Boyz in the 'Hood

They are quick to acknowledge that their childhood on Hasharon Street in Givat Olga was difficult, but the many accomplished people who emerged from the former transit camp agree that it gave them the tools to succeed.

It is a quiet Friday morning on Hasharon Street in Givat Olga. The flags hung up for Independence Day continue to flutter strongly in the breeze beside laundry, lots of laundry. Strewn nonchalantly among the yards are torn newspapers and plastic bags.

The 1950s-style houses have long lost their original form. After children kept being born, who bothered to ask for municipal building permits? Who insisted that they were a prerequisite for construction? That is how the street turned into a patchwork, with old porches jutting out below bright red-tiled roofs, and concrete, tin, iron and plaster of diverse colors and styles clinging to one another.

The lemon trees are still heavy with fruit. Grape and strawberry vines are entangled with each other. A can holding a red geranium peeks from a small porch. The scent of Sabbath couscous spreads through the air, strong and clear.

If Hasharon Street were situated, let's say, in Tel Aviv, every niche and meter of soil would have been snapped up a long time ago for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Young families would have waited in line to find space there. But this small street with just 18 houses, in this little town west of Hadera, never became a sought-after real estate gem, despite its proximity to the sea, its low prices, its tranquility and its character of bygone days and despite the surprising concentration of successful people that have emerged from here.

No. 2 Hasharon Street, on the right side of the ground floor, is where the Hizkiyahu family used to live. They were immigrants from Iraq, a religious family; the mother was a housewife, the father, an admired teacher. A son, Rony, 58, is in the headlines today as the supervisor of banks. It has been 22 years since the family moved out. The parents died, the six children left the neighborhood, but Rony Hizkiyahu doesn't forget the place where he grew up.

Still living a few paces from there, at 13 Hasharon Street, on the left side of the ground floor, is Misa Kahlon, mother of Moshe, 47, an MK and the new minister of communications, and Yaakov (Kobi), (50Jerusalem's acting and deputy mayor. Their sister, Amalya Zarka, an executive at the HOT cable television network, is also a source of much joy.

On Friday afternoon, the mother, now in her 80s, is busy preparing Tripolitanian pasties (meat pies), without which there can be no Shabbat. Her two politician sons, out of seven who grew up here, are due at any moment. 'The street's kids used to gather here, in the yard,' she sighs. 'Now they usually meet in the Knesset.'

Also living at 13 Hasharon Street on the ground floor, but to the right, is another Kahlon family; no relation. This is where Eliezer, the multimillionaire businessman and entrepreneur, grew up. Now he owns the Neot Chen real estate company and lives in nearby Caesarea's most exclusive neighborhood. Eliezer Kahlon, 53, used to employ Uri Shani, who served as director general of the Prime Minister's Office under Ariel Sharon, and briefly managed now-departed Russian-Israeli tycoon Arcadi Gaydamak's local business empire. Nowadays, 100 people work for Kahlon, including Yisrael Sadan, Hadera?s former mayor. His mother, too, still lives in a house on that same street. She, too, is called Misa Kahlon, and she, too, like the other veteran neighbors does not intend to move anywhere; she and the other Misa Kahlon in her building now live alone and are very close friends.

The powers-that-be and the money that the street produced include a young TV celebrity: Or Kahlon, 20, who won the first season of the 'Born to Dance' competition. He grew up on the street, living there until his family decided several years ago to move to another part of Givat Olga, the Nisan neighborhood.

Other locals who made good emerged from other buildings on Hasharon: Attorney Chezy Baruchy; Rabbi Noah Duani, who heads Hadera's burial society; and the late Yossi Bouskila, who headed the city's religious council.

Hadera, the one-time farming community whose swamps the Zionist pioneers of the First Aliyah (wave of immigration) drained in 1891, was reluctant to see the Agrobank transit camp (which took its name from the Agriculture and Building Bank for Palestine) emerge on its periphery during the state?s early years.

Housewives all

During the early 1950s, the more distant section of the transit camp turned into a medium-sized neighborhood, Givat Olga, where Jewish emigrants from the Arab world mingled: Libyans, Iraqis, Moroccans, Tunisians. There were no Ashkenazis there, and dealings with Hadera?s other neighborhoods were limited. Until the 1960s, Givat Olga was run as an extra-territorial entity, relying mainly on itself. ?Whoever grabbed, succeeded,? one resident recalled.

The State of Israel established the neighborhood in order to transfer residents of the camp to permanent homes as fast as possible. For some reason the area was spared the then-common practice of erecting high-density buildings; long, ugly apartment blocs. Instead, the authorities built for the new arrivals to Hasharon Street, in the mid-1950s, small, two-story houses, each containing four apartments of one-and-a-half-rooms each, 43 square meters including the kitchenette. The apartments were small, indeed, but compared to the transit camp they seemed like luxurious palaces. Instead of public toilets with holes in the ground, Primus stoves and oil lamps, there were modern toilets, running water and electrical wiring. On the other hand, there was no room for beds. Rony Hizkiyahu remembers well how they used to sleep: one child's head beside the other's legs, some on a bed, others on the floor, six children in one room.

Hasharon Street was not actually paved. There was just sand, and stones, and a wide path that over time became a narrow road, not wide enough to comfortably accommodate two cars passing each other.

All the women on Hasharon were housewives; they cooked, washed, bore babies, sewed and took care of children. The men went to work. One of them, Itzik Haddad, still lives in the neighborhood. The family lived at No. 2, on the top floor; his father was deputy principal of a local school. At the same time, Hizkiyahu's father taught mathematics at school. His brother, Rony's uncle, who lived in the adjoining building, was an English teacher. The father of Moshe, Yaakov and Amalya Kahlon was a construction worker, and toiled together with Eliezer Kahlon?s father in the Solel Boneh firm.

The families were big, the salaries were meager and poverty was deep. 'They talk today of 'poverty, poverty,'" complains the minister's mother, Misa Kahlon, "but all you have to do is go to the garbage cans and you?re full. Then there was real poverty. My husband used to bring home his salary and we would divide it into four weeks, here 20 pounds, there 10. With that we would live. What we had was all there was, and that was very little."

New clothes? Shoes?

Kahlon: 'Only on Passover and then, too, not always.'

And what about birthdays? Did you celebrate them?

'What birthdays? How come? Bar mitzvah, and that's it. There was so much work to do at home that the children were outside all the time. Who knew when they came and when they left? They grew up on their own. They learned to manage.'

And manage they did. 'The daily need to survive made you develop sharp instincts,' recalls Moshe Kahlon. 'From a very young age we were forced to cope with difficulties that most people never encounter.'

Making a living was the biggest hurdle. Each day, from the time he was 14, he headed to the sea at 3 A.M., to fish or mend nets. At 7:15, he says, he would board the transportation to school.

The local garbage dump was another source of income. Itzik Haddad, whose family moved in when he was 5 years old, and has lived on Hasharon Street ever since, recalls how children used to spend hours scavenging at the dump for lead or copper, which they would then sell to merchants who came by. No one asked whether that was permissible. The parents did not object.

'We were street children,' recalls Rony Hizkiyahu. ?No one had the time or ability to invest what we, later, invested in our own children. They wanted us to grow up, to go to school and to the synagogue. As far as the parents were concerned, that was enough.'

One of the famous stories of the street?s history, tells how the future communications minister jumped from the roof of a local kindergarten, when he was 11, and broke his arm in five different places. Since he did not want to bother anyone, he took a bus, by himself, to the Hillel Yaffe hospital in Hadera.

'The medical team there did not believe it when they saw me there,' he recounts. 'A boy with a broken arm; alone. They X-rayed me, put a cast on, and I took a bus back home.'

Since the homes had little to offer, the relations between the neighborhood children were strong and cohesive, and the open houses and family connections strengthened them: 'There was no money, but there was friendship,' Haddad recalls nostalgically. 'We were all one family.'

'No one locked anything. Everybody knew everybody else,' recalls neighbor Haim Guetta, who recently returned after years of living in Netanya, where he felt lonely. 'I owned one book, ?Around the World in 80 Days,? but I used to go to Haddad?s father, who had a big library. If I was hungry, I could always go to one of the neighbors, who would set a table as if I were one of her own children. There wasn't much, but there was a zest for life.'

Moshe Kahlon does not tend to wax nostalgic. 'From an early age, every child sensed his parents' pain,' he says. 'It was impossible not to do so. They were new immigrants, they lacked the language, they were not familiar with the establishment and they heavily depended on us. It was our luck that in the 1960s the state invested in the young generation. They build centers and clubs for extra-curricular activities, and did all they could, so that we wouldn?t roam the streets.'

Hizkiyahu, who is a bit older than Kahlon, recalls his childhood days with reserved nostalgia: 'It was a childhood of the 1950s, with the stories of soccer balls made of tied-up rags, lots of street games, lots of nature. Like children in the movies, we used to run to the beach barefoot. On the other hand, you can't forget the poverty, and it?s important to recall that not everybody managed. With the conditions that existed at that time, it was easy to be drawn the wrong way.'

However, the old-timers enjoy telling that no one who lived on Hasharon Street turned bad. Why? Moshe Kahlon doesn?t have a good answer. 'We didn?t breathe any special air,? he says. "It's a pure coincidence,' maintains Hizkiyahu. "Morality and an emphasis on giving,? suggests Kahlon, the contractor. "There was no vandalism or violence in the streets. The parents wanted us to grow up as human beings. Religious observance was not fanatical, but tradition was strong and everybody went to the synagogue.'

'The children who were in the street were not good pupils,' Hizkiyahu says, 'and there were no great expectations. The parents were too busy. As the teacher?s children, we had to excel, so as not to shame the family name, but it wasn't that difficult, because the studies were, anyway, at a very low level. When we reached high school in Hadera, we had to close huge gaps.'

?Practical independence?

If there was no strong economic backing, parental pressure or high-level education from the time they were born, what spurred Hasharon Street?s children to excel? 'Independence,' says Jachiel (Hilik) Roseman, a resident of Hadera and social anthropologist, who has been involved in researching immigration to Israel. 'Sometimes it is not clear how, contrary to all chances, a migrant?s son manages to break out of a poor neighborhood and reach a key position at a national level.

'In contrast to the well-known 'tools' of education, money, supportive parents and social contacts; there is a critical mass of values: mutual respect, independence, pleasant conversation, loyalty, being part of a family, neighborliness and friendship. Fulfilling these values helps people emerge from the cycle of poverty and cast off known stigmas. From a young age, the children of Hasharon Street in Givat Olga learned 'practical independence'; meaning, understanding that there was no one on whom they can rely. Whatever they were not willing to do for themselves, no one else would do for them.'

Roseman continues: 'They saw parents who did not avoid hard work, but understood that they did not have to preserve poverty. The migrant?s son was a mediator between the parents' generation and the new world. The parents valued their children's contribution and respected them. The same respect passed, like legal tender, back to the parents through the duty to respect one's father and mothe, which in turn was expanded to glorifying the family.

'Stability,' stresses the anthropologist, 'gives strength.' At the same time he points to another phenomenon: 'Kahlon, Hizkiyahu and their friends were comfortable with the fact they came from Morocco, Libya, Iraq. This attitude gives a migrant's son a sense of security; he does not need to pretend, to disguise his accent, nor change his family name in order to disguise his origin. Kahlon is Kahlon, Hizkiyahu is Hizkiyahu, Guetta is Guetta and Haddad is Haddad.'

Rony Hizkiyahu agrees that the need to make independent decisions, already at an early age, helped him and his neighbors cope with future challenges. He finds a common denominator for the street's winners: 'When I look at Moshe Kahlon, for example, I see the way he conducts himself: He is very modest, exuding a sense of simplicity and honesty. That comes from home, from the street. That is where his decency and being satisfied with a little bit came from. I can testify that that is how the banks supervisor also behaves.'

'Our parents' main source of frustration stemmed from a fear that their children would end up like them,' says Moshe Kahlon, 'that we would fail to break out of the cycle. When you, as a young boy, understand this, you assume the challenge of making them proud.

'You want to be in another place, very different from the one in which you were raised, and somehow compensate them for all those difficult years. My brother Kobi made my mother very proud when he was elected deputy mayor of Jerusalem. My sister made her proud when she got a an advanced university degree, finishing cum laude, and I could not have given my mother a better present than having her come to the Knesset to witness my swearing-in as a minister.'

Moshe Kahlon was the chair of the Knesset committee that investigated bank fees during 2007. The committee, which determined that the number of bank charges must be reduced, laid the groundwork for the fee reforms presented to the public by bank supervisor Rony Hizkiyahu in July 2008.

Frequently during the committee's sessions, Kahlon turned to Hizkiyahu, his former neighbor, and urged him to join the effort. 'When I meet Moshe, we first of all talk about the street and the neighborhood,' Hizkiyahu says today. 'Obviously there is a basic sympathy among people who were raised in the same place. We come from different specializations but it?s always nice to be updated.'

Recently Hizkiyahu picked a fight with the Bank Hapoalim chairman Dan Dankner, who came from a wealthy family in Atlit, which is just a bit up the coast from Givat Olga. Nor was Shari Arison, the bank?s majority shareholder, a child of the transit camps. The fact that Amalya Zarka, deputy director general for personnel at HOT, is Kahlon's sister, raises the possibility of a conflict of interests. It is not yet clear how that problem will be solved.

'I never took advantage of my street contacts,' says Kahlon the contractor. 'We are wealthy people and have enough of our own. I met Rony on business when he managed a bank, but fortunately I did not need any favors, despite the family connections on my wife?s side. Nor did I need anything from Moshe. There is no help, but there is a favorable disposition. It's nice to know that these good people come from the same street.'