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My new hometown: Haifa, a mixed-up love story.

IMG_00003904 Nearly two years ago, I narrowed down my personal Top 3 “places to live in Israel.”  To refresh your memory, those choices were Karmiel, Ma’alot, and Nahariya.

Quit laughing.

Then came our pilot trip, a year ago, when we came home having decided “for sure” – Karmiel.  Our new Israeli home had a name and it was a beautiful one.

Okay, quit laughing.  Again.

I still think it is a beautiful name… and a beautiful city, with a lot of what we were looking for.  But here we are nonetheless.

In case it isn’t clear, we’re not in Karmiel. 

We’re nowhere near Karmiel.  Nope, we’re in Haifa and it looks like we’ll be staying here for the foreseeable future.

To me, this is a great big “huh???”

What the heck am I doing in a city I knew nothing about before we came to Israel, other than that it wasn’t Tel Aviv or Yerushalayim??? 

If you’d asked me two years ago for a fact about Haifa, I probably couldn’t have come up with a single one.  Maybe, maybe I would have remembered that the Baha’i gardens are here.  I wouldn’t have known if it started with a “h” or a “ch.”

So here it is:  חֵיפָה. 

  • The first consonant is “ch” as in “I’ve got something yuchhhy stuck in my throat.” 
  • The first vowel is actually “ey” as in “prey.” 
  • Which means nearly everybody pronounces it wrong.

Say it:  “chey” “fa”.  The origins of the name aren’t clear – it could come from the word “חפה” (chafa, a cover or shield, because of the mountain that “covers” the city) or a short form of “חוֹף יָפֶה” (chof yafe, which means beautiful beach), or from somewhere unknown.

Of course, when I say “we’re in Haifa,” I mean… technically speaking.

Technically, Kiryat Shmuel is part of Haifa, though I’m not sure there is a solid contiguous connection, because we’re actually about half an hour away from what anybody sane would consider Haifa, namely, the big green sparkly mountain that I’m growing increasingly fond of.

The big green sparkly mountain off in the distance, a considerable distance away.

In contrast, here is flat, tiny Kiryat Shmuel:

Here is “beautiful downtown Kiryat Shmuel,” right across from the Central Shul:

Here is the most exciting thing that ever happened in Kiryat Shmuel:

(translated news report:  “driver in his twenties, apparently lost control of his private car, went tonight (Wednesday) into a hat shop in Kiryat Shmuel Shapira Street”)

(note:  this is right across from our house!)

So that’s Kiryat Shmuel.

Still – due to some bureaucratic fluke, our apartment is technically in Haifa, and that’s where I have to go if I want to do something like register my kids in school, like I did last week for Gavriel Zev.  Naomi Rivka will continue in her Kiryat Yam school, which we’re very happy with, for the rest of the year.

I probably should have remembered my mother saying Haifa was beautiful. 

IMG_00003898She must have seen only the good bits; as a former British oil refinery and port town, there are plenty of not-so-good bits around here as well.  She must have seen the green, mountainy parts, and maybe skipped the bits that look like a giant used car lot – slash – car tire factory.

IMG_00003897It’s meaningless to say Haifa is a city of contrasts, because what city isn’t?  But still – there are contrasts. 

Between the nice green parts and the falling-down parts.   (This caved-in formerly-residential dwelling has a sign above it saying “parking forbidden – private.”)

Between the Jewish parts and the not-so Jewish parts (rambling down the street and encountering groups of Arab schoolchildren).

IMG_00003899Between the parts that feel familiar (big office towers) and the parts that feel foreign (this wreck of a building with a winter rose blooming out front).  

Oh, yeah, and the port.  What a big crazy deal THAT is.

You can see the port cranes in the distance (on the left) here – behind a different wrecked old building and a nice new office building.


When buildings collapse here, it seems like they just leave them and go build somewhere else.

As I said, our Haifa address is sort of just a technicality, but having grown up in a suburb of a big city, it feels very familiar to me, this living one comfortable rapid-transit ride away from the hustle and bustle (and from what I consider the country’s most depressing shuk, or market).

I’ve also been wondering, because of the seeming randomness of our ending up here… 

Is this the best place in Israel that we could have picked?

Answer:  I can’t answer that.  It’s an impossible question.

Was Toronto the best place in Canada for our family?  Maybe, maybe not.  We didn’t “pick” Toronto, it just happened to be where we were, and it’s most likely that even my grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t pick Toronto but were simply sent there, by relatives or government officials or Fate.

We liked it there, in Toronto – dare I say, we loved it there?  It’s a great city.  But was it the BEST?

We had a tough time on our pilot trip because, everywhere we went, everybody told us what was great about where they lived.   Everybody we met loved where they lived; they honestly believed they lived in the BEST place, and many of them thought we should pick their place, too, because it was simply the BEST.

And in the end, we picked none of them.

We picked this kinda-smelly rinky-dink third-rate town (literally, a distant third after Tel Aviv).  And I think we’re starting to like it.

We may indeed have found ourselves in the best possible place… for us, for now.

Last night, coming home by train from the south, I enjoyed the sight that always welcomes us these days when we’re on our way home:  the famous evergreen mountain, Mount Carmel, covered in magical lights, winking and welcoming me – weirdly – home.

There’s an old Hebrew song called “the evergreen mountain,” about Mount Carmel – specifically, its forest. 

Two years ago, when I was in Canada and the Carmel Forest was on fire, the deadliest fire in Israel’s history, which destroyed perhaps half the forest area, I wouldn’t say I didn’t care… but I didn’t take it personally. 

Today, and probably forever, it’s personal.  I care about this evergreen mountain; I’ve started to love the lights, and even the weird rambling wreck of a city in whose shadows I live and work and play every day.

Here’s the song:

Here are a few of the words:

פקחתי את עיני, היה אז חודש שבט,
ראיתי מעלי ציפור קטנה אחת
ותכלת השמיים וענן יחיד
וראיתי -
את ההר הירוק תמיד.

ההר הירוק כל ימות השנה,
אני עוד חולם ושואל
לנשום רוחות יך כבראשונה,
לשכב בצילך כרמל.

Thanks, Google Translate!

I opened my eyes, it was then the month of Shevat,
I saw above me one little bird
And the blue sky and single cloud
And I saw -
The ever-green mountain.

Green Mountain all year round,
I still dream and ask,
To breathe your winds as they were before,
To lie in your shadow, Carmel.

To lie in your shadow, Carmel.


  1. So WHY did you pick Kiryat Shmuel/Haifa? ;)

  2. That is another post. :-)
    Part serendipity... part - the joy of landing in an all-dati neighbourhood.
    Like I said, another post. It's in my head but hasn't been written yet.


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