Garden State: Tel Aviv Rooftop Farmers Find the Answer to Our Fresh-food Needs

Communal living in an old city building includes an experiment in sustainable farming roof and an open-air cinema next door.

When Ofir Brom, 30, moved into his rented apartment at 11 Zvulun Street a year and a half ago, it was your usual neglected south Tel Aviv flat. Located in a narrow building a couple of doors from Levinsky Street, it had faded painted floor tiles, dead roaches laying on the steps, a deserted roof and an internal courtyard that was shared with the neighboring buildings, in which nothing grew aside from several cats. Across the hall lived an alcoholic neighbor who raised potted plants on the roof.

Brom had just returned from a prolonged stay in Europe. His mother was less than pleased at the smell of the building. “She made faces and pestered the landlord, but I knew that nothing would come of it,” says Brom, a friendly fellow with a quiet mien. He sports a beard, earring and a colorful tattoo of a male fairy on his leg. “I saw the neighbor across the way sitting out in the yard on a moldy sofa right in front of a pile of trash, so I cleaned up a bit. Then I cleaned up the stairwell. My mother said, ‘Cool, let’s work on the roof, we’ll paint it and then we’ll have our family dinners there.’” So Ofir painted the roof.

His roommate, Ran Zarzevsky, offered to bring in a few plants. They bought NIS 20-worth of seeds and put a sprouting tray down in the yard. “We very quickly realized that filling the planter we built with soil would cost us NIS 100. It didn’t pay to do it,” explains Brom. Another friend brought them two hens; one of them died. So a month and a half later they bought three more chickens, including a rooster, and built a coop out of some wooden boards they found. (There is a small mirror in the coop. The rooster, Brom notes, really likes checking out his reflection.)

Since that time, the house at 11 Zvulun Street, which has earned the sobriquet “Zvulun Balagan” (a play on words: Balagan means ‘chaos’ and Ba lagan means ‘come to the garden’) has become something of a local institution.

The roof is full of potted plants. There are cucumbers, 50 kale seedlings, a variety of cacti, Common Purslane − which serves as chicken feed − and tendrils of a watermelon bush climbing up one of the wooden poles that holds up a large, shade-providing curtain. From the regular roof you can then climb a ladder to another roof surface on a higher level, where the heavy purple-black eggplants are threatening to snap the stalks on which they are just barely hanging, and the sweet peppers are calmly turning red. A shaggy white rug with a few black pillows occupies one spot that is free of plants.

The chickens are still there, downstairs in the yard, along with some furniture that has been gathered from here and there, a black composter (toward which the chickens rush whenever it is opened, in an attempt to nab some tasty roaches) and also soil mixture for planting.

A nursery with which they have a relationship allows them to snoop through the piles of soil intended for disposal. They remove unwanted materials and then add fertilizer. Ofir and his friends would no longer consider paying NIS 100 to fill a planter with soil.

For a while they were eating the eggs, but collecting them was a bit erratic and the hens began to roost on them, which then produced chicks. One day, Brom predicts, the hens will also find their way onto the lunchtime menu, but in the meantime no one has found the courage to slaughter them.

This summer, they were eating a lot of beet leaves and Swiss chard from the garden, tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants. All told, Brom’s partner, Iyar Semel, estimates that the roof currently supplies approximately 20 percent of their nutritional needs.

They plant seasonal plants and also practice a form of benign neglect: they allow the plants to spread their seeds, and are happy with whatever results they get. That is how they ended up with flowers, purslane and lettuce. “Everything that grows in Israel is controlled,” says Brom. “Lettuce in Israel is never allowed to grow to the stage where it produces seeds. There are no simple lettuces here.”

The partners Brom, Semel and Zarzevsky, all of whom live in the building, sell potted plants and operate the “Garage Cinema,” a weekly screening of films in a small parking lot adjacent to the building.

A student they know is responsible for downloading the films; they advertise the weekly feature via Facebook; and they themselves see to it that the dog poop is cleared from the area. Beer is sold at NIS 15. A yoga class is held on the roof once a week, and the partners share the profits with the instructor, who is a friend of theirs.

It is not a business. Nevertheless, the partners claim they are managing to recoup their expenditures on the roof garden, which are not particularly high. “If we feel like it, we’ll get some seeds, maybe NIS 20-worth. And we get some gifts, too. We received a NIS 400 water bill for two months’ use, but this roof produces NIS 200 per month to cover the expense,” explains Brom.

Do you look at the economic feasibility? What will happen if there is no income for a few months?

“There is economic, ideological and personal feasibility. Economically, it’s the Garage Cinema and the sale of potted plants. Ideologically, it’s growing food, sustainability and all that.

“If an experienced farmer would come here,” he continues, “it could be more organized and productive, but part of the ideology is the testing: First of all, is it possible to do this, and will everything turn out okay? And the personal feasibility − you come home in the evening and you have a place to sit down. If we didn’t care for the roof, everything would be crap here. You’d have a disgusting sofa, and that’s where it would end.”

Brom does not work, at least not in the customary sense. “Ever since I was young I would travel a lot, and between my trips I would work and work, like my parents. Until I decided to enable what is called the realization of personal potential. To see why I do get up or don’t get up in the morning, why I do or don’t leave the house. I developed this along ideological lines. I don’t have any more bosses. Either I work with a friend, or with my father and mother, or I am doing something that I am simply doing.”

He constructs pergolas and is a removals man: when money doesn’t come in from odd jobs, he calls on his mother. He estimates that the roof and the yard steal about eight hours of his day. And what about the neighbors? “So far there haven’t been any complaints.”

In keeping with the spirit of the project, the division of labor at home is not constant, either. “There is no irrigation rotation here,” says Brom. “Neither is there any dishwashing rotation. Each person comes up, sees what’s going on, and works. Plants can also die from too much water, so you learn.” A “jar of plenty” rests on top of the refrigerator − anyone who wants to puts money into the jar, and anyone who wants to, removes money from the jar. Beneath it is a page taped onto the refrigerator door declaring that an overnight stay costs NIS 15. “I did that simply because at some point this place turned into a railway station,” Brom relates. Other friends came together to care for the garden; they help if and when they feel the urge.

If Brom simply goes with the flow, his partner Semel − a heavily dreadlocked and tattooed musician, who spent years wandering through life in communal homes around the world − has a well-thought-out doctrine, one he is happy to share. The son of Noam Semel, the director general of the Cameri Theater, Iyar Semel was introduced to the alternative life following his army service, when he traveled for music studies to a Australian tourist town called Byron Bay. There he crossed paths with a “gang of hippies who lived in harmony with the land. They changed me, and completely so.”

They lived in a cooperative house and agreed to teach Semel how to live in a house in which everything is shared. “A few years ago, I considered the issue of the difference between plenty and waste, and wondered what the difference was,” he says. “With plenty, you have a lot of something, and that is also the case with waste. In my opinion, the difference is that if you share it, there will be plenty, by virtue of the sharing. Nothing will be wasted.”

In the past 10 years, he estimates that he has lived in 100 different houses, among other places in Cuba and California. “There are people who would say that I didn’t have a home. I say that I’ve had many homes.”

The great thing about the communal garden, explains Semel, is its sustainability. “This is the solution to the ills of the Western world,” he declares. “The problem is not that people live in a city. The problem is the sustainability. In permaculture circles, they talk about how the city can be a great deal more sustainable than the village, because people live close to one another. If they would only take the trouble to cooperate and to place an emphasis on maintaining their economy − the home, the block, the neighborhood, the city, the state − there would be a dramatic increase in quality of life.

“My parents live in the old north [of Tel Aviv]. They have cultivated gardens there with ornamental plants, but that does not feed the people. All of this is going on at a time when all of us are hungry, when walking into an AM:PM or a restaurant is so very expensive.”

Ilya Melnikov