For the past couple weeks, I’ve been staying with distant relatives on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, a seaside town called Herzliya. They have been the kindest of hosts and taken me in as family – homemade meals, a bed to sleep on, and an incredible tolerance of my constant comings and goings.
I’ve spent most of my time in Tel Aviv, writing by day, and by night, meeting up with people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know along the way. I’ve met kibbutzniks, farmers and virtuosic guitarists; astrologists, animators, architects, interpreters, interior decorators, shoe designers and toy inventors; I’ve worked with photographers and documentarians, trained with professional rock climbers, quibbled with bullet-wounded bar owners; I’ve heard tall tales of war from paratroopers, medics, naval navigators, and EOD specialists, from Israeli patriots and American expatriates; I’ve even been solicited for sex and tefillin in the same day.
Most, if not all of these people have a story (or two) to tell, but one man really grabbed my attention. We did not meet organically, that is, in a bar or coffee shop or through mutual friends. I stumbled upon his home while running along the beach one afternoon. His name is Nissim Kakhalon, and he is the hermit of Herzliya.
Herzliya is a pristine beach town ten kilometers north of Tel Aviv. Founded as a farming community in 1924, it is now one of Israel’s most affluent districts, largely in part to the marina that was built in the 1980s at the southern end of its scenic coast. This area boasts a spacious beach where travelers and inhabitants alike can enjoy a day in the sun, a vibrant series of coffee shops, restaurants and hotels along the newly developed boardwalk. But as you walk north, away from the boats and the boardwalk, the dunes grow higher as the beach thins out into an amalgamation of jagged rocks and ruins from the ancient port city of Apollonia – a military fortress from the 6th century BCE that served as a watch point high above the sea – an area no longer suitable for leisurely lounging. Now within these dunes – towering cliffs of sand, solidified and striated from centuries of withstanding wind and rain – about three kilometers from the marina, it is here that you will find the house of Nissim Kakhalon. This house is not above the dunes, not beside them. Nissim Kakhalon’s home is carved from inside these fragile walls along the Mediterranean Sea.
The dwelling is a feast for the eyes, a life-size sandcastle carved from within these ancient cliffs, jutting out mere steps from the ebb and flow of the tide. A mishmash of stone, coral, tires, bottles and glass washed ashore, every inch of this seaside palace was hand-picked, the beach and ocean serving as his personal Home Depot. Part fortress, part castle, part work of art, the territory is barricaded in by a three-meter high wall, an assortment of colorful rocks collected from his front yard. Scattered caves, clandestine turrets, and a single, sculpted, glass-eyed facade give the illusion of tactical surveillance. At the top of the dune sits a “Gaudian” watchtower, round and wavy in shape with intricate tile mosaics decorating the exterior. And to the south is an unfurnished porch shaded by a ceramic boat-shaped awning and zig-zagging wooden thatches – a desolate area that could easily accommodate two dozen people.
The structure – or perhaps its creator – seemed confused as to whether this was a place of seclusion, or one to capture the attention of passerbies who look upon its beauty with wonder and curiosity. In this case, it was the latter. I was eager to learn the story of this inspiring and earthen palace.
I began asking around Tel Aviv – patrons in bars and in coffee shops, people who’s couches I crashed on – but no one had heard of this man or his house of sand and stone. I was surprised, excited. How was this such a well-kept secret? I then asked around Herzliya hoping the local folk might be more privy to the sandcastle on their beach. Nissim Kakhalon, as it were, is something of a myth to Herzliyans. Most of the locals shared the same kernels of information, each varying in layers, detail and tone – some equally fascinated as I, some disinterested, some disapproving; some hailing him an enigma, an artists, a modest man, and others deeming him a recluse, a degenerate, a lost soul. Just as urban legends are recycled, rehashed and built upon the more they proliferate, Nissim Kakhalon is a modern anomaly that many believe to know, yet everyone has their own take on his tale.
The gist of the “myth” goes like this. Kakhalon is a squatter, a single man who moved to the beach forty years ago – long before the development of Herzliya’s marina and its subsequent rise to affluence – to live a life of solitude and build a place for himself on the water. They call him “the Caveman.” From the onset of his lifelong project, he has only used natural and recycled materials which he has found along the beach’s coast, on streets, in garages and dumpsters – anything he can get his hands on, assuming others consider it unwanted goods, is fair game. Local government and authorities have tried many times through the years to oust Mr. Kakhalon from his dwelling in the dune, but the consensus among Herzliyans is that he is harmless, and his work fascinating, so they allow him to live in relative peace, despite the laundry list of zoning infractions he has committed. (Keep in mind, this is the only home that is physically on the beach; all others are required by law to be built a certain distance from the ocean as to protect them from the ever-rising tides and inevitable landslides.) The only minor victory these authorities have had was when Nissim Kakhalon opened a coffee shop on the porch of his home – aptly named “The Caveman Cafe” – serving tea, Turkish coffee, and simple snacks like hummus and babaganush. The porch quickly earned its place in travel guides and “Must-See” booklets as a summer hangout, and Kakhalon enjoyed the company, not to mention the instant success of his boutique business. But as a place of public consumption, he could not keep in accordance with the health and safety codes necessary to run a for-profit establishment (nevermind the income, corporate and real estate taxes he refused to pay). And so, the short-lived Caveman Cafe fell from grace in 2008 and has since lost its page in the travel guides and “Must-See” booklets, once again becoming the not-so-humble home of a hermit. What came of Nissim Kakhalon since the demise of his cafe is the big question mark in everyone’s story. Some say the cafe was the last straw, and the government finally had means to evict the pesky squatter; some believe he abandoned the house and went to start anew on another beach; some thought he had left for the winter, but would return once spring turned; some attest to seeing him working away – as he has done all these years – from his watchtower atop the dune, roaming the beach at sunset for seashells and stones; some reckon he has since died.
Kakhalon’s legend, as told by the Herzliyans, was a helpful start in learning about the man behind this madness. But it wasn’t enough. So much was missing from this fable, so many loopholes and disconnects. This guy had been living in caverns for four decades, but what before then? What was he secluding himself from, and why? What spurred this enigmatic lifestyle? It rained for several days after I came across the house, and I scoured Google for stories, articles, anything, but only found reinterations of the Herzliyans’ anecdotes.
On the first day of sunshine, I grabbed my camera and made my way toward Apollonia. I was going to meet the hermit, that is, if he was still there.
Photos of The Hermit House of Herzliya.