Frustration at not finding a good story leads me to drug addicts, ultra-Orthodox radio hosts and a shopping mall.

It feels so different, for me at least, to wake up in Tel Aviv .  I’dm in this nice house on a tree-lined street. In Amman, I’d wake up, shower, and would be off to my first interview in twenty minutes.  Here I felt the lethargy fall all over me; which isn’t good, since I have to report stories from Israel and I’dm going back to Jordan soon.  Worse, it’s Friday morning, a sort of semi-weekend day here, so I couldn’t reach anyone on the phone to interview them.  I spent the morning reading Israeli news sites and coming up with story ideas and calling people and getting no one.  I didn’t even get voice mails.  Finally, I decided to get up and get out of the house and just go find a story somewhere.

The car overheated almost immediately and I have to admit it was a relief.  I don’t have to find a story if the car doesn’t work.  I drove it to the garage in the nearby town of Bnei Brak, a largely religious city. While they were looking at the car, I went next door to have a breakfast of mediocre felafel in a tiny shop.  The guy making them is a tall, Yemenite guy with long curly hair tied back, gold earrings, a goatee.  He’s really striking looking.  He said everyone calls him Osama bin Laden, but he looks more like the oily Arab villain in an Arabian Nights movie.  I used to tell everyone that Israelis are so obnoxious and rude.  I’dm doing something different this trip, because everyone is so nice.  My theory is that they can be abrupt when you first interact, but if you respond with exactly the same degree of abruptness they feel like you passed the test and they’re very friendly.  (I’dm talking about them like they’re a species of dog, I think, which may be too patronizing.  There are lots of Israelis and they all act differently.  But in general…). Anyone, our oily friend, Beni, was asking me lots of questions.  When he said he was Yemenite,  I mentioned I was going to Yemen.  He got very excited and said I have to come to his house to chew some Qat tonight.  Qat is this plant, a drug, and pretty much everyone in Yemen chews it every day for several hours in structured Qat Chew sessions.  The drug is a mild upper and, from what I’dm told, makes you very happy and talkative  for a while and then makes you feel calm and totally content.  It’s not as powerful as pot or coke or anything, and I’dm certainly planning on chewing qat when I get to Yemen; it’s central to life there, you can’t understand the place without it.  Qat makes up 30% of the Yemeni economy.  So, when Beni mentioned that he chews qat all the time, lots of Yemenite Jews in Israel do, I got excited.  It would be great to have an introduction to the stuff here.  So, I told him that, yes, I would definitely be coming to his qat chew tonight.  I also wanted something interesting to write about on this site.  Amman was so fascinating to me, I felt like I had something to write all the time.  In fact, I only wrote a portion of what I wanted to, there was just too much.  But Israel feels so familiar, so old hat, that I feel afraid I just won’t have anything to write about.

So, I’dm sitting there eating the felafel and I have to say I was feeling very pleased with myself.  I felt so proud that I went out and found this amazing story about Israeli qat chewers, that I’d have this fascinating experience tonight.  That I’d be able to show off on this site how cool I was.  And then Beni came over to talk some more.  I have to say that right now I’dm picturing him with a big gold tooth.  But I don’t think he had one.  It’s just that when he sat down across from me, he became that kind of guy.  I had been thinking of him as this authentic Yemeni nature man or something, then he started talking.  He told me that qat is great, it’s like crystal meth and coke.  And we’d be doing all that stuff tonight.  He said qat is like Viagra and who knows who will be there and things could get really fun.  He started putting his arms out and hitting his veins and saying, you feel powerful, you can do anything.  Everything I’dve read about Qat in Yemen makes it sound so mellow and pleasant and it has no similarity to American drug culture.  I think Beni missed that point of qat.  I told him I just remembered that I had plans and I didn’t think I could make it.

I went back to the garage, and the car wasn’t near ready.  I was talking to the woman who takes your information and your money and I was complaining that I didn’t have a story and I needed a story and didn’t know what to do.  I asked where the religious people live.  She said, Go upstairs, the religious radio station is right in this building.  So, I did.  I went up a few flights and there was Voice of Life Radio.  I rang the buzzer and a young man in a knit yarmulke came out and opened the door.  I told him I was a reporter from the states and he got excited and invited me in.  He said since it’s Friday, nobody’s around except the on-air crew, but I’dm welcome to sit with him.  It was exactly the same setup I’dm so familiar with from producing talk shows.  He sits in the director’s chair, calling the next guest, signaling the host, watching levels on the board.  Through a glass, we can see the host who is talking very intently into the microphone and looking at us.  But, like on every radio show I’dve worked on, the producer is paying absolutely no attention to the host or what’s going out on the air.  He and I were having these elaborate talks and the host was constantly flicking this switch to sound a click in the control room so we would look at him.  He’d act like there was some desperate reason to communicate with us, but it was always something stupid.  He just wanted us to pay attention to him.  And we didn’t pay any attention at all.  He looked exactly like the host I worked with for years in Chicago.  So exasperated that we weren’t following his conversation.  During one break, the host came out and invited me into the studio.  We talked for a second and he said I could sit down.  I saw the producer, now on the other side of the glass, looking very disappointed that I was now with the host.  But after a minute, I realized it was boring in the studio.  I have to be quiet and I have to actually listen to the show.  So, I went back to the producer.  From then on, when the host came out during breaks he wouldn’t speak to me or even look at me.  I know the host isn’t supposed to lose to the producer.  I told the producer I felt bad that I was getting him in trouble.  He said most weeks, he sits there and reads the paper while the host tries to signal him; so me being there really didn’t make a difference.

The radio station is for the ultra-Orthodox, the Hasids.  Here people just call them the Blacks, meaning the Black Hats.  The producer and host are modern orthodox.  You can tell, because Jews in Israel are basically color-coded.  If you wear a knit yarmulke you’re modern orthodox, a black yarmulke, you’re a bit more religious than that, and a black hat over your yarmulke means you’re Hasidic, or Haredi, as they call them here.  So, the producer said the listeners are Black Blacks, the most religious imaginable.  The show that was on’dwhen we deigned to listen for a minute’dwas a variety talk show, basically.  They would have one orthodox guy telling funny stories about the old world. Then they had a kosher chef who described how to make something or other.  Then they had a rabbi talking about his charity that sends sick kids to Turkey for a vacation.  What surprised me the most was the show sounded totally modern and just like any regular radio show.  They played music, which wasn’t the best but it sounded contemporary (they don’t play any songs sung by women, because ultra-Orthodox can’t listen to a woman singing).  The ads were totally normal for the most part.  Just highly-produced ads for cell phone companies or detergent or whatever.  Although every once in a while there would be an ad that was just some ancient sounding Rabbi with a Yiddish accent going on and on about their Torah school or whatever.  But those were the exception.  It made me feel slightly differently about the Ultra-Orthodox, the Black Blacks.  I don’t know any of them.  I just see them on the street and they seem so foreign and medieval.  And hearing this contemporary show with pop tunes and all made me think they are more in the modern world than I thought.  It makes me want to explore the whole thing a little more.

The producer, Yoram, gave me a copy of the grid of shows on Voice of Life Radio.  It’s incredibly vibrant.  I was excited by it.  They have a different show every hour of every day’dmeaning Monday at noon is different from Tuesday, different from Wednesday.  That can get confusing, I assume’dI like having that band of programs, like All Things Considered, that is on every day at the same time.  But the shows they have are interesting and more diverse than I would expect.  There’s one, Tuesdays at 7 pm, called Rabbi and General, where an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and a secular general just sit and talk about things for an hour from their different perspectives.  Another show is some old woman who makes matches’she sets people up on the air (I definitely want to go see that one, though it’s at midnight on Thursdays.  I love the idea of these young ultra-Orthodox staying up late to get hooked up on the radio.)  there’s one show, Mondays at 8 pm’that, he says, is brilliant, where a rabbi explains how Jewish law can be applied to every single aspect of modern life.  The rabbi is an advocate for abandoning Israel’s current legal system (based on a hodge-podge of Turkish, British and American law) in favor of Halacha, Jewish law.  There’s another show, Thurdays at 8, where people call up and complain about how they were treated by some company or store or something and then the host just calls around until he finds someone to yell at and makes them give the person their money back.  On Wednesdays at Nine, a rabbi just blesses people for an hour on the radio.  That’s the most popular show.  The rabbi’s a young guy, in his early thirties, and is, I guess, a very good blesser.  People stand outside the building waiting for him to come in and then go out again so they can get an in-person blessing.  I’dm definitely going to visit that one.  Yoram was most excited about this political show.  He said it’s a very special political show.  Most shows, he said, people get on and argue and that’s it.  But this show is different.  They get on and argue and then afterwards they all go to the conference room and eat cholent, a stew popular among the ultra-Orthodox.  I didn’t understand. ‘do they record themselves eating cholent?’d  ‘dNo.  They do the show live and then they go and eat cholent.’d  The cholent isn’t part of the show, I guess.  But it makes the show special because they all know they’dll be eating cholent together soon.  He said that way they get a really good debate but are still respectful.  I was surprised that this ultra-Orthodox station had far-ranging political debate.  ‘do they really have left-wingers on?’d  ‘dNo.  They have right wing and not-as-right-wing.’d

I do plan to do some pieces about the radio station, but I couldn’t get any of them done today and I was still hungry for some story to do.  A woman called the station and asked Yoram to announce that an El Al flight was arriving late at Ben-Gurion.  It was filled with ultra-Orthodox and was going to arrive right before Shabat begins, so none of the Black Hats would have time to get home before sundown after which they’re not allowed to drive.  She wanted the station to ask people to go to Ben-Gurion airport and invite the stranded to their homes.  The host said no way, it’s not his problem, he’s not announcing it.  But I thought that might be a good story.  I could do a piece about how Shabat bumps up against the modern world.  But then I realized that none of the Orthodox would talk to me, since it is the Sabbath, it would be hard to get anything.  I was pissed off to have another story taken away before it got started.  Then I heard a news announcement on the radio that the Kfar Sava mall is opening on Shabat for the first time.  There’s a story, I thought.  So, I got the car’dit’s fine’dand drove to Kfar Sava.

Kfar Sava, about twenty minutes northeast of Tel Aviv, is right on the border, the next towns over are settlements.  the town has tons of secular Israelis and tons of religious.  Having the mall open on Shabat is a very hot-button issue. I don’t have too much to write about it’dbasically I walked around the mall trying to get people to talk to me and some did.  I interviewed this one middle aged ultra-Orthodox woman with the white shawl over her bald head.  She had the strangest accent’dI thought cockney, then Liverpudlian, then Irish, then South American.  It turns out she grew up in Israel but learned English from a variety of commonwealth natives.  She said that Shabat is a time for the family, a time to get away from the week’s concerns and the hustle and bustle of work.  So, the mall should be closed and allow people that rest, allow families to be together.  Then I went in to this clothing store with loud music blaring and this tall, attractive woman with full makeup and very long hair told me that Shabat is a time for family, a time to get away from the week’s concerns, and that’s why the mall should be open, to allow families to get together and go shopping.  That is Israel.