It’s Monday morning and two 83-year-olds are meeting for their weekly coffee.
Motke Berkowitz, or Berko, and Mohammed Einan have been friends for more than sixty years. That’s a feat in itself, but it’s not just that.
The pair met playing on a soccer team in 1954 or 1955 (they’re not quite sure); one man is Muslim, the other a Jew, and they live in neighboring villages in the Western Galilee.
Each week, Berko drives across the highway from Shavei Zion to the coastal village of Mazra’a. While his wife, Chava, shops for groceries in Faisal’s Supermarket, Berkowitz sits with Mahmood — as he calls Einan — sipping coffee in the second-floor food court. Outside the picture windows, in the distance, stretches the Mediterranean Sea.
Berkowitz and Einan played on Hapoel Nahariya’s soccer team in the 1950s and 1960s, when, for seven years, Berkowitz was the captain of the team.
He now walks with difficulty, using a metal walker, after two operations on his back. Einan says he isn’t in quite as good shape as he used to be, either.
Instead of running marathons — he won second place in the Sea of Galilee Tiberias Marathon in the Sixty-Plus category in 1995 — he has cut down on long distances, he said, “running only ten kilometers twice a week.”
Both men distinctly remember the goal that gave Hapoel Nahariya its national championship in 1957.
“Berko passed the ball to the shortest player on the team,” Einan said. “He headed the ball to score the winning goal.”
When Einan first joined the soccer team, he was the first and only Arab. At the time, he said, “Arabs didn’t play sports.”
He was studying in a program sponsored by Mapam, Israel’s United Workers Party, in which he lived on a nearby kibbutz and learned Hebrew, farming and sports. He liked soccer and during a friendly match between Mazra’a and Nahariya, the Nahariya coach asked Einan to join the team.
The only reason that Berkowitz even made the soccer team, playing forward and then center, was because he happened to bike over to the soccer field to watch his older brother, Katriel, who was already a player. From the sidelines, Berkowitz sprinted to retrieve the ball whenever it went out, kicking it back into the field, and the coach signed him up.
Berkowitz was born in 1935 in Transylvania, Romania, and as a little boy, fled the Nazis with his father and older brother. After the war, Berkowitz, then 13, left Europe in a clandestine boat mission with 15-year-old Katriel and other youngsters, headed for then-Palestine.
The British captured the boat and sent the youths to Cyprus, but they eventually reached their final destination. The two brothers attended a boarding school in central Israel, and then made their way north to Moshav Shavei Zion, then an agricultural cooperative.
In the beginning, Berkowitz said, he worked as a p’kak, a plug.
“I filled in holes in manpower in every job on the moshav,” he said. “I used to get up at three in the morning to milk cows and then bike to soccer practice.”
After his army service, he spent most of his years working in Shavei Zion’s farming branch, what he called the falcha, the Arab word for fields.
Einan, who was born in the same year, grew up in the Galilee village of Sheikh Danun, about ten kilometers from Mazra’a. His parents were farmers and although they could not read, he says, their seasonal fruit and vegetables “tasted a lot better than the sprayed produce today.” In fact, he still farms his father’s land in Sheikh Danun, growing olive trees, lemons and pomegranates.
Until the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, Einan attended a religious Muslim school. After the war, he went to live with his mother in the village of Mazra’a while his father stayed in Sheihk Danun with his second wife. Then Mapam selected Einan and other Arab youths to participate in a seminar program that would groom them to become leaders in their respective villages. The hope was, he said, to work for peace.
“But the years passed and nobody has brought us any closer to hope or light,” he said. To support his family, Einan drove a taxi and continued to stay in shape. “If government leaders played sports, they could have put a stamp on a peace deal a long time ago.”
“Sports brings people together,” Berkowitz agreed. “I felt a connection to Mahmood as soon as he joined the team and I have felt it ever since.”
At the coffee shop, the men talk occasionally about politics, but mostly about sports. Some of their teammates have died; others have moved away. Every now and then, Berkowitz will try to organize a get-together for the team. But Berkowitz and Einan are the only ones who attend their weekly meetings where they reminisce about their past, and discuss the everyday happenings in their somewhat parallel lives.
Einan and his wife, Heediyah, have eight children, fifteen grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. Berkowitz and Chava have three children, seven grandchildren, and think they will soon be expecting their first great-grandchild.
When Berkowitz’s children were small, he and Chava used to take them on hikes in the fields near Mazra’a, and then stop to visit Einan’s house on the way back. Historically, the two communities have always had good relations. But the fields have given way to houses, and their children have all grown.
These days, the only hike Berkowitz can do is on Saturday morning when he and Chava make their way slowly down the street to the local synagogue. Across the road, in addition to praying five times a day, Einan goes to the mosque on Friday mornings. He says he follows the same routine as before he runs: he warms up before he begins, saying prayers before prayers. Doctors want to prescribe him medications, but he takes nothing. Sports, he believes, is his medicine.
At their food court table, neighbors and friends sometimes join them. The owner of the supermarket, Faisal Aslan, often stops by to shake their hands and say hello. After a while, her shopping done, Chava came upstairs to get Motke. He and his old friend said goodbye to one another until the following week.
“Ours has always been a pure friendship,” Berkowitz said.
“We believed that if we played soccer together we could live in peace,” Einan said. “I still believe that if Arabs and Jews work together, this country could be the pearl of the Middle East.”