Meir Panim’s Tiberias Free Restaurant not only provides warm meals, but the opportunity to socialize as well.
I said to him: “Yehuda Bob, do you know what is written on your hands?” He responded in a clear voice, “I can’t read it, but I know what it says: ‘My God beats your God.’ ”
He showed me that both his fists had the identical phrase in perfectly correct Hebrew script; one hand had the text written facing in (toward him) and the other hand had the text facing out (presumably so that his victim would be able to read it more easily). His translation was rough but nonetheless correct. I was stunned. There was no doubt. He was not only a Jew but an incredibly proud one.
I asked him if I could bring in my sons to meet him. With pleasure, he said. When they came into the store they were noticeably shocked as I began to introduce them. Yehuda Bob smiled and shook both their hands warmly and enthusiastically.
We spoke about our planned trip to Sedona and the Grand Canyon and told him we were visiting from Israel. He became animated, telling us his father had visited Israel and that he still had pictures from the trip. He said he couldn’t understand why we just don’t kick the Arabs’ behinds (he used different language). He said that anyone who dared throw anything on his property would be putting his life at risk. So if Israel has missiles landing in its backyard, why doesn’t the army get real?
He proceeded to show us a large gun strapped to his shoulder and other legal weapons he carried. I asked him if the guns were really needed, and he explained how they were. Many people try to steal from him, he said, and the station was at least a ten-minute drive from the nearest police station. He had no choice but to protect the property, which he managed for the store’s owner.
He also told us the story of how his father moved to this secluded part of Arizona and then passed away soon after Yehuda Bob came to visit him from the Boston area. It was then that Yehuda Bob decided to make the place his home.
There were countless weapons displayed for sale all over the store. My 18-year-old, Ariel, was interested in a particular knife. Yehuda Bob was happy to oblige and took it from the glass case to show him. I felt my heart rate escalate. I responded to Ariel’s enthusiasm with an offer to buy him something similar in Israel (even though he did not ask for one upon our return home, I did give him an impressive Swiss Army knife I had received many years ago).
I asked Yehuda Bob for any helpful advice regarding knives. He responded: “Never get into a knife fight with someone who has a gun.”
Before we parted, I asked if he would pose for a photograph with us. He readily agreed. He put his arms around my sons while I took a photo, and one of the boys took a photo of me with Yehuda Bob. We hugged as we were leaving and both of us became teary-eyed. I showed him a 20 NIS note (equivalent at that time to around $5) I had in my pocket, just to share with him something from Israel. He took it and stared at it. It seemed that touching something from Israel really moved him. I told him to keep it as a memento of Israel and of our meeting, and said I hoped we would meet again one day. He was incredibly appreciative.
My sons and I got into the car and pulled away in silence. We realized we had experienced something powerful – a moment of beauty and humanity, of intense connection and the spark of family – under the most unexpected of circumstances.
It was a life lesson up close and personal: how one should never judge a person based on appearance. Yehuda Bob looked terrifying but was truly a gentle and kind soul.
We also saw how Jews can be found everywhere, and that the most unlikely people take deep pride and feel great honor in being Jewish. We, too, took deep pride and felt great honor – in counting Yehuda Bob as one of us.
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