israel is to put out the fire on its turbulent relations with the West Bank Arabs of late, is it not better off employing them?  Will bringing home a paycheck to their villages not help quell the Arabs’ festering anger toward Israel? It’s not my love of the Arabs that convinces me that this is the better solution, but the love of the Jews and what’s best for them/us.

These 50,000 Arab laborers are reliable; they leave their village homes at daybreak, go through security check-points manned by Israeli soldiers; they stand in congested lines for hours before being admitted in, and finally once inside Israel, they build homes for the Jews, return home late in the day to start the whole thing all over again the next day.  When asked on TV if they’re content, the answer is a resounding “yes!”  They earn Israeli Shekels with dignity, return home and feed and care for their families.  Are there bad apples in the bunch? Terrorist cells?  Very few.  The majority want nothing more than to work.  And if 30,000 Chinese are going to land here, what will it do to labor costs?  Arabs will be squeezed further.  They will not be able to provide.  Anger and frustrations will escalate.  One more brick in the wall that will lead to an uprising, an Intifada.  My disco days are long gone, but if the Chinese are allowed to enter and displace Arabs, we could all be dancing to a different tune.  And I didn’t read this in a fortune cookie.

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

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

 

Build and they shall not come

16 May

Israel has a relatively attractive figure: tall with narrow hips; the midsection widens then tapers off at the feet.  Galilee occupies the north, the Negev Desert stretches in the south, and at the center of things – Tel Aviv.

Distance of towns from Tel Aviv as a measure of success

Distance of towns from Tel Aviv as a measure of success

For the past several years, the government through its ministry of transportation is attempting to decentralize the country.  Around Galilee where I live there’s highway and bridge construction that would make proud a nation ten times Israel’s size.  Mountains are being shoved aside, cranes, bulldozers carry giant boulders like toy things.  Trucks haul dirt by the millions of cubic yards.  Driving to teach in Upper Galilee I eat red dust for breakfast, and on my return, brown dust for lunch.

As much as these 21st century modern highway arteries pump blood into Galilee and Negev Desert, they have really one purpose in mind – to connect them, you guessed it, to Tel Aviv.  Everyone in the media and in government talks about the need to develop the outer fringes of the country at the expense of the center.  It’s just talk.  These new roads and bridges don’t keep thousands of young men and women from swarming to Tel Aviv and its suburbs.  Tens of kilometers of railway tracks being laid down have one purpose – bring the masses to Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv

Israelis (and foreigners) moving to Tel Aviv are willing to put up with horrible traffic, congestion, apartments the size of shoe boxes, arrogant landlords who demand one year’s rent up front.  Why put up with such abuse?

Jobs.  Hipness.  Vibe.  Sea.  Opportunity.  These are some of the reasons.  Galilee is 60% Arab.  So I’m a minority of sorts in my own backyard.  The Negev, mostly desert, is vast and desolate.  The Israeli military will be moving many of its Tel Aviv installations to the Negev in the coming years.  While Tel Aviv gets more freed up land for sky scrapers, the Negev gets army barracks and training grounds.  Galilee gets domestic tourism and food-processing plants.

road construction in Galilee

road construction in Galilee

Tel Aviv gets it all, the rest of Israel gets scraps.  Jerusalem?  Yes, it’s the capital and the seat of government, and not much more unless you count 40% disgruntled Arabs in the East of the city, and pockets of ultra-orthodox Jews who still think they live in 19th century Europe.  What about the West Bank, aka Judea and Samaria?  The 400,000 Jewish settlers there don’t care much about Tel Aviv; they’re too busy surviving, praying, and fighting the Palestinian Arabs over land.  Why fight them there when you could come and fight good-old native Arabs in Galilee?

I step outside my Kfar Tavor home in Galilee and go for a walk in the beautiful trails and fields.  Almond, olive and grape vines surround me.  It’s pretty.  But ask anyone in Tel Aviv if they’d be willing to move here, and you’ll get a laugh.  Sure, it’s romantic, it’s reminiscent of the days the first Jewish immigrants returned to the Land of Israel, the air is cleaner (most days), and… that’s about it.  I keep walking down the trails.  In the very distance, I see the hillsides of Jordan.  If I were to get in the car, I’ll be in Lebanon in one hour.  Although Tel Aviv is less than 2 hours away (110 km), it’s a different country.

Bridge construction in Galilee

Bridge construction in Galilee

Tel Hai College is a cottage industry in Galilee, minutes from the Lebanese border.  Over 4000 students attend.  Most come from the center of the country, near Tel Aviv.  They want to get away from the big city, learn and enjoy country-style living.  Asked recently if they’d stay in Galilee after graduation and seek a job, make the place their home, only 10% said “yes.”

I get in the car and drive to Zefat in the north.  Hammers pound the roadside.  Concrete is being poured.  Men flatten black, steamy asphalt with rakes.  For whom, I wonder?  The radio’s on. Patriotic Israeli songs about the good old days (in Galilee) are heard.  I tap my fingertips on the steering wheel.  Dust hits the windshield.  Haze all around.

—————————————————————————–

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 Land is my Land

14 Feb

Imagine yourself waking up one morning and finding yourself in a different country.  You don’t remember packing, you don’t recall crossing a border, and yet, outside, there’s a “foreign” flag rippling in the wind.  You recognize the flag, but it’s not your own.

Avigdor Liberman

Avigdor Liberman

This so-called dream might become a reality for thousands of Israeli-Arabs after the Israeli upcoming general elections only a month away.  I’m speaking of Avigdor Liberman’s initiative, Israel’s foreign minister until not long ago, and his political party “Israel, Our Home.”  His plan is simple and straightforward: Transfer Israeli-Arabs to a future Palestine.  This would solve the Arab problem, create a more homogeneous Jewish state.  He’s speaking of residents who live exclusively in Arab villages, in Israel, along the “stitch-line” of the Israel/West Bank border and some villages further north, on the road leading to Galilee, a place I call home.

Liberman, a staunch right-wing politician, was born in Moldova, one of the Soviet Union’s former republics.  At age 20 he immigrated to Israel.  In time, he joined Netanyahu and moved up the ranks.  Russian Jews, who are generally right-wing and against making concessions to Arabs, further helped Liberman climb the political ladder.

Liberman's Elections Campaign: Swap Arab city Um El Fahem for Jewish Settlement Ariel

Liberman’s Elections Campaign: Swap Arab city Um El Fahem for Jewish Settlement Ariel

Why does Liberman bring up this land-swap idea now?

His party has been recently rocked by scandal.  Officials in his party are under investigation, accused of siphoning money, controlling and awarding contracts, receiving bribes.  Although he’s not personally accused, he’s suffered a black eye.  The fallout is evident.  Would-be voters and supporters are abandoning ship. According to latest polls, his current 14 seats in Israel’s parliament, will be reduced to 6 on election day.

So, in pure Putin-fashion, Liberman is getting on his horse and is trotting all over the Israeli map to sell his idea. His campaign to transfer Arabs appears in newspapers and highway billboards. There’s one such billboard at the entrance to my home village in Kfar Tavor.  It reads:

Um El Fahem to Palestine

Ariel to Israel

Bottom Line: Liberman -“Israel, Our Home.”

The message speaks to the conservative base.  At first glance, the message is appealing, even intoxicating.  What’s not to like?  Throw them out.  All of them.  The city Um El Fahem is a buzz-word for Arab trouble-makers, and for good reason.  In the 2000 Arab Intifada, Arab residents blocked Wadi Ara, the highway that goes though their city, essentially cutting off Israel in two.  The burning tires and stone-throwing are long gone, but their bad-ass image remains to this day.  So, it’s no wonder, Liberman wants to get rid of all 50,000 Arabs in the city, send them to Palestine, where they belong.

Jewish city Ariel

Jewish city Ariel

But do they belong in Palestine?

Under the law, they’re Israeli citizens.  Their forefathers had lived on this land long before Israel was established.  In Liberman’s view, Um El Fahem is nothing more than a bargaining chip, to be exchanged for Ariel.

Is that a fair or even exchange?

Ariel is a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, also known as biblical Judea and Samaria.  Any way you call Ariel, it did not exist, at least not in its present form until 1978.  Ariel, now numbering 20,000 Jews, sits in occupied territory.  The town offers enviable municipal services, parks, schools, and even a university.

Arab city Um El Fahem

Arab city Um El Fahem

Liberman wants to eat the blintzes and have them too; he wants both to transfer the Arabs from Israel and keep Jews in occupied territory.  The rules of his games are odd.  He doesn’t ask the Arabs if they want to play; they’re moved off the board game.  He’s decided Jewish Ariel will be included in a Greater Israel.  What if Ariel were to be a Jewish outpost inside Palestine?  Would it not be sinilar to a West Berlin behind Israel’s own wall?  Sensing that his block of seats in parliament will further strengthen a conservative government, he’d already let be known that he will no longer seek the foreign minister position.  Instead, he wants to be minister of defense.

If that were to happen, could the land-swap proposal go beyond elections rhetoric, and really happen?  Smelling something’s in the air, the four or five Israeli-Arab parties, who were always splintered and stepping over each other’s toes, decided to put their differences aside.  They’re going into the elections as one block.  Analysts predict their united party might be the 3rd largest in parliament.  No Jewish party, Left or Right, would do business with them, but that’s beside the point.

Map of Israel showing Ariel and Um El Fahem, the proposed land-swap by Liberman's party

CLICK TO ENLARGE MAP

I don’t like Wadi Ara.  The road leading to the coast goes through the Wadi.  The road is narrow, the traffic lights are slow, the Arab truck drivers zigzag all over the place; it’s a hazard.  But I don’t see myself getting off the road and throwing the first Arab I see over the border.  They, too, when asked, don’t want to leave.  More than 85% want to stay in Israel.  Can you blame them?  They do well financially.  Originally, they used to peddle coal (Fahem, in Arabic) from the forests on the hilltops.  Today, they haul heavy-duty loads on semi-trailers, they work in road construction, manufacturing, auto industry.  They’re not stupid.  They see the turmoil in the West Bank, in Gaza, in Jordan, in Syria.  They’re Israeli and they want to remain Israeli.

They don’t like us, and I don’t love them much, either.  Tough.

Liberman is playing with fire.  The game can be played two-ways. In Galilee, Arabs are the majority.  As a Jew, I’m a minority in Galilee.  Who’s to stop Arabs in Galilee from wanting to establish their own “nation” here.  As is it, the Jewish-Israeli authorities, police, social workers, and such hardly set foot in Arab villages.  Arabs run their own show.  Worse yet, Arabs in mixed cities (Jews and Arabs) such as Haifa, Jaffa, Acco, Lod, Ramla, Nazareth – they may claim their own “autonomy.”  Before long, Israel will turn into Swiss cantons.  Only instead of dipping their bread into fondue, Jews and Arabs should first smell the hummus.

This is a centuries-old conflict.  It cannot be solved unilaterally.  Liberman’s idea is sexy and populist.  But it’s a non-starter, a dead-end, a dangerous political game.  No one’s going anywhere. Jews and Arabs are here for the long haul.

Deal with it, Liberman.

—————————————————————————————————————-

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

 

 

 

 

Why Live in Israel?

31 Jan

Several days ago an Israeli military helicopter fired missiles onto Syrian territory.  Six Hezbollah militants and an Iranian accomplice were killed.  Within hours of the strike, North Galilee and the Golan Heights were on lockdown.  The area near the border was off-limits in anticipation of a Hezbollah attack.  It didn’t take long.  Earlier this week, Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles into Galilee.  Two Israeli soldiers on patrol near the border were killed instantly.

Hezbollah leader killed by Israel

Hezbollah leader killed by Israel

The score?

Israel 1 – Hezbollah 1

Hezbollah retaliates - kills 2 Israeli soldiers

Hezbollah retaliates – kills 2 Israeli soldiers

Back to business as usual.  The Israeli army spokesman called for Israelis to return to “normal life.” The next day, schools re-opened, the ski summit at Mount Hermon was re-opened for business. Yet, tourists and vacationers, aware of the ongoing risk, chose to stay home.  Hotel cancellations were near 100%.  The snow pack on Mount Hermon was without skiers.  Except one family.

French Jews arriving in Israel

French Jews arriving in Israel

The television reporter caught up with the woman and her young children.  Immediately he noticed her accent.  “Where are you from?”

The woman behind sunglasses and a winter scarf said: “We’re originally from France.  We came to Israel three years ago.”  After being probed by the reporter, she continues: “You see what’s happening to Jews in France, no?  I’m here for three years.  I came to Hermon to show support.  In Israel, we have an army to protect us.  In France, we don’t.”  She’s speaking for other French Jews in France who are expected to come to Israel in greater numbers this year.

Sudanese Refugees seeking home in Israel

Sudanese Refugees seeking home in Israel

But what about non-Jews.  Why do they want to live here?  A Sudanese refugee was recently interviewed.  He’s one of 50,000 Africans who regard South Tel Aviv as their home.  The African man shows the reporter his scortched hands.  He trekked through Sudan, and Egypt. Then he crossed into the Sinai desert.  There he and others were captured by Bedouin bandits.  His only chance at freedom was if his family back home paid the ransom.  During his captivity, they tortured him, burned the paws of his hands.  He escaped, was picked up by soldiers on the Israeli side of the border and was put on a bus.  Days later, he walked aimlessly the streets of South Tel Aviv, eventually taken in by a homeless shelter.  In time, he recovered.  He now lives in Israel.  “Will you go home?” he’s asked. His reply:  “Israel is my home.”

Filipina Caregiver wins Israel's X-Factor Music Competition

Filipina Caregiver wins Israel’s X-Factor Music Competition

The Israeli elderly are looked after by caregivers from the Philippines.  The word got out that the pay in Israel is about $1200/month.  In the Philippines, young, unskilled men and women earn $100/month.  It’s no wonder that Filipinos and Filipinas are coming to Israel by the thousands.  Here, they have their own food markets, online presence, local newspaper, and even the annual Ms. Filipina Beauty Pageant.  Employment contractors in Manilla and in Israel exploit this labor market.  They charge them $8000 for the privilege of working in Israel, all paid in advance, in cash.  Once in Israel, it takes them years to repay their debt.  They visit their children back home once every two or three years, and keep in touch by Skype.  They endure long hours, take their old clients to the clinic, push their wheelchairs to the park; they learn Hebrew; they watch Israeli forces and terrorist groups clash on TV; they dig their chopsticks into their rice.  They continue to live in Israel until their clients no longer live.

What’s the fascination with this war-torn narrow strip of Land of Israel that attracts from the world over?

My two adult daughters remained in America.  My wife and younger twin daughters returned to Israel 3 1/2 years ago after having lived in California for over 30 years.  Is it really the Promised Land?

I doubt it.  Look up any “Best Places to Live” surveys and Israel is nowhere on the list.  War looms ever more frequently.  Corruption is rampant.  Politicians are guilty of taking bribes, police chiefs are accused of rape.  Arabs and Jews are at each other’s throats.  The cost-of-living has gone mad.  Etiquette, manners, empathy, respect are out the window.  Cynicism is at an all-time high.

So why am I here, still?  Why am I living in Galilee Hills and not returning to Hollywood Hills?

I wish the answer were than simple.  Call it habit, call it unwilling to pack up all over again, call it watching my daughters becoming “happy” Israelis despite their complaints, call it caring about what happens to this country despite feeling powerless, call it feeling the pulse of life here, call it seeing it all from the inside, call it what many Sudanese, Russian, French, Filipinos are feeling – it’s home.

For now.

—————————————————————————————————————

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

 

 

 

 

 

Twilight Zone in Tel Aviv

27 Dec
Tchernichovsky Street, No. 4

Tchernichovsky Street, No. 4

The drive down Tchernichovsky Street did not seem unusual at first.  The street is narrow and congested much like many streets in Tel Aviv.  Unable to find a parking spot, I leave the keys in the ignition, tell my wife to move the car if a cop shows up, and then walk the rest of the way to my destination: building no. 4.  It was at that moment that I felt as if someone had hit me over the head with a hammer.  I stare at the two-story building, trying to figure out why it appears familiar.  Then I notice several eateries, restaurants, a coffee shop on the ground level.  I proceed robotically to the one clothing store, recalling the instructions of the on-line hotel reservations.

Inside the store, young women are trying out winter coats.  The woman proprietor approaches me.

Tchermichovsky Neighborhood stores

Tchermichovsky Neighborhood stores

“You’re Nelly?” I say, in English.

“Oh, you’re here about the apartment?” she replies in English.  “I’m not Nelly, but I will take care of you.  My husband will show you upstairs in a minute.”

I nod and run to the car, my mind racing in all directions. What is it about the place? Minutes later, my wife and my twin daughters carry our bags to the clothing store.  Nelly’s husband appears.  “Come, it’s this way,” he says, and points the way to a reinforced glass door.  He leads the way up the stairs.  We follow. Going up the steps I feel as if I am part of Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ film, the narrow steps twisting in the well.  I remember going up these same steps before.  But when?

The man stands before the door, keys an entry code.  The door

My old office turned into a kitchen

My old office turned into a kitchen

cracks open.  We go in, put our bags down.  The man says, “The apartment is equipped with a kitchen, dishes, silverware…” I hear all he says and I hear nothing.  “You are staying here for two nights, yes?”  I nod.  He continues, “We have more blankets in the closet.  You want something more, you come downstairs to the shop, yes?”

Once he leaves, I rush to the flimsy mustard-colored curtains on the large windows.  I pull them to the side abruptly.  And what appears in front of me is the year 1977…

I’m standing in the very place I had worked at almost 40 years ago.

Of the hundreds of apartments and hotel rooms in Tel Aviv, I landed on this one.  I must have talked a mile a minute to my wife, unable to contain myself.  “Don’t you get it?” I tell her.  I point to the floor tiles, to the bare walls.  “This apartment was once the office of Kopel Tours.”

Kopel Tours offering taxi service to Gaza in 1956

Kopel Tours offering taxi service to Gaza in 1956

Fresh out of the University of Tel Aviv in 1977, I interviewed with Kopel Tours.  It was one of the largest tour operators in Israel.  Kopel booked airline tickets and vacation packages by the thousands.  During the mid-1950s they started taxi service from Tel Aviv to the Gaza Strip, at a time when Gaza was not controlled by Egypt.

I return to the large windows.  I worked in this very spot for about a year.  My role was to handle incoming tourism from the United States, predominantly rich Jews from New York.

A blast to the past, to 1977

A blast to the past, to 1977

Back then, first thing in the morning, I checked the Telex.  It was like working in a War Room.  I fed the hole-punched yellow tape through the machine and within seconds the overseas message materialized on paper.  Most messages went something like this:  “Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg, Brooklyn, reserve a private guide with American car, 2 nights in Tel Aviv, 5 star hotel, followed by 4 nights in Jerusalem at the King David Hotel, plus 2 nights in Galilee at a Kibbutz Guest House.  Quote and confirm.”  I immediately went to work, calling hotels, airlines, and car rental companies. By the end of the day I confirmed all by Telex to Kopel headquarters in New York.  There were times I greeted the American guests at Tel Aviv airport, escorted them to hotels, to functions about town.

Mr. Kopel, a Polish immigrant, spent most days in New York.  He dropped by my Tel Aviv office a couple of times. He was a big man, wore drab, gray suits two-sizes too large, just in case he decided to grow into them.  My immediate boss was Mr. Pavel, the Sales Manager for North America.

Heading to the beach to clear my head

Heading to the beach to clear my head

Pavel was handsome, a jet-setter of the 1970s.  When in the office, he used to throw his Texan boots on his desk, hold the phone to his ear, talking long-distance to America, in English with an Israeli accent marinated in Czech.  He travelled to the Bible Belt, called on churches in Atlanta and Houston, told evangelists about Nazareth and Bethlehem, signed them up on the dotted line.

I drink water from the kitchen faucet, still dazed from my travel inside the Time Machine.  The smell of falafel and Hanukkah jelly donuts wafts through the open windows.  The one thing that doesn’t change is change.

“Come on,” I tell my wife and daughters.  “Let me show you around the neighborhood, the beach.  Let’s jump to 1977.”

 

————————————————————————————————————–

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The (young) Old Man and the Sea

8 Nov

Israel.  1978.  Winter.  Tel Aviv municipal airport.  I’m sitting inside a 4-seater Cessna airplane on a wet runway.  The propeller spins.  My boss, Shimon Wilner, owner of Mediterranean Tours, is next to me.  In the front, the “business man” takes the passenger seat.  The pilot puts away the maps and eases the plane for a take off.

Cessna airplane

Cessna airplane

Minutes later I’m in the clouds.  We’re off to the Island of Rhodes, Greece.  The “business man” is from Kibbutz Ga’ash near Tel Aviv.  The kibbutz manufacturers outdoor lighting fixtures.  He wants to sell them to the beach hotels on the island.  Shimon, the money man, arranged for the airplane, the pilot, and for me.  My role?  To translate the three mens’ Hebrew into English, in the hope the Greek men in Rhodes will understand.

A storm hits.  Lighting.  Thunder.  Water hits the windows.  Visibility: Zero.  The plane sinks and rises in air pockets, as does my stomach.  My toes are frozen.  We all want to pee.  The pilot unzips his pants and pisses into a plastic tube.  He then passes it to the back like an Indian peace pipe.  My boss refuses.  I refuse.

Synangogue in Rhodes, Greece

synagogue in Rhodes, Greece

What is normally a 70 minute flight for a jet plane takes 4 hours on this noisy bumblebee.  Finally, we see land in the distance.  The pilot lowers the Cessna, approaches the runway.  A sudden gust of wind smacks the wing and tilts it sideways.  My face hits the glass.  Shimon, a 250 pound mass-of-a-man, leans into me.  The engine screams.  So do we.  The pilot barely is able to right the plane and we come in for a hard landing.  The doors fly open.  We take in the air.  We exhale steam.  We survived.

To celebrate our good fortune we stand on the wings of the Cessna and piss on the runway in a beautiful arc.

Police.  Sirens.

The Greek border patrol surrounds us with Jeeps.  They yell in Greek, visibly disturbed on how we, primitive Israelis, had desecrated their land with our urine.  We jump off the wings and apologize.  Ten times.

We’re escorted to the terminal, our passports are stamped with a loud thud and we’re shown to the door.  Outside, it rains.  In the hotel lobby later that night I help the “businessman” with his outdoor lights presentation.

Two days later we’re on the runway again.  It’s sunny.  The pilot starts the engine.  The propeller spins.  Shimon hears something suspicious.  “Stop,” he tells the pilot.  The pilot steps out, then waves to us to do the same.  It turns out, the blade of the propeller had hit the purple emergency light on the runway.  The propeller is bent like a banana.  The pilot says: “We’re lucky as hell.  Had we taken off, we would have crashed into the ground.”

Young Jews in Rhodes before World War II

Young Jews in Rhodes before World War II

Back to the terminal we go…

Those were the heydays of the seventies.  In the summer I escorted a number of groups to tour the Greek island; I tanned in the sun, frolicked in the clear blue water, feasted my stomach on Moussaka and Feta cheese, and feasted my eyes on topless Swedish girls.

Roll tape, please.  To October, 2014.

I’m on board EL-AL Airlines to Rhodes with my wife Pnina for a 4 day vacation. Once we settle at our hotel, we venture to the Old City, the Medieval City of Rhodes, the city walls dating back to the Crusaders.  This time, I’m in search of history.  Down the cobbled-stone alleys we walk until we reach the one remaining synagogue on the island.  It’s now a museum.  The Jews had come to Rhodes by way of Spain, then to North Africa, then Italy.  They lived on the island for generations, spoke Ladino, a Judaeo-Spanish language.  Whenever they sensed trouble was brewing, they reverted from Greek to Ladino, “Lashon de tu padre” – the language of your father.  They dealt in commerce; many of them worked at the fish market.

Surviving Rhodes Jews in Seattle, Washington

Surviving Rhodes Jews in Seattle, Washington

Then the Germans came.  During World War II they rounded up almost 1500 Jews and sent them to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the same camp my father was sent to.  Few survived.  After the war, their property was confiscated.  Inside the synagogue we meet one of the survivor’s children.  “Do you live here?” I ask.  “No,” he says.  “My family immigrated to the Belgian Congo.  Years later we moved to South Africa.”

An old(er) me in Rhodes, Greece

An old(er) me in Rhodes, Greece

Other survivors made to America.  Five years ago, I travelled to Seattle, Washington.  In the famous Pike Market I came across Jewish fish mongers.  The “Lost Greeks” stand over the beds of ice and arrange the crabs, the shrimp, the fish.

They’re a long way from Rhodes.

I leave the synagogue, remembering my days as a young man in Rhodes.  My wife and I go near the water and see the fishing boats.

The waves come and go, come and go.

—————————————————————————————————–

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