Corona may have changed many things, but not the heat of the Beit Shean Valley. That is here to stay. The sun in the center of the sky and my stomach is already grumbling, but the line is short at “Falafel Zehava,” a beloved establishment on Route 90 in Beit Shean. 

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The brothers Niv and Dvir were not ready for a blow such as corona. Exactly a year ago, they bought the place from Zehava Bibi, along with the secret recipe for meat patties. 

“It all started from Zehava’s Facebook post,” recalls Niv (28). “A friend sent it to me, I sent it to my brother Eliran, he spoke to her, we called him [pointing to Dvir], we said: ‘we’re taking the place, want to come run it?’” 

“I was on a trip, on my canoe in Thailand,” Dvir (24), the younger brother, describes the phone call he received from his brother a bit more than a year ago. “I was enjoying myself, and then they called. So I cut off my trip early. I got back two weeks before the opening. I sat here every day, Zehava taught me everything slowly, everything under her guidance, how to run a business, pricing, suppliers, how to make tehina and salads. If I hadn’t been called up, I would have stayed there and raised a family,” he laughed. 

"I had to make the change," Bibi explains why she sold the business where she worked for 35 years. "I got a tempting offer, 10 minutes from home, and how can I put it, we'd gotten big, you have to think in terms of quality of life."

From left, father Naftali and brothers Niv and Dvir Or (Photograph: Yahel Faraj)

The Or brothers enclosed the stand in tarpaulin, added a door, added new flavors to the chicken breast, but kept the brand “Falafel Zehava.” For 36 years, this falafel has been well known to locals of Beit Shean, residents of the region, and to anyone travelling north or south, as a place to stop and sample the juiciest falafel balls along Israel’s longest border. 

“A lot of people eat shawarma at eight in the morning.”

The Or brothers opened “Falafel Zehava” last summer, at the height of the season. Soldiers, tourists (both Israeli and international), passers-by, local residents, came flocking. Now, two months after their re-opening, with a third opening around the corner due to another possible full lockdown, it’s unclear what will happen. 

“Back in the day, there were people first thing in the morning, I would open the shutters and there would already be people waiting,” Dvir says. “Not only soldiers, a lot of people came to eat shawarma at eight in the morning. Now there’s a bit less. It feels relaxed at all hours. The roads are relaxed, people are out and about less, all the businesses in the area are feeling it.” 

Dvir Or: “Back in the day, there were people first thing in the morning. Now there’s a bit less.” (Photograph: Yahel Faraj).

 

“We started at the top, and got slapped in the face,” Niv explains. “We were totally closed for a month and two weeks. We got 3 months off of property tax, but we have very high rent, and the rent wasn’t considered. We received some money from the government, NIS 5,000. Think about it, the business was closed for a month and a half, and for another month and a half the business functions in this way: me and Dvir sitting around, making one meal an hour, just to pass the time. We were going crazy at home, so we said we’d open. So actually, it’s three months.” 

Before corona, they had several employees. Dvir was on the bar, Niv came in only to close up. Zehava’s older sister had helped with the preparations in the morning, but everything changed. They could not bring back Zehava’s sister and another employee. Niv started working all the time. To their luck, a lottery stand next to them brought in a few more customers. 

“When I spend a day in the area, I stop here.”

The new owners have succeeded to fill big shoes. Customers who loved Zehava say that they miss her presence, but add that the place has kept its reputation. The cleaner who has a set order, the Jerusalemite returning with cherries from Majdal Shams, the soldiers from the nearby base, everyone is satisfied with the new ownership. Niv is excited about these gestures. 

Fried falafel balls (Photograph: Yahel Faraj)

“Listen to my story,” throws out a skinny guy enjoying his falafel. “Ilan from Kiryat Chaim. I’m in the business of sales to kibbutzim, to industry, a manager in the northern region. When I spend a day in the area, I stop here. No other restaurant, nothing. It’s an acquired taste, it never leaves you. Zehava was so friendly, and you want to stay close to people who you interact with. If you remember feeling looked after and how delicious it is, you will always come back.” 

Everyone remembers Zehava and Zehava remembers everyone. “What I had there,” she reminisces, “was a lot of love. I served people who were in distress. Love, generosity – it was all returned to me. When you do good for others, good comes to you. I receive huge amounts of love even today, a year later. I go to Afula and people ask me, “when are you coming back?” 

The answer to that question is soon. Zehava’s new place, which will also be called “Falafel Zehava” is opening next to the new central bus station in Afula, and the flavors, she promises, will stay the same. 

“There are a lot more seasonings, but it’s a secret.”

“I have served everyone,” Zehava proudly boasts, “From every sector and from all over the world, from Beit Shean to the White House, from the government, to professionals, to the army.”