Our Jewish tradition marks birthdays not only as time for celebration and good wishes but also for remembrance and review. Those born in 1948 are the same age as the State of Israel, and remember what it was like growing up in a country that was new, yet with ancient roots.
Moshe Talbi, a Sabra whose lineage goes back several generations in Jerusalem, has the pleasure of celebrating his birthday with the state. Born and raised in Netanya, where he still lives, he finds it hard to believe all the changes he has seen in his lifetime, and enjoys sharing his wealth of stories about Netanya as it was.
“The memory of what was and the developments made are phenomenal,” he reflects. “It is important to point out life was not bad. I remember a happy childhood growing up in Israel.”
In 1948, the population of the entire country was about 600,000, and after statehood was declared, every Independence Day was euphoric.
“There was dancing in the central Independence Square, and to me as a child, it seemed that every one of the 9,000 residents of Netanya was there. I remember small glasses of wine put out on tables for grown-ups to take, and how the children stood wide-eyed as the adults shouted “ lehaim” [in those days social drinking in Israel was rare].” In the 1950s and ’60s, Netanya was considered a moshava, a small, rural community, and Talbi remembers the city flanked by orange groves, which smelled heavenly. There were also dairies on the perimeter, which had their own perfume.
“Cows, sheep and goats regularly strolled down the streets, munching the grass on both sides. One had to be very careful where one walked, because there was no clean-up crew,” he says with a smile. “One method was to leave droppings to dry in the sun and clean up later.” Netanya had been a British army base, and the English had a system of paving the city streets with three meters of concrete and a space between the blocks so the concrete could expand with the heat. Talbi still remembers the feeling as he rode his bicycle over them.
“The city streets were lit at night by small, weak, electric bulbs” he explains, “and the thick darkness made it great for children’s evening games. Later, the night air would ring, not with cellphones, but with mothers calling their children, “Moishele, Itzik, Chaimky, Shloime, come home!” Cars were scarce, even in the 1960s. “As teenagers,” Talbi recalls, “we could easily walk across the Coastal Road highway to get to schools on the eastern side of the city.” During recess, the children would buy sandwiches of brown bread smeared with mustard from vendors, and enjoy them immensely.” Within the city, sidewalks were few and sand was abundant. Every step would find you ankle-deep in sand, and he recalls a story about his grandmother from Jerusalem visiting Netanya. “She lamented that my mother could not wear her Jerusalem high heels because of the lack of sidewalks.”TALBI REMINISCES that the color of all clothes for daily wear was light khaki. Nevertheless, there were a few fabric stores with different colors, and mothers who could sew and knit kept their brood fashionable for special occasions. Those who could not relied on the seamstresses who went from house to house.
Every morning, Talbi and his two siblings would line up before school, and his mother, with the eye of a staff sergeant, would inspect the level of shine on their shoes and the condition of their clothes. Everyone seemed to be basically on the same economic level, and clothing and shoes needed to be taken care of and had to last; perhaps remodeled and handed down to the next sibling. Nearly every neighborhood had a few shoemakers, and, as Talbi says, all of them had plenty of work.” The children loved to visit the shoemaker in a small hut seated on a low stool, his clothes protected by a heavy apron. In front of him was a low table lined with hammers, tools and pots of glue. Talbi remembers, “No visit was complete without the shoemaker’s glue trick. He would stick one finger into the glue while making a funny face, then quickly switch fingers and put the clean finger into his mouth. The trick was so quick and amazing that, even after countless presentations, it always caused wild gales of laughter.” In summer, parents would ask the shoemaker to cut off the ends of their children’s closed shoes, turning them into sandals, allowing a bit more room to grow. To give the soles a longer life, the shoemaker would outline them with rounded metal studs. “They made a terrific noise as you walked,” Talbi remembers, “with studs announcing a proud call to attention.” Next to the shoemaker was a small kiosk which sold cold soda. The owner, with a flourish, would spritz the soda from a siphon into a glass and flavor it with the syrup of one’s choice. Candy was displayed in a glass case, and Talbi remembers his favorite called “Zisi Simha”, small, colored, sugary drops, shaped like popcorn, guaranteed to keep a child happy.
Nearby was the tinsmith and watching him was special entertainment. His shop was also in a small hut, and he worked with heat, hammers and a burning soldering iron mending tin pots and metal tools.
Mr. Piskovitch was the local shohet (slaughterer). He traveled from town to town and worked in a small hut in an open area. People would bring him live chickens they raised in their yards or bought at the market.
“As a young boy I would love to visit him. I remember he would sit and study religious texts between customers. It was special that he also made time to talk to me,” recalls Talbi. “When people arrived with their chickens, I would watch with fascination as he checked the sharpness of the blade on his fingernail before quickly killing the bird. After it was over, he spilled sand on the blood. I learned later that blood is a symbol of life and covering an animal’s blood with sand is a sign that Jews treat blood with dignity and do not delight in spilling it.” In its early years, there were no supermarkets in Israel. People bought groceries at (makolet) minimarkets. “Ah, the smells that greeted you as soon as you walked in,” Talbi remembers. “Few items were packaged in those days, and the pungent smells of the minimarket were mouthwatering.” “There was the tempting smell of round loaves of dark and light bread for weekdays and challot for Shabbat. There were dry goods, pickles, olives, and fish called lakerda [pickled bonito] preserved in oil and kept in big, open barrels. The minimarket owner would weigh the Kashkaval cheese, the preserves, the yeast and wrap them in paper.” Talbi remembers his mother giving him a list and he would go to the minimarket owned by Mr. D’lugin, who had a glass eye and a pencil permanently behind his ear. “When the customer said, “Schreib” [write], D’lugin wrote down the requested items, would take the items off the shelves, and put them in the customer’s bag or basket. Finally, I would proudly sign, with a flourish, the sum to be paid at the end of the month.”IN ANOTHER store Mr. Fischer sold live carp, which were swimming in a bathtub. “You could either take them home alive to swim in your bathtub, or Mr. Fischer would hit them on the head and wrap them in newspaper.” Talbi remembers the print would sometimes come off on the fish and you could still read the news on them when you arrived home.
There was no dilly-dallying on the walk home because you had to get the perishable items into the refrigerator as soon as possible. Once they were inside the refrigerator, you had to think twice about opening the door. The words “Shut the door or all the cold will go out” had real meaning.
Most electrical appliances were considered luxuries. The refrigerator was “cordless,” meaning it had no electric motor or temperature settings. There was one temperature – cold, generated by a block of ice placed in the upper compartment of the refrigerator. When the ice was gone, so was the cold. The water would drain into a tray to be emptied daily. The block of ice would last a few days, depending on how many times the door was opened.
Refrigerators were small, with only enough room to keep a few dairy items and food for the day. Perhaps, in the summer, it stored a watermelon and not much else.
Blocks of ice were bought from the iceman, who made his rounds with a horse and cart, transporting a big, wooden crate lined with metal to keep ice cold. He would announce his arrival by blowing a whistle to and shouting “Ice, ice”.
The iceman who made deliveries to Talbi’s neighborhood was a member of the cooperative ice factory on Hess Street in Netanya. His name was Avraham Klein, but everyone called him Butscher. He made his rounds once or twice a week, one delivery close to Friday so people could use the ice to keep food cold for Shabbat. With an ice pick, Butscher would cut out the amount of ice requested, and give it to customers lined up carrying big towels, sacks or large ice tongs to take the ice home without burning their fingers. Then the cycle, “Shut the door or the cold will go out!”, would begin again.
Talbi remembers how he and his friends would surreptitiously hitch a free ride on the tailgate of the ice wagon, until Butscher realized his “passengers”. Then he would flick his whip backwards as a warning – and they were gone.
There was the knife sharpener man, who turned his bicycle upside down to rotate its wheels and thereby run the stone wheel that sharpened the knives, and the Alte Zachen man who collected unwanted household items. Each had his own distinctive musical call.
The vegetable man was called Hamoriko. He came on a wagon drawn by a donkey (“hamor” in Hebrew) and spoke Ladino. He had burnished set of weights and balances to weigh the items. The children would watch fascinated as he added and removed the weights until the needle was perfectly positioned, tally up the purchases, and with a “Giddy-up,” he and his donkey were on their way.
In the cool of the dawn, the milkman delivered milk in glass bottles with foil caps as well as soda in heavy, blue glass siphon bottles.
There was the man selling neft (kerosene), who came with a horse and wagon which carried a red tank holding the kerosene. He alerted people of his arrival by ringing a resonant bell. Kerosene was used in the winter to fill the stove used for heating. Talbi remembers his family sitting close to the small round stove in the winter, and how the smell of kerosene caused headaches. The neft man would also sell a flammable liquid called “Spirt” to put in the primus burner, used for cooking and heating huge vats of water to do the laundry, done by hand outside, aided by washboards, roller-wringers, and sometimes a washerwoman hired to help.
Perhaps the tradesman who caused the most excitement among the children was Mr. Youpitz, the barber. He would come dressed in a suit, carrying a small satchel containing his tools. Talbi remembers that there were barbers in Netanya who had shops. However, for families who had many children, the traveling Mr. Youpitz was a blessing.
He would knock on doors and, if haircuts were needed, the whole family (and probably a few onlookers) would all troop out to the porch or balcony. There Youpitz would lay out his instruments, wrap his customer in a white sheet, fasten it with a big pin, and start snipping away. Youpitz was a master in the art of words, and able to regale his customers (and onlookers) with news and funny stories. When finished, he would leave all shorn and in good spirits.
Those were the days before television in Israel. Most people had large radios and some even the prized possession of a transistor radio. Popular, daily programs were sketches, such as Three Men in a Boat, which children (and adults) listened to faithfully. There were comedies and programs of suspense, designed to keep you eager for the next episode..
In those years, movies were so popular that tickets for the Saturday evening show went on sale on Wednesday, and by Thursday they were sold out. Netanya boasted one of the largest and most elegantly decorated movie theaters in the Middle East, called the Sharon Theatre. American movies, Westerns, and movies made in India (which usually had a tearful tragedy) were favorites. Netanya even had an outdoor movie theater, and the children would perch on rooftops of adjacent buildings to see these movies at no cost.
Movies always had an intermission, and Talbi remembers the vendor who circulated through the aisles and sold ice cream and soda. After the movie, everyone bought a falafel from a nearby kiosk, or hot roasted peanuts served in a cone made from newspapers.
As Talbi looks back over the years, he ponders the question whether children assumed more responsibility in those days. “Perhaps yes and perhaps no,” he reflects. “Children were pranksters; they played outside a great deal, explored Nature, caught and also bitten by snakes, scorpions and insects, All had to do chores.” He remembers during the 1956 Sinai Campaign his father was called up for reserve duty, and as the eldest son, not quite eight years old, he was proud to be asked to sleep by the door and watch over the family. He remembers the State was growing and many people worked physically in professions associated with the building trade. After they came home, ate and rested, many men had second jobs to provide just a little more. A job was a blessing, and no stigma was attached to any kind of work.
He remembers the feeling of respect and camaraderie among the citizens of the new state. “Perhaps it was a quieter time to grow up,” he reflects. “Nevertheless, these children grew up and became the soldiers who fought in at least four of Israel’s wars.”
What does he wish for the future of the State of Israel? “It depends greatly upon who will lead the government,” he opines. “We must be careful.”
“I am proud to have grown up with the state. This is our land, our home, and this is where I will stay.”