Tammy Shoer lives on two things: nicotine and worry.
"Living in Israel," she says, "means you're in a state of constant struggle. You worry nonstop. You are fighting an endless battle against the bank overdraft." She takes a puff on her cigarette, her third in the span of 10 minutes. Then she fixes her steely gaze on me. "You must worry all the time too, I'm sure. That's Israel."
Shoer and I are sitting in her coffee shop in the small community of Klil, a tiny village in northern Israel with stunning mountain views and a population of eco-minded farmers, artists, teachers, hoteliers and vagabonds. The residents of Klil barely number 440, allowing each resident room to spread out, breathe deep and call a vast patch of land his very own.
Shoer is in her late 60s, and despite the fresh air and sprawling landscapes, she oozes tenacity and grit. She inhales and exhales cigarette smoke with the same intensity as a pressure cooker.
She runs her little java joint, one of only four restaurants in this rural spot, and her husband works as an architect. It is housed in a huge Bedouin-style tent, covered with rugs and buzzing with a calm, slow vibe. The place is reminiscent of the Sinai hangouts once beloved by Israelis, who flocked to pre-revolution Egypt in bygone years for hookah and good times.
Shoer and her husband moved to Klil more than 20 years ago, and before they opened their café, they made money by leasing tents to visitors for 80 shekels a night.
"It's a funny story, really", says Shoer, smiling. "One day, a married couple with a baby in hand knocked on our door. They knew we had this land and asked us if they had any space where they could set up a Bedouin tent. My husband told them: 'Sure, it's right next to the orchard. If you agree to take care of the orchard, you can stay there.' They ended up living there – here – for three years. Then we remodeled their tent and opened this place. It's the same spot.
The family is now gone. Café Klil serves up coffee three days a week, from Thursday to Sunday, as well as holidays.
Shoer is a retired teacher, and the coffee shop helps her pay the bills. "I taught for 35 years," she says. "I taught high school, middle school. I have so many certificates. There is one for teaching kindergarten, one for teaching in the north, then my B.A. degree, then an M.A. I have all kinds of certificates from continuing professional programs."
Her pension, she says, is NIS 3,500 ($870) a month. "Luckily I have this place," she says.
Why is her pension so low? She says part of the reason was poor planning on her part. "For 10 years out of the 35 that I worked a teacher, I was a kibbutz member, and kibbutz members don't earn pensions from the Ministry of Education," she says. She also says that pensions are calculated by taking the final three years of your career and averaging them with all the previous years, and in her final year of teaching, Shoer drastically cut back on her hours and skewed the average.
She insists that she never really cared about how much money she would receive. "Some teachers leave their jobs with a pension as high as NIS 6,000 [per month], but you could say I did everything I could to not think about that, Shoer says. "Still, it's a scandal."
Shoer retired in 2007. On the compound she shares with her husband, beyond the coffee shop and the rental tents, there stands a huge tent that can be used for conventions and workshops. Guests, she says, have a tendency to stay longer than they had planned, and often build permanent structures to live in. When the eventually move on, Shoer and her husband pay them for the buildings, essentially paying them for the time they spent on their property.
It's a practice that has helped them slide into debt.
"The bank calls every week or so, asking us when we are going to deposit some money," Shoer says. "We already know that when a call pops up from an unidentified number, it's probably the bank and that's never good news."
Shoer is now standing up, fixing breakfast for a family of five vacationing in one of her tents. A cigarette dangles from her lips as she hovers over the stove. She has a few workers around, but she prefers to do many things herself. Omelettes, for instance.
She ashens her cigarette in the kitchen sink.
Life in Israel, Shoer says, sometimes just isn't fair. When she goes for a pedicure, for instance, she is particularly struck by the injustices this country doles out.
"The woman who gives me pedicures is 15 years young than me," Shoer says. "She was an officer in the IDF and she retired at age 42 with a monthly pension of NIS 6,500. She didn't have to study a damn thing and she didn't spend 35 years teaching children."
But at the end, as our conversation wraps up, Shoer's resilience shows.
"The only thing I can change in this world is my mood. I can't stand what's going on here, and that's an understatement, but I have to take care of my mental health. I try not to wallow," she says. "I try to worry less."
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