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Lost in Goa

Part 2: Their passports confiscated while awaiting trial, the Israelis adjust to life in Goa

Matthew Schwarzfeld
April 28, 2010
A tourist on Anjuna beach in Goa, India, last year.(Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)
A tourist on Anjuna beach in Goa, India, last year.(Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

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 second in a three-part report filed from Goa, India. Read the first installment here.

After Shabbat dinner in Goa, the three Israelis, Elad, Nati, and Maor would normally smoke hash on the beach. But their arrest on drug possession charges has turned them to God. They have started praying three times a day, using the tefillin that Nati, the most devout, brought from home. They read prayers from a copy of a book of the psalms of David. They listen to Israeli pop music with religious messages and to the psychedelic trance group Infected Mushroom. For the first time since they landed in India, they have decided to keep Shabbat.

One Friday, Elad, Nati, and Maor go by motorbike, a half-hour before sundown, to the Jewish House in Arambol run by a Breslov Hasid named Tomer. Tomer is unlike any person of intense faith I’ve ever met. He’s young and full of life, and he wags his long sidelocks like a heavy metal drummer. Like many Breslover Hasids, he’s deeply in touch with nature. He meditates—he doesn’t say “pray”—in the fields.

The house he runs is near the center of town. A bright banner hangs between stalls over the hard dirt path from the main road. Down the path there’s a bamboo awning, outside of which sit two Indian security guards, occasionally armed. Shabbat prayers and dinner take place under a sukkah built by Tomer. Israeli children play on a small, homemade swing set. During peak season, as many as 40 young Israelis attend services. Tomer has hung sheets from the roof to block the view from outside the sukkah, but an Indian family still peeks in. Sheets also separate the sexes. Prayer books have a stenographed picture of captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit on the cover.

“I’m starting to feel the Shabbat,” Maor says, dramatically sweeping his arms over his head, a pose he also uses when people take pictures of him. Elad invites me to join. “It’s a mitzvah for me,” he jokes. They are eager to increase my faith.

Hasidic groups—mostly Lubavitchers, but also Breslov and other sects—have a strong presence in Israeli travel destinations around the world. There are Jewish homes or Chabad houses in Palolem, Arambol, Hampi, Kodaikanal, Pushkar, and all the major cities of India, Southeast Asia, and the Americas. They offer Jews a chance to spend time with other Jews, most of whom are Israelis, with a small leavening of Americans.

Late in the Shabbat service, a young Israeli woman arrives and tells a tragic story. She’s just learned that an Italian friend in India is a pedophile. She herself was sexually abused by her father and brother, she tells the group, starting when she was 4 years old. The Italian has joined the circle of Sai Baba, a controversial guru with a large and devoted following. According to this woman, Sai Baba promised to “cure” the Italian’s pedophilia, but she’s convinced the cult is actually procuring Indian beggar children for men. “I have a problem,” she pleads. “You are my country. Any support you can give.”

Nati, Elad, and Maor listen carefully to the woman. They don’t know what to say. Afterward, they start to see their own situation in a new light. Elad says, “Now Goa is my jail. But she is a beautiful jail.”

The three Israelis don’t know or care much about Indian history or culture. They came more for the raves and freedom of travel than for India itself. In one conversation, Nati confuses Gandhi with Nelson Mandela. Elad confesses that his strongest impression of India before the trip was the avatar Dhalsim from the video game “Street Fighter.” Maor’s interest in India is even hazier and more indifferent. At one point I show them a newspaper article about a meeting between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Turkey’s deputy foreign minister, but find they’re not interested in Israeli politics either. They came to India to avoid such information.

Still, they are patriotic and their political views are hawkish. They don’t believe Palestinians should have their own country, but they also don’t want to fight with the Palestinians. Elad talks about how Tel Aviv hasn’t experienced a suicide attack in over two years and how this helps him sleep easier. Before leaving Libya after World War II, Elad’s grandfather served in Muammar Qaddafi’s army unit. “Now if I go to Libya, I would be shot at the airport,” he says. Nati believes the Obama Administration’s position on clearing Israeli settlements in the West Bank is dangerously naïve and will expose Israelis to greater violence. “In Israel we know how to tell dream from reality,” he says.

The trial looms. They could be stuck in India for up to two years before they see a judge. The lawyer the three Israelis are using speaks English with a heavy Indian accent, so they have a hard time understanding much of what he says. He has advised them to plead guilty. The Israeli consulate offers little help. “It’s India,” a consular officer told them. “Anything is possible.”


Prasad’s guesthouse, where Elad, Nati, and Maor first stayed, has lately become a magnet for misfortune. Prasad’s cousin was stabbed in the kitchen by a 13-year-old kid who came from Northern India for the tourist season. To ward off further evil, Prasad and his mother hung cloth effigies around the perimeter of the guesthouse. But it still takes the three Israelis a while to find the will to leave.

Meanwhile, Oleg, the Russian staying at the guesthouse, feeds their paranoia about the outside world by reminding them about Brendan and about a Kurdish Turk named Kasim, who visits prostitutes and sports apocalyptic tattoos, like one that reads “The Future is Now.” Every afternoon, Oleg does his own voodoo: rounds of the perimeter, spraying the foliage with a noxious chemical to keep the bugs away from his room.

So, the Israelis head to Palolem, 50 miles down the coast. On the way, they meet Hilel, a soldier from the Givati Brigade who is finishing a six-month tour of India. Most of his time in the army was spent in Gaza, securing homes of suspected terrorists. He says Indians remind him of Palestinians, except that the Indians smile at him if he smiles at them. More than anything, it’s the smell of India—not the turmeric, jasmine, and burning sandalwood smell of India, but its open sewers—that reminds Hilel of Gaza. Everywhere he went in India, he says, the smell of Gaza followed.

Joining Elad, Nati, and Maor on the trip to Palolem is Nathan Sokoloff, a Dutch-Canadian Jew who was arrested the same night as the Israelis and met them in the Mapusa jail. Nathan traveled through villages along the west coast of India from Mumbai to Anjuna, often by himself. He had been in Goa only a couple days before he was arrested for smoking charas on the beach. He said the police encircled him and tried to plant drugs in his bag.

Amused that I know nothing about drugs, Nathan tells me how travelers smoke cannabis in India, where the hash comes in a little waxy ball. The most popular method, he says, is to use a chillum, a clay or stone tube with a cylindrical piston and gauze mouthpiece for a filter. Smoking a chillum is a ritual of significance. It forms unions between people.

On the trip, Nathan and Nati, whose sister is a Lubavitcher Hasid, talk about religion. Nati believes there was once a time when mankind all spoke one language. Sometime before the Book of Exodus, he tells me, the language that all mankind spoke was definitely Hebrew. Nati loves The Lord of the Rings, and it clearly colors his view of the fundamental narrative of human history. Neither Nathan nor I are practicing Jews, but we both believe the universe has an energy that moves people and things around, occasionally in a harmonious way.

Nati believes in cultural diversity, but his real passion lies in Jewish exceptionalism. “If you’re Jewish, you’re chosen,” he says. “It’s like the army. You can’t run away.” He travels with a book, published in Hebrew, that puts essays by Israel’s founders—Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachim Begin—next to texts from the Bible and Koran, and writings by Gandhi and Mandela. Nati tells me that he doesn’t read religious writing by non-Jews.

“God is like this car,” Nati tells me in a taxi on the way to Palolem. “There is no car, there is no us. But the car is also time. Without this car, we’re not here. This ‘now’ doesn’t exist.”

“What if the car crashes?” I ask. “Should we then fear God? Or are we dead?”

“God is not fear,” Nati says. “God only brings happiness. Man creates fear.”

At the market in Palolem, in the early afternoon, a fat Russian brandishing a bottle of Old Monk rum signals he wants us to drink with him. We meet one of Prasad’s Indian friends, who owns a guesthouse, and he implores us to stay, but the Israelis find the price too high. Prasad’s friend pouts, then sulks away. The Israelis decide this is a negotiating tactic. “They love to play with your emotions,” Nati says.

We end up sleeping at a place called “Cocktails and Dreams,” which sits along the string of beachfront guesthouses almost directly next to the entrance to the market. But the guesthouse turns out not to be friendly to Israelis, who are known to linger, make lots of requests, and even cheat waiters. One waiter there tells me that when his manager is out, he posts a “No Israelis” sign in Hebrew. He much prefers Russian and British travelers, who tend to make shorter stays and drink more heavily.

Oddly, the waiter, who has a chipped front tooth, gives different names to different people. He tells the Israelis to call him Ariel and that he’s from Jerusalem. He tells me to call him Jefferson, and that he’s from Arkansas. I learn later he’s Nepali, and a former Ghurka. He’s stocky and wearing a tight red shirt with the “Cocktails and Dreams” logo, which resembles the one used in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.

Nati, who wears his shoulder-length hair in a loose bun, decides to pick a fight.

“You need to shave,” Nati tells the waiter. “You don’t have a good appearance.”

“You need a haircut,” the waiter replies.

“How much is a haircut?”

“One billion shekels,” the waiter says, with a weird laugh.

“I don’t like his humor,” Nati says, but only after the waiter has left. The waiter is the first Indian or Nepali we’ve met who physically outmatches Nati.

“You need two days,” Elad says. “Then you get their respect.”

Nati calls his aggression toward Indian waiters “Israeli rude,” and it makes him proud. Maor displays visible chauvinism toward female travelers. Elad lets it all slide. His friends amuse him, and he realizes that rudeness is something Nati and Maor can agree on. The trip is revealing that Nati and Maor can’t stand each other. They were never friends—Elad was their only link. Maor’s seeming inability to grasp the severity of their situation infuriates Nati, and Nati’s judgment infuriates Maor.

Elad and Nati are grasping the idea that if they’re going to live in Goa until the trial, they will need to adjust their lifestyles. Maor daydreams that he’ll get his passport and return to Israel soon. He has been spending a lot of money on new clothes. He meets an Israeli woman and spends most of his time with her. Nati avoids him by reading and playing soccer on the beach.

After the arrest, Elad got a cell phone to call home and stay in touch with the lawyer. The lawyer has been working on their case, but the Israelis are having a difficult time understanding exactly what’s expected of them. Can they leave the state without their passports? Their case hasn’t been assigned to the right judge yet, but the lawyer tells them they still hope to work out a deal to plead guilty without jail time. The trial could be in 2012, or it could be sooner.

Most of the calls to the cell phone come from Israel. This means that when they’re at the guesthouse, Elad is constantly looking for Nati and Maor to tell them that their parents called. When we go hiking one day without Nati and Maor, Elad feels free for the first time in a while. The trail leads to a waterfall to the east, near a state border. Near a place called “Treetop,” his phone buzzes to let him know he has a text message.

“Welcome to Karnataka,” it says. It’s an announcement from AirTel, the phone’s wireless provider, that we have strayed outside of Goa. Elad laughs. But later he starts to worry. What if the police get their hands on his mobile? Is he in violation of a court order? As we return to Palolem, he deletes the incriminating message from his phone.


Not long after, Elad’s mother intervenes from Israel to hire a fixer with decades of experience in India. His name is Hilik Magnus, and he’s a retired Mossad agent who runs a search and recovery operation for Israeli travelers. Most of his cases involve drug cases and “flip outs.” It wasn’t hard for Elad’s mother to find him. Problems can be fixed because of Hilik Magnus. Some say he has conducted as many as four secret missions to release Israeli prisoners held in Thailand, even though he looks like a garden gnome in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

In Anjuna, Magnus meets with Nati, Maor, and Elad and tells them the truth: Goa is your jail today, tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future. But it’s also paradise, so it’s time to start loving it. He shows them around Panaji, 10 miles south, where he suggests they settle, and promises to help them look for an apartment.

On Magnus’s advice, Elad and Nati decide they want to take a cooking class and a course in English. Nati’s animosity toward India mellows. He buys a T-shirt with a picture of Gandhi, which he wears to Shabbat dinner at Tomer’s house. But Nati worries that even if the judge promises no jail time, anything could happen. Elad starts to wear a kerchief on his head and thinks about his 10-year-old brother, who will be alone at home now that Elad’s other brothers have started their military service.

Maor, meanwhile, thinks about the future in his own way. Every day his longing for home grows. He chases women and talks about Israel a lot. Maor still infuriates Nati, but he brings out a more “shanti” approach from Elad, who seems concerned. Magnus knows the lawyer well and pressures him to work harder to secure the right judge, which is key to the Israelis getting their passports back. With a little luck, their stay in Goa will be over soon.


Back at Tomer’s Shabbat service, a former Nahal agent—the only person who speaks English there that evening—pulls me aside and says, “You need to see this.” He leads me down the beach, through a blanket of palm trees that whistle, to a small Israeli-owned spot called Woodstock Village.

Woodstock looks like a normal guesthouse: a restaurant surrounded by 13 bamboo huts. The people who live in the huts are in hiding. They went to the places that Maor, Elad, and Nati successfully avoided, and here, a world away from Gaza and the West Bank, they are free to compare scars and total up what they can still believe in. I see guys praying and guys doing heroin, which is something I have only read about in books. Woodstock is a community of people who have been badly hurt. I stay for two weeks, which becomes two months, until it starts to feel like home.

Tomorrow: At Woodstock Village, a certain kind of healing.