In a normal year, Israeli neighborhoods bustle with joyful excitement as the High Holy Days approach. People run in and out of local stores, stocking up on ingredients for large family meals, shopping for new outfits and picking up gift baskets to present to their hosts.
But there was little joy or excitement in the air as small businesses in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana – which recently turned "red" because of its high number of COVID-19 cases – began their preparations for the Jewish new year under the cloud of Friday’s impending lockdown.
On Ostrovsky Street last Monday, local grocer Itzik Hen and family members were busy stocking shelves at their mom-and-pop store ahead of the holiday rush. On the TV screen in a corner, the news broadcast featured reports on the impending United Arab Emirates/Bahrain-Israel peace accord ceremony in Washington. But they and their customers – all wearing masks – had little interest in their country’s diplomatic achievement.
They glanced up at the screen only when the news anchor began discussing the news that was turning their lives upside down: the three-week lockdown that will encompass the entire holiday period. In one fell swoop, plans for festive gatherings and holiday excursions had disappeared as suddenly and completely as they had ahead of Passover last March.
“I don’t think there was any other way,” said Hen in a resigned tone. “Israelis just don’t know how to follow the rules.” His stock boy agreed with a fatalistic nod. “There’s no choice.”
Hen’s store is something of an international lab experiment when it comes to compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing to combat COVID-19: Ra’anana is a mecca for immigrants from Europe, North America, Australia and other parts of the world – and his store is located a block away from an immigrant absorption center.
From his perspective, the fact that Israel was the first country whose second wave of infection was serious enough to trigger a second lockdown represented not only a failure of the decision-making of its leaders, but the lack of compliance and discipline by its own citizens.
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“The Americans, the French, all of the immigrants – from the beginning they’ve been wearing their masks, waiting in line. They’re fine; they listen and follow rules,” said Hen, himself a full-fledged Israeli of Moroccan descent. “But Israelis don’t believe what’s happening, or they don’t care. They don’t listen to their government, to their leaders or to me – they don’t listen to anyone. Why? I suppose it’s because they don’t have any faith in anyone.”
Hen feels lucky compared to the florist, sundry shops and manicure parlors around him. Since grocery stores are considered vital businesses, his store will remain open during the lockdown. His pre-Rosh Hashanah customers were buying extra food from him as they prepared for the lockdown as well as holidays, and he does a brisk business in deliveries.
The situation was different and the mood far gloomier across the street at the family-run toy and stationery store, which has provided toys, books and school supplies to the neighborhood for decades. His kippa tilted to the side of his head, Michael Colp, 67, worked the cash register as his wife, Haia, helped locate schoolbooks for the children who had excitedly begun school less than two weeks ago – but now were returning home as schools were being closed for at least three weeks.
“It’s stupid and it’s scandalous,” Colp said of the Netanyahu government’s decision to return to a national lockdown. “The government should be closing down the cities where there are high rates of infection, not destroying the whole economy.
“We’re doing this now because it’s convenient timing for Bibi [Netanyahu], and only for him. We’re serving him, he’s not serving us,” he added angrily. “I’m right wing and Orthodox, but this is a corrupt man who only understands tricks and manipulation. None of these politicians, including Bibi, are fighting for people. All they care about is keeping their seats in parliament, protecting their own interests. It’s all corrupt and rotten to the core.”
Unlike larger stores or businesses run by younger, more tech-savvy entrepreneurs, Colp’s store has no website. Now, as in March, the best they can manage is a handwritten sign on the front of the store with their phone number, offering emergency deliveries of puzzles, craft kits or board games.
Their income during lockdown will drop to zero – “and we haven’t seen a shekel in compensation from the government,” Colp said. Meanwhile, his expenses – rent, water, electricity and municipal taxes – have remained the same.
“Chutzpah,” he fumed. “It’s basically anarchy here. I feel like this country is being miserably unfair. We small business owners have no lobby, no voice in the Knesset. The government has an antagonistic attitude toward us, as if we’re all thieves trying to cheat them. Their goal is always to deny us money, not to help us.”
When the lockdown was mooted last week, some business owners and associations threatened noncompliance, saying they would remain open failing any kind of substantial compensation by the government.
Despite his frustration, Colp said he won’t be disobeying the shutdown orders – simply because he can’t afford to. “I’ll be closed and every other small business in Ra’anana will be as well. None of us are going to be able to pay fines of thousands of shekels handed to us every day. What would be in that for me? It would be a stupid move.”
‘It isn’t worth it’
A block away, Paul Hershkovich anxiously paced the tiny Techno Bike store, on Ben Gurion Street, as he argued with a friend who had come to convince him to close up the shop he has operated for 18 years.
Hershkovich has been in the bike business even long, 22 years. He’s weathered everything from e-commerce to the debut of electric bikes and scooters, and is a respected name in bicycle maintenance – his customers seek him out from neighboring cities. By now, he explained, he knows that bike sales have a familiar pattern: Sales slump during Israel’s short winter season, when rain and cold reduce the number of people interested in purchasing new bikes. As spring arrives, business picks up and continues briskly through summer vacations, both in sales and repairs.
Then comes the real time for profits: in and around the autumn Jewish holidays, particularly Yom Kippur, when Israel’s streets and highways empty and secular adults and children delight in riding freely through the streets.
Between rent, taxes and utilities, he said, surviving as a small business in an affluent city like Ra’anana was already challenging. The pre-Passover lockdown was a blow to his first high season, and this second blow on the High Holy Days, he added, may prove fatal. He’s often sorely tempted to take his friend’s advice, close up shop, and take a job at someone else’s store and work freelance in bicycle maintenance, he admitted.
As an independent businessman, he said, he’s lost so much income that he can’t afford to put his 10-month-old daughter in preschool. “And with her home, my wife can’t go out and work.”
Hershkovich continued: “I’m continually on the phone with the bank, with my landlord, trying to hold it together. My ego doesn’t want me to give up this place, give up being my own boss, lose everything I’ve built and go work for someone else. And what am I going to do with all of this?” he asked, gesturing to rows of bikes outside and thousands of shekels-worth of merchandise – helmets, bike locks and other accessories – lining his walls for the Yom Kippur customers who will never come.
His friend lectured him that it’s a move he has to make: “Look at yourself! You’re stressed out! You’re risking your health. It isn’t worth it.”
Hershkovich said his frustration with the government isn’t colored by partisanship. “Right, left, pro-Bibi, anti-Bibi” – none of it matters to me,” he said. “All I know is that the government has money, and none of it is getting to the businesses like mine that need help. They take and take and take. All we do is pay taxes to this government, and when we need them to give and help us out, they aren’t there.”
Lightning striking twice
The seasonal timing of the second lockdown also came as a blow to Daniel Sitbon, owner of the Les Parisiennes boutique on Ahuza Street (Ra’anana’s main drag). The 54-year-old father of five opened the small elegant store 11 years ago, a few years after he immigrated from France.
“Holidays are our busy season,” he said. “Back in February, we imported our whole Passover collection from Paris. The store was full of beautiful clothes, and then the lockdown came and nobody could buy them. Now, once again, we invested and brought in collections for the High Holy Days. I don’t understand why, if this measure had to be done, it wasn’t done a month or two months ago – in the summer, when business slows down anyway. But we’ve now gotten hit twice in our busy season.”
All the businesses Haaretz spoke to agreed that the city’s cafés and restaurants have been the hardest-hit sector.
In a case of deeply unfortunate timing, Gabi Gluck, 37, opened the doors to his new café, Caya, on Sunday – just as the country’s leaders officially approved the coronavirus lockdown.
Caya was the embodiment of a dream the South African immigrant had six years ago during a visit back home to Johannesburg, after he stepped into a specialty espresso bar and immediately knew this was the kind of business he wanted to build.
So, after years as a coffee “hobbyist,” he decided to take the plunge. “Last year I said to myself, If I don’t do it now, I never will,” he recalled. He studied barista courses, searched for the perfect location and signed the lease on the spot on Borochov Street late last year. Extensive renovations began in January, then were halted during the first lockdown, and further complicated by electrical problems over the summer. Addressing them was hampered by the fact the Israel Electric Company was working a limited schedule due to COVID-19.
When he heard about the new lockdown, Gluck said he’d been “crossing his fingers” that the government would at least allow take-out service and local customers could come to the door and buy coffee to go. The next day, though, those hopes were crushed when the government announced their decision that only deliveries would be permitted – “and you can’t exactly deliver coffee,” he observed.
The name Caya derives from an African term for “home,” he explained, and his goal was to create a space where people would feel comfortable and at home.
He’s now looking forward to the time when customers can come in and sit with their laptops without worrying about wearing masks or how many other customers are in the room.
“I know I’ll be fine. This will end, it’ll be over someday and we’ll survive,” he said, looking around the beautifully designed space with an air of determined optimism. “I’m in too deep to give up. I’ve invested money and, more important than that, blood, sweat and tears in this place.”