Agadir Hotel, July 2006
When is a restaurant more than a restaurant?
I never would have thought writing a review would take me down memory lane.
My affinity for Agadir Burger stretches back to 2006 when my family in Israel met up with me at the Agadir Hotel on my free night in Tel Aviv during my first trip as a Taglit-Birthright Israel chaparon (madrich).
I myself had been a participant on the trip two years prior in 2004 and it was a formative, dare I say life changing experience. It galvanized my relationship with my Judaism or at least made me comfortable with it, connected me with a Jewish community I never felt close to, and even changed the way I felt about myself in the broader context of the world and the people around me. And yes, it strengthen my love for Israel. So I was very fortunate two years later to be a chaperone on a trip with Canada Israel Experience. I saw it as an opportunity to impart some of my appreciation for the program, while being a witness to the participant’s experience.
While I would end up leading several more trips over the years and eventually move to Israel myself and live in Tel Aviv, this first trip in 2006 will always hold a special place in my heart.
Free Night in Tel Aviv
Taglit-Birthright Israel over the years has changed, but back in 2006 it was a simpler time. Near the end of our ten day trip was a free night in Tel Aviv, which gave participants an opportunity to explore the city like responsible young adults. (You can probably understand why that rule had changed over time – giving young people freedom in a city that never sleeps can be frightful to Jewish mothers and community donors everywhere.)
But this small respite also gave me the chance to have a bit of free time myself. A couple of hours to myself away from the constant questions most tourists have when they are in Israel: What do I wear? Will it be hot? What does that word in Hebrew mean? Do I need sunscreen? Why is it so hot? (Clothes, yes, bathroom, yes, and because.)
I have a lot of family living in Israel and it was rare for me to get to the Middle-East to see them. When I did manage to go to Israel I was always welcomed to stay with my cousin Anat. Their places is a peaceful quite home, close to the beach and a great place to relax. I have developed a close bond with my cousin Anat. She is my father’s niece, but because of the age difference (almost 20 years) some people confuse her for my aunt. (My father is 17 years younger then his older brother, Anat’s father.)
Given the nature of the Birthright trips, I called Anat only a day or two prior to see if we could meet up. Since they live about an hour north of Tel Aviv it might not have worked out. But the thing about Anat is she has this remarkable ability to get stuff done. That night she corralled the family – her husband and two daughters living at home into their Toyota Rav4 and made their way down to Tel Aviv. As it happened her eldest son Thom (my second cousin, if we are being technical) was at home in Tel Aviv from the Air Force that weekend. She told me to meet the whole family at this cool burger place at the Namal Tel Aviv.
That place is the Agadir Hotel.
The Agadir Hotel
The family was already seated inside when I arrived. Giving out all the hugs to the family I sat and joined them. Doron, the father, was busy chatting away with Amit and Ori, trying to get them to settled down and decide on a meal. Thom sat between his sisters quietly smiling, looking at the menu. I sat beside Anat on the other side of the large hightop rectangular wood table witnessing the frenzy. Anat as usual had her ear-to-ear smile welcoming me with open arms.
It’s easy to chat with Anat. She speaks a million miles an hour when excited, and flows easily between English and Hebrew. My Hebrew comprehension is fine but English was and still is my preferred language. I chat briefly with Thom in English, asking him just a few questions, but it’s almost impossible to hear myself between the squeals and chatter of the two girls. Amit was 17 at the time, and typical to her teenage self, full of moxy. Ori was ten or eleven years old and like all younger siblings she just wanted some attention. Doron manages to distract the two long enough for me to get a few sentences in with Thom. Anyway Thom, for what it was worth seemed like a man of few words. A young man, but measured and matured for his age. I think he enjoyed the riot of being surrounded by his family.
I quickly catch up with Anat, and she must have expressed three or four times how happy she was to have me back in Israel. Everyone at the table orders a burger, except Amit who orders a salad, and if I recall there was some drama with what Ori ordered – it certainly was not a burger. I had never been to Agadir, so I was duly impressed by the cornucopia of available toppings. Toppings back in Toronto, Canada from my experience were the usual vegetable selection: tomato, cheese, onions, lettuce, pickles, and grilled mushrooms if you were fancy.
Here at Agadir there was eggplant and egg, two things I had never seen. I ordered both. I felt like a king. A burger king.
I tried talking to Amir and Ori, but language aside I never understand the mind of young girls. I had two brothers myself, and I felt I needed Thom to interpret what they were saying. I’ve known Amit since she was born in Toronto, but she left when she was three and fourteen years later she was a completely different person. Ori, born in Israel I had met a couple of times when she was just a baby. And while this may be contentious to say Ori was one of the cutest babies you could have ever met, large eyes, golden hair and a beautiful cherub like smile, with the most pinch-able cheeks..
The food arrives and some drama occurs about Ori wanting another Coca-Cola to drink. I stare at my burger in awe as it arrives freshly grilled, the scent of mouth watering meat lingering in the air. The eggplant resting on the patty with a beautifully fried egg on top. Its golden dome reflecting the light from the fixtures above. I pick up my fork and gently run one of its tines across the precious yolk. I’m careful not to apply too much pressure to the delicate egg.
As I stare at my food I realize it takes so little to throw things off balance. Between chaos and peace is just a matter of time and pressure. It’s strange how everything in life strikes a fine balance.
On Arlozarov Street
Dinner ends, and we all leave Agadir. I still have time so Anat insists I go with Thom to his apartment on Arlozarov. “Jump on his scooter,” she assures me. “Don’t be chicken Alex,” Thom eggs me on. I abhor motorcycles and two-wheeled vehicles, but he assures me I won’t get killed. I trust him enough to do it, he is after all a pilot in the air force. He flies Apache helicopters, what’s a scooter got that he hasn’t already managed? He plops a helmet on my head and I hold onto the metal handles at the back of the seat harder then I have ever held anything in my life. Thom zips casually down the streets. He isn’t going fast he tells me later, but I could feel my life passing.
We get to his apartment, and as I step off the banana-yellow scooter, remove the helmet, I am rubbing the indentations out of my hands. “Don’t worry, the red will go away,” Thom chuckles.
We head up to his spacious apartment. There is Thom’s girlfriend Ronnie sharing a glass of wine with his fellow pilots Elad and Ilan (*names have been changed.) Ronnie embraces Thom welcoming him home in Hebrew. Along with Ilan, Ronnie’s Hebrew is limited. Elad was raised in the US for a period of time so his English is excellent. “We were just talking about the crazy stuff going on up North,” Elad tells me. “Those crazy Hezbollah with the rockets, they don’t know what they are getting themselves into.” He explains the rockets that they use, some more sophisticated than what their brothers use in Gaza – the mortars that mix shrapnel and sugar as an accelerant. I ask naive questions any Canadian tourist would, and Elad leans in a bit, holding his oversized glass of wine and says “I’ll tell you something but you didn’t hear it from me.” And he begins to discuss the various different weapons his US built Apache is equipped with. “It’s to ensure we get the right target.” Elad describes a few more technical aspects of what is loaded on the helicopter, much to my amazement. I think he enjoys the captive audience.
But once his story ends Thom expresses his disgust with the impending war with Hezbollah. In a calm but assure voice he knows Israel will prevail and they will have to do what must be done. For Thom, he never liked conflict, the fighting, and you could see in his eyes a yearning for peace and quiet. That being said, he was a staunch believer in Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, and Thom was a pilot because Israel needed it. Everyone in the room – Ronnie, Elad and Ilan – kept their heads down nodding. No one wanted war. No one in the room wanted to fight.
Thom wasn’t never the war-hungry cowboy, despite his training in Texas in simulators for the Apache. I remember visiting my cousins for the summer for Thom’s bar mitzvah. Even then at the tender age of thirteen Thom was a wise child. We spoke of the middle-east conflict even then and he taught me a valuable perspective: “Alex, Israel as a modern country is not even sixty years old. Look at the United States when they first started – the Independence war and a civil war. They are over 200 years old. We are young, there is a long history here but in modern terms we are just children. Give us more time and we will have peace. I hope.”
Thom sat by Ronnie, the young lovers folding into one on the couch. I had a glass of wine at this point and was casually sipping it, while I looked out the window. Thom lived in a spacious apartment with Ilan, their view of the city was genuinely beautiful – quiet rooftops, lit by the silent moon. Ilan, Elad and Ronnie were deep in debate, in full Hebrew. Ronnie asked if I wanted a refill of my wine but I politely declined in Hebrew “lo, todah.” Thom came up to me a minute later and asked if everything was okay. “Absolutely. It’s really nice to hear Hebrew. I understand some of it, but it’s okay. It’s just nice to be here.”
“If you want we can switch to English?” Thom offered. I assured him it was fine. I liked listening. I had known Thom for most of his childhood years, walking him home from school, babysitting him afterwards. My younger brother Tamir and I horsed around with him while we waited for his parents to pick him up from our house. We would play with plastic hockey sticks on the driveway and once Thom whacked a neighbourhood bully in the head because he was picking a fight with us. We hid Thom in the closest when the police arrived. Lucky for us nothing serious came of it. After all he was only eight at the time.
It was slowly approaching midnight and I excused myself. I asked Thom to direct me back to my hotel on Ben Yehuda, but Thom insisted he walk me. “Don’t be silly, it’s nothing,” he said. I had no idea it was only a twenty minute walk at most. It took me until I lived there to realize how close his old apartment was to the Deborah Hotel.
I was grateful to the walk home. Despite how small the city of Tel Aviv I would have gotten lost. It gave me a chance to catch up with him about his life, his girlfriend Ronnie, his roommate Ilan, how things were with his sisters, if he thinks he’ll be going into Lebanon because of the conflict. It’s amazing when you think about it, I was talking to my 23 year old cousin about decisions I would never have to make. I’ll be taking some Canadian tourists home to the Toronto airport in a day, and Thom will be flying into Lebanon with his co-pilot behind enemy lines.
We got close to the Deborah hotel and I told him I could take it from here, but he stuck with me until we arrived at the front doors. I held my digital camera in my hand the entire evening but never took a single photo. In a moment I looked around to see if anyone could take a picture of the two of us. It had been years since we shared a photograph, but in 2006 this was before Iphones, selfies, and selfie-sticks. I looked at my digital camera in my hand with embarrassment. Even if I wanted to snap a photo of us, I never thought much if I didn’t.
“See you later,” I said as I quickly hugged him good night. “Lilah Tov!”
“You too,” he replied.
“It was good seeing you, and happy early birthday!” I said as I walked back up towards the entrance of the hotel. “And be careful,” I offered, trying to sound responsible.
“Thanks. And don’t worry I will.”
That was the last time I saw him.
Back Home in Toronto
I was only home for a week when I got a call at work from my brother Tamir with the news that an Apache helicopter went down. I told him to double check, there was a transport helicopter that went down the day before. Anat assured me it was not Thom. He called a few minutes later. Confirmed.
I rushed to the bathroom to clear the tears welling in my eyes. I lost a contact wiping my eyes. I walked briskly to my boss’ office and interrupted his meeting with a terse “my cousin’s just died, I’m going home.” I rushed out the door. I received a cell call from my mother who was crying out loud. I picked her up at the hospital she worked out, and asked her to drive. It was hard to concentrate with only one seeing eye. We arrived at Thom’s grandmother’s condo. Family had already made its way over and Doron, a pilot for El Al was in Toronto at the time. He walked quickly passed me towards the living room. He took one look at me and said “you don’t know how lucky you are.”
I called my boss from the condo and apologized for leaving so abruptly, and asked if I could cash in all my vacation to go back to Israel to be with family. I felt silly asking, since I was just there, but the special circumstances warranted it. He understood, and looking back they never took away my vacation days given the circumstances. I went home and booked a expensive last minute ticket to Israel. No one in my family could join me, my mother even help pay for the ticket. I knew I had to be there for Anat, and my mother thought I could represent the family. I left that night or the next day with Doron, the grandparents and Thom’s Uncle Anat’s brother Uval.
A Different Type of Israel Experience
It was a long flight. Much longer than the 12 hours were in reality. The rest of the family was in first class and I curled up in economy. The entire staff at ELAL was aware of what happened to Doron’s son, and when we landed the entire family including myself were rushed off the plane. A crowd of ELAL employees greeted Doron had towncars waiting to take us north to his home. The cars arrived to a crowded cul-de-sac, Anat stood there flanked by family and friends, neighbours and supporters. Doron and Anat hugged, and he was quickly whisked away by friends towards the house. Anat greeted her brother, and parents and then saw me. And despite the circumstances, she was smiling right at me.
“I’m so happy you are here. Now you know what it means to be a real Israeli.”
I wish I could tell you I remember shiva at their house. It was crowded. I recall the funeral briefly and understood it was an empty plain casket draped in an Israeli flag. I remember Ronnie crying, I remember Elad and Ilan standing stoically barely holding back their tears. I remember the sea of thousands of faces paying their respects, the different colored uniforms, the blues, whites, military green, and sandy browns. I remember Amit and Ori crying uncontrollably. I remember Anat throwing herself on to the wooden box tearing away at the flag. I remember a lot of tears. I remember all the tears.
I stayed ten days. A different type of trip to Israel, but no less transformative.
Each July the family celebrates his birthday. Amit recorded a song written by a friend soon after Thom’s death. The song “A Million Stars” become somewhat of an anthem for the 2006 war, playing over and over on Israeli Radio. As the years went on, Amit starred in some television shows and film. She recently released another single from an album she is working on, while completing acting school. She is something of a celebrity in Israel. It’s strange how life gives only when it takes something away.
Ori was fairly young when it happened, but her closeness to Thom never wavered. She has a tattoo on her wrist with his name as a reminder.
Over the years I’m still amazed at the two of them. Their resiliency with the tragedy. For Anat and Doron my heart breaks. You never really recover from losing a child. They have managed to do their best. Celebrating his memory with his friends every year on his birthday and on Yom HaZikaron (Remembrance Day).
I guess when I look back at the dozens of times I came back to Israel it was never the same.
In all my time in Tel Aviv, almost two years, I only ventured to the Agadir hotel twice to meet up with friends, but we always sat outside. Once though, I walked inside to gather the servers attention I looked over at the rectangular table to the right where my family and I sat enjoying dinner back in 2006. It was empty, so I walked over and traced my hands around the edges of the table. My hands rested on the cool wooden corner, and I pulled down to feel its weight. It laid their unmoved the lights from the fixtures above shining brightly uninterrupted. Sometimes I wish life itself was so durable. But with everything in this world, there is always that fine balance.
This July 18th my cousin Thom would have celebrated his 32nd birthday. I know I never got to say this to you but I love you, and miss you. And I think about you ever day.