A Northern Childhood

Not only is the cardiopulmonary tolerance of native Haifans more developed than average, all those stairs turn the city into a rare film location, a kind of Siena of the Jewish state.

Haifa is a very photogenic city. And not only because it's the most beautiful city in Israel and the only one whose homes have a fourth dimension - the "view." If you're lucky, your windows overlook Haifa Bay, including a port with ships in the left-hand corner; in the middle the winding Kishon River, which from a distance looks greenish-gray and doesn't stink at all; in the lower right-hand corner the white color of the oil refineries, and in the middle, highways and a few fields up to the top part of the picture, where there is a blurry mountain chain. They say that on a clear day you can even see Mount Hermon from there.

Avi Ofer

That's the view I could see daily from the kitchen balcony of my parents' three-and-a-half-room apartment plus hall. It was bright, had cross-ventilation from three directions,but no reinforced door or solar heater. The apartment where I grew up is located on a street whose name was changed from Shikun Ovdei Iria (Municipal Workers' Housing ) to Mitzpeh (Lookout ), after the lovely view that could be seen from it. Almost as beautiful as on Yefeh Nof (Beautiful View ) Street, which at the time was still called Panorama Street, as in the song by Haim Hefer. but Panorama was home to wealthy people and sexy girls, while on Mitzpeh there were ordinary daughters of municipal workers who were clearly not wealthy.

Maybe we could have gotten more out of the lovely view had the architect, for example, not decided to situate all the houses in the project so that their front balconies faced the street, while the service porches overlooked the wonderful landscape. Personally, I would certainly have enjoyed the view far more during my first 12 years had I only agreed to wear the glasses prescribed for me by the eye doctor. Only when I placed them on the bridge of my nose when no one was home to witness the disgrace of the "four-eyes," I discovered that the houses in the Neve Yosef neighborhood down in the wadi had straight walls and square windows, rather than oval ones, as I had thought until then.

Whatever the case, if I had had a talent for drawing, maybe I could have invented, during my pre-glasses/contact lenses period, a new genre of Haifa-Impressionist, maybe even Surrealist, landscape paintings, composed entirely of lines and dotted lines, spots and dots. But even Haifa's municipal artist, Gershon Knispel, would not have thought of painting Haifa in a Surrealist or Impressionist style, because there has never been anything in Haifa that is not simple, non-abstract realism, and sometimes even naturalism.

If you were less fortunate, the windows of your home overlooked an ordinary seascape (without ships ) or even, regrettably, ordinary forested hills. These landscapes could be seen from the most expensive homes on the Carmel as well as from the old homes on Hadar Hacarmel, from the Arab homes in the lower city, from the homes of the projects in Romema and Neve Shaanan and Ahuza, and even from the terrible railroad flats with multiple entrances that were built in the neighborhoods of the "evacuees" in the 1960s.

But it is not only because of the views that Haifa photographs beautifully. Haifa is a city of stairs. What makes it the most normal city in Israel (and in my opinion the most boring, but I haven't really checked the situation in Hadera, Afula or Netanya ) is the fact that all classes and nationalities and people of various religions who live in the city are connected by real stairs. Not only is the cardiopulmonary tolerance of native Haifans more developed than average as a result (though it's a shame that the pollution from the industrial plants is harmful to health ), all those stairs turn the city into a rare film location, a kind of Siena of the Jewish state, a wonderful place for shots of toy carriages tumbling downhill in the style of the film "Battleship Potemkin" or those adolescent films in which young people become breathless not only because of blossoming love and awakening sexuality (or vice versa ) but literally due to the tremendous aerobic effort involved in running up and down and back and forth in the wake of love.

Avi Nesher's new film, "Once I Was," exploits Haifa's stairs to the maximum. The truth is that I would have seen the film in any case, but what made viewing it so urgent was the fact that it is based on Amir Gutfreund's book "When Heroes Fly," which is set in Neve Shaanan. In the Yizraelia neighborhood, there is a school of the same name, headed in the book by a wonderful woman whose character is based on the real principal of that school - my mother, Hadassah Livneh, of blessed memory. On Shabbat I was seized by strong longings for my mother, and decided to go see the film.

How strange it was that three minutes after I had convinced Orna to join me for the film, my brother phoned from Canada and told me that he had just awakened (it was 9 A.M. in Canada ) from a dream in which the two of us had an apartment on Neve Shaanan Road. This was, after all, an amazing coincidence: How could my brother dream in distant Canada about me and my parents and Haifa just when I had decided to see the film?

Apart from excellent acting by the entire cast, the camera angles and the direction, I was somewhat disappointed by the film because for reasons unclear to me, the setting was moved from Neve Shaanan to somewhere on the Carmel, and of course there was no trace left of the Yizraelia School. But when I left the theater I recalled some advice to single women that I once read, maybe in a Hebrew book called "Your Beauty is in Your Hands" (in Hebrew ): to live in an apartment on a high floor in a building without an elevator. "So when your suitor arrives for the first time out of breath from the effort of climbing, he will make the mistake of thinking that he's breathless from the excitement aroused by your beauty."

Finally I understood why Haifa girls are known as the most beautiful in the country and why the women of Tel Aviv, aged 17 to 67, often complain about the difficulty of finding a partner. It's not only thatm, here, a well groomed man with a good physique is suspected of being gay. The problem is that Tel Aviv, where Gordon Street is considered an uphill climb, is a flat city. Instead of breathing hard, they simply perspire here. And I say: Turn off the Internet and the television, take yourself in hand and move to Haifa.