Toronto native Maccabi Haifa guard Simon Farine never had much of an opportunity to speak about the Holocaust with his paternal grandmother. Born in France, she escaped during the war to Israel, where she met his grandfather, a Turkish Jew who had come to pre-state Palestine. They married and had two children while living in Tel Aviv, one of whom was Farine’s father, before the family moved to Montreal.
“We only saw them on occasion,” said Farine, 25. “They [his grandparents] lived in Montreal and we lived in Toronto, and they were older when they later moved to Toronto to be close to us.”
So it was somewhat of a surprise for Farine when a recent tour of Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem — his first visit to a Holocaust museum — brought him face to face with a yellow star-shaped French Juif badge, similar to the one he knew his grandmother once wore (as did all Jews in Nazi-occupied territories).
“I was seeing the star that my grandmother would have been wearing, and she was able to get out of France,” remarked Farine. “When you see the pictures of what could have happened to her, you think how it would have changed my family.”
It was Farine’s first visit to Yad Vashem, although he’d wanted to come since his first trip to Israel in 2009 for the Maccabiah Games, when he captained the Canadian basketball team.
Farine has been living in Israel since last fall when he signed a two-year contract with Maccabi Haifa, but constant practices and training have kept him in Haifa most of the time. He got his first full tour of Yad Vashem a few weeks ago when he was asked to participate in an episode of “Inside Israeli Basketball,” a regionally-shown US sports network show.
“We kind of had to do the tour in small doses and it was rushed because we started late, and we were told not to ask questions requiring long answers,” he said, chuckling. “I’m not sure you need a camera crew following you around for this kind of visit, but we were still able to see every room and get the stats and facts. I’ll take my brother when he comes to visit.”
The seven-episode television series chronicles the season of the Maccabi Haifa basketball team, capturing the Israel of Maccabi Haifa’s North American players and Israeli teammates.
The upcoming fifth episode features Farine and his Israeli team captain Avi Ben Chimol, who also played tour guide for Farine in Caesarea, before the crew headed to Jerusalem and Yad Vashem.
“As the season’s gone on, the team’s gotten much closer, and that’s great,” said Farine, while lamenting the team’s losing streak. “The North Americans and Israelis spend a lot of time together.”
The team is owned by Florida businessman Jeffrey Rosen, who bought it in 2007, wanting to turn it into “Israel’s team for America.” With US tryouts held in Florida for the past four seasons, Rosen has hired 15 Jewish American players who have made aliya, including Farine, New Yorker Sylven Landesberg and former NCAA Division I guard Todd Lowenthal, who is playing for a second division team.
Several of the North American Jewish players have made aliya, changing their citizenship status to Israeli in order to help fulfill an Israel Basketball Association rule that requires at least two Israelis on the court at all times and a limit of four non-Israeli players per team. Given the shortage of skilled local players, turning to Jewish North American basketball players is a relatively easy loophole, given the number of talented — and Jewish — US basketball players who can become Israelis quite easily.
As for the Canadian Farine, he has found a lot to like about Haifa, even though he was told by many that Tel Aviv would be his go-to city. As for his Israeli acclimation, he’s been charmed by the unexpected.
“I didn’t realize how much things shut down on Shabbat and holidays, and how you notice the holidays taking place all around you,” he said. “In Toronto we’d go to a seder and then just go on, and here it seemed like the whole week was all about Passover.”
He still feels like a foreigner in Israel, which he believes has more to do with his lack of Hebrew than his 6’2 height, which is not particularly noticeable on the streets of Haifa.
At this point, though, it’s too early to tell if his grandmother’s refugee destination, and his father’s birthplace, will become his own permanent home.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I’m really enjoying living in Israel, and I’ve been here long enough to feel like Haifa is my home city.”