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Letter from Israel

Vacation in Netanya

Looking down to the Mediterranean from Netanya (Abigail Klein Leichman)
Looking down to the Mediterranean from Netanya (Abigail Klein Leichman)

Just before the High Holidays, Steve and I squeezed in a short getaway to Netanya.

We chose Netanya because it checked all our boxes: It’s on the Mediterranean, it’s reachable by public transportation, and it’s got plenty of kosher restaurants. We hadn’t been there since the early 1980s, and that hardly counts.

This is the David Tower Hotel, where we stayed in Netanya. (Abigail Klein Leichman)

Sight unseen, we booked a room at the David Tower Hotel. That’s toward the northern part of the city, near the famous beach elevator. Netanya sits on a cliff above the sea, so you’ve got to descend by either stairs or elevator to reach the beach, which stretches along nearly nine miles of coastline.

On our short walk from the bus to the hotel, we quickly saw that downtown northern Netanya isn’t as swanky as we’d expected. But just as quickly, we noted that its charm lies in its Parisian feel: The streets are lined with cafés, street-food joints, juice stands, ice cream shops, and bakeries, all fronted by lots of shaded sidewalk seating areas.

A high school girl who was walking by snapped this picture of Abigail and
Steve Leichman in downtown Netanya.

And on this regular weekday, the tables and chairs were packed with people of all ages, sitting with friends over a bite to eat in the warm September weather.

This shouldn’t have been surprising, given that Netanya — Israel’s seventh largest city, with approximately 221,000 residents — is a popular aliyah destination for French Jews. Most of the shopkeepers we spoke to were French. We even found a grocery store that sells only French products. There also are many residents of Russian descent and a variety of English-speaking émigrés.

The Park Hotel, the scene of a 2002 suicide bombing, is on the right. (Abigail Klein Leichman)

As its name suggests, the David Tower is tall, fitting right into the cityscape dominated by high-rises. Our room had a terrace with a perfect sea view.

Across the street to the right, we spotted a chilling landmark: the Park Hotel, the scene of a horrific suicide bombing on the first night of Passover in 2002. Among the 30 people murdered was Forough Naimi, the mother of Moshe Naimi of Closter, and Mr. Naimi’s father, Nosrat, was among the 140 people who were injured. I interviewed the Naimi family for the Jewish Standard in 2008, when the mastermind behind the attack had been apprehended. The hotel is still open, but it’s seen better days.

Netanya residents set up a makeshift memorial to Major Bar Falach. (Abigail Klein Leichman)

There was a much fresher grief in the air on the day we arrived. Netanya’s own Major Bar Falach, 30, had been killed in the line of duty in Jenin early that morning. By evening, the sidewalk outside a pub down the street from our hotel was filled with memorial candles paying tribute to the fallen officer.

Yet this is Israel, where tragedy is acknowledged deeply and responded to with a refusal to let sorrow stop the daily routine of life.

At 7:30 in the evening, a surfer hauls his board home and the kiddie carousel is shuttered for the night on the Netanya beach promenade. (Abigail Klein Leichman)

On the beach promenade we saw dogwalkers and skateboarders, elderly people being pushed in wheelchairs and children being pushed in strollers. Carousel horses pranced around to tinkly music as parents lined up to buy tickets. Even after dark, surfers rode the waves and teenagers worked up a sweat on the basketball courts.

A young woman toting a surfboard remarked to her male companion that she had to go to bed early so that she could get to synagogue in time for slichot — the pre-Rosh Hashanah penitentiary prayers — at dawn the next morning.

“Big Sister” made its way from Washington, D.C., to Netanya. (Abigail Klein Leichman)

This, too, is Israel.

The landscaped promenade is dotted with gazebos, fountains, and sculptures. A sweet work of art titled “Big Sister” was sculpted by Jersey boy J. Seward Johnson Jr., the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson. The plaque says it was a gift from the Public Art Trust in Washington, D.C.

A gazebo along the beach promenade in Netanya offers a view of the sea.

Toward evening, we perused the menus at a few beachside restaurants. The choices were abundant, but as a plant-based eater, I was hoping to find one with certification from the local rabbinate as well as the Vegan Friendly organization.

At a pretty Moroccan eatery across from our hotel, the owners were very welcoming, but the cuisine was not, at least for me. Calf brains in chili sauce, anyone? Tongue with mushrooms? Stuffed spleen? I handed back the menu with a weak smile.

The sun sets over the
Mediterranean on a September
evening in Netanya. (Abigail Klein Leichman)

We hit the jackpot when we came across HaYekev — “The Winery” — sporting both certifications. We sat outside enjoying a delicious dinner as we watched the brilliant orange sun sink below the horizon.

In the morning, we chatted with a Christian couple from Texas at breakfast. “Have a blessed day,” they wished us as we left the dining area.

And we certainly did, as we strolled through the throngs sitting at the sidewalk cafés and watched the surfers return to the waves on another sunny day in Netanya.

Abigail Klein Leichman and her husband, Steve Leichman, moved to the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim in 2007, after 20 years in Teaneck. She is a correspondent for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News.

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