Some people are just unforgettable, Israelis perhaps even more so. Unique, eclectic, and at times, stubbornly quirky. Once a conversation begins, you may find a strange mix of a sharp, tough or even an offensive edge, yet with a remarkably kind and generous interior, if you can make it past the thorns. In Hebrew, there is a word for native-born Israelis who embody this. A sabra. An actual sabra, in Hebrew, refers to the prickly pear cactus. It grows in hot climates, is covered in a thick, rough skin with sharp spikes yet inside is a sweet, tangy and delicious fruit that is a favorite at the seasonal markets. This is also a wonderful description as well as a nationally used nickname of native-born Israelis. It’s difficult to spend much time in Israel before encountering a few sharp Sabras, first hand.
At the very beginning of the Israel Rising photo shoots, I needed some old photos of Eilat, Israel’s southern topical port on the northern tip of the Red Sea. While Eilat is the modern town, it has biblical roots called Ezion-Geber. Most significantly, the town dated back to King Solomon, to when he built a fleet of ships there (1 Kings 9:26). Once part of a thriving biblical kingdom, the unforgiving desert had taken over this area for centuries, until the early 1950s, when Israelis started to move back in. The transformation has been stunning and I wanted to include Eilat in the book. I thought a good place to start would be the Eilat museum.
15 minutes later, a tall man in his eighties unexpectedly walked into the museum for a meeting. His skin was a dark leathery tan, white wiry hair that made Doc Brown (from the movie “Back to the Future”) or Albert Einstein’s hair look stylish and sharp gaze that peered at us through his coke bottle thick glasses. He wore cheap flip flops, old tattered shorts and an open-collared shirt barely buttoned about his navel, exposing various colors of chest hair and a 70sesque thick gold chain. He looked more of a career stoner surf bum from days past than a museum curator arriving for a meeting. He gave not a care to the business phrase “dress to impress.” This was Avi.
After being mildly annoyed that the reluctant receptionist pointed us out, he turned to us and in a gravelly deep smoker’s voice, and hesitantly asked: “what may I do for you?” I introduced myself and quickly explained we were looking for old photos of the area that we planned to recreate for a photo book. After only hearing my first two sentences, he interrupted and offered his direct Israeli sabra opinion. “This is a very amateur book project. People don’t care about that. You need to connect it to something historical or even biblical for it to get people’s attention.” Sensing my photographer’s growing offense, I pushed back and explained that it was historical and biblically based and that we already had thousands of photos all over Israel from the late 1800s. He paused to listen for a moment. “Ok, call me this afternoon…” he coldly responded. And off he went, offering no phone number, time to call or how he could potentially help. After coaxing Avi’s less than helpful receptionist to give me his number, even though she heard him tell me to call, we at least had a semi-warm lead. Yet there was something about this crotchety old man that left me feeling like I actually needed to call.
My mid-afternoon follow-up phone call came with a short greeting and scattered driving directions to a side street house in an older part of Eilat. Still unsure of what exactly we were coming for, Avi answered the door wearing less that then our initial meeting - the same old tattered shorts and a cigarette. That’s it. With the warm and smiling hospitality of an old friend that contrasted with his apparent evil twin persona at the museum, he invited us into his home and his personal study. After serving us some cold drinks on a hot day, we were soon looking with stunned amazement at one of Israel’s largest personal photo archives on 2 widescreens from 3 fat servers below his desk. At well over 500,000 photos, some dating back to the late 1800s, we could have spent a week reviewing all he had. “What do you need? Any town in Israel… Do you want old military pictures? The Ottoman army? The Palmach? The British? Fighters from New Zealand? The Egyptians or Syrians? Is there a specific time frame or photographer’s work that you need?” He had everything, perfectly organized into folders and willingly offered it all. His archives were overwhelming; I didn’t know where to begin.
What I had come hoping for was 3-4 good pictures of Eilat from the 1950s and was now staring at a rich historical photo collection from the late 1800’s- 1960s that most Israeli museums don’t have access to.
As we poured over some of these old photos, Avi knew every detail of every picture. “This used to be a British police station that the town wanted to bulldoze. But my friends and I wouldn’t let them. Now it’s a treasured landmark that they act like THEY preserved!”, he mused, while shaking his finger at the screen. As we clicked through a few more, he began to reminisce about a different shot, “On this particular morning in the 1960s, the clouds over those mountains were just perfect. I had to run back to the house, just for my camera! I’ve never seen it like that since.” This was a collection by a man, a talented photographer in his own right, who valued every angle and subject as historical documentation of his nation. “I’ll give you whatever you want. Just tell me what you need”, he offered in his ruggedly deep voice between cigarette drags. “If later you want an old photo recreated that you missed, let me know. I’ll go shoot it for you and you can have the credit.” I would have never guessed that this was the same cold and edgy museum curator that blew us off earlier that day. A few hours later, we left his home with warm handshakes and smiles, wishes of luck with the book project and all the pictures we needed. Still wondering what I just experienced, I felt honored to spend time with someone who was the living history of Israel. Avi had not only witnessed the changes we were documenting but had captured some of the photos himself for future generations to see.
This was how the Israel Rising photo shoots began on Day 1. What a way to begin! It turned out to be a sign of the seemingly divine favor ahead, something we would later experience with all the sabras we “accidentally” bumped into. If you can get past the tough skin and sharp barbs on the outside, an amazingly sweet, kind and generous heart awaits on the inside. As with any sabra, once you are in, you are in. And you’ll be in with some of the most delicious and tangy people you’ll find anywhere.
Doug Hershey is the author of Israel Rising, conference speaker and founder of Ezra Adventures, an Israel focused travel and education company. From years of hands-on experience, cultivating unique relationships in Israel and a love for history, Doug provides a rare perspective on the connection between the Jewish Scriptures and present day Israel. When he is not in Israel, he is speaking in churches and synagogues about the prophesied restoration of Israel.