I approached the house from above, thirty meters over the narrow beach – Apollonian ruins to the north, the Sidna Ali Mosque due south. Sandy walkways weaved their way from the top of the cliff down to the shore, some leading to dead ends as landslides sent them crashing down. Standing above the house, you cannot actually see it as there is a yard separating the walkway from the edge of the dune. This yard is where Nissim Kakhalon’s territory begins. The first line of defense is a beautiful arrangement of prickly palm-like plants, cacti topped with beat-red bulbs, and low-growing ferns; the second line of defense is a rusty barbed wire fence making it perfectly clear that this is private property. (At one time these wires were jerry-rigged to a nearby electrical pole that now lay sunken in the dirt, covered in foliage.) Within Mr. Kakhalon’s fence is a barren yard of unkept grass, a couple cobbled huts, and a sailboat without its sail. It was still unclear if someone was presently living here.
As I gingerly made my way down the southern side of the property, the distinct sound of rattling chains came from the middle of the yard. Peeking out from his little hut, rising from his slumber, stood a grumpy old watchdog. He stared at me, in one moment motionless, and in the next, sprinting toward the fence like a bat out of hell, barking his brains out. He wasn’t gnarled or mangy, he was simply doing his job, that is, informing his owner of the stranger approaching their territory. I imagined the ireful beast bursting through the rusty fence – I get serious anxiety around big, angry dogs, as I am of the opinion that they can, in fact, smell fear – but his chain halted him just short of the wiring. He stood right in front of me, his resonant huffs echoing down the cliff. I hastily made my way to the north side of the fence. He followed me, his chain the exact length needed to conveniently circumnavigate the entire yard. My heart raced, now feeling, knowing, that I was being watched. Someone was living here, and it made me more conscious of what I was doing: attempting to enter a perfect stranger’s home unannounced.
I slid down the dune and approached the seaside entrance, the 9-foot wall of stone, glass and shattered pots. Every turret, every surface, every dwellable orifice – even the bulbous metal fixture above the cafe – had something resembling a window that faced outward toward the beach; and yet, you could not see into any of them. Much like a childhood treehouse, or a fort made out of pillows and blankets, Nissim Kakhalon had designed his palace in such a way that you could not see him unless he wanted you to. I suspected the old man was looking out, watching me – or for that matter, everyone who passed by – silently contemplating in one of his many hideouts. I surveyed the property, looking for any signs of life, save the dogs (yes dogs – there was another one snoozing below the tower). But there was no one, only a magnificently gargantuan sandcastle.
Then, what I saw – or rather, who – took me by surprise. Two young men poked their heads out from the walls of the Gaudian watchtower. My mind raced as I considered who these men might be, even convincing myself at one point that they very well may be Al-Quaeda. All I knew was they were not Nissim Kakhalon.
The men watched as I trigger-happily snapped photos of the hermit house, then disappeared back into the tower. Minutes later, the younger of the two walked out of the front gate and sat on the steps, as if inviting me to speak with him. So I did. “Excuse me, what is this place?” I asked dumbly, as if it were my first time passing by. He was very kind and shared the same old story, but I probed, wide-eyed, hoping for more about the caveman, not his caves. Then, I asked the million dollar question: “So what is it you are doing here?”
The two men, as it were, have been filming a documentary about Nissim Kakhalon and his life’s work. (Go figure I am not the only person out here fascinated by this guy.) They have been filming for over a month now with no end date in sight. That is, they wrap once they have ninety minutes of quality commentary from one man, a stubborn old hermit. It could take a while. But the filmmaker appreciated my interest in his subject and offered to give me a grand tour of the vernacular mansion. Jackpot. I was in.
He showed me where the infamous Caveman Cafe once was; Nissim’s garden of garlic, thyme and various herbs and vegetables; the cavernous hallways that tunnel in and out, up and down the cliffside; the pristine, mosaic-laden guest’s quarters (think palatial bedroom inspired by Gaudi); the abandoned kitchen of the cafe, a ten-foot tribal figurine carved into the trunk-like support system; and a disheveled work-in-progress which he referred to as “David’s room.” David is Nissim’s eldest child – he has three – who Nissim has recently “reconnected” with. He is thirty-one and lives in Chicago, but Nissim has been building this room in hope that David might one day live with him – to take over the family estate, so to speak. An utter and complete act of faith. Nissim spoke highly of David – a rarity as he didn’t speak positively of many people – and hopes that David will follow in his father’s footsteps. The filmmaker then asked, “would you like to meet Nissim?”
We walked up through the caves, down, then up again to the tower. Nissim Kakhalon was not watching the world pass by in one of his hideouts, as I had suspected. He was balancing on a plank between two chairs, wearing a cutoff Pepsi t-shirt (his wardrobe is a “vintage” second hand store’s wet dream). He was working on a mosaic tucked in a crevice under the tower’s roof, spending this day as he did everyday, building, creating, tending to erosions. Despite all the effort he has put into this stream of caves, lounges, huts and viewpoints, he mostly resides in his humble, albeit messy, quarters within the watchtower, where he has his bed, books, functioning bathroom, stove, oven, furnace, sink, fresh produce from his garden, and an incomparable sunset view. When he arrived at the dune forty years prior, he did not intend to build a grand palace. But each one of his structural creations has been a means to a simple end: keeping his hands busy, expanding his knowledge by putting one foot in front of the next. A man with no formal education, he remains one of the only successful autodidactic architects on earth. A modern day caveman.
He took his time in setting down the tray of cement he was mixing, then extended his wet palm. “Nissim,” he said. His callused and crackled hands were those of gorilla, so ginormously disproportionate to his body they seemingly weighed him down. In the hours I watched him working, he was never without a hand-rolled cigarette resting between his lips, like a pacifier, seldom wasting the time of his hands to remove it. He had a thick, white beard – which pictures attest, he has had since he was young – and covered his densely curled black hair with a velvety blue beret. His eyes had molded into slits which pointed toward the center of his bushy brow from years of working under the sun. And from beneath his shirt dangled tzitzit – when I later asked him if he was religious, he replied “of course! If I weren’t religious I’d be crazy by now.”
I expressed to him my admiration of his work, but he just shrugged. “I take nothing and build something,” he replied, and continued working on his mosaic. He had a helper with him, a French woman, his friend’s wife. A ceramicist herself, she is a huge fan of Nissim’s work and enjoys helping him whenever she can. Between myself, his helper, and the filmmakers, it became clear that Nissim is not a hermit in the conventional sense. He welcomes company, namely of those who admire him, or rather, his work. After all, it’s been five lonesome years since Nissim’s livelihood was stripped from him by “a schmuck of a mayor” (his words), who has “taken everything from him.” He is referring, of course, to his porch, aka The Caveman Cafe (1989-2008). Without the steady flow of coffee-drinking admirers, Nissim’s legend, so to speak, has faded from the public ear. Faced with his own mortality and an empty porch, he now relies on a crew of young filmmakers to spread the gospel of his life’s work – an insurance policy on the immortalization of his myth.
Nearing sunset, I joined the filmmakers by the shore as they recorded Nissim’s ritual of roaming the beach, collecting coral and seashells. After they left, I stuck around. Nissim was happy to have the company and prepared fresh orange juice for us as the sun set. Nevertheless, the style of our conversation was much like a Q&A, as he had little interest in me, or what I was doing there. I asked questions, he’d ask “what?” I would repeat the question, and he would answer, sometimes monosyllabically, sometimes in diatribal tangents; occasionally while tending to his backaches or tired bones, and many times while banging on the furnace with a wooden stick to loosen the soot in its vent.
He spoke of his past with equal parts longing and resentment, recalling his youth when he was “strong like a bull”; when he worked as a boy on his father’s farm. He remembered his days as a foot soldier in the Six Day War, nearly dying for his country in the fray of Jerusalem; the eight years he spent in America, the demolition work in Chicago, refurbishing antiquated French townhouses in New Orleans; he remembered Mardi Gras, and the best jazz music he’s ever heard. Then there was the unbearable smell of the cities, the busses, the noise and pollution. He told of the hermit house’s genesis – like the three little pigs – starting with straw beach huts in the summers, then wooden cabanas, adding caves and clay, then finally cement and stone, the culmination of which came in the form of a life-size, live-in stegosaurus. He spoke proudly of his dinosaur, the first fully sustainable structure he built out of the dune, which gave him the will to press on, to abandon family life in America and seek a deeper connection with God and the earth. He spoke apathetically of his American ex-wife, Rhoda, a pill popper with whom he split to return to the dinosaur when his first-born, David, was six months young; ranted lividly of Eddie, the man who lived in The Stegosaurus when Nissim was a family man in the states, whom Nissim nearly strangled to death upon seeing that his monument was eroding from improper care. He spoke scornfully of the mother of his two younger children, who crossed her fingers when telling him she was on birth control; reminisced nostalgically of when his army-bound eighteen year old son, Moshe, was just a kid, full of potential, and didn’t live “like a mouse,” sequestering himself from the world in his “myPhone” (“It’s no way to live”). He thought back to his first eight years of seclusion when he had no electricity or running water, the nights he spent reading the Torah by candlelight, praying for rain to travel underground to his well; the fifty-some men and women he has saved over the years from the ocean’s vicious currents – they would have drowned had he not been there. The fresh fish dinners-for-one cooked hours after catching them during his afternoon sail in a sea that has long since dried up of its rich marine life reserve. When there were no hotels obstructing Herzliya’s shoreline, then one, then three, and so on. Before the marina, before the boardwalk, before the coffee shops, before the schmuck mayor and her vendetta.
Ah, those were the days.
The hermit of Herzliya is a cynic through and through. Stubborn, painfully nostalgic and impossible to please, he seldom spoke a kind word of anyone or anything in the present tense. There were, however, two exceptions: David, his American son, and the female ceramicist working with him, his friend’s wife. Each seemed to represent something to Nissim – an ideal – that is, a child to carry on his legacy, and a woman with whom to grow old. After all these years of solitude, hard work, and prayer, Nissim Kakhalon longed for family above all, to make amends with his son whom he abandoned so many years ago – to teach him, discipline him, pull him away from the western world he himself once fled. He also desired companionship, a helping hand around the house. These are high hopes, of course, but I couldn’t help to sympathize with him. He had done something spectacular with his life, something enigmatic, but at a tremendous price. Just as he has created this wondrous palace, so too has he given up (and/or lost) a great deal, now left with no one to share it with, and desperate for someone to care.
Rest assured, Nissim Kakhalon says he is determined to open the Caveman Cafe’s doors once again this summer, despite the schmuck mayor and her state-sanctioned prohibition. As far as company goes, these passerbies may just have to suffice. But one thing is for sure: they will all be amazed at the inimitable hermit house of Herzliya. And the myth shall live on.
Viva la Caveman Cafe!