It's still pitch black outside when brothers Abie and Moshe Cohen start their day as hairdressers in Kfar Saba. Before five, Moshe, at 40 the younger of the two, is up and about, getting ready to go to synagogue and join in the morning prayers. Abie stays in bed a little longer but is soon sitting at the computer, checking the day's news and his personal ups and downs on the New York stock exchange. You won't catch Abie making up a minyan.
The two brothers work together and even share a bedroom, but could not be more different. They argue about everything - religion, politics, running the business, what to eat for lunch.
Yet their salon is one of the homiest places I know, a place where clients drop in for a cut or shampoo and are immediately offered a cup of Abie's boiling hot sticky black coffee you could stand a spoon in. Local beggars know they will never be turned away emptyhanded. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, as far away as possible from those snooty, intimidating salons where the client is made to feel like a badly coiffed nuisance.
I'm lucky because I only have to walk down the road and within less than half an hour can be transformed from a Medusa-like apparition to clean, sleek and well-groomed. You rarely have to wait at Abie's. But in any case, whenever I do walk in, I'm never in a hurry to rush off. The gemuetlichkeit makes you want to linger.
On this particular day, which has been designated Abie's salon day, they are already knee-deep in hair clippings when I arrive with my notebook. Moshe is poised over a hirsute young man and with intense concentration, is slowly relieving him of his thatch of thick curly black hair, which is landing in chunks on the cream-tiled floor. Abie is trimming the carrot top of an elderly lady with all the panache of someone who has been doing this for 25 years, flashing his scissors and wielding his comb with practiced flair.
Someone mentions the "situation" and this gets Moshe going on one of his familiar diatribes - against the government, against the bleeding hearts, against the media.
"We're the idiots, not them," he says with feeling. "We deserve everything we get; we're too soft with them." Abie shrugs non-committedly. He's also on the right politically, but not nearly as extreme as Moshe - and it's too early in the day to get into politics, he says. Galina walks in carrying her neat little case with all her manicure equipment and sets herself up in a corner of the salon. In Odessa she was once a building engineer; here, she builds nails and has the touch of a fairy, working her miracles on fat, work-worn hands until they look, if not elegant, at least cared for.
The misnamed Yaffa comes in for her weekly overhaul - hair and nails. Abie sets to work. They talk - about the grandchildren, the weather, the mayor's shortcomings - nothing too profound. Moshe is doing a rather taciturn blowdry on a casual passerby who just happened to try her luck, not one of the regulars.
"I ALWAYS loved the idea of being a hairdresser," says Abie. "After the army I went to study in Tel Aviv and worked there for a few years in a fancy salon on King George Street. I taught Moshe and our younger brother, who is a men-only barber in Bnei Brak."
He left Tel Aviv and moved to Kfar Saba 20 years ago, first working for someone else and then becoming independent.
"I got fed up doing the hair of gays and transvestites," says Abie, when asked why he left Tel Aviv. "I've nothing against them, I respect them and anyone can live the lifestyle that suits them but I'd had enough. Kfar Saba is square and conservative, and it suits me."
This gets Moshe going on another of his hobby horses - the lack of public morality, which he says is the source of all our woes.
"Just look at the way our girls dress, everything showing - no wonder the Almighty is punishing us," he opines. "The Arabs would never let their girls dress like that."
"You're talking bullocks as usual," says Abie, cleaning chunks of hair from a spiral brush ready for the next blow-dry.
They exchange a few barbs, but it's all done in a brotherly spirit.
"We can yell at each other over some issue, but within minutes the whole disagreement is forgotten," Moshe says.
The brothers grew up in a close family circle. Their parents immigrated from Iran in 1958 and were dumped in a ma'abara (transit camp) of huts on the edges of Bnei Brak. Abie was born there in 1961 and Moshe in 1966. Their father, descended from a long line of rabbis, worked as a manager in a food plant; their mother was a housewife all her life and became especially devout in the past 10 years.
Abie went to a haredi school and the treatment he received at the hands of the rabbis turned him against religion for life.
"They used to beat me black and blue," he recalls bitterly.
"You probably deserved it," retorts Moshe, taking umbrage at the implication that religion is bad.
"I also got beaten up in my state school, but I was a wild animal, I deserved it," he adds. "We used to lock the teachers in the classroom and throw stink bombs through the window or catapult them with orange peels. Nowadays the beatings aren't allowed, but believe me, it wouldn't do the youngsters any harm to get a bit of discipline."
Abie looks disapprovingly at Moshe's reactionary ideas, but keeps his council.
"Our father used to hit us, too," he remembers, "but a father can do what a teacher isn't allowed."
BY NOW THE salon has emptied out a bit and they are trying to decide what to have for lunch.
Abie fancies a bit of herring while Moshe is going for pastrami. They've brought a salad with them from home. When Moshe goes off to do the shopping, a boy of about 14 walks in. He has been saving up for months to have blond streaks put in his black hair. Abie sits him down and inspects his head.
After a few minutes he says, "I'm very sorry, but your hair really isn't suitable for streaks, it's much too thin. Why don't you leave it the way it is?"
The kid tries to change Abie's mind but he is adamant. It will burn the hair, he says. Just then Moshe gets back with the victuals and is furious when he hears what has happened.
"This is our living, how can you turn down a customer?" he asks his brother, his voice raised in anger.
"I won't do anything just for money if it's unprofessional," says Abie quietly. "He'll just do it somewhere else," says Moshe.
"I don't care, I want to sleep well at night," says Abie, and the boy walks out, still clutching his money, his hair unstreaked.
After a lunch in which the pungent smells of the different foods permeate the small salon, Abie goes out for a cigarette; smoking is strictly forbidden inside the salon. The afternoon hours are very quiet, so each has brought a book to read as well as the daily paper. Abie is into philosophy while Moshe likes the lives of rabbis and is halfway through Rabbi Lau's autobiography.
The door opens and an agent walks in carrying his case of samples, hair color, new brushes and special rinses. Some hard bargaining ensues and I am surprised to see that Moshe, the younger of the two, is taking the lead while Abie, the owner of the salon, only interjects the odd remark. The agent suggests a price and Moshe explodes with a mixture of horror and disbelief. Eventually they reach a compromise and the agent exits, having made a sale to the satisfaction of everybody.
Abie explains that they have cultivated this "good cop, bad cop" routine and it works every time. The brothers exchange a conspiratorial grin, satisfied with the afternoon's deal.
Some children walk in and are greeted like long-lost brothers. They settle into the chairs and have their hair cut, all the time chattering to Abie and Moshe, who seem genuinely interested in everything they are hearing. They walk out without paying.
"They come from broken homes and live in a hostel here," explains Abie. "We do all the kids' hair for nothing."
At seven they wind up, brush the last strands of hair off the floor and hang the towels up to dry. They drive back home together to a hot meal prepared by their mother and sit down to eat with their parents, another brother and the nieces and nephews. They balk at the question of whether they help with the dishes - it just doesn't occur to them - but they do help with the shopping.
After supper, Abie checks his investments on the computer again and Moshe often goes to visit an old uncle in a retirement home, just to let him talk about the old days when life was good under the Shah.
If they're not too tired, they drive off to Herzliya Pituah, where the Irish pub is a favorite place, and down a couple of pints of Guinness.
Then it's back home to catch a good night's sleep before the next day's journey to Kfar Saba for another 10 hours of hairdressing, arguments and interaction.