Our friend Shimon Re’em was being honored last Wednesday night by the City of Haifa for his contributions over a lifetime to the city and the area. An educator by profession, Shimon has spent a very active retirement educating citizens, particularly young people, about the Haifa area prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the early years, with an emphasis on the resistance to the British.
I wasn’t looking forward to the traffic and to driving up to Haifa and back to Jerusalem in one evening. But it isn’t often that a family friend of 25-plus years is honored, so off we went. We left Jerusalem about 3:15, planning to beat some traffic and to arrive early enough to grab dinner on the Carmel in Haifa.
About 5:00, we drove into one of the rest stop/gas station/coffee shop places along Highway 6. It’s Israel’s version of the Eastern U.S.’ old Howard Johnson stops. No one will mistake them for a desert oasis. Not looking forward to my usual frustration using a U.S. credit card at an Israeli gas pump, I treated myself to the full service pumps.
A young man strolled over, took my card, and went to work. “Where you from?” he asked in decent accented English.
Sensing he was not really interested in my usual “We live part of the year in Jerusalem, part in Sacramento, I sold my business early so that I could pursue Herzl’s dream,” I simply replied, “California.”
To which he inquired “You Jewish?”
Not totally surprised by the question, I replied “Yes.” Then I got a little surprise. His answer: “Well, then, this is your home. Welcome.”
Feeling I knew the answer but sensing a door had been opened a bit, I asked: “Thank you. And you?”
“I’m Arab.” Then, looking like he felt I might need some clarification, he added “I am an Israeli Arab.”
Me: “So this is your home too?”
Him: “Yes, I live over there,” pointing to the town about a half-kilometer to the East with the requisite black water tanks and minaret.
Feeling emboldened, I asked: “So how is it for you here?”
Him: “It’s good. We all get along. We work together. We eat together. We drive together.”
And then, a moment’s thought and he added: “You know, all it takes is a little respect. American, Israeli, Jew, Muslim, Christian. We all just have to respect one another.”
By this time I’m thinking this young man is not a lifer on the gas pumps. Also, by this time the tank was full and he was removing the handle from the tank. Small car, small tank, but interesting conversation.
Feeling more emboldened, I said: “If you don’t mind my asking, do you feel respected?”
His response: “Generally, yes.”
The receipt was signed, the handle back in the pump, the next customer about to honk, so a quick handshake and off we went. Not your typical Howard Johnson gas stop conversation.
Per the plan, we pulled into the parking garage beneath the Baruch and Ruth Rappaport Auditorium in Haifa, came up to ground level, and thought about food. We spotted the usual CaféCafe across the street and thought “boring.” Then, right behind CafeCafe we spotted an inviting deck and view and a sign saying “Druze Home Cooking.” That looked interesting.
We walked in. It being early, the place was nearly empty and we looked tentative. A dark, almost Hollywood handsome young man with a good head of black hair combed back gave us a very welcoming “Hello.” In near perfect English, he invited, urged us to sit down and make ourselves at home. A more reserved older gentleman (My age? About) stood nearby, smiling.
The young man is Eyal Halaby. The restaurant is El’Kheir. The owner is the older man, Eyal’s father, Kheir. (The best I’ve got is it means “good” as in good luck.) Eyal started running us through the food, most made from his great-grandmother’s recipes.
After the food rundown, we got the family history: from the nearby, famous Druze village of Daliet Al Carmel, having come from Syria in the 1600’s.
A great rundown, a great personality, terrific composure, very good English. Kheir, in much less confident English, occasionally added a little extra information.
Finally, I asked Eyal if he had learned such good English here in Israel or had he studied abroad. He explained quite proudly that he is a commander in the Israel Defense Force infantry, having just recently gotten released from active duty. (When I later said he “had been a commander,” he corrected me and said “once a commander in the IDF, always a commander.”)
He had been selected to tour the U.S. with the Israeli Air Force Band. His job: he spoke during the intermissions about the IDF and about being a Druze officer in the Israeli military. He loved the people he met in Florida. I have a feeling they loved him. Some have already visited him and his family on trips to Israel.
We did try to explain that we are both Israeli and American and that we live in Israel a good part of the year. But that did not seem to sink in, at least with the older Kheir. He treated us like visitors from abroad.
As we talked a scramble for a parking place broke out on the street below the deck. Lots of yelling. It continued as the winner walked away. Very loud. Finally, an embarrassed Kheir turns to us and says: “You know, not all Israelis are like that.”
Eyal is now studying for a joint bachelors and master’s degree in business management. I doubt he’ll be working at the restaurant much longer than my gas station friend will be working the pumps, other than to help out a very proud dad.
The bill paid, the cards exchanged, the request for a positive TripAdvisor review made, and off we went to watch Shimon and 11 other Haifa citizens gets honored.
Right up there with the drive up and back in one evening, I had been dreading this a bit. Awards ceremonies can be just short of graduation ceremonies when it comes to the dragging on and on quality. Add to it we don’t understand some, or most, of the Hebrew, and I was prepared for two hours of, well, loyalty to a friend.
Turns out the city of Haifa could give tutorials in how to do award ceremonies. A TV/radio personality MC’ing with that voice, very professional two minute videos for each honoree (pictures help), a gentle push to accept the award and sit down, and a top-notch trio and singer interspersed here and there. One brief acceptance speech by one honoree. The mayor got about 60 seconds at the end.
Impressive honorees: doctors, professors, luminaries, and our friend Shimon. Among the honorees: an Arab man and an Arab woman.
Done in two hours, which could be a record for this type of an event. Then to a restaurant in the building for the mazel tovs and Shimon’s bottle dance. He uses plastic these days and it lasts about three seconds. This being a traditional, Zionist family, a round of David Melach Yisrael, and the party was over.
Back on Highway 6 to Highway 1 to Jerusalem. Home by midnight.
A nice, little drive to Haifa.