Paul Harris meets Haim Shkedi who’s retiring after 26 years as manager of the iconic King David Hotel in Jerusalem
HOTEL managers, in some respects, are similar to doctors in terms of confidentiality.
Haim Shkedi may be retiring after nearly 26 years as manager of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, one of the world’s most iconic establishments, but details of the private lives of some of the most famous international figures will remain just that — private — when he leaves in June. Well, almost.
When we met days after the news of his departure was announced, Haim, 74, was reticent to reveal any really juicy nuggets about his guests.
His secretary had cautioned me that such is his modesty, he was unlikely to agree to an interview.
But he did, and after a little persuasion, he volunteered some memories.
Prince Charles has stayed at the King David twice. The first occasion was for Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, following his assassination in November, 1995.
The heir to the throne was the only person to arrive by helicopter and landed 100 metres from the hotel.
“Before he came, a big guy from MI5 approached me and he thought we were still under the British mandate,” laughed Haim, before checking with me whether I felt it appropriate for him to share such information with me.
Receiving my assurance that neither he nor I would be sent to the Tower of London, he continued: “He told me what I could and couldn’t do with Prince Charles.
“‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t touch his hand’.
“I said, ‘Listen, I’ll do my best, but you’re in Israel, not in England now’.
“So, Prince Charles came in and I approached him. Immediately, he shook my hand. He put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘Please take me to my room. I will take the stairs’.”
Haim accompanied him to his room and apologised for not giving him a suite because he had been one of the last people to book.
“He was so nice,” recalled Haim, “and said that he appreciated the fact that we’d given him a room.
“I went back down and this big major came to me, saying, ‘He shook your hand, he shook your hand’. He was so excited.”
The prince returned to the King David for Shimon Peres’ funeral in September, 2016 and then for the Auschwitz liberation event at Yad Vashem last month, when again he insisted on walking upstairs to his room.
“He’s a very warm, charming and impressive person,” said Haim, who has also hosted Prince William, whom he describes as “a very nice and very warm human being”.
Dan Hotels, owner of the KD, appealed to Haim to remain in his position, but after 43 years with the company, he said: “I decided it was time to have a rest. I have enjoyed every moment, especially at the King David.”
But he added: “Age and experience in this hotel is an asset.”
That from a man who still works a 12-hour day, six days a week, before which he enjoys a run with his dog at 5.45am at the small moshav where he lives.
Haim’s parents arrived in Mandate Palestine from the town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) in Poland in the early 1930s. He was born on Mount Scopus.
His father had taught himself to be a carpenter, practising with the slats from crates he took home from his work as an orange picker near Haifa — the job undertaken by so many new immigrants in those pioneering days.
Haim’s career also began less than auspiciously — running a branch of the YMCA.
He decided, however, that he wanted to go into the world of business where he didn’t have to rely on donations.
In 1977, he successfully applied for the job of personnel manager at the King David Hotel, which was “like a shrine”.
A month after starting work there, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt made his historic flight to Israel to cement peace and, naturally, stayed at the KD.
“This was when I first felt the power of the King David,” said Haim, who stayed five years before managing the Sonesta Hotel in Taba, until the Sinai resort was handed back to Egypt by Israel as the final element of their peace deal.
After a period at Dan head office, where he wrote the group manual, he moved to the then new Dan Panorama, Tel Aviv, as deputy manager, before becoming group training manager and then general manager of the Dan Tel Aviv.
Haim can scarcely forget the first morning he took over at the KD from Yossi Hecht, February 25, 1994.
It was the day of the massacre at the Cave of Machpela in Hebron.
Baruch Goldstein, an American immigrant and member of the radical Kach party, had opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 30 and wounding 125 before being beaten to death by survivors.
The massacre led to two days of riots between Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank.
The first call Haim took that morning was from a titled British woman, cancelling her son’s barmitzvah.
So new was he to the job that the switchboard operator had to confirm he was the manager before connecting the call.
“I was not aware how dramatic it was,” recalled Haim.
“It was the biggest barmitzvah the King David had ever had. We had already shipped in table cloths and stuff like that. So it was a real shock. These things happen all the time. It’s a challenge.”
Challenges like that which Haim believes was the most memorable time of his tenure — Rabin’s funeral.
“A few minutes after his assassination I got a call from the American ambassador Martin Indyk.
“He said, ‘Haim, prepare for President Clinton to come’. It was Saturday night.
“The funeral was on Monday so we had 36 hours to prepare the hotel. We had to empty the hotel of all the guests.
“It was a very, very sad day, but for the hotel it was a huge challenge. I always say that being at the hotel was a blessing because I didn’t think about the tragedy. I thought more about the operation.”
Haim remembers President Bill Clinton’s warmth. “The first time he came to the hotel, his security people tried to separate him from the welcoming party,” he said.
“He moved them aside and went to each and every person standing in the the lobby, shook their hands and said ‘I’m so proud to be in Israel’.”
When King Hussein arrived at the hotel for a second visit after Rabin’s funeral, there had been “this dreadful shooting” at the Jordan River and he was in Israel to offer condolences to bereaved families.
Haim recalls the delegation being served a buffet lunch and, “I walk into the hall and see him standing in line.
“I went up to him and said, ‘Your Majesty there’s no way you’re going to stand in line to wait to be served’.
He replied, ‘I’m like anyone else’. This kind of experience you remember.”
When Haim welcomed the prime minister of Holland, Mark Rutte, a few months ago, he was wheeling his own trolley. He had stayed at the KD a few months earlier in his role as foreign minister.
Haim queried the fact that as PM he was still pushing his own trolley.
Rutte responded: “The title has changed but the person hasn’t’. That warms your heart.”
When the European Union envoy to the Middle East, Miguel Mauratinos, left his post, having stayed at the KD countless times over the years, the hotel threw a party for him.
When Haim asked him to sign the visitors’ book, his emotions got the better of him and a tear fell on to the page.
Haim always appreciated the irony of visits by prime minister Menachem Begin, the former Irgun leader whose organisation was responsible, in July, 1946, for blowing up a wing of the hotel which housed the headquarters of the British administration.
The memories continue to flow as our interview progresses.
Shortly after becoming general manager, Kirk Douglas came to stay. When Haim took him up to his suite, he showed him on the lift floor the letters ‘KD’ and quipped that it had been named after him.
When Michael Douglas first stayed with his family, Haim said he was moved when he pointed out the same thing and recalled the conversation with his father.
And there was the well known actress who always travelled with her dog.
The maintenance department had to build some steps so her small dog could climb up to the bed which was high.
He remembers Michael Jackson’s visit to the Dan Tel Aviv when he managed that hotel.
A worried chambermaid reported that the star was missing from his suite.
They eventually discovered him precariously standing on an unprotected ledge eight floors up, having scaled a fence, waving to his fans.
For his arrival he had been brought in through an unattractive back door near the bins.
Haim decided to make the temporary entrance more attractive and arranged for a sign to be erected near the bins reading ‘Michael Jackson Boulevard’.
“He was so happy, he jumped on me like children do,” said Haim.
And Jacko had asked for bowls of M&Ms to be placed in his suite, omitting the blue ones which he always felt were jinxed in some way.
Reflecting on his four decades-long career, Haim says: “There’s a big difference with world leaders from other guests.
“They come to work. They need clean rooms, they need air conditioning, they need quiet, they need a place to eat, they need good food.
“They just need what they’re used to. They don’t come for fun, they come for a purpose, to achieve something.
“The leaders are never difficult, Sometimes we have some very difficult requests from the entourage who prepare the visit.
“So many times they put very heavy pressure on us, but the initial attitude isn’t that we have to do what they want.
“You don’t always talk like a hotelier, you talk like an Israeli. I want them to leave Israel being proud of Israel, not criticising Israel, saying this is a modern first world country, the Jews have done something in 70 years.
“For us, it’s not just a question of representing the hotel, it’s more a question of representing Israel.
“We do everything humanly possible to make them feel they’re staying in the right place, they came to the right country and we should be proud of what we have achieved.
“It’s more than being a hotelier, it’s being an Israeli. In a way we’re ambassadors.”
He added: “We’re not in a position to judge. If a guest wants a zero Coca Cola at two o’clock in the morning, we will find it for him.”
He also stressed that often it is not all about money. When President Donald Trump stayed at the King David, it lost about $300,000.
Haim, explained: “But for the Federmann family [owners of the hotels], real Zionists, it’s very important to have these delegations at the King David.”
He said there’s no other job in the world where you have the opportunity meet such a variety of people from all over the world, in all occupations and positions.
He grinned when he realised that journalists have the same opportunities.
He went on: “Being general manager of a hotel makes you deal with a variety of issues — sewage, selling a group for $20,000.
“It’s one challenge after the other because you have to be number one in each of these territories.
“There’s never a dull moment It’s not a normal job, it’s a life.
He pointed out: “You deal with the joys of life. Running a hospital is a much more important job, but you see miserable people all the time.
“Here, I see happy people. I feel that when people come to the King David they respect the place. the hotel still does something to people. They walk into the lobby and see the history.”
Despite all the glamour of managing one of the world’s most famous hotels, the aspect of working for the Dans that gave him most satisfaction was when he ran the housekeeping department at the Dan Panorama, Tel Aviv, when he was deputy manager because the housekeeper needed three months off at short notice.
“It was one of the most satisfying jobs I ever had,” he told me. “The feeling of control. You sit two floors below the lobby. You have people 19 floors up and you manage them.
“You have to know every one of them 40, 50, 60 people and manage them, what they do, where they are, if they’re doing the correct job.”
Father of four and grandfather of six Haim says that when his successor Tamir Cobrin takes over — he was front office manager 20 years ago — he won’t return to the hotel.
“It will be too emotional for me I will miss many of my people and I will surely miss many of the guests,” he says.
“I’m so friendly with so many guests. They really became part of the family. Eighty per cent return for the festivals and I know every one of them.”
Haim is not planning to retire entirely. He is looking for a job three to four hours a day — “nothing to irritate me. I would love to do something outdoors”.
But he doesn’t rule out working in a hotel.
And he will have the opportunity to spend more time with his second wife Yoni (they’ve been married 33 years), who he describes as “the joy of my life”.
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