THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND GRAPHIC DEPICTIONS OF VIOLENCE. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
For all the criminal activity in Hatikvah, the south Tel Aviv district that is one of the centers of Israeli organized crime, there’s nothing quite like Shabbat in the neighborhood. One cool Friday evening, Eli Waizman–the childhood friend of Ilan, my guide to the underbelly of Israeli society–insisted that I come spend Shabbat dinner with him and his Moroccan-born father on Rehov Roni, just off Rehov Etzel, the neighborhood’s main artery. Hatikvah was nearly silent on Shabbat evening. You could smell the sumptuous meals simmering on stoves and the children laughing in the little one-story, ramshackle homes. I mentioned to Eli that I thought the English translation of Shchunat Hatikvah had a beautiful ring to it—“The Quarter of Hope.”
“Fuck that,” Eli said. “There’s no connection between the name and the neighborhood. We say, ‘This is the neighborhood of No Hope.’”
Eli had been a promising professional kickboxer in America. In 2000 and 2001, he fought out of the Louis Neglia stable in Brooklyn, but as he told me there’s very little money in being a pro fighter. He wasn’t enjoying life in the States, hated the New York winters and the grind of managing a Manhattan porn store and training every other waking moment. He returned to Israel in 2001, and started selling cell phones, earning more than his parents did. He doesn’t live in Hatikvah anymore, but in the nearby Yad Eliyahu (“Hand of Elijah”). When I visited, Eli could be found several nights a week, making the scene in Bar Lansky, the packed Tel Aviv nightclub named after the infamous Jewish mob boss who in the early 1970s tried, unsuccessfully, to claim asylum in the Holy Land in order to avoid an IRS prosecution.
A trend for underworld-inspired “dance bars” recently swept Tel Aviv; another popular velvet-roped spot was called EscoBar, its logo just a tight shot of the late Colombian druglord’s killer stare. (Standing under a framed portrait of Meyer Lansky in a 50s fedora, sipping Grey Goose and Red Bull, Eli laughed when I asked him if, a decade from now, a new crop of sexy Israeli girls would be winding their hips in a bar called “Rosenstein” or “Alperon.”)
Though certainly no crime boss, Eli clearly likes to see himself as walking in the footsteps of neighborhood protector, Yehezkel Aslan. He once painted a line in the street outside his father’s house, announcing that no narcoman—“drug addict” in Hebrew— was allowed to cross the spray-painted divide. There’d been a spate of break-ins by heroin junkies near Eli’s father’s place, and, more than once since the line-in-the-cement had been drawn, Eli has kicked the hell out of some addict trespassers.
“Eli, he’s very dangerous,” Ilan once told me. “At a certain point in a fight, you understand, he’s getting crazy and you just can’t stop him. To me fighting is a technique and art, and if you fuck with me, I’ll fuck you up. But Eli, he’s different: he really likes to hurt people. It was worse when we were kids, he used to carry around nunchucks, Chinese stars, all kinds of crazy knives.”
But on our Shabbat stroll through Hatikvah, Eli was loose-limbed and mellow, telling me about a brush he had with Rosenstein the King not long before his arrest and extradition to the States. Eli had been weaving his motorcycle through heavy midday traffic when he pulled up at a light next to a Mercedes sedan. Not recognizing the car as one of Rosenstein’s armor-plated vehicles, Eli reached inside his motorcycle’s compartment to find a cell phone he had to drop off at a nearby office. He glanced at the face three feet away and he saw the mob kingpin freezing in terror: the Wolf with Seven Lives thought he’d seen, in this wiry son of Hatikvah, his final assassin. When Rosenstein’s bodyguards began drawing their pistols, Eli raised his hands to show that the only thing he had in his hand was a fully loaded Nokia.
I asked Eli if he remembered the 1980s, when Aslan ran Hatikvah, building heroin treatment centers (while the cops, simultaneously, considered him the country’s biggest smack importer), and financing the popular Hatikvah soccer team, B’nei Yehuda.
“Yeah, in the old days, things were much smoother,” Eli said. “There was respect. They used to kill each other, but over something. Now these young motherfuckers, they’ll kill each other over nothing.”
We’d been walking for a few minutes when a figure in a dirty blue soccer shirt rushed at me from the shadows of a nondescript bar, hand outstretched, barking in a manic tone of voice. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t Hebrew he was shouting, but Russian. The Russian narcoman went to grab my sleeve, apparently taking me for an easy mark for a fast mugging.
Not wanting to overexert himself on the Shabbat, Eli made a quick pivot, locked his powerful grip on the Russian’s bicep and then bodily moved him out of my path as easily as a chess piece. The Russian waved a fist and took a telegraphed swing at Eli, but Eli merely slipped the punch, then shot out a straight right hand that sent the Russian stumbling six feet down the street.
Tomorrow: Part IV of Holy Land Gangland: Israeli Crime Goes Global