When Israelis complete their mandatory military service, many of them take flight to the beaches of South America, Asia, or India, where an informal network of veterans, hostel owners, and rabbis shepherd them back to civilian life. This is the first in a three-part report filed from Goa, India.
Maor Hagay is homesick in India. He’s a handsome young Moroccan Jew from where Jaffa used to be who avoided his Israeli military service through a series of weird injuries that he would rather not explain. The real reason he ran away, his friends told me, was that he would have had to serve behind enemy lines in Gaza.
Maor loves Israeli music, food, the whole bit. He is so homesick that he can barely leave his room. The weather is perfect: Sunny, cloudless, and 90 degrees with very little humidity, as it is almost every day in Goa, a small state on India’s western coast. He is at a beach resort, but he doesn’t swim because of his new tattoos, which include lines of barbed wire across both biceps and a word in Indian script that he believes is his name inscribed along the length of his spine. Instead of going swimming, Maor sits alone in his room at his computer, looking at photos and listening to music by Israeli pop artists. The photos on his computer screen are from his first month in India, before he was arrested.
There is no shortage of Israeli head cases in Goa. There are said to be 30,000 Israelis traveling in India between October and March of each year, during which time the IDF could easily muster a unit of Israeli backpackers for a Goan field operation. The Israelis who are most screwed up after leaving the army—those who served in special brigades like Nahal, which combines military service with social welfare programs—often enclose themselves in undemanding protected spaces within Israel proper, working on a kibbutz or delivering pizzas in their hometowns. Everyone else goes to chill out somewhere beautiful, warm, and far away from Israel. The ones who are into climbing mountains go to South America. Those who seek to disappear with no redemption look to Thailand. India is for young stoners in search of some mystical experience by way of pot, acid, and Breslov Hasidism. India is a decompression chamber that keeps these young Israelis from imploding and revivifies them so that they can rebuild themselves and function in the civilian world. They tend to travel a circuit called the “Hummus Trail,” which stretches up India’s spine from Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, in the south, to Manali, Himachal Pradesh, in the north, through Hampi, in Karnataka, and Pushkar, in Rajasthan.
Back when he was in the military world, Maor went into the office of the Israeli army psychologist and begged not to wind up like his older brother, who served in Gaza and didn’t come back. Maor believes his actions were brave. But in the context of a society where all young men of his social class are expected to serve in the army, he is a coward.
Maor is of medium height with short hair and a long stitched-in braid down his back that makes him look like a Jedi Knight. People call him the Black Boy of Tel Mond. He has dark skin, and his family is poor. He’s here in Goa with his two friends, Nathanel “Nati” Ezra and Elad Koren.
Nati is a wild man. He’s tough, sharp, and funny, even though he looks like a caveman. (“My grandfather lived in a cage,” Nati jokes.) Nati has a broad chest and large head, with ears the size of saucers. His hands are big enough to snap open a coconut. He wears cartoon shirts, like a “Chef Goofy” T-shirt with Goofy energetically stirring a mixing bowl with the accompanying messages “It’s only silly 9-cents” and “Wholesome meal in a box.” He’s also a sharer. I met him because he offered me a smoke from his hookah. I proceeded to knock over the hookah, which is a tendency of mine, but Nati only laughed.
Elad has gentle features, blue-gray eyes, and a straight nose perched over an even smile. Before the army, Elad’s weight of 265 pounds was the butt of Nati’s jokes, but now he’s down to 155. Elad is 22, Nati is 24, and they’ve been best friends for 18 years. They, and Maor, are from Tel Mond, a village of around 15,000 people near Tel Aviv, built on top of what was once the Biblical city of Jaffa. They’ve been in India one month.
For now, Elad and Nati are sitting with Prasad, the manager of their guesthouse in Anjuna. The Sai Prasad guesthouse is owned by Prasad’s father, who never once shows up during the course of my two-week stay. There are 13 rooms situated around a closed courtyard of red stone. The walls are off-white with red, yellow, and blue trim. It’s a pleasant spot.
The three Israelis say they owe Prasad everything. They love him like a fourth brother. Prasad is in his late thirties and has very large and prominent ears. He bailed Maor, Elad, and Nati out after three days in a Mapusa jail. Prasad also found them their lawyer, the best in Goa, he says. Before the arrest they would all sit in the courtyard, looking at the ocean, smoking the hash derivative called charas with Brendan, a California cannabis farmer who came to India to smoke dope.
Maor, Elad, and Nati were arrested in this courtyard six days ago. A Delhi woman in her early twenties had died of a drug overdose near a place called Shiva’s Valley, just down the beach. She was from a wealthy family, and her father, who is connected to a local member of parliament, spurred an investigation into how foreign tourists were influencing the drug trade in Goa. The result was a spate of arrests across Goa, over a one-month period, which rounded up the three Israelis. Brendan was with them at the time of their arrest, but he got away.
The Israelis spent three days in a private jail cell, where they slept on concrete slabs three meters long by one meter wide. On one end of the cell was a filthy squat-style toilet, something they had never seen before. On the other end, some bars in the wall separated them from the outdoors. For three days, they hardly ate for fear the jail food would make them sick. (They all keep kosher.) By the end, they were covered in mosquito bites and deeply affected; jail in a strange third-world country was an unfamiliar trip for them. They had no idea why they were there. And now they won’t talk freely about their experiences.
Nati became obsessed with the details of the police report. He studied it like a puzzle. He became convinced the police fabricated the arrest report to inflate the quantity of drugs. In order to protect Prasad, whose father is a member of the local Panchayat, or caste government, the police had also changed the location of the arrest to a nearby city. The report said Nati carried 20 grams of hash in his pants pocket when he was arrested. At the time, though, he was wearing pocket-less exercise shorts issued during his army service.
Together, Maor, Nati, and Elad fantasize about winning their trial. They want to beat India. Alone, Nati obsesses over the pocket-less shorts, Maor dreams about leaving India and what he’ll think of it when he gets home, and Elad is focused on recovering their passports and money, which the police confiscated. Their bail conditions prohibit them from leaving Goa.
Goa has become a global tourist destination. Many Israelis and Israeli-run restaurants and guesthouses remain all over Goa, but Russians now outnumber Israelis, as do Scandinavians, Canadians, Australians, and Germans. Goa is easy to navigate, its beaches are pristine, things are cheap, and during the non-monsoon peak season, from October to March, the weather is ideal. It’s crowded with tourists, but not crowded in the Indian sense of the term, and many foreigners come to India only for Goa.
Some restaurants in Goa post menus in Hebrew, but most of the keyboards in Internet cafes are now in Russian, and I met only one shop owner who speaks Hebrew: Shimon at Shimon’s Falafel in Arambol. Outside his restaurant, Shimon hangs a signed picture of Mosh Ben Ari, an Israeli pop musician who pioneered a style known as “shanti” (for the musician’s long hair) in the mid-1990s. The meaning of “shanti” as used by Israelis is hard to peg but might best translate to “chilling out” or “taking it easy.” Shanti people often like to smoke marijuana and listen to Bob Marley. They wear baggy clothes with complex stitching and slacken their concern for material and grooming matters. Israelis use “shanti” to describe the carefree life people seek in India.
Some Israelis wind up here by accident or word-of-mouth, looking for the cool places where their older brothers went and where the members of Infected Mushroom, a popular trance band that blends elements of Radiohead, the Grateful Dead, and electronic music, might be found. Maor, Nati, and Elad fall into this category. Others Israelis, the ones who are badly screwed up from the 2006 Lebanon War, or from serving in special units, are sent here through networks of older veterans, who fought the first Intifada, or served up through Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. The Israeli Defense Forces don’t maintain networks to send kids suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to India in order to chill out and get high. The army has ways of keeping tabs on the kids, through a semi-formal network of insurance companies, hostel owners, and rabbis who minister to lost souls. They do drugs and share their experiences until it feels safe enough for them to fall apart. In Israeli circles, this exorcism is known as “flipping out.” A person who has already flipped is called a “Falupe.”
Nati and Elad planned to travel in India for six months; Maor for only two, because he is poor. Maor sold his car and everything else he owned to come here. They settled in Anjuna precisely because there were fewer Israelis here. They wanted to meet people from all over the world. Nati loves Judaism. Maor loves everything about Israeli culture. When he’s relaxed in a restaurant, smoking a cigarette, he often says, “Now, this feels like home.”
Israelis tend to carry their country with them. Maor has packets of Israeli coffee that he prepares every morning. Elad carries cans of tuna fish. Nati brought his tefillin and prayer books. He also promised his mom he wouldn’t “lay with Goys” in India. Maor promised himself he’d try everything. Elad promised Maor’s mom he would take care of her son.
But after the arrest, their priorities changed. Wounded, they became more adamant about their Israeliness and sought other Israelis for support. They began to distrust Indians and came to hate everything about India except Prasad and his guesthouse. Their friendship suffered, too. Maor pulled away and became more and more self-absorbed. Nati’s humor turned to anger. With their legal fate in doubt, each day brought more reason to worry. Brendan, the American, was their closest friend during the month before the arrest. He was in their room when the police came, and 10 grams of the hash on the bed was his, but he left the room before the arrest. Only Elad ever spoke to him after that, and only to say, “You have to leave, now.”
Brendan has since been replaced by Oleg, a taut Vladimir Putin lookalike from Ufsa, Russia. At the beach Oleg wears 1950s-style bathing trunks and oils up his hairless torso so it gleams. He is winsome in every way. He talks incessantly, but he doesn’t know any English, so he rambles in Russian, punctuating his thoughts with an inimitable laugh. The Israelis understand a little of Oleg’s Russian from what they learned from friends who emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel in the early 1990s.
Oleg’s only English sentence is “I go fishing,” and Oleg loves fishing. Every morning he casts from the rocks using frozen prawns as bait. Prasad, the guests, and all the Indian women and children selling jewelry (and men and boys selling DVDs) on the beach watch him in perplexity. He brings a spear so he can kill his catch with due mercy and expediency. Oleg used 70,000 rubles, some $2,400, in casino winnings to pay for his holiday and paid Prasad up front for an entire year. In the afternoons, Oleg walks the perimeter of the guesthouse’s courtyard, spraying bug repellent in the bushes. At night all five of us get drunk together. Oleg shows softcore porn stills to Elad and Maor while trying to sell them on the idea that there is no difference between Jews and Russians. It is unclear if he’s trying to buy their souls.
The three Israelis don’t believe nationality had anything to do with their arrest. But I wonder. Sex and drugs in Goa foster resentment. Before arriving in Goa, I read a pamphlet called “Claiming the Right to Say No: A study on Israeli tourist behaviour & patterns in Goa.” It’s an anti-Israeli tourist screed issued by a local group called The Students of Rachol Seminary. The pamphlet is difficult to get through. It accuses Israelis of implausible things, like importing drugs into Goa from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and for being responsible for the local sex trade, which is allegedly organized by Israeli backpackers who are said to travel by land to Goa from Israel through Mumbai and Pune.
The sex traffic in Goa is just as visible as the drug trade. I was offered sex with a child on the very first day I arrived in Goa, even before I was offered drugs. The Israelis I met showed no interest in the sex trade. They wanted to understand what had just happened to them in the wars they fought in, or avoided. Their method was to get high and listen to Radiohead’s “Standing on the Edge of Time” and to learn from older veterans—some of whom were married and had children of their own.
For a long time, traveling to India was a dream of mine, too. I don’t exactly know what I was looking for, but as with many travelers, I found something that put my life on a different path. I went to places of religious and historical significance and tried to learn everything I could. I came to love the people, their food, and their culture.
Israelis come to India under different circumstances than I did. The screwed-up ones come here to empty themselves out. They come here because they have to. Chances are high that they will end up at a campsite run by an older Israeli who understands their trauma and tries to structure their experience before summoning their family to take them back home. This passage offers a bridge from the army—as well as a childhood shadowed by anticipation of service—to a nascent adulthood of university applications or job hunting.
But Maor, Elad, and Nati carried a great shame with them to India. Maor avoided service altogether. Elad decided he didn’t want to serve in a combat capacity, so he switched to a military police unit and finished his three years of service as a guard at a training base. Nati, who for his whole life had wanted to be a fighter, completed eight months of combat training only to find that strict discipline turned him off. Then, faced with a drug test he knew he’d fail, Nati made a plan. He complained about a sore tooth at the base infirmary, where he managed to persuade a dentist to extract a molar, so that he would be sent home. When he returned from his leave, he transferred to a noncombat army job. He says that he’s too jolly to carry a gun.
Tomorrow: The three Israelis leave Prasad’s guesthouse behind and meet a man who might help them.
Matthew Schwarzfeld is a New York-based writer.