The Rock Star’s Guide to Eating, Praying, and Loving in the High Security State of Israel
Why Justin Bieber, Elton John, Madonna, and, yes, Alicia Keys, love to play Tel Aviv—and why Israel loves them back
It was the summer of 2011, and some of Israel’s best-trained security personnel were having a rough time: The perimeter had been breached, and before they knew it, hordes of hostiles were moving quickly, closing in on the target. All seemed lost, but men trained in close-quarter combat in Gaza and Ramallah and southern Lebanon are never without contingency plans. They didn’t disappoint: Before anyone could tell what was going on, an engine roared and a white scooter appeared from somewhere just by the waterline.
It was time to get Justin Bieber away from the paparazzi.
Before the photographers and the shrieking fans could give chase, the scooter whisked away the boy wonder into traffic and toward an undisclosed location. It was an Entebbe-like operation, rich with detail, the kind that makes Israel among the best places in the world for rock stars to visit.
Think of international artists performing in the Jewish state, and a parade of controversies comes to mind, such as the time Roger Waters used his visit as a platform to talk politics, the time Macy Gray came back from her visit and Tweeted that she regretted the whole thing, or the time Elvis Costello canceled his concert to express his solidarity with the Palestinians. And Israel’s concert promoters, a very small clique, hold the same stature as the country’s top diplomats, more accustomed to discussing politics than sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
What they’ve given the country in return is simple but priceless: Bieber, Elton John, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and a host of other luminaries who’ve performed in Tel Aviv recently, leading a renaissance in celebrity visits to Israel unseen since the heady and hopeful days of the 1993 Oslo Accords. For these entertainers, accustomed to the vagaries of touring, Israel is not a sensitive topic to discuss sotto voce, but a haven, a country seemingly engineered to provide itinerant performers with their very particular needs.
Rock stars, of course, never admit to having favorite cities to play in; every town is the greatest place on earth on the night of their concert. But any analysis of the exhausting business of international touring reveals a short but rigid list of demands that make the experience of waking up every morning in a different place possible for those who perform for a living. And security is on top of that list.
This is Israel’s greatest advantage. Elsewhere, the men entrusted with keeping feral fans and fearless paparazzi at arm’s length are hastily trained guards, maybe police. In Israel, they are veterans of the Israel Defense Forces’ elite units. And the service they provide is distinctly different.
“You don’t understand anything about security,” Rani tells me, “or about celebrities.” He doesn’t want his real name used—his business, after all, the business of shielding the rich and the famous, is all about discretion—but he’s in his late 20s and he’s tough and he’s jovial and so he can’t resist a few good-natured jabs. It’s early morning in one of Tel Aviv’s finest hotels, and a VIP—Rani won’t say just who but hints heavily that it’s Israeli President Shimon Peres—is on the premises. Rani isn’t part of the celebrity’s entourage, but of the “outer circle of security,” as he calls it: the hotel guards entrusted with keeping the perimeter free of intruders. And from his perch on the edge of the outer circle, there’s much he’d like to say about what makes Tel Aviv such an ideal town for anyone who, for whatever reason, has to take security seriously.
“All the hotels here, they have their back to the sea,” he said, adjusting his silvery Bolle shades. “That means only one entrance. They come in, they go out, same door. Your job is to stand and guard it.” I say that it doesn’t sound like a particularly difficult job and that you probably don’t need to be a veteran of Golani or the Paratroopers or any of the IDF’s other elite battalions to pull it off. Rani scoffs and tells me all about Bieber and the scooter and Madonna’s dinner, which was swamped by sweaty well-wishers who shouted at their idol, and other stories designed in part to impress me with his proximity to celebrity and in part to prove that orchestrating the steps of very big stars in a very small country is no mean feat. “Tachles,” Rani says, using a Hebrew word meaning, roughly, bottom line, “the thing these people care most about is their security. Everywhere they go, people try to grab them, touch them, kiss them. They need to be protected, and it’s what we in Israel do best.”
To Tair Kesler, an Israeli video blogger and sometime celebrity handler, all this talk of security is beside the point. The reason artists love coming to Israel, she says—an enthusiasm she says she’s witnessed numerous times, with artists ranging from Lady Gaga to the New York band Interpol—isn’t that Israeli professionals know how to protect celebrities from pestering fans, but that Israeli citizens know better than to pester celebrities in the first place.
“I know this sounds very general,” she said, “but they really like our character. They look at us and see something much more sachbaky,” slang for friendly and unassuming. “It’s good here because people just talk to them.” In a nation like Israel, Kesler said, heavily burdened with existential concerns, a famous face is nice to see, but no reason to lose one’s cool. “Here no one is screaming like they do abroad. It’s much calmer here. We see these celebrities as people. We’re less excited than other places; other places care a lot about celebrities, but here we have bigger things to worry about.” This nonchalance, Kesler said, is a major curiosity for stars accustomed to chauffeured limousines and exquisitely catered dinners. Visitors are driven around in jeeps and taken to a succession of decidedly unglamorous spots.
Like the Molly Bloom: Tel Aviv’s only bona fide Irish pub is a frequent stop for visiting luminaries. This was the case one balmy August evening in 2009. The few tables outside were dense with young Israelis blowing smoke from their Marlboro Lights into the salty air drifting from the Mediterranean, lying drowsily a block away. Inside, British rock band The Kaiser Chiefs was downing ales, exchanging anecdotes with members of the Canadian punk-pop group Simple Plan, and chatting up the occasional fan. Deeper inside the room, leaning against a green wall, was Stephanie Germanotta, otherwise known as Lady Gaga but on that night just a shy and plainly dressed young woman talking about art with her fellow musicians.
The rest of the usual stops on the celebrity route are just as unassuming: Grab a sambousak—a crescent-shaped pastry stuffed with salty cheese—at Aboulafia, a legendary bakery on the border of Tel Aviv and Jaffa; take a stroll in the old port of Jaffa; have dinner somewhere not far from the beach, like The Container, a trendy spot in Jaffa favored by Bono, or Stefan Brown, a low-key eatery concealed in an old building’s courtyard in the south of Tel Aviv and beloved by Madonna; go dancing somewhere like the Radio EPGB, a subterranean club that looks and feels like Berlin; and end the night strolling for snacks along Rothschild or any of the other boulevards criss-crossing the city.
For visiting celebrities, however, the point is not so much where to go but with whom, and here, too, Israel has worked out a routine. Once they make it to their club of choice, Kesler said, the treasured guests are likely to come across a pleasant surprise: All those present are themselves celebrities. Israel, Kesler explained, is small enough, and its entertainment industry enough of a kibbutz-like enterprise, for all the nation’s most prominent actors, musicians, models, DJs, rappers, and artists to be in attendance whenever a foreign celebrity descends. “It’s like they’re drafting them to the army,” Kessler said, “all of our local celebrities get a call from the producer telling them which club to go to and when. In London, no one cares when a famous person steps into a bar. Here, a famous person arrives and all the local famous people are there to greet him.” Kesler recently wrote a humorous essay about having to swat away clusters of local big shots in an effort to say hello to her idol, music producer Mark Ronson, who was drinking in a trendy Tel Aviv dive a few summers back. The Israelis, Kelser noted, were all on best behavior; aware of what fame does to an ordinary person’s life—the shrieks, the lack of privacy—they were the best crowd a famous person could wish to have in his or her surroundings.
Not, of course, that visiting Israel is all about the beach or the clubs. Inevitably, the visiting celebrities find themselves Jerusalem-bound, and when they do, it’s men like Gadi whose job it is to make the visit to the world’s holiest city as sweet and condensed as possible. Working for one of Israel’s largest PR shops, Gadi is in his early 30s with a mouth perennially occupied by cigarettes and bad words. “Jerusalem,” he said, “is like fucking Disneyland. I was in Disney in the ’80s, and it’s exactly the same thing. You get on a bus early in the morning, you drive for a bit, you get off, and then you have this small place where everything is expensive but there’s some attraction every one hundred meters. They come here, they do the churches, they see the mosque, they visit the Kotel, they go to Yad Vashem, and this is before they even eat lunch. These celebrities only come here for a day or two, so it’s great for them to have a place like this.”
The city’s holy sites, Gadi said, render even the most flamboyant rock star mute. “Gaga was here,” he said, “and we took her to where the crucifixion happened, and it was like ‘Lady Gaga, meet Sir Jesus.’ Any star, even the biggest, just stands quietly and watches, and I think they like it that way. It puts things in proportion.”
In many ways, Israeli musical tastes perfectly mimic global trends. Last year, for example, the biggest-selling concert tours were Roger Waters, Van Halen, Madonna, and other rock behemoths, the same artists that grace most Israeli playlists. But Israel’s different in one important respect: There, artists like Elton John or Rod Stewart or Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson aren’t nostalgia acts but bona fide rock gods, as luminous as they had been at their peak, some decades ago.
Ben Shalev, a rock critic for Haaretz, described the Israeli reverence for rock’s aged practitioners by conjuring an imaginary young rock fan. “The indecision is killing him: Elton John or Rod Stewart?” Shalev wrote. “He’s 25, a student, with no steady income, and he can’t afford to see more than one concert this summer. He has to decide which uncle he loves more. And that’s not easy. On the one hand, he digs uncle Rod’s latest albums, the ones with the covers of show tunes from the 1930s. On the other hand, he grew up on Uncle Elton. In 1993, when the man who claimed Jesus was gay played in Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv, he was too little, only 8 years old. His older brother told him that the concert was amazing, and ever since he’s been praying that he, too, would one day have a chance to hear a live rendition of ‘Your Song.’ And here comes that very opportunity. But why so close to Rod Stewart’s concert? He hums ‘I Am Sailing’ to himself and gets goosebumps.”
There are several plausible explanations for this reverence Israelis of all ages feel for rock’s dinosaurs, but chief among them is that perhaps Israelis feel about rock stars the same way rock stars feel about Israel. An act like Lady Gaga or Kaiser Chiefs can make Israel feel like just another normal country, but when artists like John or Stewart arrive and send tens of thousands of fans, of all ages and all walks of life, to their feet cheering, Israel feels special. It feels the same thing the visiting rockers feel when they check into the Dan Hotel, a special bond between country and performer, a bubble that, for a day or two at a time, pretends like the only thing that matters in the world is rock ’n’ roll.
Which, pretty much, describes every day in the life of Shuki Weiss. When he was young, Weiss wanted to be a rock star; he stood in front of the mirror, strummed on his bass guitar, and howled happily. Soon, however, he discovered that his talents lay elsewhere, not on stage but behind it: With a general’s attention to detail and a roadie’s commitment to rock, he took over one of Tel Aviv’s hottest clubs in the 1980s and turned it into a Mecca for visiting celebrities.
Celebrities, perhaps, isn’t the right word. The performers Weiss attracted were, for the most part, a year or two or 20 past their prime. But having an uncanny feel for his audience, he realized that mattered little: What Israelis wanted was recognition, and they didn’t need more than Ian Dury or Peter Hammill or John Cale, decades after his Velvet Underground heyday, to feel as if they’ve been admitted to the Family of Man. And so, while other producers did whatever they could to diversify their portfolios—not a bad strategy in a market as tiny as Israel—and took to managing local artists or producing television shows, Weiss focused mainly on attracting foreign entertainers. A decade or so into his career, he was the only game in town.
This, in part, has to do with the economics of putting up enormous concerts like those by Madonna or the Chili Peppers or any other of Weiss’ productions. Because no insurance company in the world will sell an Israeli promoter a policy against possible cancellations—these, given the political climate and security situation, are far too likely to make the risk worthwhile—anyone wishing to put up a big, international show in Tel Aviv has to be able to take major risks. Others have tried and failed; Weiss persevered. In 2006, when Depeche Mode canceled their concert at the last minute because of the war with Lebanon, Weiss lost millions. Shortly thereafter, when Waters threatened to cancel his arrival, Weiss convinced him to play not in Tel Aviv’s large park as usual for shows of that scale but in Neveh Shalom, a joint Jewish and Arab community. Because Neveh Shalom had no appropriate venue in which to mount Waters’s extravagant and pyrotechnics-rich concert, Weiss had to strike a deal with a local farmer, promising to buy an entire year’s supply of a nearby chickpea field for the rights to host Waters and his fans.
It’s that kind of thinking that has made Weiss a successful producer, and that kind of thinking that has made Israel an unbeatable stop on the world tour of famous artists. Landing in Tel Aviv, pop’s luminaries know that someone will always find a way to take care of them; just ask Justin Bieber.
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The ‘Color Purple’ author showed more than just naivete in penning an open letter to the pop star. She also showed ignorance.
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