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For Americans in Israel, a Home Away from Home

December 20, 2012 5:25 pm 0 comments

Inside "Mike's Place" in Jerusalem. Photo: Deborah Fineblum Raub.

JERUSALEM—”The guy is an animal!” shouts one of the white-shirted guys from Mir Yeshiva, as he gestures at the helmeted jock on the screen above his head. And coming from this fan, the word “animal” has about it a tone of grudging respect.

For these normally studious young men, Jerusalem’s “Mike’s Place” sports bar means Sunday nights away from the Talmud (sorry, Mom and Dad) and, just a few weeks back, away from the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza.

Walking down the steps at Mike’s Place on bustling Jaffa Road, you might as well be in Baltimore, Boston or Boise.

“This is our only connection to home,” says Mir student Tuli Tyberg, an 18-year-old a long way from his Brooklyn beginnings. “It’s a great outlet for American guys in yeshiva.”

It was precisely because of this connection to home that, a few weeks ago, when the Gaza conflict was on everyone’s mind in Israel, Mike’s Place felt safe. “During the war it was a little scary and it was kind of nice to come here,” adds Tyberg’s pal Yechiel Perr who hails from Far Rockaway, NY.

But not everyone who packs into Mike’s Place on football night is a yeshiva guy. Brooklyn’s Efrayim Goldberg, for instance, was in town visiting his son, who is learning in Israel for the year. “This place is pure nostalgia,” he grins after ordering his burrito. “It’s comforting, and the kind of place you wouldn’t mind your son coming to.”

For the young, however, there is one very distinct difference from life back home: in Israel, 18—not 21—is the legal drinking age.

It’s a privilege that on a recent night was being enjoyed by four friends in Israel for a gap year program in which they do volunteer gigs, take classes, and learn Hebrew. “Coming in here brings me back to America for a few hours,” says Becca Segal of San Diego, 18.  “The burgers are good and the French fries are real American ones. They’re not Israeli chips,” she adds, swooping a specimen through a pool of ketchup and popping it into her mouth.

“Since they’ve never been able to order alcohol before, it’s for us to teach them how to drink responsibly,” says Reuben Beiser, who’s ringmaster to the happy hubbub. Beiser, who owns Jerusalem’s Mike’s Place with his general manager Udi Kaniel, is a native of Providence, RI, who left the U.S. two decades ago as soon as college was behind him. And he never looked back. As the resident sports king, the power rests in his hands to determine which games air on the screens. Sometimes, the wisdom of Solomon is called for when competing groups of fans vie for their teams’ games to be broadcast.

“Sorry, I promised the Boston game to that group over there,” Beiser calmly tells one employee who approaches him with a conflicting request. “Maybe next week.”

Beiser is also an architect who continues to work in that field. He will tell you that he certainly didn’t intend to run a kosher sports bar/restaurant (this Jerusalem location is the only one of the six Mike’s Places across Israel to cater to a kosher clientele). But years ago he used to hang out at Mike’s Place’s previous location a few blocks away, and he began to see the value of this “American home away from home” for newly minted Israelis (who still know every word of The Star Spangled Banner), along with the countless American students who come to learn in Israel.

After the original building was condemned in 2008, Beiser bought the Jerusalem franchise, using his architectural skills to create a homey, open and distinctly American ambiance in a new locale. Two years later, he swung open Mike’s Place’s doors at the corner of Jaffa Road and Rivlin Street.

Though Sunday night is all football all the time (with a bit of American basketball thrown in for variety), other evenings are devoted to arguably more civilized activities: live music and even a lecture series on a range of thought-provoking topics. All washed down with a cold Sam Adams.

“People feel good down here,” says Beiser, gesturing to the crowd. “For Anglos it’s like home, and for Israelis it’s a trip to America without the airfare.”

On the Sunday night when JNS.org visited the bar, the lone Israeli who braved the roomful of boisterous American fans was a 28-year-old native Jerusalemite named Tal Katz. His passion for American football? It dates back to the day in 2009, when an American friend schlepped him to a football game at Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium.

“I got hooked,” he says good-naturedly, his eyes glued to the screen. “Most Israelis don’t know much about football and baseball, what the heck is that?” So what’s the best thing about being an Israeli fan of American football? “If a team loses, I’m not all that upset,” he says with a shrug. “One team is as good as the next when you’re not American.”

Yes, Americans do love their sports, something abundantly clear this night at Mike’s Place. In fact, back at the Mir Yeshiva table, Tuli Tyberg had one bit of advice for Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Now that you’ve got football here, it would be great if you could just open a basketball stadium here, too,” he says he’d tell the prime minister, should they ever meet.

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