Every morning for the past 15 years, my father has sat at his usual corner table at Café HaMeshulash on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. He is the first to arrive when the place opens at quarter to eight. In the summer, he always drinks two cappuccinos and a soda. In the winter, the soda becomes a mug of ginger, lemon, and honey tea. My father wears round glasses and shirts with holes, reads a battered old copy of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, listens to David Bowie, John Coltrane, or Debussy, and writes on his laptop. He is a professor of philosophy at the university.
The café is only a five-minute walk from Spinoza Street, with its gnarled old ficus trees and pale Bauhaus buildings, where Kafka’s literary estate was kept hidden for years in an apartment filled with cats. Next door to the café on Dizengoff Street is a tiny, crowded lamp shop run by Moshe—blind in one eye from a work accident—who makes lamps and shades for Israel’s elite. Next to this was once a cookware store called Sir HaSirim (The Pot of Pots), because the name in Hebrew rhymes with Shir HaShirim, the biblical Song of Solomon. But a few years ago this pot store was replaced by a brightly lit ice-cream parlor. Across the street, there is a dusty lingerie shop run by 80-year-old Miriam. And there are two rival juice stands, decorated with hanging baskets of oranges and pomelos, along with a crowded seafood restaurant, with its perpetual smell of grilled octopus.
My father is one of many regulars at the café on Dizengoff Street, customers who have been meeting there for years. They’ve seen waiters and waitresses come and go, sometimes even to achieve fame on shows such as Shtisel. As a teenager, I also worked at HaMeshulash for several months. It’s quite possible that I was the worst waiter in the history of the café, but I got the chance to meet some colorful characters. On Thursdays, there is the parliament of old men, former civilian weapons manufacturers for the military, and on Fridays, there is a group of pensioners who used to work at the electricity company. There are the two 90-year-old architects dressed in white, with white-cloth shoes and white socks, who meet on Shabbat. There is the tarot-reading couple dressed in black with shaved heads, who are never satisfied with the texture and consistency of the tehina served on the side of their Israeli breakfast and keep sending it back to the kitchen. Finally, there is Yaakov, the happiest lawyer in the Middle East, who brings white jacarandas to all the waitresses and every morning calls out: “Life is beautiful!” He’s never voted for the Knesset, but once in the municipality elections he wrote a love letter to his wife and slipped it into the ballot box.
My father will, as ever, be sitting at his usual corner table, sipping his cappuccino and reading Walter Benjamin.
The owner of the café is Natan, a fan of Maccabi Kabilio Yaffo, which is one of the worst football teams in Israel. Natan calls himself a “schnitzel superman,” not to mention being a self-proclaimed guardian of civilization against pretentious boutique whisky, organic salmon, and aged wine. In the middle of Dizengoff, one of the trendiest streets in town, he laments, he still serves simple food: shakshuka, couscous, schnitzel, and mashed potatoes. Behind the bar, he keeps a huge plastic bag filled with cheap toys from the shekel store (a magic invisible pen, Passover-themed stickers, glow-in-the-dark jelly) to give out to children who come to the café with their parents. But Natan is also working on a side project: a script for a television series about two SS officers who adopt Jewish identities and board a ship to Palestine at the end of the Second World War. He knows the plot and actors from just about every movie and TV series in the world. In fact, to block out the neon lights of the neighboring ice-cream parlor, he put up a poster of his hero, Al Swearengen—the pimp and brothel owner from Deadwood—in the window right next to my father’s corner table.
The café is filled with Elvis memorabilia. Every once in a while, Natan hosts an Elvis Night. Elvis impersonators, wearing big white belts and pompadour wigs, come on those evenings to sing “Suspicious Minds,” swivel their hips, and shake their rubber legs.
One of the regular performers is Herzl, a well-known impersonator of the King of Rock and Roll. One year on Elvis Night, Herzl lost his white Elvis belt, with its plastic golden eagle buckle, at the café after a late night of binge-drinking and off-key singing. The next morning when he came back to the café, wig askew, to try to retrieve it, Herzl was told his precious belt was gone, and that a different Elvis impersonator had come by earlier to claim it. With his suspicious mind, Herzl didn’t quite believe what he was told; he accused Natan of stealing his belt, and he called the police. The investigator assigned to the case of Herzl’s missing Elvis belt had the unlikely yet perhaps fitting name of Zion. Now it was Herzl (named, of course, for Theodor Herzl, the father of modern-day Zionism) who was asking Zion to help him. When Natan talked to Detective Zion, he joked: “Herzl’s dreaming again, Zion. Yalla, come down to the café and arrest me if you believe him.”
The case remains to this day unsolved. But perhaps one day Natan will make a movie out of it: The Mysterious Case of Israeli Elvis’s Missing Belt. It may or may not make it to the big screen. Either way, my father will, as ever, be sitting at his usual corner table, sipping his cappuccino and reading Walter Benjamin. The lights will turn on in the lamp shop, half-blind Moshe will start tinkering with a lampshade, 80-year-old Miriam will open up the lingerie store and sit on her rickety wooden stool, and the morning regulars will begin to arrive at Café HaMeshulash.
This article was commissioned by Abigail Struhl.