Montana Ice Cream in Tel Aviv.
Montana Ice Cream in Tel Aviv. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Attempts to close Montana Ice Cream at the Tel Aviv Port, and to evict the owners from the area, encountered the determination - and sweetness - of Yeshayahu Lichtenstein and Yehezkel Birzon. Lichtenstein, 84, and Birzon, 76, signed an agreement this month ensuring that the ice cream parlor that they opened in 1960 will be renovated and will continue to operate.

Up until a month ago Montana Ice Cream was a slated for certain eviction, along with another 70 properties in the area, mostly factories and garages - a majority of them, like Montana, protected tenants who pay key money.

"Montana Ice Cream can't stay here," declared Itamar Shimoni, CEO of the Atarim Development Company, a government firm that develops and operates tourist sites and entertainment and cultural centers in Tel Aviv. "The new look does not suit such an old building. Everything will be geared for entertainment," he said to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth a year and a half ago. Subsequently, work on the ground began, at a cost of about NIS 100 million.

Usually a powerful public company with a mandate to revolutionize such a prime area does not allow petty matters such as people, history or nostalgia to stand in its way. But at Montana they weren't worried for a moment.

"I won't let them evict me," said Lichtenstein to worried food columnists, about a week ago. "This is an historic place."

The latest compromise offered him and Birzon was to move to a small building to be constructed in the port compound, but they didn't agree to that either: They aren't willing to move even a meter or to change anything in their daily schedule: opening the doors at 8 A.M., serving ice cream, providing game machines for kids and being a venue for discussions about current events.

Somehow the determined twosome managed to get the upper hand in negotiations with the authorities.

"Had we wanted to go they would have paid us a lot, but we're staying here and not moving. What's bad here? We can't move. Everyone knows us," Lichtenstein asserted.

According to the agreement they have now signed with Atarim, the owners and their shop will remain on the 500-square meter property as protected tenants. The premises will undergo thorough renovation and the ice cream parlor will continue to operate. Some parts of the space will be leased to businesses, with 70 percent of the rental money going to Lichtenstein and Birzon and the rest to Atarim.

What gave Montana the edge over all the veteran garages and businesses in the port area that have been evacuated and have closed down in the past two years? How were Atarim's lawyers convinced of the historic importance of Montana, and why did they decide not to disconnect it from the oxygen tank?

Did you pamper them with ice cream?

"No. What is this here, bribery?" said Birzon in surprise. "And they didn't ask for any either."

Lichtenstein added that he was not surprised at their success: "We have a contract. The contract proves our perseverance, and eliminates the option of evicting us. We have no interest in closing Montana. There's nothing to discuss; you can read our contract. All the rest is nonsense you can tell your children. If you have money to waste on courts, feel free - but it's a pity to waste our time. Like a married couple with a ketuba [marriage contract], we can't be separated from this place."

Birzon: "We've finished with them. In the end they [Atarim] agreed to let us stay, and we've remained on the best terms with them. The law does not restrict payment of key money to a specific period. We have long-range plans and aren't going anywhere. Once they used to say 'may you live 'til 120.' Today the world is modern, maybe we'll live to be 160."

There are people who retire at some point.

Lichtenstein: "I've been working here for over 50 years. So what? Am I about to die tomorrow? The grandfathers haven't agreed among themselves that you finish at a certain age. I know a lot of grandfathers who work."

Birzon: "What's bad about working here? What will I do? Wait to die at home? Pray in the synagogue? This way time passes pleasantly for me. This is an historic place [that attracted such people as] Tzipi Livni, Dudu Topaz, Moshe Dayan with all his female soldiers. Itzik Mordechai comes to this day. Couples who met here come back with their families. They shot three films here: 'To Take a Wife,' 'Lemon Popsicle 2: Going Steady' and 'Lemon Popsicle 5: A Small Affair.'

"When they filmed 'Lemon Popsicle' here they slept outside in trailers and would film here from one morning to the next. The place where the counter is located was their dressing room. Zachi Noy was here four months ago at a reunion of the cast of 'Lemon Popsicle.' They sang and talked."

About what?

Birzon: "I wasn't listening to them."

Didn't you consider getting a handsome compensation, a nice bundle, taking your good memories and retiring from the ice cream business?

Birzon: "Apparently you're not an accountant. Nothing is left of any bundle. A third goes for key money, a third for income tax, value added tax, so what will be left? We've paid for the place all our lives and we have children who want to carry on the business; we've already transferred some shares to our heirs. My partner asked what he'll do at home without work. He's right; we want to work."

Lichtenstein: "My wife actually wants me to come home and help her there. But there's a saying 'By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.' The bread really is tastier that way. We're people of a different type. We're not senile, we understand life. And we achieved all this with our own two hands.

"What I've been through in life ... I was born in Poland. I was sent with my family to the Mauthausen and Auschwitz camps, where my parents were incinerated. My little brother, of whom I was so jealous all my life, was incinerated." He displays the number tattooed by the Nazis on his arm, adding: "I'm an important person, I have a number and you don't. If I get lost they'll find me. I came to Israel with nothing but a pair of pants. I was on Kibbutz Hanita for two years, only then did I learn to read and write Hebrew. In Poland I completed only four years of elementary school, but I know economics quite well. Today I'm not lacking for anything, I have enough even if I live for another 50 or 100 years. We invested money in assets that will give us a return: an ice cream plant in Petah Tikva and two parlors in Be'er Sheva. I live in an attractive house with my wife, but I work because I want to have something to do. I have no interest in not working."

'The American from America'

Birzon, also a native of Poland, had a hard life before Montana was created. "Before the Holocaust [Revisionist leader Ze'ev] Jabotinsky went from one village to the next saying: 'Jews, immigrate to Israel, flee.' But we had a farm, we lacked for nothing. We were sent to the Globok ghetto, and when they destroyed the ghetto we fled to the partisans. Afterward I was sent to a prison in Siberia because I did business. With the Soviets there's no business. I got 23 years in prison. In the end I spent three and a half years in Siberia, and I immigrated to Israel in 1960. I looked for work and got a job at the ice cream parlor."

How did two penniless new immigrants become partners in one of the hottest ice cream parlors in Tel Aviv?

Birzon: "When we first arrived at the port, there was only darkness here. Behind Yarid Hamizrach [the old exhibition grounds and warehouse section of the port] there were a few factories for cloth and ceramics. When we opened, the only business in the area was a toy store. Everyone begged the American from America, Abraham Fogel of Montana, to open his ice cream store. The whole country knew him. He made us and others partners and taught us how to make ice cream. Fogel died in the 1970s."

What's the secret of your ice cream?

Birzon: "It's natural, not chemical, ice cream. Children love colors and don't understand that they're eating carcinogenic concentrates. Here it's ice cream from natural milk, natural cream, nuts, cherries and strawberries that we buy from farmers and make into preserves."

Do you still eat ice cream?

Birzon: "Of course!"

What does the doctor say?

"It's natural ice cream, eating is allowed."

Have you tasted ice cream in the new places in the port, Vaniglia? Iceberg?

Lichtenstein: "Ice who?"

Birzon: "We have our own ice cream. Why eat somewhere else?"

Have you noticed that in the past summer a lot of American (soft ) ice cream machines have appeared in Israel?

Lichtenstein: "That's nothing new, there always are."

Birzon: "We don't sell American ice cream. McDonald's sells its ice cream for NIS 3.90. How can you sell ice cream at such a price? We know the prices of milk. Cream and nuts are very expensive, and so is fruit. You want a taste?"

He rushed to the counter and prepared an ice cream for me, taking a teaspoon and adding all the possible toppings.

"Did you give the lady the 'special' ice cream?" laughed Lichtenstein, explaining: "Actually, we don't have special ice cream. Only vanilla or chocolate. So even if a beauty queen comes, that's what there is."

Birzon served me the ice cream and washed his hands. "If a young woman comes here," he said, "we try to win her over."

Lichtenstein: "I'm 84 years old, I got married over 60 years ago. I don't understand another woman. There isn't anyone else. This is my first and last wife."

There was only one question before I sat down to eat: What about the calories?

Birzon: "It isn't slimming and it isn't really fattening. It's tasty."

Did you think of launching a third flavor, to celebrate the millennium?

Lichtenstein: "Our ice cream is the best. We don't tamper with it. I eat ice cream once every few years, but only vanilla."

How would you treat me if I were to open an ice cream parlor in the new Yarid Mizrach area?

Lichtenstein: "I wouldn't deal with you, and I wouldn't provide you with ice cream. I have enough for us; we produce it in the plant. Sometimes it might even have been cheaper to buy. But I don't want to work for others."

Are you happy about the winds of change blowing on nearby Plumer Square?

Birzon: "It's good that they're renovating. The more business there is outside, the more people will come to us, and we'll make a better living. Tour buses will come here to see the place."

90% Auschwitz, 10% ice cream

Attorney Naama Zerkavod, a senior partner in the firm of Gideon Fisher and Co., which represented Atarim, says about Montana Ice Cream that, "it wasn't an ordinary case." To evict a protected tenant, she explains, "is not an easy thing in Israel, but in this case we're talking about a public need, for the sake of tourism, not a private whim of someone who plans to do something else on the area."

Atarim CEO Itamar Shimon was convinced a year and a half ago that Montana Ice Cream should be closed as part of the renewal of the Yarid Hamizrach area. What changed?

"I don't think that changing one's mind is shameful. When we came to evict the protected tenants I realized that these are people with feelings who built these businesses with their own hands and ran them for decades; some of them were handed down from fathers to sons. To come like Goliath to David, to evict them, although the law is on our side and we're a big company with lawyers - it didn't seem right to us. We found a humane solution that will leave them there.

"During the negotiations we didn't forget for a moment that a dignified, elderly pair of Holocaust survivors was sitting opposite us. That's not a simple thing. The experience of expulsion, isolation - this insult, that we want to remove them from some place - it is etched in them. That's why the matter was conducted with a lot of patience and sensitivity. During 90 percent of the negotiations we talked about Auschwitz, during 10 percent we tried to solve the problem."

What will change in the ice cream parlor?

"We'll announce a tender with commercial options for the site, in coordination with them. We're negotiating to connect Montana to several other buildings and to try to develop a roofed exhibition area for fashion, design and food in this whole compound, which will attract a large crowd of all ages. In the end Montana will be left with a smaller area in their building, in which they can serve ice cream, with chairs and tables, as they [the partners] and their families are demanding. Anyone who wins the tender and becomes part of the compound will pay a substantial sum, and they [Montana] will receive 70 percent of the revenues, so they got a good deal."

Were you in Montana in the good old days?

"No, but I was there recently. There isn't the same demand as there used to be in its salad days, but the ice cream has a unique flavor. Many people have asked us to relate to the ice cream parlor as a symbol of this compound, and that's what will be done."