'My Father Is anti-Zionist, but I Went Against the Flow: I Served in the IDF'

An ultra-Orthodox Israeli insists the Torah doesn't make things hard for him; a British 'three-day Jew' talks about the one trait he wants to learn from Israelis

Shlomo Golombek.
Tomer Appelbaum

Shlomo “Colombo” Golombek, 31, lives in Netivot; arriving from Kiev

Hello, can I ask what you did in Ukraine? Were you in Uman?

No. I’m involved in manufacturing ritual articles. I went there to see that the work being done there is being done according to halakha, Jewish law.

Ritual articles aren’t made in Israel?

They’re made in Ukraine, Turkey, China. My company, Melekhet Mahshevet, is based in Netivot. Until now we took items from others and put our name on them: prayer books, tallitot and atarot [prayer shawls and their decorative neckbands], mezuzah holders that are sold in Israel and all over the world. But now we’re developing our own products, and that’s why I went.

What product are you referring to?

I’ve brought a concept that didn’t exist here: a special tzitzit [the fringed ritual undergarment worn by Orthodox men], which will be available in Israel in another two months, God willing. Look: It’s like an undershirt, but open at the bottom with fasteners, and there’s a slit to insert the fringes and pockets for the tassels. Created by top designers. Half a year I’ve been working on this thing.

What do the fasteners do?

They’re on the sides in order to open the garment, because it has to be open to be a tzitzit and not a regular undershirt. Here, feel it; it’s fabric at the level of Delta [textiles], real quality.

Tomer (the photographer): Walla, it feels nice.

Tzitziot are generally not so comfortable, to this extent. This is 100 percent cotton. It has to feel good, because it’s closest to the body. I worked on this fabric for half a year so that it would be pleasant and not wrinkle. So you won’t be aware that you’re wearing a tzitzit. The stuff that’s been brought here until now is garbage. It’s not nice to say, but at some level the religiously observant world eats what’s set before it. I’m trying to teach them about quality. They’re used to ordinary bread, not sliced bread, and I’m actually ratcheting them up a notch.

Are there halakhic requirements for your garment?

It has to have a slit here in the middle that’s a minimum of 4.5 centimeters from the edges, and be mostly closed at the shoulders to be considered a tzitzit. I hope it’ll do well – I’ve worked hard to set a good price and be market-competitive.

You sound like a man with a mission.

It's difficult for people today, they get overheated. I want to make everything easy and fun. I make it easier for people to keep the tzitzit and the four-cornered garment, and everything I do, I do with religious sanctity.

Are things hard for you?

Only sometimes with the food on trips. You try to eat kosher food, but there’s not always enough time [to find it]. I’ve just come back from four days on the road. The conditions were impossible, and it was hard to find kosher food where I was in Ukraine, so I didn’t eat. In the end I found kosher fish, but it wasn’t good. It was spoiled, my stomach seized up for two days.

Is the integration of work and religion important for you?

It’s great for me to manufacture ritual articles. But I also do many other things. I help people. I think that spirituality is in everyone; everyone has his religion and spirituality.

Did you grow up in a religiously observant home?

I’m originally from Tiberias, from a very religious home. My father is a type of anti-Zionist, but I went against the flow. I preserved my ultra-Orthodoxy and did army service.

Wasn’t that hard for you in terms of kashrut?

The question is only how and in what situation. For example, certain dispensations are permitted even for eating non-kosher. Such as if a person needs insulin from a pig because it heals him. A great many things are permitted, but people don’t always know. Because I did army service, it’s easy for me to bridge between the worlds. My father was a closed person but allowed us to be open, to see the world, and that safeguarded me. I felt that I could be anything, that the Torah isn’t there to make things hard for me, that everything is allowed.

Ian Leigh.
Tomer Appelbaum

Ian Leigh, 41, lives in London and flying there

Hello, was this your first time in Israel?

No, I think that I’ve been here almost 20 times.

Really?

Really. In the next stage I think I’ll have to make aliyah. I even know a little Hebrew, like if I need to order a Goldstar [beer] or hafuch [café au lait]. I feel at home here.

What do you like about Israel?

I have a lot of friends here, warm weather and the fact that everyone is direct and says what they think. The English circle around instead of speaking directly.

Most of the English people I know aren’t crazy about that Israeli trait.

You learn how to cope with the Israelis. When you say “ani rotzeh,” you don’t really mean “I want” or “Give me,” but “I would like.” Israelis just translate things literally, and then it comes out “I want now!”

What do you do?

I’m a lawyer and deal in real estate. I work with Israelis who invest [abroad] and with people who invest in Israel.

Do you enjoy working with Israelis?

I think Israelis know what they’re doing in business, and they’re very direct. Sometimes when I tell them what my fee is, I have to explain to them that this business is not like in the Carmel [produce] market. You don’t go into a branch of Super-Pharm and say, “Ah, this costs 30 shekels? I’ll give you 15.” I think Israelis feel they have to bargain. When new clients call me, even before they say anything, I tell them, “If you’re calling to see whether there’s a discount on the fee, there isn’t.” Then the client says, “How did you know that’s why I called?” That’s part of the deal when you work with Israelis. You expect bargaining. The truth is, I wish I could do it more.

Where is it worth investing in real estate – Tel Aviv or London?

Tel Aviv is a bubble, because the French are pushing up the prices. In terms of real estate, London has been a nightmare since Brexit. People still aren’t sure whether it’s worth investing money there. But the pound sterling is now 20 percent lower. So it’s good for Israelis to invest in London now, or just go for a vacation. But still, Tel Aviv and London are both a very similar story.

In what way?

Property prices in London have risen astronomically in the past 20 years, and it’s very hard for people who want to live and work in the city. It’s known as “generation rent” – people who can’t afford to buy a place in London, only to rent. It’s very hard to buy an apartment in London, but if you work in town, where are you going to live? There are people who live in the city itself and it still takes them 90 minutes to get to work, each way.

Sounds familiar. Do you have an apartment of your own?

Yes, I bought a long enough time ago. In the first year I didn’t even have money for furniture, I had to wait until salaries were deposited in my account.

Are you originally from London?

I grew up in north London, which is like living east of the Ayalon [Freeway in Tel Aviv]. My family is Jewish; my father changed our name from Levy to Leigh in order to assimilate better. In the 1950s and ‘60s in London there was an effort to get into the labor market, and doing that made it easier to have a career. I’m what’s known as a “three-day Jew.”

Meaning?

Meaning that we attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. Maybe not even Pesach. I like going on those days, and it’s also good for business, because everyone takes their calling card and distributes it. In Israel I like going to Jerusalem and putting a small note in the Western Wall and then stopping at the Machneyuda restaurant.

There’s a branch in London now, isn’t there?

Everyone in London is now into Israeli food – The Palomar, Yotam Ottolenghi, Honey & Co.