Discovering Israel Along Its Second-longest Highway

The Israeli dream – or nightmare – is found on both sides of Highway 40, which begins at a mall and ends at a kibbutz. Part one in a series

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Hod Hasharon.
Hod Hasharon.Credit: Alex Levac

Israel’s second-longest highway begins at a mall and ends at a kibbutz. Or, like Israel’s history, maybe we should say that it begins at a kibbutz and ends at a mall? The country’s second-longest highway begins at a McDonald’s and ends in a pipe farm where algae are grown. It begins in a city whose name is mentioned by the historian Josephus and ends at a kibbutz named for the second wife of the biblical patriarch Abraham. Between Kfar Sava and Kibbutz Ketura, Israel’s second-longest highway spans 300 kilometers, from north to south. In Argentina, by comparison, a highway that has the same number – 40 – is 5,023 kilometers long.

Our Highway 40 traverses interchanges and junctions, crosses a dozen cities and any number of towns, villages, kibbutzim, moshavim, suburbs and army bases. There’s nothing majestic or grand about the highway – no songs have been written in its praise, no heroic exploits revolve around it – it’s only a scorched, scarred asphalt strip, a congested patchwork that begins in the Sharon District and ends in the Arava desert, traversing half the length of Israel, from its central region to the south. Living on both sides of this road is the Israel of the new Hebrew year of 5778, with all its good and bad, beauty and squalor, distress and jubilation.

The northern extreme of the highway hides behind a thin row of eucalyptus trees that were spared uprooting, a mute monument to another era in the Sharon area. The G Kfar Sava Center features the whole range of brand names seen at every mall, only here they peep out from behind a grove of trees. A few hundred meters further south, the next mall, Oshiland, appears, and it’s by no means the last on the road. A few more kilometers away is the Sharonim mall. Mall after mall, here and there in the land of the malls. Oshiland has a mini-park on its roof – and a miniature version of the single-state solution at its gates: Some of the security guards are Arabs.

The mini-park at the Oshiland mall.Credit: Alex Levac

But it was a Jewish guard who sprinted after us on foot until the intersection, perspiring and furious, reporting into his two-way radio about the receding danger. Why did you take pictures, he demanded. There would be many incidents like this along the way. Israelis are afraid of cameras, for some reason. Because they have something to hide?

The northernmost interchange on Highway 40 bears the name of the first community along the route: Elishama. Founded in 1951 by immigrants from Libya, a workers’ moshav, or cooperative farming community, it morphed into a suburb, like most of the moshavim in the area.

Agriculture doesn’t live here anymore, and the proprietor of the local grocery store explains why: “It’s because the water costs as much as Coca-Cola.” As in every moshav, the wooden signpost in front of each house tells the story of the family and their plot of land. Home after home, the Atar family, Tayar after Tayar, Megidish, Megidish and yet another Megidish – parents and succeeding generations of family, in a sequence of homes and lots.

Elishama. Morphed into a suburb.Credit: Alex Levac

But behind the homes lies the story of the lingering death of farming in this country. Most of the houses are well kept, but in their backyards lie the remnants: an abandoned barn, a neglected field, a milking station where nothing is milked anymore, the rusting hulk of a tractor, the skeleton of a bus. Ghost farms. A feeling of sadness is inescapable, looking at these apparitions. And equally inescapable is the thought of the original owners of this land – the land of the Palestinian village of Biyar Adas – who fled for their lives in 1948 and were never allowed to return. Where are they, where are their descendants?

The last time the virtually anonymous Elishama made the news was actually this past May: a burglary attempt that went wrong, a man wearing tefillin who was stabbed, “Itbah al-Yahud” (Slaughter the Jews) that was written on the wall or not. The streets are named for flowers, of course, standard among this genre of community. It’s early afternoon, a feeling of tranquility hangs over the moshav, children are attending after-school activities, parents are returning from the day’s work and the tops of the remaining cypresses are swaying gently in the warm breeze. Life was different here once. The handsome homes attest to attainment of a certain success.

The homes on Assirei Tzion Street, approaching Hanesi’im, which runs parallel to Hasargel and is perpendicular to Ahava in the neighboring town of Hod Hasharon, are also well tended. (The street names translate, respectively, as Prisoners of Zion, Presidents, Yardstick and Love.) But here they take the form of concrete monsters, towers sprouting up a dozen stories and more – all rising with unnerving frequency from what were once the orchards of the Jewish farming community of Magdiel, of blessed memory.

There’s hardly any difference between the skeletons of the towers now being built and those that are already occupied. There are no signs of life in either, the balconies are empty, the architecture appallingly uniform. Nor are there many signs of life on what look like plastic streets. Long and deserted. Dense columns of high-rises, and below them a street. The only signs of human habitation are a few mothers and children in the local playground, which looks as synthetic as everything else. Even the cars are hidden away here in underground parking lots.

Gindi-Zeitouni real-estate developers are building Presidents Heights, Chen and Itai Gindi’s projects are on Hanesi’im and Golda Meir streets. And the land is filled with Gindi. How do we know? Every building bears a billboard that you can’t miss, in the spirit of these narcissistic times, as though they’re signed works of art.

This is where the Israeli dream lives. An apartment in a luxury tower, in a new, fully planned neighborhood, in a town in the Sharon District, smack in the center of the country, which projects quality of life and greenness. The downside of the dream: dense concrete monsters, identical high-rises made possible by grotesque exploitation of building rights, no stores, no people in the streets, no life. From these variations on “little boxes [that] all look just the same” – in the words of the Malvina Reynolds song popularized by Pete Seeger – thousands of Israelis set forth every morning on their congested way to work.

Quality of life, they call it. In the evening they’ll return, again amid endless traffic jams, to these generic and depressing bedroom communities, made for sleeping only, that lack even a hint of character. Rishon Letzion West, Hod Hasharon East, this is the story of the ‘burbs. This is what quality of life looks like in Israel 2017; its inhabitants are “upgrading their housing.” They’ve moved here, most of them, from the meaner streets of Hod Hasharon and environs, from smaller apartments. A mother who’s pushing a stroller tells us that she moved from Herzl St. to Golda Meir and is satisfied.

The sculpture in Hod Hasharon. Credit: Alex Levac

The wing of an Israel Air Force plane protrudes from the foot of one of the high-rise buildings, a sort of environmental sculpture with the inevitable “Swifter than eagles” motto. Also still standing below the towers are a few houses from Magdiel of yore, one-story homes with red-tile roofs and purple bougainvillea that envelops them tenderly, fruit trees in the yards, all evoking the intense character that once existed here, before the arrival of quality of life and the seekers of upgraded and up-scale housing. Ten synthetic-looking orange trees comprise the “community orchard” the municipality planted for the residents’ benefit, a monument to the orchards of Magdiel that were uprooted to erect the towers. Two angry young men suddenly leap out from Daniel and Yardena’s Egalitarian Preschool, and again we are asked, “Why are you taking pictures? Keep moving.”

“You’re Hanoch Daum,” someone says to me at Ephraim Katzir, corner of Golda Meir, mistaking me for the comic and journalist. At the end of the street that emerges from this horror show is the central synagogue of Magdiel, built in 1930. A dozen middle-class families from Poland purchased the land in 1924 and built Magdiel and the synagogue, which also served as a “security center and place of hiding,” as a plaque states. Turns out that Hamas is not the first to hide in the heart of a civilian population. A signal and communications station has been established on the roof. Shawarma in the square and Top Cellular, now opposite the synagogue, which is still functioning.

Hod Hasharon means “the glory of the Sharon,” but not much glory is in evidence.

Grapes and Jesus

Southward ho. A stop at the entrance to Moshav Bnei Atarot is unavoidable. There was a stand here that sold grapes when I was a boy. My father never missed a chance to stop there after he finally purchased his first car, when he was already in his fifties. I can see him now, parking next to the stand, just where I stopped this week, getting out of the car, examining the grapes, maybe tasting one, loading a carton into the trunk of the NSU Prinz 1000 and bringing it home. He would soak them in a purple alkaline solution to disinfect them, and in the evening sit on the balcony to eat them. They were the best grapes of his life. Now there’s the Villager, a shop with fruit and vegetables from the moshav. The salesman says he heard there used to be a stand selling grapes here.

A few kilometers before that – a messianic revelation. A water fountain with a sign above it reading, “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again.” The Gospel According to John. Welcome to Baptist Village, abutting the source of the Yarkon River: a fenced-off compound in whose center is Israel’s best-known regulation baseball field. The baseball games in the recent Maccabiah Games were held here, and the local league also uses this field. Handsome cabins are all around, but the surrounding fields are now stubble. No one lives in Baptist Village anymore. It was founded in the 1950s, at a time when non-Jews were permitted to establish a settlement in this country. Now it’s a guest house and a center for various activities and day camps run by Baptists and other groups. The site is well tended, suffused by quiet; its house of worship is called Bethel Chapel.

A group of young people are loading office equipment onto a van in the shade of the trees. Netivyah – the youth movement of the community of Messianic Jews – is moving its office to a more spacious building in the village. These young people, Messianic Jews and Netivyah staff, all did service in the Israel Defense Forces, most of them in elite units, and they resemble other, typical Israelis with their telltale army T-shirts.

Among the activities they organize for the Messianic community in Israel, which numbers some 20,000, they say, is an army preparatory course in which they train the youngsters physically and mentally for combat duty. Itzik was in the elite Egoz unit, Daniel in Intelligence, and their “boss” was in Orev, the Golani commando unit.

Joel Goldberg.Credit: Alex Levac

At the moment the boss, Joel Goldberg, is covered with white stains as he paints the walls of the office they’re leaving. He’s the founder of Netivyah. These people believe in Yeshua (Jesus), see themselves as Jews in national terms and Christians in spiritual terms, and they are well liked by evangelical Christians, which is why they’re here, in Baptist Village. In the eyes of observant Jews they’re worse than the devil. Affable and welcoming, the young people tell me that they did not encounter hostility during their army service.

Goldberg, who lives in Yad Hashmona, a community outside Jerusalem founded by Christians from Finland, tells us enthusiastically about the tenets of their community. They maintain that the purpose of every Jew is to believe in Yeshua, whom God sent to redeem the Jews and to die on the cross for their sins. Messianic Jews all understand that they don’t have the privilege of living in Israel as pacifists, explains Goldberg, so they serve in the army with no qualms, even though their faith rests on the values of compassion, tolerance and love. “Maybe we’re a little too polite at the checkpoints,” he says. But do they turn the other cheek there? Not likely.

Tolerance, compassion and love are definitely not the name of the game in Lod, the next city situated along Highway 40, after Petah Tikva. The route to the Old City, as politically mobilized Hebrew refers to the old Palestinian part of Lod, passes through Supply Corps Square, IDF Avenue, Golomb Street and Rabbi Herzog Street, all commemorating Jewish liberators of the city to one degree or another, on the way to the heart of the half-devastated and perpetually neglected casbah. During Id al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, earlier this month, the mayor of Lod, Yair Revivo, burst into a local mosque and demanded that the imam lower the volume of the amplification system. tried to stop the muezzin’s call to prayer. For its part, though, Abu Michel Restaurant doesn’t hesitate to hang photos of celebrities who have dined here, among them a defense minister, a chief of staff and a former Shin Bet security service director.

A clothes recycling bin in Moshav Sitria.Credit: Alex Levac

The offices of Lahav 433, the Israel Police’s crime-fighting umbrella organization, loom west of Highway 40. There are more Gindi Holdings towers to their east, in the direction of Ramle. In Moshav Sitria, Thai workers poke around in a bin of clothes intended for recycling, next to the grocery store.

Melancholic Kiryat Malakhi

A holiday-eve melancholy prevails on Rashi Street in Kiryat Malakhi. This is apparently the poorest street in the town, which is one of the poorest of the towns built in the 1950s to house Jewish immigrants from Arab countries. It has never managed to extricate itself from its original distress, in contrast to nearby Kiryat Gat, for example.

Kiryat Malakhi. Sparse grass, embittered residents.Credit: Alex Levac

The only sight more depressing than the depressing row houses is the additions made to them. The expanded parts are semi-piratical, ugly heaps. The municipality planted grass in one plot but not in the others; it renovated one section of the row of dwellings but not others, leaving the occupants even more embittered. There’s only one thing that makes them even angrier: the lack of another large refuse bin at the entrance to the neighborhood, which also lacks a name.

“This is the entrance to Kiryat Malakhi, and this is how it looks,” says the son of a cosmetician named Stella Baibtsiev from Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. Two weeks ago, he married a Tel Aviv girl in a banquet hall at Masmiya Junction, and they moved to a moshav in the center of the country, because there’s no way he was going to bring a woman from Tel Aviv to live here.

Two decrepit benches and splotches of sand between the homes, in some of whose front yards touching attempts at landscaping have been made. The tenant from the ground floor at 24B Rashi Street is growing verbena and locks the gate to his private paradise, to prevent anyone from stealing the herb. He’s also hung in the stairwell paintings that he says he finds every Passover, dumped in the street. Next to him someone is growing basil for use in the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat. Across the way the Ethiopians are growing their spices and seasonings. The Ethiopians are nice, the guy from the ground floor says, until they start cooking injera – he can’t stand the smell of their flatbread.

Yitzhak Shetrit from Kiryat Malakhi.Credit: Alex Levac

Yitzhak Shetrit, 79, from the next tenement, also suffers from odors. With him it’s the smell of food cooked by his Arab neighbors on the second floor. Arabs? “Nu – the blacks. I don’t know what to call them. Sudanese, Eritreans – Arabs. We’re looking to throw them out of here. They’re nice, but their cooking disgusts us. We’re hit with a terrible smell.”

The verbena grower, who is disabled and gets a stipend from the National Insurance Institute, has lived alone here for 56 years. It’s hard for him to talk and walk. He’s also afraid of elevators, so he objected to a development n evacuation-construction plan that called for the existing buildings to be torn down and new high-rises built in their place (including a new apartment for him). The street is half empty when we visit, he explains, because all the religious people have gone to Uman, in Ukraine, burial place of Rabbi Nachman from Bratslav, for Rosh Hashanah. “Maybe you have a woman you can introduce me to,” he asks finally.

The elderly Shetrit, who’s carrying two white shirts from dry cleaning that he’ll wear during the holiday, uses a cane and has a hard time getting to his third-floor apartment. Likewise Yekaterina Wassiker, from Dniepropetrovsk, on the Dnieper River in Ukraine. She asks us to carry her shopping cart up to the third floor. She had been sitting on a bench with a friend, while she waited for someone who could help. On the heights of the third floor, next to her door, a box filled with food products awaits her, from the charitable organization Latet (To Give).

Yekaterina Wassiker (left), in Kiryat Malakhi.Credit: Alex Levac

The cosmetician’s son complains that there’s nothing aesthetic about Kiryat Malakhi. Across the way, the Yemenites live in the detached homes. Shetrit is worried that winter is approaching and that no one has tarred the roofs of the expanded sections of the buildings, which always leak. All his life he’s worked in the animal-feed unit of the nearby religiously observant moshav Masuot Yitzhak. He came to Kiryat Malakhi in the wake of his wife.

Not far away is the home of Moshe Katsav, the former president and convicted rapist, on a fairly modest street, shuttered, its garden cultivated, a palm tree shooting up from it. In the Coffix discount café in the commercial center, a Likud activist – who says he left town because of the current mayor and because the Chabad movement has taken over Kiryat Malakhi – complains that from the time Katsav was first elected to the Knesset, he turned his back on the local party branch.

In the southern part of town a large, handsome neighborhood of two-story dwellings is now being built on the ruins of an army base; the real-estate developer who’s building Ovadia Yosef Street signs off with the Aramaic acronym for “with God’s help” on a billboard. The “Sum mer [sic] Institute” offers hair removal by laser, including two parts of the body for free.

“Swifter than eagles,” a monument in Kiryat Malakhi declares, just like in Hod Hasharon, 59 kilometers and a hundred worlds north of here.

A matzo oven in Komemiyut, a Hasidic moshav.Credit: Alex Levac

The next hallucination appeared soon enough: an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, man driving a forklift. Between Aluma and Komemiyut, between Kiryat Malakhi and Kiryat Gat – Aluma is an ultra-Orthodox community, and Komemiyut is a Hasidic moshav established by the young generation of Agudat Yisrael, a Haredi party. The homes of the moshav are blatantly uncultivated. There’s barely one garden among the yards of the old, modest, Jewish Agency-style homes, which have been neither renovated nor extended. Here, too, the remnants of defunct farming are scattered about. The fields were leased to an agricultural company that adheres to the rules of halakha (traditional religious law).

War against ‘hametz’

At the moshav’s entrance are a few structures and tin shacks, a bus frame and stacks of wood for heating. These are what constitute the well-known factory for specially supervised shmura matzos, and the work for next Pesach is already at its height.

The Industrial Revolution bypassed this small, colorful production hall. A stopwatch hangs from the neck of Yoel, the foreman, who uses a microphone to issue orders to the workers. He has to ensure that the process of preparing the dough doesn’t exceed 18 minutes. Every 18 minutes, the process has to stop and the matzos must be placed in a huge stone oven, whose red fire is fueled exclusively by the wood of olive trees. The matzos spend only a short time in the oven. The supervisor, who sits in a corner reading a sacred book, has to check the hands of each employee every 18 minutes, after they’ve washed them well, lest an iota of hametz (forbidden material) has clung to them. There’s also a female supervisor, of course, who checks the hands of the women employees. The line of workers waiting to have their palms checked every 18 minutes is one of the unforgettable sights we saw off Highway 40.

The matzo bakery in Komemiyut. Credit: Alex Levac

The women, from Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malakhi and environs – a few dozen in this pre-season period – all wear identical white cloaks and also head coverings. Foreman Yoel broadcasts his instructions: Table 2, faster; table 3, no talking. Wash your hands and enter. Take the dough and be quiet.

Signs on the walls tell visitors not to enter the production hall, “because your visit slows down production.” Before starting work, all employees must read out the declaration on the wall: “All that I shall do today in the matter of matzos I do in the name of matzos and mitzvot [commandments]. Guarding from leaven for the sake of as much as an olive’s worth of matzo.”

So it is written, so it must be read, every day anew.

Yoel, a member of the Amshinov Hasidic sect, was a turkey breeder for many years. He owned 1,500 to 3,000 birds and did all the work himself, without hired help. But eventually the relatively small scale of the business made it unprofitable, so he became the foreman of this matzo bakery, which has been here for some 60 years.

Two windows open opposite one another: from one, a heavily bearded man kneads flour in a metal bowl, and from the other a heavily bearded man pours water into the bowl. A third heavily bearded man sitting between them does the mixing and passes the dough to the row of women standing on both sides of the tables, who flatten the dough with rollers. It’s all done in 18 minutes, down to the second, with the aid of the old Cassio digital stopwatch that hangs around Yoel’s neck and which he looks at frequently, lest he be late.

Part 2 of this series will be published on Yom Kippur eve.


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