Hagi’s barber shop

Real men appreciate real barber shops.

The theatrical poster for the 1960 film ‘Exodus,’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The theatrical poster for the 1960 film ‘Exodus,’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
It’s not that real men can’t appreciate styling salons: those overpriced fashion temples where you cringe while in the chair, leave wondering why you came, and avoid the mirror for days thereafter. It’s that real men also appreciate old-fashioned storefront barber shops, where it’s “twice around with the clippers, please; no, you can’t shave the top of my head, that’s my wife’s job; and leave the nose alone.”
The old-fashioned places where the stories you swap, usually much improved by retelling, sometimes provide fascinating glimpses of things from the nolonger and the nevermore.
Rather like Hagi Meravi’s little shop in Karmiel’s old kenyon (mall).
In truth, Hagi’s wasn’t my first real-man’s barber shop. When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Louie the Barber provided both fine JFK-era tonsorials and a chance to observe local politics in action. The place often struck me as a numbers parlor co-located with a barber shop for plausible deniability. The shop maintained close relations with the “kosher-style” restaurant across the street and its presumably kosher-style gambling den on the second floor. Aged couriers in long overcoats hustled back and forth. Cops got free haircuts. So did the local alderman, who held court twice a month, fixing parking tickets while getting trimmed and tapered, powdered and pomaded.
Later, there was that one-chair deal in Washington’s pre-renovation Army-Navy Club, manned by (or so he claimed) an ancient horse cavalryman who’d cut every famous general’s hair from Black Jack Pershing to Wee Willie Westmoreland. This guy, name now long forgotten, never asked you what you wanted.
He noted your uniform or deduced your branch of service, then proceeded according to the appropriate regulation.
Another DC establishment, this one in Georgetown, belonged to an old Cuban who’d fought (or so he claimed) at the Bay of Pigs. I always asked for the Anti-Castro Special, sometimes got it and still don’t know what it was.
There were others. And now there’s Hagi.
Hagi’s 75 but far from old in demeanor, and a true believer in the cognate nature of the Hebrew words for “barber” and “storyteller.” He was born in Beirut; his family came to Palestine in 1946. At first, they lived with three other families in downtown Haifa. The men would stand guard on the roof, armed with bottles of water (correct, water) to throw at approaching Arab arsonists. British soldiers on patrol helped themselves to whatever they wanted from the shops and kiosks. Hagi worked as a newspaper vendor. One day, some soldiers took his papers without paying. He says he harassed them until they threw back both the papers and the payment. A good day to be a newsie, even in a war zone.
Army service, ’56 to ’59, pulled from boot camp as an Arabic speaker to spend months supervising Egyptian POW work parties. Hitching a ride with people who turned out to be Christian missionaries.
Remembering Camp Marcus. We’ve had some lively debates about Mickey Marcus, Israel’s American general, his real and posthumous accomplishments, his manner of demise.
In 1959 he met an American girl, attending ulpan at a local kibbutz. Visitors were forbidden, but Hagi had two uncles in residence and deftly evaded the rules. They married and in 1961, went to America for 17 years, establishing three successful businesses in Baltimore: a hair salon, a beauty supply company and a glatt kosher restaurant that spent $205 a week on a mashgiah to unlock the place for them on Saturday nights. He beat traffic tickets by talking to the cop in nonstop Hebrew and surprised some of his employees when they discovered that, contrary to what they’d been told, Jews did not come with horns.
“I worked hard and loved America, but I always felt like I was in exile.” So he came back. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, history is where you find it. Those who remember it are always growing older. It matters to listen to them now. And an old-fashioned barber shop’s as good a place as any to pick up snippets of the past that, sometimes, turn out to be far more than mere snippets.
So, should you be in Karmiel and in need of a haircut or a bit of history, you know where to go. And do ask Hagi about his role as an extra in the movie Exodus. He played, he says, a prisoner in the Acre jailbreak scene. He’s even mentioned in a scholarly book on the subject: Our Exodus: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel’s Founding Story.
How many times did he go to the movies in America to relive his half-second of fame? He admits to several, and concludes: “I’ve also seen the video.”
Philip Gold, an American oleh, is author of Yom Kippur Party Goods and Ha’Kodem.