End of an era at The Penguin restaurant in Israel
NAHARIYA, Israel — The Penguin’s backyard once hosted fashion shows, weddings and concerts by the country’s biggest singers. On its terrace, Mandate-era British soldiers drank cold beer, unaware that the young women talking were sent to distract them from nearby ships unloading incoming Jews. Out front, along eucalyptus-shaded HaGaaton Street, horse-drawn carriages ferried summer tourists to their hotels.
Visiting the restaurant today conjures up those decades-old images of a landmark that has occupied the same spot for 82 years.
But on January 1, The Penguin will exist only in fond memories in this remote coastal town, with its property set to become a nine-story apartment building. Gone is the Ilan coffee — the homeowner’s white-black-white blend of hot milk, espresso, and foam. The end of signature dishes such as schnitzel (a thin fried and breaded chicken cutlet), goulash and Bavarian bratwurst with cabbage.
Changing tastes or declining business are not the cause of the Penguin’s demise, as people of all ages continue to frequent the restaurant. Instead, owner Ilan Oppenheimer, 75, is selling himself to divide the proceeds among his children while he is alive and well, keen to ensure harmony in the family – shalom bayitdomestic tranquility, is the Hebrew term he used.
Oppenheimer mentioned local families who broke up in their third generation running a business. His late father, Ernst, established The Penguin in 1940, shortly after emigrating with his wife Mariana from Offenbach, Germany. Ilan and his eldest son, Amir, 42, now run the business.
Nahariya’s German roots
The family’s gain is the loss of the community – and of Israel – because more than one institution closes with The Penguin. It is one of the last public remnants of Nahariya’s German roots.
Jews fleeing Hitler founded Nahariya in 1935. They tried to cultivate family plots, failed and returned to their white-collar professions. The following decades saw the creation of businesses still in operation, all German-Jewish: Soglowek meatpacking, Strauss milk products and the toolmaker Iscar, whose founder Stef Wertheimer sold the American tycoon’s first foreign holding company to Warren Buffett.
But all these companies have abandoned Nahariya in recent decades for other northern locations. There is little flavor of the old country left in the city, with German-born residents almost completely dying off and their children having long since moved to the center of the country. Danny Ohayon, whose parents are Moroccan, fondly remembers the German families on Balfour and Sokolov streets to whom he delivered meals from The Penguin in the 1980s. German would be heard on the streets, but not more ; Russian and Hebrew are the lingua franca of Nahariya. Low-rise nursing homes are everywhere, transformed from family hotels – most owned by German Jews – that once welcomed Israeli tourists. The owner of a retirement home, The Jordan, told me a few years ago that it was more profitable to leave the hotel business. I’ve only seen one horse-drawn carriage – another Nahariya feature – here in five years.
What remains, surviving even the Penguin, are the symbols of these roots. Most of Nahariya’s sister cities are in Germany: Alzey, Bielefeld, Darmstadt, Offenbach, Paderborn, and the Berlin borough of Tempelhof-Schoneberg. Their flags fly on a podium along the main road.
All in the family
Over Ilan Coffee one afternoon in late August, the otherwise low-key Ilan Oppenheimer pretends to be performing at the Improv.
“I’ve worked here all my life. I like to say I was born because my dad and mom had sex on that table,” Oppenheimer said at the start of our interview at The Penguin bar.
“My father had a client who came here every morning. One day he didn’t come, and my dad saw him walking across the street and into another restaurant for lunch. He came back here the next day and my father asked why he had gone elsewhere. The guy said: ‘I had a sore mouth and my dentist told me to eat from the other side.’ »
Perhaps the shtick is arming its cashier against the impending parting of a place where memory pervades. Oppenheimer began working at the Penguin peeling potatoes and sweeping floors as a child. Even his paternal grandparents, Hugo and Recha, spent their time here.
Recha “was smart,” he said. “She said, ‘Close while you’re on top. She also said, “Money is easier to divide than property.” I have five children. They are all married. That’s 10 reviews. Interests differ. You hear it every day.
Oppenheimer said he was happy to discuss the restaurant, even as it neared closure, rather than being asked about the disasters. Occasional missile strikes, terrorist attacks and flash floods – HaGaaton Street is named after the stream that runs through the city – have killed several Nahariya residents over the years. The residents fled in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War. With the exception of certain holidays, however, The Penguin has never closed. Even during the coronavirus crisis, Oppenheimer offered its full menu for takeout or delivery.
What he acknowledges, in reality, is that The Penguin has seen it all. Mention Nahariya to many Israelis, and they will instinctively offer these two associations: fond memories of childhood visits, invariably followed by a version of “I haven’t been back since, I should go,” and The Penguin.
This is a restaurant where generations have eaten – and started. Ohayon, who would establish his own restaurant, Chumus Danny, in an alley across the street, chatted with fellow Penguin, Nurit, in 1988; she became his wife and the mother of their three children. Computer professor Nissim Francez has written two books here, always at a corner table at balcony level, ordering coffee and the occasional bite to eat. On Saturdays, he brings his wife for lunch.
Maya Barlev’s father, Willy Benjamin Rausnitz, immigrated from Vienna and ate at the Penguin; Barlev and her husband come regularly for the schnitzel. Most weekends, they meet friends at the Penguin for coffee.
“It’s our home. It’s customary to go there. The price is good. I was there last week,” says Barlev, the manager of Lieberman House, a stone mansion that houses the city’s history museum. “Nahariya will lose one symbol, and you can only put one sign: ‘Here stood the penguin.'”
Since news of the restaurant’s impending demise spread, some longtime customers have given Oppenheimer a piece of their minds. He gets it. The restaurant never seems empty, and it has become more popular as the end draws near. These intentions to return to see Nahariya finally materialize. Journalists from national newspapers and television came to bid farewell.
” It’s hard for me. People are angry that I’m closing. Someone said to me, ‘You’re lucky. They praise you while you’re still alive,” Oppenheimer said.
“I knew it would be difficult for the Nahariyans. Some have said, “Nahariya without the Penguin is like Jerusalem without the Kotel. I knew it would resonate here. I didn’t know it would have a national echo. People come for the last schnitzel.