Club Med

Gangsters and brokers, Hasidim and Chabadniks, secret lovers and married women on a night out - they all mingle in Plaka, Tel Aviv's hottest venue for Mediterranean music

"I want you to please sit down on the chairs," house deejay Gidi Gil implores the crowd of 250 people who came to see Ofer Levy's performance at Club Plaka in Tel Aviv two weeks ago. But the audience refuses to obey. Gaudy women continue to salsa next to the stage as though they were finalists in "Born to Dance" and robust men send them drinks of vodka and grapefruit juice. "Dancing only after the intermission," Gil repeats, but no one is interested in cooling down.

A few hefty security guards try to carve out an air passage to the stage. "We are proud to present the one and only O-fer Le-vy," Gil bellows. Levy is now more moderate than he was when he first turned religious, making do with only a skullcap. He emerges from a corner of the hall wearing a funny jeans jacket over even more amusing jeans pants along with a head covering in the form of a cap. The crowd storms him and the gorillas push everyone back. He takes the stage, warbling "It Breaks a Man's Heart" and everyone in the club feels in direct touch with heaven.

Couples aged 30 or 40, groups of gangsters, smooth-talking brokers, Mediterranean-style singers at the outset of their career - all pour onto the dance floor, declaim the lyrics in hoarse voices. They ogle the girls, who have obviously spent hours in front of the mirror, as though they were going to their best friend's wedding: perfectly done hair, revealing lace blouses, long fingernails in all the colors of the spectrum, high boots and lots of makeup and gold.

Suddenly there is a loud commotion at one of the tables: Two thickset men of about 30 are facing each other with mutually menacing expressions. From another corner, a few more toughs run over to the table, and the smell of a fight is in the air. Instantly, four expressionless security men seize one of the principals, drag him quickly to a back room and give him the heave-ho through a special exit. He can forget about coming here again.

Like Tsavta for the left-wing Ashkenazi crowd, Plaka has become the venue of choice for Mizrahi - Mediterranean-style - performers, and its iron-hand methods have helped keep it going for the past 17 years. The club has hosted all the greats of the genre, from Zohar Argov in the twilight of his career to Haim Moshe and Margalit Tzanani to present-day stars such as Eyal Golan, Shlomi Shabat and Sarit Hadad - singers who have by now conquered the mainstream but continue to appear before a small, loyal crowd at Plaka.

"Plaka is the temple of Mizrahi music, the Palace of Culture," says impresario Asher Reuveni, a veteran figure in the industry. "Everyone has tried to imitate it, everyone is terribly envious of it, the owners are admired by the biggest tycoons, the biggest criminals, the biggest gamblers and the biggest performing artists. When a top artist appears at the club a lot of Mizrahi singers show up. Sometimes they take the stage for a duet, like in the top jazz clubs in New York."

One big family

The club was named by underworld figure Yaakov Alperon. "The first incarnation of the Plaka," Reuveni relates, was as a club called Tiffany and it was managed by Amos Masika, who was later murdered [Masika, a mob figure, was murdered along with his brother Moshe in Tel Aviv's shabby Hatikva neighborhood in 1982]. Alperon came into the picture in the middle of the 1980s and totally renovated the place. He called the club Plaka, after the taverna neighborhood in Athens. In his time there were bingo nights and unknown singers. The club was not a success. Alperon had neither the time nor the ability to get it off the ground.

Ofer Levy, then a soldier in the Golani infantry brigade, who appeared under the stage name of Ferdy, remembers Plaka - which has always been located in the basement of an old industrial building on Soncino Street in Tel Aviv - from its early days. "Every day I would take a minibus taxi and buses to get to the club," he recalls. "I would go on as the last singer, at 3:30 A.M. Zohar Argov was already betting on me then and would always invite me onstage. I didn't have an album yet, but 500 people a night would come to see me. A year later, in 1988, I put out my first record."

Plaka underwent a facelift at the end of the '80s. New partners came in, including the owner of an adjacent restaurant, Yossi Saadoun, and the owner of Harmony, a Mizrahi club. They decided to emphasize the musical repertoire, and a new principle was introduced: only established artists who had put out a number of albums would appear at the club.

"I have been appearing for 15 years already," Haim Moshe says, "and I don't do clubs on principle. But at Plaka they work at the same level as abroad. They have standards. It's not like a concert hall there; at Plaka you can really let go. I remember that Chuck Norris showed up at one of my performances and danced in front of the stage. And another time [the Greek singer] Glykeria was there."

Sarit Hadad: "I started at Plaka eight years ago, after my fourth album came out. I feel sentimental about the place. There's a family atmosphere, you stretch out your hand and touch the audience. It's a very intimate experience, just like Tsavta. People tell me they are waiting for me to perform at Plaka; it's really home."

Why do top artists like Sarit Hadad need a club that seats 250? The singers don't need the money, explains the club's present owner, Rafi Mor; what they want is the trust of the audience. "The Mizrahi audience is treacherous," he explains. "An artist who doesn't perform in the clubs is forgotten and not invited to private affairs, which is where the big money is."

Like many of the employees, Mor, 35, also got his start at the club when he was doing his military service in Army Radio. "I started off as a waiter here. I was born in Jaffa Dalet [a disadvantaged neighborhood] and suddenly I encountered a glittering world I didn't know existed. It really confused me - I had no idea people like this even existed. It dazzled me. The idea then was that when a couple went out to a club, the more money they left there, the more they felt they had enjoyed themselves. In the Mizrahi world, everything boils down to ego, and at that time the culture was money. A couple would spend NIS 1,500-2,000 at a table."

After working as a waiter at the club for a few years, he left for a hotel career in Eilat, returning when Plaka's owners offered him the position of manager. "After a few months I told them, 'This isn't for me. What is it with all this Mizrahi culture of honor?' But in the end I stayed, and seven years ago I received an offer to come in as a partner. Over time the other partners left and I remained as sole owner."

A year and a half ago, in the spirit of the times, Mor informed his staff that he was taking a break. The destination: Costa Rica, directly to the spiritual village founded by Tyohar (Moshe Kastiel), who is famous in these parts as the guru of basketball star Doron Shefer.

Is it to heal the damage to your brain cells caused by listening to too many hours of Mizrahi music?

Mor: "For years I have been reading books about Osho and Buddhism. One day there was a TV program about Tyohar and half a year later I was already there. I did workshops for four months. I discovered where true happiness lies, what life itself is, without all the crap. I was cleansed. I calmed my ego. I wanted to go on living there, but the employees sent me weepy e-mails. I felt like a parent who betrays his children, and came back to Israel, but in the future I plan to buy a plot of land in Costa Rica."

Indeed, the Plaka staff feels like one big family. "I had a club called Middle of the Night," Reuveni recalls. "They would sometimes show up at four in the morning and take a table. By 'they' I mean the owners of Plaka in the past and the present, their friends, managers, waitresses, security guards, the whole lot. They would leave tips of hundreds of shekels, lavish money on the singers, anything to keep them singing. I yelled at them, 'Five in the morning - go home,' and they would say, 'What home, life is beautiful' and drag me to the Yo Yo Club in Tel Aviv, which was open until 8 A.M. Instead of coffee, we drank whiskey. Then they asked me to write them a note for their wives saying they had been with me."

A wives thing

It's a wintry Friday night, and hundreds of revelers are standing on the sidewalk and blocking Soncino Street, which in the past was a main artery in the area of the massage parlors and gambling dens of Tel Aviv. Ethiopian youths fuel themselves with vodka and energy drinks, a colorful group of gays are primed for another wild night, sophisticated girls in wool skirts and men in designer shirts - all are trying to get into their favorite club: Plaka, Tmuna Theater, the Powder Club and two black music spots.

Standing at the entrance to Plaka are four beefy Russian security guards. After a rigorous check, the would-be guests are passed on to the "selector," Suzy Torbiner, a Plaka veteran, who prefers to admit couples and mixed groups and will veto men who show up alone or in packs. "My intuition has developed fantastically," she says. "You can't fool me. Sometimes I get curses and threats, and on nights like that I need an escort home. The really heavy guys say, 'Just you wait, I'll send my sister.' That's how it is, even the biggest arsim" - hyper-groomed punk types - "won't lay a hand on a girl."

Another security check, NIS 75 to the cashier, and then down the stairs into the basement hall. The atmosphere is that of an elegant banquet hall from the 1970s: huge mirrors, wall-to-wall carpeting, a ceiling covered with aluminum slats, and a few seating levels. One more security check and the hostess chooses a table. The extensive menu includes platters of French fries and the like - throwbacks probably to be found only at Plaka these days - and platters of sliced vegetables for weight-watchers.

Around midnight, Eyal Golan takes the stage, wearing jeans with huge pockets and a highly decorated T-shirt. "I invite the electrifying Ramzi to the stage," he calls to a lean fellow who goes onstage with a darbuka. Golan launches into a medley of Zohar Argov songs. At Plaka he usually reverts to his early days as a singer performing Mizrahi classics, before he was discovered by the hit machine of the Ethnix group. He sings of suffering and generates nostalgia for the King.

There are several security men between the stage and the dance floor, but Golan manages to pat the heads of the dancers and get notes from the crowd. "Natalie," he says, "who is Natalie? There is a greeting here for you."

"The Mizrahi world loves hearing their names over the microphone," Mor says of the notes culture. "It's like a million dollars for them. These days, if you heap a table high, it doesn't impress people. Anyone can order half the menu."

Natalie and her girlfriends continue to conquer the dance floor. With all due respect to the tough men, the women of Plaka are the major force in the club. "Don't you sell sandwiches in the Central Bus Station?" a girl with a deep cleavage wonders, using an opening line that the writers of "Sex and the City" could only dream of, and her big-bodied girlfriend has no hesitation in urging, "Go for it."

Iris Elbaz, a gorgeous 28-year-old with long hair, painted fingernails and a winning smile, explains what makes the Plaka girls let go. "I feel sure that no Arab or druggie will talk to me. I have been coming here for two years and I have never seen a fight. I would never be capable of going to a club alone. Here I know I will be protected. I feel like I'm at a family event here, the wedding of a sister."

Married women also come to the club alone. "I first came here five years ago for a girls party," says Etty from Ashkelon, "and since then I have been coming every week. If I don't show up on Thursday I will feel in my bones that something is missing. The next day I will call straight off to ask how it was, and then I will come that night. There is no such thing as being without Plaka once a week. In Ashkelon, in contrast to Ashdod, there are no respectable places to go for a good time. Here we feel at home. It lets me be more free than in the bars of Tel Aviv."

"Even if some guy starts up with you," says her friend Yaffa, from Ashdod, "you feel that you are in first class. He will understand that I am married and leave. Not like all those low-lifes who say, 'What, you're married? Poor kid.' I have a rule: any place where there are arsim and criminals, I don't enter."

Etty: "There is no such thing as being harassed here, none. Just the wives come here. My husband has never been here once. But he lets me go. In fact, this is the only place he is not worried about me. If I were to tell him I was going to a cafe, he would prefer that I stay home."

How does the club protect its women guests against harassment? "Our crowd is Mizrahisti," says Plaka manager Ilan Eliahu, 36, who started working at the club as a dishwasher when he was 16. "The girls who come here look like a million dollars, with their nails filed, and sometimes you can see their panties. You will say that is frekha behavior" - referring to the mega-coutured equivalent of the ars - "but that is the standard. She wants people to come and look at her. The Mizrahi crowd is more aggressive, but they protect a girl's honor."

Mor: "Girls alone attract problems. Sixty percent of the chaos in the clubs - the crime, the violence - occurs because of girls. Plaka allows in only couples or mixed groups. The world's biggest criminal will show up with his girlfriend and even if he drinks, he is 50 percent calm." The swingers get the message. "Even if I come alone, I will not start up with anyone here," says a young man with closely cropped hair. "You can look, but even that is risky."

No jeans or sneakers

Just before the deejay invites Sarit Hadad to the stage, Plaka's central table is already full. A young man is celebrating his birthday with friends. Here too, the girls set the tone. Dressed in miniskirts and leather boots, they dance sensually, stroking their partner's head. A close look reveals that the guys are wearing black skullcaps, and some even have beards.

"We are a group of friends from Jerusalem and Bnei Brak who like to go out in Tel Aviv," one of the God-fearing group says by way of exegesis. "There are Lithuanians, Hasidim and Chabadniks among us. Half the girls at the table are our wives, fiancees or partners. You may find it strange, but it's the truth. What do you think, that our girls are different from the secular girls? There's no difference. We don't care what anyone thinks, but here no one will recognize us. Every week we send SMS messages. The owner of Gat Rimon in Tel Aviv is our friend, and so is Mendi Katan, a Chabad Hasid and the owner of the Allenby 40 Club. On Thursday night we will party until morning and on Shabbat we will go to the synagogue. There is no contradiction between these worlds."

There are interesting mixes at just about every other table. A man with graying hair is sitting with a young blonde woman who has a heavy Russian accent. The beauty is not concentrating on Hadad's warbling, but is fiddling with a platter of cheese with her long fingers. "A lot of men come to Plaka with their lovers," one of the revelers discloses. "There are no photographers here, and entry is very selective. The chances that your wife's aunts will spot you here are pretty slim. Here he will give her respect and pamper her, and she will feel like a queen. Just what lovers are after. When there is no lover, you pay for a lover."

A thick-fleshed young man with muscle-bloated, tattooed arms sways his head slowly as he dances, as though pressing weights in a gym. There's a cap on his head, his hand holds a digital camera, and cuddling up to him are two peroxide blondes. Mor, taking no chances, asks one of his undercover security guards to keep an eye on him.

"I have between eight and fifteen guards here, depending on the singer," he explains. "People who show up in jeans and sneakers stay outside. Even if two people in a group of 20 don't look right to us, the whole group will be sent home."

Aren't you losing income like that?

"I am thinking long-term. If I were to let them all in, I would make crates of money, but I don't want that. I don't hire a security guard who is less than 1.90 meters tall. It's enough for someone to make a threatening face - my security people tie him up and give him the heave-ho. A club owner is ego-driven and a criminal comes and responds at his level. I am not like that. Rafi is a good boy. I don't speak their language. To this day I don't understand why they kiss me."

He also knows how to handle the big-time underworld figures. They will generally take a side table at which they sit with their partner, and they will have their own security man. "The top guys respect places. They all have 700 years of suspended sentences, so they won't get involved in nonsense. The problem is with the small-fry, their soldiers. In the past few years, not many top underworld figures have come here. And even if they have, do I know them or something? You won't see me rushing to the door to give them a hug."

It's four in the morning, but Levy refuses to conclude his set. A fellow named Moshe goes onstage and takes the microphone. "Will you marry me?" he asks his girlfriend and the crowd responds with applause. Avi and Rachele, who are sitting on the upper level, join the well-wishers. Their love life, too, is connected to Plaka. "We met two and a half years ago at the entrance to the club," Avi relates. "She dropped 300 shekels, I was at the entrance, we got to talking and that's how we met."

"I don't care about the stigma," Rachele says. "A dentist has a stigma, too." One of the guests at the club comes over to the table and asks Rachele for the phone number of her hair salon and then moves on. Rachele wants to continue the evening, but Avi pulls her by the hand and gets her off the sofa. The platter of fries on the table is orphaned.

Half an hour later, Levy will leave the stage, the deejay will play MTV hits and the guests will still be on their feet. No one wants to go home. Eliahu and Mor stand at the bar and check the night's accounts. A few women examine their chances with the owner, but this morning the enlightened one looks hard to get. Two women of about 40, wearing brief sweaters that expose well-tended midriffs, take their leave of the others at the table. The sun will soon be coming up and they have to get back to Be'er Sheva. "Next we week we won't be here," they apologize, "we're spending the weekend with our husbands at the Princess Hotel in Eilat."

"A weekend without the Mizrahi scene?" asks one of the men at the table. "Don't worry about us. Five stars, but Itzik Kala will be performing there."W