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Where Israelis resort to swopping Red for Black

Israeli visitors Uri and Pnina Bar-el at sculpture of shofar in the city of Varna commemorating the rescue of Bulgarian Jewry. Photos & Story: Lydia Aisenberg

Because of the sheer volume and influence of after-army Israeli backpackers traveling around the globe, Hebrew speakers can be found among local folks living in many far away places in the world.

However, Bulgaria is not remote. I must admit that upon leaving a hotel in the resort of Golden Sands, Varna, I double checked the sight of a bright yellow taxi with 'I speak Ivrit' in block Hebrew letters stretched across the bonnet and underneath in Arabic, 'Salam'.

The non-Jewish 39 year-old driver Miro Slavantonov has never visited Israel but speaks Ivrit more fluently than many immigrants in Israel decades after making aliyah.

"I am one of the recognized taxis attached to the Golden Sands International Hotel and the forecourt is my station. A large percentage of the International Hotel guests are Jewish and Arab Israelis and many hire me, often for a full day or more, to visit various attractions or take them to the city. Over the years I have become a sort of driver-guide and Israelis pass on my name and mobile number to others about to visit," explained Miro, commenting that his English was better than his Ivrit! When asked about Arabic, he grinned and said he only knew 'Salam' but has been known to drive and guide non-English speaking Arab citizens of Israel in Hebrew.

Israeli groups at the airport are in the hands of three or four Hebrew speakers, none of whom are Jewish. Badar, a Galilean Bedouin, is married to a Bulgarian lady and lives in Varna and Bulgarian Matzuko worked in Israel for seven years in construction. The writer and other travel companions boarded Matzuko's bus. By the time of arrival at the hotel there was not one person on the bus who didn't think, after a 20-minute long commentary, that Matzuko (?) was not Israeli not just because of the language and type of advice he gave but also his sharp sense of Israeli style humor.

The guides work with the Israeli founded Prestige Tour & Travel, a company with a desk in the vast foyer of the International Hotel. Gad Helerman from Tel Aviv is the founder and general manager of the company handling thousands of Israelis visiting Bulgaria every year. He works closely with a number of Golden Sands, Varna hotels, having succeeded in closing excellent terms for his fellow countrymen and the same in Burgas. Helerman divides his time between Varna and Israel.

"Last winter I ran a course in spoken Hebrew for the tourist trade workers, most of whom live in the city of Varna and commute to work at the Golden Sands resort. Ninety Bulgarians signed up for the course," proudly explained Gad who for many years also ran a similar tour operation for Israelis visiting Spain.

Not being their first visit to Varna, many of the Israelis in the hotel knew Gad well; the slapping on the back and "Mah nishma?" heard again and again upon arrival proved his popularity.

One couple from central Israel explained they had been to here a number of times before. They enjoyed the atmosphere, the friendliness of the local people, the breakfasts and evening meals and … the casino. "We work hard, our children have grown up and left home and four or five days here in this atmosphere really relaxes us. We would spend a great deal more if we went to Eilat and that is so ridiculous don't you think?"

Varna and Burgas are for many Israeli short break seekers almost a home away from home with just a 2-hour flight in between. The 2012 bombing of a bus full of Israelis at Burgas airport in which six died and many more injured has not deterred the intrepid Israeli travelers from visiting Burgas, Varna, and the capital Sofia. A number of Israeli guests, however, did mention that they had been frequent visitors to Turkey in the past but after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when nine Turks died in a clash with IDF while trying to break the blockage on Gaza and leading to the subsequent chilling of relations between Israel and Turkey, they discovered Bulgaria and were not planning returning to Turkey in the near future.

The 200-hotel tourist resort of Golden Sands is a 20-minute drive from Varna – the 3rd largest city in Bulgaria – and 25 minutes from Varna Airport. It offers kilometers of golden beach and lives up to the name sporting very active casinos – imagine those who say goodbye to their gold.

Unlike other large groups of tourists at Varna, like the German, British, or Russian, the Israelis are not much seen lounging in the sun by sea or pool – after all they do have quite enough of that back home. The Israelis tend to spend the daytime visiting sites within a few hours' journey from Varna, or the city itself and in the evenings stroll around the hundreds of stalls and eateries abundant wherever one might be. Many can be found at night battling with one-armed bandit slot machines or sitting around a roulette or poker table in a casino, that of the International Hotel apparently Israeli owned. 

Hebrew speaking Bulgarian taxi-driver Miro Slavantonov outside the hotel in Varna

Travelling with Israeli friends who somewhat struggle with explanations in English, the sight of Miro's 'I speak Ivrit' sign on the bonnet of his taxi parked outside the hotel in the early morning made their day … and the next as he was booked and excelled in both his choice of places to visit and excellent historical, geographical and political knowledge. Like many Bulgarians, he is hesitant to speak about the 'old days' although a number of massive Soviet-style memorials on the hillsides in the outskirts of Varna city encourage visitors to ask. Unattractive blocks of flats that seem never ending in their length and ugliness are a stark reminder of the Communist influence and many of the city's buildings are somewhat dilapidated but attempts to renovate are underway.

Proudly sitting on a marble pedestal outside the Varna Museum of Archeaology, a large sculpture of a shofar catches not the ear but the eye. Dedicated last year, the plaque under the sculpture reads: "With appreciation to the people of Bulgaria for our salvation in the Holocaust; the Jews of Varna."

The first Jews who settled in Varna - a port city - at the beginning of the 19th century were merchants and craftsmen and as the industry grew many turned to export. Jews served in the Bulgarian army in the 1885 war with Serbia and some Jewish women also served as nurses. 

Gad Helerman and Hebrew language board explaining sites and sights to visit

Chabad recently opened a new center in Varna and Gad Helerman's assessment of the Varna kehilla was around 250. "There were 300 people at the Seder Pesach tables this year," he said. One of the managing staff of the International Hotel dining-room is actually a Bulgarian born Israeli whose parents made aliyah to Eilat when she was 7 years-old and later returned to Varna. She, however, remained in Israel and is now married with two small children.

"I am here for two months every summer as my parents want to spend quality time with their grandchildren. My husband comes from Eilat just for a few weeks and in those months there's a great deal of work here of course with the tourist season at its peak." The poor lady has to repeat her personal story to almost everybody as all the Israelis want to know how she speaks such good Hebrew.

A number of orthodox couples had made a few hours' journey from the Romanian border to the grave of a tzadik just on the other side of the Bulgarian-Romania divide, an emotional experience they spoke about in the hotel foyer while waiting for the bus to Varna airport for the return journey to Israel.

A fascinating conversation around that particular tzadik developed between the orthodox and mostly secular Israelis waiting for the bus and one's immediate thought was that they would probably never be having this conversation back home in Israel as their paths would rarely, if ever, have crossed. 



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Saturday, 24 February 2024

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