The Inimitable Hermit House of Herzliya, Part 2

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!




The Inimitable Hermit House of Herzliya, Part One

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.

From the Holy Land to a Hole in the Land

I’m sitting, cramped and crooked, in the aisle of a bus from Eilat to Tel Aviv – a six hour trip – and I figure now is as good a time as ever to start writing about what I’ve seen and experienced in the past couple weeks (hopefully it will also help to take my mind off the numbness in my legs). Today is my birthday, so Paul, Stu and I are booking it up north to celebrate in Israel’s city that never sleeps. Let’s take it from the top…

We broke from the group in Jerusalem two weeks ago to wander the streets of the Old City, one of the most historically significant plots of land to the western world. Our goal was to enter or exit through all seven gates surrounding the walled city, which is only one square kilometer (1/3 of a mile). In doing so, we hit all four Quarters, each with some epically historic sites to see. There’s the Dome of the Rock in the Muslim Quarter, an area sprinkled with colorful graffiti and winner of the Most Interesting Street Market Award (fried heart anyone?); the Jewish Quarter, where you’ll find the Western Wall (aptly nicknamed “God’s Facebook wall” with hundreds of thousands of personal messages carefully rolled up and tucked into the nooks and crannies of this 20-century old structure); the Christian Quarter, which is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was (read: may have been) crucified and (possibly) buried. (When hearing stories about the sites around Israel, most bold statements are capped off with a “said to be” or “could have been,” which often detracts from their historic credibility, but adds an alluring mysticism and some room for thought.) And lastly, there’s the Armenian Quarter… the Armenian Quarter.

These landmarks, the Temple Mount itself, and the narrow winding walkways built entirely of pale limestone make Jerusalem’s Old City a breathtaking site of pilgrimage for all three major religions. It’s inspiring to witness the raw emotion that this city – a tiny piece of ancient land – can evoke from Israeli soldiers, Greek mothers and Algerian farmers alike. It’s a testament to how small the world once was, and how similar, at their core, these religions are ideologically and geographically. Even if you are not religious, the fact that western society essentially began on this very mount of soil – and the collective spirituality that this idea provokes – is a Kool-Aid worth taking a sip of.

Photos from Jerusalem.

From Jerusalem we travelled south in a bus chock full o’ Israeli soldiers to Makhtesh Ramon in the Negev Desert. (Ever talk to a girl sporting a loaded semi-automatic rifle? Cross that off my bucket list.) Makhtesh is loosely translated as “crater” in English, but this is misleading, as the term “crater” suggests an explosive indentation in the surface (think meteors, volcanic eruptions, etc.). A makhtesh, on the other hand, is uniquely created by gradual erosion, formed by cracks in elevated layers of limestone under which the sand blows away, leaving gaps (craters) that grow larger over millions upon millions of years. Makhtesh are unique to the area around the Dead Sea (i.e the Negev Desert and Sinai) – making Makhtesh Ramon the largest in the world! – and so, the universal term for this geological phenomenon is… makhtesh!

Sorry for the National Geographic moment, but the landscape views are unlike any other in the world and it’s worth mentioning to appreciate the pictures. After millions of years, it’s more than just limestone and sand on a mountain, but fossilized life forms, volcanic remains, red clay and several other gorgeous stone structures that make for this incredible landscape. It really puts the relativity of time into perspective, that these rocks have been building, breaking and reforming since dinosaurs roamed the Holy Land.

After the hike, it was sundown, and we wound up smack in the center of a highway. Our only options were to walk twenty miles in the pitch black, or hitchhike back to town. So we stuck out our thumbs, and lo, the first van to pass – albeit with shades covering the back seats from seeing in or out – stopped, let us in, and the rest is history. (Actually, I’ve heard that hitchhiking is pretty common and accepted in Israel, so I might be doing some more of that along the way!)

In Mishpeh Ramon – the city on the edge of Makhtesh Ramon (and the only civilization for miles) – we stayed at a hostel called “The Green Backpackers,” where we met a washed up, twenty-something ex-pat named Spencer. Spencer, a journalist by trade, has bummed around Israel for the last eighteen months, landing in obscure locations wherever the wind takes him. Paul, Stu and I arrived at the hostel with an ambitious four-day itinerary to stay in Mishpeh Ramon for the night, head through the Negev to Eilat in order to cross into Petra (Jordan) for a day – one of the seven wonders of the world – and hustle back to Eilat in time for a Shabbat bus ride to Tel Aviv for my birthday. But price, timing and a general desire to stay off our feet after two weeks of running around strayed us from that plan. Instead, our convincing journalist friend told us about a slice of heaven about forty kilometers across the Egyptian border. A little place called Sababa Camp in a Bedouin village loosely referred to as Nuweiba. The next day, we were on our way to Egypt.

Photos of Makhtesh Ramon.