My dad’s older brother Shabtai and his wife Batsheva lived in Rishon Letzion (which means “The First to Zion” in Hebrew) with their two sons, Edni and Dani, ten years older than me. Shabtai changed his name when he arrived in Israel in 1926 to the Hebrew translation of Motyl (butterfly) which is “parpar”; his name became Shabtai Parpari. The two sons were in the Israeli Defense Forces – Dani in the intelligence division Modyin, and Edni in the paratrooper regiments. We spent a couple of months in Rishon and started to get acquainted with the language and the people.
Israel was a very new country when we arrived in 1957 as it was created by the United Nations in 1948. The country was younger than I was! There was paradox between the newly created nation and the 3,000 years of history of the best-known region in the world: the Middle East. I was now living in the cradle of the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. You acquire a completely different view of the religious writings when the places mentioned, like the Galilee, Jaffa, Jericho or Jerusalem are familiar to you – when you girl-friend lives the Galilee or your school is in Jaffa. You also know the environment, the weather, the people.
I explored the surroundings and met the neighbors’ kids. We walked to the town center and I discovered Bazooka chewing gum, an American import, and of course falafel. Falafel is still one of my favorite foods, together with schnitzel, my mother’s specialty. We climbed huge fig trees and ate their sweet fruit. I continued catching insects and played a lot with grasshoppers, disturbing the nests of big, black ants, and collected desert darkling beetles – those beetles became my preferred toys and pets; they don’t make much nise… They were common everywhere but it was fun to follow their track in the sand, on the vast sand dunes that surrounded Rishon, and many towns like Holon and Bat-Yam.
I started to pick up more and more words in Hebrew. My parents and I began intensive study an “ulpan” (oolpahn). Anulpan (Hebrew: אולפן) is an institute or school for the intensive study of Hebrew, common and necessary in a country of immigrants. In September, I started school, in fourth grade. My Hebrew improved daily. The most difficult part was to learn how to write in a new alphabet and read too. As I did later with the other languages I learned, I saw it as a game, as a fun new experience. New alphabet, new works, new grammar – all that was very exciting to me. I made good progress and spoke basic Hebrew in a few weeks.
Because Shabtai was an administrator at the Housing Authority called Amidar, we were allocated a small apartment in a new development called Rasco Bet in the town of Holon near Tel Aviv. The buildings were three stories high with 6 entrances called “shikunim” or subsidized housing. There were about 12 buildings. There was no natural gas piped in so my mother cooked on a oil camp stove called “primus” in the small balcony/storage closet off the small kitchen. One day, trying to cook some eggs for me and Jan, who was three years old, I accidentally set fire to the balcony/closet. There was minimal damage, a blackened wall, as I quickly put the fire out with a big towel. I have been a scout, a Red Pioneer, and knew how to deal with fire. I was punished and had to stay in my room for a while.
As I mentioned, my solitary trips often led to the vast dunes south of our development. There were miles of sand dunes between Holon, Rishon Letzion, and the sea. I caught the big, black beetles, about one inch long, and brought the home. I built houses and labyrinths from blocks and Legos, and let the beetles’ race in the structures.
The dunes were no further than a block away from the apartment. Almost every night, we could hear the desert jackals (like our coyotes) howling and calling to each other. I never saw them during the day. In the middle of the sands, I found an abandoned, unfinished house, without a roof, only one story high. I entertained myself by climbing on top of the walls and walk around. I would also jump of the one-story height because landing on the sand softened the landing. It was exciting to fly down from that high. I guess I was in good physical shape because one day, after an argument with some older, stronger boys, I escaped the skirmish by running a couple of miles all the way to the center of town, in Holon.
When Jan, my brother, was older and was able to walk, 4 or 5 years old, we would go to parks and enjoy the carousels and the swings. It was hot, especially during summer vacations. When we got thirsty, I would jump the fence into a yard, or lawn looking for a water faucet. Because water was precious, the owners would remove the handle from the top to avoid water theft. I carried a handle that fit most yard faucets. I used my handle, and drank to quench my thirst. When I was done, if Jan could not get over the fence or jump into the yard, and I did not have a cup or any other container, I would fill my mouth with water and pass it to Jan, into his mouth. I saw birds and African dogs doing the same thing in a documentary. You can imagine that Jan and I were very close. In those days, he was no taller than my waist and would walk wrapping his arm around my thigh.
My dad landed a job as a café-restaurant manager on the beach called Riviera in a neighboring town called Bat Yam. It was a beautiful setting, a great light-yellow sandy beach. I did not know at the time that the business was not going well because there were too few customers on this remote beach. Luckily, my dad found a better, stable job, in his profession as a timber expert and supervisor at one of the principal sawmills in Israel, owned by Solel Boneh. The company was the largest construction in Israel. My father worked there until he retired.
As luck would have it, Shabtai, my uncle, was again successful in helping his brother and family. We moved into a nice, bigger apartment at 15 Shenkar Street, near the Holon center. It was located in a nice shikun (שיכון) or apartment block; it is related to shahen — neighbor, or shhoona — neighborhood. Now you speak Hebrew!
I lived at that address until I left Israel in 1966. My dad passed away in this apartment in 1983. After his death, my mother sold the apartment for about $44,000 and left Israel to join my brother and me in Northborough, Massachusetts in 1985.
The new neighborhood meant new friends and a new school. Although I could communicate already in basic Hebrew, there were many kids from Poland and I could speak with them in Polish. Pretty much everybody was an immigrant so we were all learning Hebrew together. And because we were kids we didn’t have any problems communicating with each other. Two of the Polish kids, came from Lodz, and even more amazing, they were in my class in my school. Their father repaired radios and televisions. I saw the very first television program at their apartment in 1960. My parents did not get a television set until I already left, in 1967. Instead we did have a huge German Grundig Beethoven radio and we listened to music and news on the radio in the living room.
Besides several Polish boys and girls in our neighborhood band, we had Romanians and Hungarians, as well as Egyptians, Yemenites, and Iraqis. We all spoke our parents language at home but mostly Hebrew between us. There was a small park across the street, with a couple of benches. When not in school, we spent hours on those benches, talking, laughing, and starting to discover the other sex — falling in love — kiddy love.
Soon, we started planning and having dance parties. This was the time of rock’n’roll. We listened and danced to the music of Elvis Presley, Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Cliff Richard and the Platters. The music was on vinyl records. We discovered how nice it was to slow dance, in a tight embrace with our favorite partner.
We all knew many different dance styles: rock’n’roll, later twist and shake, cha-cha, rumba, samba (my favorite), foxtrot, the charleston, a kind of passo doble, tango, and of course the slow. We could dance to every kind of music someone would put on the turntable.
In Israel at that time, most people worked from Sunday to Friday noon or 2 pm and had Saturday off. The transportation was mostly by busses. The bus service stopped early evening on Friday and restarted late afternoon on Saturday. Often on Friday night, you could see groups of 20 to 100 teenagers, walking for a couple of miles to a hall that somebody was able to reserve for that evening’s dance party. And we danced, and danced until we could not stand up anymore. We were all still young, 12, 13, maybe 14 years old, so at about 11 pm we would leave and walk home, as a big happy band.
Because the bus service was back on Saturday afternoon, this was the time to go to the movies. There were three movie theaters at a walking distance from our place, but sometimes it was more fun to take the bus to Tel Aviv or Bat Yam and see a movie there. American cowboys and Indians movies were very popular.
One important recollection is the almost total lack of violence. On a very rare occasion, a couple of boys would push and shove and maybe wrestle to the ground. Their friends would separate them in 30 seconds. There were rarely any injuries. With the war going around the region, violence between us was simply not in our repertoire. There were arguments and shouting matches, and being that this was the Middle East, very juicy and creative curses especially aimed at parents and the rest of the family.
One of my best friends and neighbors, one entrance over on the left, was Izako Barakat. His family came from Egypt. Izako is a Ladino version Isaac. Ladino is basically old Spanish, spoken by many Sephardic Jews. These are Jews from southwestern Europe like Spain, Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans. While the Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, their Eastern Europe brethren spoke a version of German called Yiddish. My dad spoke fluent Yiddish.
Izako had a sister whose name was Ahuva, which means Beloved in Hebrew. She was my first true love of my teenage years. We were very fond of each other and spent a lot of time on the bench, smooching. Ahuva was already well developed and I was fascinated by her ample chest — larger breasts than any girl’s in our neighborhood. This was not why I loved her; it was because she was gentle, had a beautiful Mediterranean face, sweet, easy to talk to and she laughed at my jokes. We could kiss for hours. Our slow dancing was one pationate squeeze. Izako was a bit upset that I was going out with his sister, only because he knew, as did my other friends, that I was not Jewish. However, because we were best friends he never acted on it.
Living in Israel and not being raised as a Jew and not being circumcised presented a few problems. The Israeli Jews did not like non-Jews. My approach was basically don’t ask and don’t tell. I did not wear a cross on my chest, did not advertise that I was a Catholic. With my friends, we simply did not discuss religion.
I believe I was still in the Israeli school when I suddenly got the urge to roam and had my second escape, my second walkabout. However, this time I took my dad’s bicycle. I was not running away from home or my parents. I was not unhappy or maladjusted. I felt like I wanted to ride to Tel Aviv and eat falafel. There was no plan, timeframe, or thinking about the consequences of this punishable act. I had some money, maybe about the equivalent of today’s $20 that I kept in a piggy bank; it was actually a piggy. I received this money as gifts or payment for chores. The piggy’s bottom door must have been locked because I resorted to sliding a kitchen knife into the drop in slot and one by one extracted the folded bills and the coins.
It was mid-morning by the time a acquired the loot and brought the bicycle down from the second floor. I took the road to Tel Aviv and never looked back. After arriving at the main bus station in Tel Aviv called “Tachana Merkazit”, which means “main bus station”, I stopped at my first favorite falafel stand. I ordered a full portion; one could also order a half-portion in a half-pita, but I felt rich. I sat on the curb and slowly delighted in the taste. Than I had another one! I washed it down with glass of orange soda.
I rode up Allenby Street to the corner of King George Street, right across from the most famous, permanent outdoors market in Tel Aviv called Shuk HaCarmel. My mother often made the pilgrimage to this colorful bazar, where she could get low cost food. My target was the falafel stand at the corner; I got another full portion. I sat on the curb and slowly devoured my prize. Than I had another one! I washed it down with another glass of orange soda. I was in heaven.
I was a tall, rather thin kid and I was always hungry. Unfortunately, the ability to eat until I am ready to blow up is still with me today. Whenever I say I am full, it is a description of my stomach having reached its physical distention maximum limit. It is not a mental message “You have eaten enough.” I believe I must be missing that mental switch.
I kept riding in the streets for a while, admiring the city life, the people, the traffic, the hustle. As it got closer and closer to the late afternoon, I started to think about what to do next. I was a bit worried about my dad’s reaction, especially the aggravated assault on his bike, a prized possession he brought from Poland and rode to work sometime. I was contemplating a potential spanking, definitely some yelling at. It was getting dark and I was not going to ride 5-6 miles home in the dark on the bike. As I got close to the Tachana Merkazit, it was around 9pm. I came up with a brilliant plan: I will go to Risho Letzion and stay at my uncle’s. I had some money left from my falafel orgy. I will take a shared taxi. This is a service like a bus but 6-7 people pay a flat fee to go to a common destination. I found a shared taxi that was willing to tie my bike to the roof and after loading all the other passengers, we left for Rishon.
After arriving at the center of Rishon Letzion, I rode the bike to my uncle’s house. As you recall, I lived for a few months in Rishon so I did remember, more or less, how to get there. I arrived before midnight. Aunt Batsheva and uncle Shabtai were worried and certainly surprised but did not get mad. I am not sure how they contacted my parents as in those days we did not have a telephone (or a television) in our apartment. Maybe through the neighbors or the police.
I spent a restful night and in the morning, my dad arrived. He too was no angry or mad but happy to know that I was safe and totally unharmed. We thanked Shabtai and Batsheva for their hospitality and rode the bus back to Holon. I believe we left the bike at my uncle’s for a future pick up. My mother’s reaction was the same as my father’s – relieved and happy to see her firstborn safe. They did ask why I did it, was I unhappy, was I mad at them. I told them that I was not and that I just wanted to ride the bike and eat falafel. I promised that I would not do it again. And that was my last walk-about if you don’t count joining the French Foreign Legion on October 13, 1966.
After about a year in the Israeli school, my parents decided to enroll me in the College des Frères in Jaffa, but that’s another chapter.