The story of the quintessential Jerusalem pizza place: Richie’s Pizza

From Lake George to King George, the story of how Richie Fox ended up being the owner of a pizzeria in Jerusalem.

THE FAMILIAR King George storefront.  (photo credit: MICHAEL LIPKIN)
THE FAMILIAR King George storefront.
(photo credit: MICHAEL LIPKIN)
Richie Fox, best known for being the owner of Richie’s Pizza in Jerusalem in the 1970s, has led a most atypical life. His journey from the Bronx to becoming a world-traveling free spirit is what dreams are made of. 
Richie’s Pizza was a very important part of his journey, and only one stop on this path of exploration and discovery.
I caught up with Richie recently, and had him tell the story of his life. He grew up in a typical middle-class Jewish home in the US in the years immediately following WWII. The family was minimally involved in Jewish life, attending synagogue on an irregular basis. He went to Syracuse University in Upstate New York and graduated with a degree in psychology in 1962.
Throughout college, Richie would travel, exploring North America. Richie was, as he says, “one of the ‘beats,’ for sure,” referring to the beatnik counterculture movement.
One summer during college he hitched his way from New York across America, riding with truckers driving 18-wheelers, feeling like a modern-day cowboy. After the West Coast he headed down to Mexico, where he ran into a small group of Canadians and Americans. Discussing their newly discovered lifestyle, they told Richie they were part of the Dror movement and were heading to Israel to live on a kibbutz. They regaled him with stories of Dror’s deep attachment to Israel (Dror later merged in the 1980s with Habonim). Hence, the Zionist seed was planted in Richie Fox. 
In 1962, Richie joined a friend from college who had a candy shop on the beachfront in Lake George (near Saratoga Springs, NY). The landlord had two units and would only rent them out together, so Richie tried his hand at making and selling pizza next door. He had an oversized toaster oven and thus, Richie’s pizza experiences began, catering to the families, tourists and college students.
The following year, Richie started graduate school in Manhattan, and quickly realized that he was not cut out for college life – probably, as he relates, with an undiagnosed case of ADHD. He did attend a meeting of the local chapter of the Dror movement, where they talked about hachshara, a program in Israel for kibbutz and Zionist training. Again, this sparked his interest. He discussed it with his parents. His father had a connection to the Israeli Recanati family, which owned, among many other things, a shipping line. Richie got a job on one of their ships – leaving out of New Orleans, heading to the port of Ravenna, Italy – filled with corn and an all Israeli crew. 
Upon arrival in Italy, Richie went traveling. He went to the AAA office in Rome, told them he had lost his New York State driver’s license, and they issued him a temporary one on the spot. He then went and bought a Vespa motor scooter, but had never driven before. Once he had command of his Vespa, he set out for Paris. On the road, he went through Germany and “felt uncomfortable” with the knowledge that the murder of millions of Jews had taken place not 20 years earlier. He visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and saw thousands of huge mounds of earth – and there were German families out for a stroll with their children as if nothing had happened there. 
RICHIE WENT back to Italy, took a ferry (with his Vespa) to Greece, then a ferry to Israel. Arriving in Haifa, he noticed immediately there were no bagels, no corned beef or pastrami around, and yet, he describes the immediate experience as “feeling right at home.” 
“My gut felt I was home. In Europe I was a stranger wandering around, but now I am home.” 
Wanting warmer weather, he volunteered on Kibbutz Ein Gedi (on the Dead Sea), where the volunteer supervisor, sporting a big droopy mustache, asked him, “What’s your Hebrew name?” Richie, remembering from his bar mitzvah, responded, “Yerachmiel.” The supervisor replied, “Stick with Richie.”
After a while, he wanted to learn Hebrew, so Richie went to the ulpan at Kibbutz HaMa’apil, near Netanya. While there, he received a letter informing him he was being drafted into the US Army. He returned to the States and went to the Whitehall draft office. He had just started taking some medication for his now-diagnosed ADHD. The effects of the medication made it clear to the army that he was not fit to fight and he received his deferral.
Over the next couple of years, Richie worked in NYC during the winter and at the Lake George pizza concession during the summers. But he had been bitten by the Israel bug – and so, in 1966, he took a boat from New York to England, bought a Triumph motorcycle and traveled through Western Europe, ending in Gibraltar, crossing into Morocco and driving across northern Africa, visiting Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. From Alexandria, he and his motorcycle took a boat to Beirut, then crossed into Syria. Because of the atmosphere of fanaticism there, he kept his Jewish identity hidden, as well as the fact that he was heading to Israel. Richie then went on to Jordan, seeing Petra – that famed red sandstone historical site that Israelis had longed to go to – and eventually making his way into Israel, settling in Jerusalem.
On his first visit to the Old City, still in Jordanian hands in 1966, he received Jordanian permission to go through the Mandelbaum Gate by declaring he was an Anabaptist. When he went to the Kotel (referred to then as the ‘Wailing Wall’), he realized that he had a privilege not granted to many Jews at all. From somewhere “deep inside,” he recited Shema Yisrael, Arab kids throwing stones at him all the while. On his way back to the Israeli side of Jerusalem, he said to himself, “I’ll probably never be there again.”
Richie, still wanting to learn Hebrew, drove his motorcycle north to the ulpan on Kibbutz Ein Gev on the Sea of Galilee. There he met Mika, a volunteer from Sweden, and their relationship soon took off while learning Hebrew together. During this period they would often hear the Syrians firing mortars into the area, even watching air battles from the fields, leading up to the 1967 war.
BUT IN mid-May 1967, he headed back to Lake George to run his very successful pizza shop. While reading the news, he saw an article that the IDF had called up the residents of Ein Gev. Richie immediately thought, “Why am I in the US while this is happening? I couldn’t live with another Holocaust about to take place.” 
At the end of May he instructed his worker to “take care of the business,” left to New York City, and applied via the Jewish Agency to get permission to return to Israel.
Richie arrived in Israel on June 3, 1967, two days before the Six Day War began. He tried to get to Ein Gev but it was a closed military zone, getting as far as Gesher in the northern Jordan Valley, from there hitching a ride in an army jeep to Ein Gev. On June 4 Mika’s father insisted she return to Sweden, and she took the next flight out, returning a few weeks later, while Richie stayed on at Ein Gev during the war.
When Mika returned, they decided to head south to Kibbutz Yotvata, near Eilat. And in the summer of 1968 Richie went back to Lake George, this time with Mika, for a summer of pizza fun. They felt, in Richie’s words, “unsure of where we were, who we were. While in Israel, I felt American, but now back in America, I feel Israeli.”
Undecided what to do after the summer, Richie thought of a compromise: head to the West Coast communes – in America, but kibbutz-like. Mika decided to go to university in Sweden, so off Richie went, alone. Visiting various communes, there was one episode he will never forget. A Bible was passed around from participant to participant, and each was to close their eyes, open to a page and point to a verse. Richie, eyes closed, opened to Psalm 137 and pointed to “If I forget thee O Jerusalem” – and was shocked at the power of the message, of the “sign.”
But the summer of ’69 was approaching, so back to Lake George and Mika came to help with the business. And after the summer, they decided that Israel was home, so off they went back to Kibbutz Yotvata. Mika wanted to convert and took part in the course at Kibbutz Sa’ad. She invited Richie to join in and take part in the rituals and study. One Shabbat, Richie observed that a grandfather, father and child were sitting next to each other all doing the same rituals. It was so moving, so strong, and, he felt, “so different than the beats and the hippie lifestyle.”
And though Israel was now home, for the summer of 1970 they went back again to operate the pizza shop in Lake George for the last time, with Richie leaving the shop for his brother to run. A pregnant Mika and Richie went to settle in Jerusalem, but he needed to work. With his degree in psychology, he went to speak with Eliezer Jaffe, then head of the Hebrew University School of Social Work. 
Prof. Jaffe asked Richie, “What did you do in the States?” Richie responded, “Pizza!” Jaffe told him that there were no pizza shops around, just people putting tomato sauce and cheese on a pita.
RICHIE WANTED a downtown location, and an Elite candy store was going out of business. After a few months of negotiations, he signed in early 1973, but still needed equipment. He flew back to the States, ordered top-of-the-line equipment and in the meantime began to make renovations to the storefront. 
Ready to open in July 1973, he discovered that the electricity in the store couldn’t handle the big ovens that had arrived. The Israel Electric Company agreed to the changes only three months later, so Richie went out, bought a gas oven and opened the store – without electricity.
And without a working dough machine, Richie asked a bakery near town to make the pizza dough for him. The Iraqi Haba brothers started making American pizza dough, sending it over 12 balls on a tray, one tray at a time. From the first day, the crowds came. The pizza was served on the now infamous cardboard “slices.” Mika designed the logo, and they made hats and T-shirts – Richie still walks around today with one of his hats.
Richie can’t recall why he put up a bulletin board, but it sort of became the first social media platform. And while the pizza was good, the bulletin board was a major attraction. It was so unique, so powerful – people came from all over to put a note on it or look for a note left for them. You would arrange to meet your friends there from a summer program or university, or perhaps a relative looking for you. Richie’s became a prominent hangout, and Richie the natural “schmoozer” made everyone feel comfortable. 
As word spread, so did the detractors. Some of the yeshiva and seminary programs forbade their kids from going there, and yet, it was a perfect place to meet your future spouse! Many long-term relationships and marriages sprung up from meeting at Richie’s. Even the Israelis would come, hoping to meet a “rich American.”
In October 1973, the Yom Kippur War broke out, and while the store was closed to the public, Richie was making pizzas and bringing them to wounded soldiers at the hospitals. Richie would always donate to various nonprofits, and seemed to feed every beggar in town. For the beggars, though, he would ask them to help wipe down the tables or sweep the floor – do something in order to earn their pizza with a sense of kavod, of honor. In January 1986, the unthinkable happened: a Palestinian terrorist planted a bomb in the bathroom at Richie’s, and it exploded. Fortunately, no one was injured.
The store next door was a typical Israeli meat/grill place, but he couldn’t understand how Richie’s – the new kid on the block – was doing so well, drawing in the crowds. One year, while Richie’s was closed for Passover, the owner turned his Israeli grill into a pizza place as well and stayed that way for years.
BY 1990, a few changes were taking place. Ben Yehuda Street had been paved over as a pedestrian walkway a few years earlier and more of the crowds were heading that way. Coupled with issues caused by a greedy landlord, Richie decided it was time to close up shop. His advice for anyone going into the food industry is simple: You have to enjoy food to be successful.
Richie still has a piece of the original sign, though his dream for the sign had been bigger. He bought an apartment in the Old City, went up on the roof and could see the Temple Mount. And he thought that if given the chance, that if the third Temple were to be built, he would put a Vegas-style sign on the roof saying, “Eat at Richie’s!”
The writer, a philanthropic consultant, has been eating in Jerusalem since 1974.