From India to the Beersheba shuk

If you're looking for the essence of aliya, just go to store number 93 in the Beersheba city shuk.

beersheba shuk 224.88 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
beersheba shuk 224.88
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Sunrise to sunset, the Beersheba shuk (open market) stands as the classic example of unfettered free enterprise. Hundreds of Jewish, Arab, Beduin and Karaite vendors compete, shoulder to shoulder, selling not just the freshest and most perfect produce, but virtually everything else that can be bought and sold. Although the shuk sprawls over several dozen dunams on the city's southernmost edge, once you're inside, the atmosphere is dense. Most days, it's so crowded it's hard to make your way through the labyrinth, all jammed with shoppers pulling overloaded carts or toting bulging bags. They push and press, trying to beat a path to whichever vendor seems to have an edge on the others. The language of Beersheba's shuk is almost exclusively Hebrew or Arabic, although knowing a little Amharic or Russian doesn't hurt. Unlike its counterparts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Beersheba shuk doesn't serve as a tourist attraction, but rather, just a market: a furiously loud, messy, chaotic and not noticeably polite place to transact business. For all of these reasons, opening a shop in the shuk is not something that appeals to most English-speaking new immigrants. Learning to shop there is challenge enough - diving in to compete with the native sellers scares away all but the hardiest. Ephraim, 47, and Sharona, 42, Erunkar qualify as hardy new immigrants. They made aliya in 2002 from Baroda, a city of 1.6 million people in western India. The Erunkar family began to consider aliya in 1997. "My whole family, including my parents, came together to tour Israel, to look around. We liked it very much, and decided to make aliya together. It took us five years to make all the arrangements. For us, India had been a fine place to live. We owned two factories. Both were doing well. My father was a high-[ranking] deputy commissioner in the police, and later [held] a senior office in another factory. But we all wanted to come to Israel, so we sold everything, the factories, our homes and everything else." By profession, Ephraim is a mechanical engineer. During his months in ulpan, he dedicated every waking moment to learning Hebrew, an effort that paid off. Erunkar took Israel by storm in his first few months here: he graduated from an academic ulpan with perfect scores on both the written and oral exams - the only student ever to do so, the ulpan director said. The moment ulpan was over, he accepted work as a project engineer at Vernay, Inc., representing the corporation in marketing an industrial rubber device in India. "It was a very good job," he says. However, due to health problems, he decided not to extend his contract. The problems turned out to be serious. A tumor was detected in his spine, and ultimately he needed major surgery. "I'd started having leg pains in India," he recalls, "but I didn't realize... how serious it was. I just knew my legs were [hurting] me." Erunkar underwent the difficult spinal surgery, which left him 65 percent disabled by the standards of the National Insurance Institute (Bituah Leumi), but even that didn't slow him down. "After the operation, I was up walking on my two crutches, so I went to India to finish my project," he says. "I had to. I didn't want to spoil my name. I couldn't stand the idea that they'd think I would take on a project and not finish. So? I finished." Most work for mechanical engineers requires a lot of legwork, Erunkar says. So while both he and the NII were searching for a suitable engineering position, one which would allow him to work sitting down, the family needed another source of income. The idea for a retail business in Beersheba, perhaps selling Indian imports, began to take shape. "We were able to open Har Zion, our shop in the shuk, for three reasons," Erunkar says. "First, because of God's grace; second, because of my deceased father, who passed away on Succot, who was responsible for many blessings; and third, because of our friends Adam and Rachel Nagavkar, who ran the shuk shop at No. 93 for 25 years. The whole thing came about in an unusual way." Last fall, Erunkar says, Sharona was shopping and stopped at No. 93. She learned that the Nagavkars were looking for an English teacher for their daughter. "My husband is Greek, so he can't teach her," Rachel Nagavkar told her. "We need someone else." Sharona told her husband, and Erunkar called the Nagavkars to say he could teach their daughter. "Because I was having trouble walking, Adam would sometimes drive me home, and many times we'd sit and talk. One night he told me he was thinking of going to the US or to London. 'What will you do with your business?' I asked. 'Probably just close it down,' he said, adding that he'd probably do it by the end of the year, 2007." Erunkar began to think, and one night asked him, "Why don't you let me take it over? I'm looking for a place to start a business.' He asked what I had in mind, and I told him I wanted to sell Indian imports - spices, snacks and maybe some Indian fast food. I thought it would be easier to take over an existing business, and he agreed." A couple of months passed. "It was December 20," Erunkar says. "Adam told me he was going to close the shuk shop on December 31. 'Do you want it?' he asked. Whoa! That was very short notice! I knew I'd have to raise money. I'd have to pay for his fixtures - the counters, shelves, refrigerator, cooler, office equipment, everything. I'd have to buy stock, and I'd have to have enough money to run for a while, until we got established. How could I possibly do that, in that amount of time?" A flurry of activity followed. "I almost ran to the bank to ask for a loan. Thank God, they looked at my accounts, saw I'd been a good customer, and had some money on deposit. Based on all that, they said they could loan me NIS 33,000. That was good, but we needed more. Sharona was able to borrow a little from an uncle in Ramle, and then we found another private lender who liked to help new immigrants. He loaned us a few thousand US dollars, saying he wouldn't charge us interest, but that we should pay him back in US dollars whenever we could, regardless of the exchange rate. "He helped even more than that. The first time I had to go to the Tel Aviv wholesale food sellers market, we took his car, and went together. The shop was almost empty when we bought it, so that day, we bought enough to fill it up, stocking up on everything we wanted to sell - mostly grains, rice, pulses, condiments, Indian spices, and a lot of other things. The Erunkars didn't have to fly completely solo. "The Nagavkars helped us through it all," Erunkar says. "Adam treated me like a brother, taking me through the whole bureaucratic process, making sure everything was right. We still pay Rachel a salary, and she works with us. There are still some small points I need help with, because some laws are different here than they were in India." Erunkar remembers his first customer. "It was December 31… I'd just paid Adam. This guy from Thailand came walking along, and wanted to buy a bag of rice - but nothing was ready. At first I just said, 'Take it,' but he wanted to pay, so we finally agreed on NIS 25. They paid - and they've been regular customers ever since. We're not doing any special advertising. I figure if people come, they'll see that we sell only pure, clean, Badatz kosher items at a very reasonable price. Then they'll come back. "Thank God, we're busy all the time." Erunkar chose the name Har Zion because of a phrase he loved in the Siddur. "I always said, if I ever have a business in Israel, I'm going to name it 'Har Zion.' I even designed our business cards with a mountain theme." English-speakers are big customers at Har Zion Spices. "Early on, a man came in and was trying to ask for something he didn't know how to say in Hebrew. He was describing it in broken Hebrew, telling me it was zahav, gold, and was trying to indicate it was a powder. 'Oh, you want mustard!' I said. He was so astonished. 'You speak English?!' Then he said. 'You're right! Mustard! That's exactly what I want!' Then I had to tell him I didn't have mustard, but I also told him who did. There are so few English speakers in the shuk that we're happy to help. We get a lot of customers that way." Six months after opening, all the borrowed money has been paid back, Erunkar says, except for the bank loan. "It's a low interest rate. We're better off paying it off slowly. Now we're expanding. Because we've done well, we were able to get a new immigrant small business loan, which will help. We've already began stocking a selection of Indian clothing for women. Other expansion plans are underway - it's really too early to talk about it, but an adjacent shop may become available, and we'd like to take that over. Sharona's mother and brother are making aliya within the next few weeks, and maybe her brother could help, or we'd do it ourselves. We also think there's a market for Indian fast food - like wada, fried potato balls, and a few other traditional foods. We'd start slow, and build our menu." Owning a business in the shuk isn't especially complicated, Erunkar says. "The municipality owns the roads and all the common areas, but individual shops are privately owned. We took over Adam's lease for two additional years. The rent is reasonable, and our only other expenses are one helper's salary, and small monthly electric and water bills. We had to buy a new electric sliding door, for locking up at night. Sharona opens the shop in the morning, and the manual roll-up door was too heavy for her to manage. We decided that buying a new electric door was worth the investment." One additional expense is protection money, a not-uncommon feature of doing business in the Middle East. "It used to be much worse," Erunkar says. "Adam told me that back in the early 1990s, the Russian mafia would come around and demand lump sums, like NIS 500, or 1,000. If he couldn't pay, they'd threaten to break up his home or shop. One time he told them he didn't have the money. But he had a brand-new car - a new Mercedes, the only one of that model in Israel. The mafia came and lifted it, literally towed it away, during the day, right in front of his eyes. So the mafia got his new Mercedes because he refused to pay NIS 500! "That doesn't happen now - back then, the police were afraid of them, so they wouldn't help. Now the police have a station right at the shuk. Security is very good." But still, gangsters can demand protection money? "I treat it like a regular bill, NIS 25 a week. They even give me a receipt. I just treat it as a normal business expense. Realistically, what other choice do I have?" Other kinds of inspectors come along, too. "The income tax people come to check books and the cash register against our reported cash flow. The kashrut inspector comes. It's not a problem. We're careful. We keep good books and our place is clean." A possible engineering position has opened up for Ephraim, so now, Sharona frequently runs the shuk shop alone. "Two days a week, I leave the house at 6:30 a.m. and take a bus to a factory at Emek Sarah. They've taken me on for a project on engineering drawings. I've taken courses, and am learning to do computerized product drawings. It's good for me, because I can sit. I like the work - engineering is my profession, what I was trained to do. My only restriction is that I can only work six hours - on the days I'm at the factory, I'm just not able to come home, and then go to work at the shuk. I can't do 12-hour days." The Erunkars plan their work schedules so their nine-year-old son, Avishai, isn't alone. "We named him 'Avishai' because he's a gift from God," Erunkar says. "We'd been married for 20 years when he was born. Avishai goes to a good school, he learned Hebrew very fast, and we're all happy. The real reason we came to Israel was for Avishai. We wanted to provide a Jewish life for him. "I want people to know that without my father, we couldn't have accomplished any of this," Erunkar says. "We list our apartment in my father's name. If it hadn't been for his selling his apartment in India, we never would have been able to buy it ourselves… What am I, after all, but my father's son? "God brought us to the right place, in the right land. My old boss, who left for the US, keeps calling me, asking me to join him in the US. I tell him I'm in Israel for good. This is my home. I'm staying right here."