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A Bloody Night in Tel Aviv, or, How We Met Our Neighbors


Though stepping outside in August in Israel is a hellish affair, we've successfully moved into a beautiful, Mediterranean-style loft with a plant hanging around, an old tile floor and crisp, golden sunshine pouring in from the high ceiling windows.

And just last night, we finally met our neighbors. All is well — I’m sitting in my comfortable chair in my writing corner (everyone needs a good writing or reading corner, with a spot to put their feet up), and Tal is creating lesson plans for her first year as a full-time English teacher, with school starting tomorrow. The air conditioner is on, the refrigerator is stocked, our artwork is hung on the walls. We’re at home. But how we got here, exactly, was a rough ride. A rough, and bloody journey.

Here’s what happened.

Tal and I got back to Israel after a trip to the States and immediately began preparing for the move. We got our new keys, bagged up our belongings and, over three torturous, hot days, transported everything from Yehuda Halevi in central Tel Aviv to Kerem Ha’Temanim, next to the sea. Most was moved with the help, and car, of Tal’s cousin Ami. A few bags rode with me on my bike, which made for one of my more treacherous rides through the city, and the rest arrived by the arm full, usually mildly damp from our sweat. Several of our conditions for moving in — a new coat of paint, a new lock for the outside door — hadn’t been completed, but we figured we’d have our landlord at work as we moved in.

The first night, we sat on the couch amongst huge, mountainous piles of stuff and smiled. We made it! That wasn’t so hard, right? We fell asleep in each others’ arms on the couch, the massive task of unpacking and settling in laid out before us. The first few days were slow. So many bags in such a small place means that much of the ‘unpacking’ was merely moving something to a different spot, then another spot. There were some obvious things we needed to buy — a storage closet, a microwave, a new kettle, a kitchen table, a book case and the like. As Tal was balancing job interviews and school work, I was the scavenger. A microwave came from a tiny Russian shop. The table and shelf arrived, on the backs of my friend Sam and I, from Yafo, about two miles away. If you’ve never carried heavy furniture several miles in 100 degree heat, I sincerely do not suggest starting now. In a particularly harrowing instance, Sam and I lifted a large dresser from the ground up the stairs to our loft, a feat that included several screams of agony and two separate instances, each lasting less than a second, in which I thought, for sure, I had just severed one of my fingers off. But, hey, we moved everything around and I still have my hands. I count that as a win.

On a few occasions, I noticed an old, homeless-looking man in our hallway. Tanned beyond belief, his skin a rough, crushed leather, and his eyes always bloodshot. He introduced himself as Benny, but I could never understand more than that. He appeared to live in the synagogue in the apartment next to us; that’s right — our most immediate neighbor in our corridor is actually a tiny Yemenite synagogue, which fills up with about a dozen old Yemenite men every Shabbat. Benny, it seemed, was the caretaker, who also lived there. Every few nights, we heard a woman come and bang on the door of the synagogue, yelling “Benny! Benny!” No idea if it was his sister or his lover. More on these characters later.

On the first night we could actually sleep in our bed, we noticed it was damp. The wall was leaking brown water right onto our pillows. We were nonplussed. Back down to the couch we went, and the next day called Yossi, the ‘guy who does all the work in our apartment cluster and answers directly to the landlord.’

“I’ll be over in an hour,” he said in Hebrew.

Four hours later, Yossi and a crew of two guys showed up and set to work building a new wall on top of the old wall, the one that, if you’ll recall, was leaking brown water. Everything that we’d just about unpacked was pushed into the center of the room and covered in a sheet. For the next two days, our single room apartment was covered in power tools, paint, dust, dry wall and a pungent odor of workman sweat hung in the air. Very posh, I know.

Our apartment at the end of Day 1 Afternoon the second day, the new wall was up, much of the old paint was re-coated, and our outside door had a lock, allowing us to double lock the apartment. Great, we said, high-fiving everyone in the room, we’re going to get some lunch.

When you come back, we’ll be finishing up, and you can go on living here in peace, without any more trouble, I imagined the workmen saying. In reality, they said something in Arabic and chain-smoked cigarettes.

When we returned, what do you know, we had no electricity. The workmen said they blew a fuse, and that the fusebox was in our neighbor’s apartment, and that they didn’t know how to reach her. Then they left. It was nearly dark, and all of our worldly possessions were piled upon each other and covered in a sheet. Things were really looking up.

We knocked on the apartment door next to us. Josie, a tiny Filipino woman, came out. Her apartment is slightly bigger than our bathroom, meaning her apartment is inhumanely small, not that we have a big bathroom. Just to be clear — we do not. Josie told us that Miriam, our fusebox neighbor, usually returned home around midnight, giving us about four hours of complete dark to sit and wait. We promptly went to the gym to pass the time. Everything did work out that night — Miriam switched on our power, and the next day we set back to moving in.

Then the dud shemesh (water heater) broke, and we lost all hot water. This was a welcome turn of events, as we figured our luck simply couldn’t have continued to be so great. Yossi came by that day, and within minutes told me that the whole thing was my fault. I had plugged the water heater into a plug adapter, which he said could not sustain that much electricity. Alright, fine. He plugged it back into the wall, and screamed that, if I wasted his time again, he would charge me upwards of 250 shekels. This one was free, he said. What a gentleman.

If you’ve ever lived in an apartment managed by anyone, you’ll note that you never have to pay your own apartment manager to fix your apartment. By the nature of his job — your apartment manager — he is already getting paid to fix your apartment, because that is his actual job. That is literally the only thing in the world that Yossi does, aside from (I’m guessing) stealing change from orphans or committing violent acts against small and defenseless animals. So to pay him, you see, would be to pay him twice. The water heater, by the way, is still broken.

And yet, two days later, we’d done it. Everything was put away, we’d cleaned the floors, re-painted many of the walls again. I even found an inconspicuous place to hang this awesome poster I got at a music festival that Tal hates. Compromise! Everything was coming together.

Then somebody went and got stabbed.

Please note: I do take stabbings seriously. They are a persistent, and totally not funny problem all over the world, let alone in Tel Aviv. But this is how I deal with serious issues: I write sarcastically about them. I apologize if you or a loved one have been stabbed, or maimed or even scratched really hard. Feel free to issue complaints via my Contact page.

Anyway.

Tal and I were making dinner, as we tend to do in the evening. We were watching an episode of “Mad Men,” and Tal suddenly said “Turn that off!” to which I said “No, Pete Campbell is about to get punched in the face,” to which she said, rather solemnly, “Seriously, turn it off, listen to that!”

I pressed pause on my computer, and immediately heard the single worst sound of my entire life. It was someone screaming, nay, shrieking, and it was coming from right outside our door. No words, just screaming in absolute horror, as if this person was being brutally attacked. We couldn’t tell if the screaming was a man or a woman, the person’s throat so shredded. Our instincts took over: I checked that our door was locked; I turned off the lights so as not to draw any attention to our apartment; I grabbed the nearest weapon I could find.

“Jus, you’re holding a butter knife.”

I looked down at my right hand. So I was.

“I could kill a man with this,” I said, not entirely sure if that was true. My eyes then glanced around the room, scanning for anything else I could use as a weapon if need be. I immediately pictured myself hurling our full-length mirror at an assailant, then bashing him about the ears with our matching candlestick holders, then throwing my water bottle that I’d left in our freezer — it had to be a block of ice by now.

Tal and I stood in silence, her on the ground floor and me on the loft, as the screaming continued on, maybe 30 seconds in all. Then it stopped, we heard some banging, then nothing.

“We should call the police.”

“Absolutely. You speak better Hebrew.”

So Tal got on the phone with the police, and the dispatcher said assistance would arrive in just a few minutes. We made an effort to be exceedingly quiet, though I also made an effort to finish cooking dinner. Hunger doesn’t go away when you’re in distress, I guess. Or, I was just scared and making an effort not to be. I’ll let you decide. Right then, of course, we heard Benny’s sister/lover outside, screaming “Benny! Benny!” He didn’t answer.

After about 10 minutes, we got a call back. The police were outside. They asked Tal to come outside, to which she explained that the entire reason we called the police was something horrible going on outside our door. They didn’t quite get it.

“So we need you to come inside, because we are not coming outside,” she said. I’m not sure how she could’ve been clearer, and yet the police asked her again to come to the street entrance. We slowly unlocked our front door and crept down the corridor. No screaming people there, so we seemed to be in the clear. The police were just outside. Here’s when things got weird.

Tal answered a few questions from police, namely, why we’d called, and where did we think the sound had come from. We knew the screaming had been very, very close by, but we had no information other than that. The police entered the corridor and knocked on the first apartment, that of Miriam, our fusebox holder. She answered, and we saw her boyfriend and two friends inside. The police asked her what had happened, and this is the story she gave, paraphrased and translated:

Miriam and her boyfriend, Gil, had stepped out of their apartment. When they returned, only minutes later, they noticed that it had been locked from the outside (I know that’s weird. They’re old apartments). They opened up the door, and found Benny inside, holding his gut and bleeding through his fingers. He said that men had chased and stabbed him. He escaped, ran into their open apartment and the men locked him inside. He asked Miriam and Gil to take him to the hospital and they refused. He left and went to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv.

Alright. Short of playing Clue with the who did what and where, it’s easy to tell that none of this remotely makes any sense. When did the screaming start, according to Miriam’s story? Why in God’s name did they not help him in any way — not even call the police after finding him? Where was all the blood (their apartment was spotless, and several friends were sitting inside)? Why did the assailants lock Benny inside an apartment and bail — why didn’t they just follow him in and kill him? And strangest of all: the door to the synagogue was locked. In what universe would a man who was just stabbed think to go back and lock his apartment, once the assailants had left, before he escorted himself to the hospital?

As one police officer grilled our neighbors, Tal and I stood outside with an older, fatter policeman. He seemed less interested in the situation at hand, poking his head around the corridor.

“Where do you live, exactly?” he asked.

“We live in the apartment at the end of the hall.”

“Really? That’s nice. How much do you pay for rent a month?”

“3000 shekels.”

“Really? Does that include utilities?”

“No, it doesn’t.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the quintessential ‘Only in Israel’ conversation.

Anyway, things inside the apartment were getting heated. Our neighbors’ Russian friends were spewing vitriol at the cop for some reason, accusing him of accusing them of something, and saying he didn’t appreciate the officer’s tone. The officer was merely making the point that none of them knew Benny, or what he was up to, meaning that none of them could properly evaluate the situation in terms of danger or seriousness. We sure knew that — we fully acknowledged that the situation was weird as shit, and couldn’t guess what had happened, let alone attest to Benny’s character. All the while, Gil and Miriam were making small talk with Tal and I. At one point, Gil asked what I did for a living. I said I was a writer. Then he said that was interesting, because he figured I was a trainer at the gym. Hey, thanks Gil!

Then the fat officer finally proved helpful: he found a straight razor on the ground in the hallway.

“Here,” he said, handing it to the lead officer, who promptly glared back, yelling, “What? There’s no blood on this at all. Throw it out!”

And so the fat officer threw out the closest thing they had to a possible crime weapon. Great work, boys. The officer had had enough of lecturing the neighbors about the morality of not even calling the police upon finding a wounded man in their apartment (Gil’s main argument was “Am I supposed to call the police if someone has a gun to my head, too?” I shit you not), and they decided to leave.

So did we, and returned to our apartment. I finished making dinner, but Tal was far from being at ease. We mulled over the idea of staying in the apartment for the night, but the notion that this crime may not be over — we had no idea where Benny was, or if his assailants felt like returning, or if the entire thing had been made up, or whatever — pushed us to decide on finding somewhere else to sleep.

A half hour later, we were on a bus to Ramat Gan, to stay with our friends Yoni and Michal and their beautiful baby Eitan. There’s something comforting about staying with a warm family after being surrounded by absolute freaks. We got to their apartment by 12:30 and told Yoni the whole story. Then we went to bed on their couch and I had a dream about wedding really high up in the rainforest canopy, and several members of the cast of Mad Men even showed up! Thanks, Jon Hamm, for the generous wedding gift!

We returned to our apartment this morning, and enjoyed a fairly uneventful day as Tal prepared for her first day at school. Benny was nowhere to be seen, although, it should be said, we rarely ever see him come out of the synagogue even when in good health. I’ll update when, and if, we find out more.

We bought a pizza around 7 and ate it on the beach, watching the sun sink over the Mediterranean, creating a band of red and orange and yellow light that stretched across the horizon. It reminded us of why we put up with all the crazies. Damn it if dinner on a blanket in the sand with each other isn’t reason enough.