On a red chair in the sea.
On a red chair in the sea. Photo by Alon Ron
Text size
related tags
Alon Ron
Swimmers at Bograshov Beach last week. Photo by Alon Ron

At dawn they gather on the Bograshov Beach in Tel Aviv. They are not numerous, most of them have been retired for a long time, they speak Russian and they know the secret, the secret of the red chairs. They carefully guard this secret so others won't discover it. They are afraid that if someone high up, in the municipality or the government, hears about it, they're in trouble.

First on the Tel Aviv promenade are dog owners, panting walkers and joggers who keep checking the heart-rate monitors attached to their torsos. They perspire and are probably already thinking about the omelet and finely chopped salad awaiting them at home. Completing the landscape are group after group of Russian immigrants melodiously speaking their language.

Gordon Beach is empty, Frishman is deserted yet Bograshov is lively and noisy. "The chairs here are free of charge," says Valentina, an elderly woman of 87 who comes to catch a breeze at 7 A.M., revealing the secret. "That's why so many Russians come here, of all places."

Valentina immigrated to Israel three years ago from Yekaterinburg, a city in the Ural Mountains that commemorates the name of Czarina Catherine (Yekaterina ) the First, wife of Peter the Great. She speaks not a word of Hebrew, lives on Matalon Street in Tel Aviv and every morning takes a bus that lets her off at Bograshov Beach. Here she swims, splashes in the water and mainly meets her friends.

One of them, Bracha Rubel, speaks Russian but is already a veteran in Israel. The "Russians" regard her as almost a sabra. She is very tanned, doesn't reveal her age and swims every morning, all year round, for an entire hour. She comes by bus from Givatayim and looks happy: "I have an illness and the sea helps me a lot," she says. "There were times when all the men here wanted to play paddleball with me. I had a very strong serve but now I'm already too old for that."

Most of the swimmers at Bograshov Beach are women. Group after group of woman friends and a few men who meet very early every morning on the beach. Fani is a widow of 73 who came 20 years ago from Jurmala, a city in Latvia on the shores of the Baltic Sea, not far from Riga. "It's very cold in the sea of Jurmala," says Fani, an attractive, tanned blonde with a good figure.

"We're a group of friends who all year round, without exception, meet here, swim, talk, argue and then go home. I live in [Tel Aviv's] Bloch Street, another couple lives in Ramat Gan, and others in all kinds of places in the area. I walk from Bloch to the sea and back. It's good for my health."

Ella Gelfer, almost 70 ("and I already have great grandchildren" ) comes from Lod by bus. She gets up at a quarter to five and by 6:30 is at Bograshov Beach. Every day. She does the crawl and after swimming runs to work in Tel Aviv, where she takes care of an elderly man. She also immigrated 19 years ago from Yekaterinburg. "There I worked in President [Boris] Yeltsin's group," she says.

Gelfer said that she caused a "revolution." "Yeltsin is from my city and we worked in order to replace the government. I would travel for him from one place to another in the Ural Mountains to speak to people, and was even beaten several times.

That's how we brought about the revolution. My name appears in the archive in Moscow as a political activist. I had a great deal of respect for him and he had a great deal of respect for the Jews."

Leonid, one of the few men at Bograshov Beach, came to Israel from St. Petersburg 20 years ago. He is 56 and dreams of retirement so he can come to the beach more often. Meanwhile, he still works at the Tel Aviv municipality and therefore gets to the beach only three times a week. But he doesn't reveal the secret even to his superiors.

Surprisingly, in the midst of the Russian crowd there is only one French couple: a woman from Paris with gleaming blonde hair and her tanned husband, who doesn't talk. They have moved their red chairs far from the Russian group and turned their backs toward them, so nobody will think, God forbid, that they are also "Russians." Nor were they pleased about carrying on a dialogue with the local media. The woman said that it doesn't interest her, while her husband nodded in agreement and turned his head toward the sun.