The Je Ne Sais Quoi of Netanya

Coastal city’s coffee shops are filled with life, set to the sound track of French music.

Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
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Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

"Netanya, the Israeli Riviera,” declare the signs at the entrance to the coastal city. And it’s true – Netanya is filled with tan and happy French people. Even though I am in Ha’atzma’ut Square in the center of the city at noon on a Wednesday, all the coffee shops are filled with life, set to the sound track of French music.

In many of the coffee houses the customers put tables together and create a salon of sorts.

Netanya “is the largest nursing home in the Middle East,” says one young man of French origins. “There is no place for us young people in the city. I used to wait on tables, but there was no money in it, since they sit all day with one coffee.”

The photographer and I pick a random table in a coffee shop, next to a table with four men and three women, most of them retirees. The life of the party is Shimon Tayeb, a 71-year-old retired salesman who speaks decent Hebrew. He is warm and friendly, and he immigrated to Israel twice. The first time was in 1967, after the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War, when he decided he must be here. “I am giving my life to Israel,” he says proudly.

Tayeb shows us a small spot on his arm. “Do you know what this is?” he asks, testing me. I confess that I don’t see anything and he explains that it is the spot where he was vaccinated when he was drafted.

But Tayeb had already served in the French army, and his aging mother did not want him to fight again. “She said, if you are a soldier again, I will die,” he says. He respected her wishes and moved to a kibbutz after basic training. He
studied Hebrew but moved back to France two years later, succumbing to his mother’s pressure. He didn’t make aliyah for the second time until 2008.

Since then he has been coming to this coffee shop, one minute away from the Mediterranean Sea, just about every morning. He sits with friends and his wife, Zipora, from 11 A.M. until 1 P.M. The remains of croissants and nuts are visible on the table.

Tayeb likes this coffee shop because of the quality of the croissants and the taste of the coffee, which remind him of what he used to eat and drink across the sea. One of the couples at the table lives half the year in Israel and the other half in France.

Tayeb is happy to talk to an Israeli journalist, although at first he is suspicious and asks to see a business card. But later, they take my picture to document the moment.

The friends at the table had been speaking about Ariel Sharon’s medical condition before I arrived, and of the high housing prices in the city.

“Today an apartment [in Netanya] costs the same as one in Cannes,” says Tayeb, showing me local real estate ads in a French paper.

He then explains to the photographer at length about the expensive operation he underwent, and accuses doctors of fraud. He lives nearby, and explains that many of the hundreds of thousands of French people who want to become Israelis are doing so to evade the new income taxes in France.

He contrasts this with his own aliyah, which he says was for Zionist reasons. “You know why it’s better here than in France?” he asks. “Because here it is our country.”

The je ne sais quoi of Netanya.

In Netanya. January 2, 2014.Credit: Daniel Bar On

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