Beat This: How a Tel Aviv Nightclub Became a World Favorite

The Block has become a symbol of sane, liberal Israel. Owner Yaron Trax on its battle for survival.

Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz
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Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz

It was supposed to be a victory night for Yaron Trax, the owner of The Block, a popular Tel Aviv club. The club was reopening after a forced 30-day closure by the police, a decision that had sparked a public furor and campaign to overturn it. On top of that, the Grammy-winning American house music DJ and producer David Morales was making his first appearance as the club’s resident on that April evening. The party was held a few hours after the decisive court hearing in a lawsuit filed by the state against the club. The police shut it down in late February after an undercover officer documented drug deals there ‏(and in five other clubs‏).

For the 42-year-old Trax, this party could have been an opportunity to detach from the criminal drama and enjoy his achievements. But, he recalls, at 2 A.M. he started “to feel bad, woozy, and I fainted at the entrance to the office. I was sure it was a heart attack and that my end had come. What went through my head was ‘They got me.’ I thought about my son and then I lost consciousness. People took me home, I could barely move. The next afternoon, the lawyer Michael Sfard called and shouted, ‘We won!’”

Trax opened The Block at its original site, in south Tel Aviv, five years ago. It soon established itself at the vanguard of Tel Aviv club culture, which has been blossoming in recent years and now regularly hosts the world’s leading DJs. The mainstream media in Israel tends to ignore the phenomenon, not only because of its late hours of activity but also, as the sociologist Sarah Thornton writes in her book “Club Cultures,” because “dance cultures have long been seen to epitomize mass culture at its worst.” The relevant music, she adds, “has been considered to be standardized, mindless and banal, while dancers have been regarded as narcotized, conformist and easily manipulated.”

Trax complains that he suffered a substantial financial loss because of the closure. But what he lost in money he more than earned back in free publicity. In fact, the media exposure following the exposure − first focused on the police accusations, later on the pro-Block public campaign − made the club the symbol of liberal, sane Tel Aviv. Even the ruling by Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Guy Hyman acknowledged this. “The Block is a central institution of the city’s nightlife,” Judge Hyman wrote. “This after-midnight life offers a large array of positive phenomena, resulting from a combination of a young ‏(and less young‏) crowd, quality music, performances by artists and a vibrant city, whose reputation as a center of round-the-clock activity has spread far and wide ... We find here an aspect of Israeli life that is generally not reflected through the narrow lens of day-to-day life.”

The police recommendation to shut the club permanently was rejected. The charges of drug dealing were almost forgotten in the course of the struggle for the club’s reopening, which assumed a human-rights nature.

“Finally we have something we love in this stinking, horrible world − the ability to lose yourself a little in a dream − and now they want to destroy that, too,” Trax says. “I was so moved when I read the judgment that I cried. It’s written like poetry. Someone called it the ‘declaration of independence of nightlife,’ because a lot of people felt afterward that they could come out of the closet and don’t have to be ashamed to be part of this. We dance, we don’t hurt anyone.”

The club has since returned to regular activity, its parties more packed than ever before. “Knock on wood, I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this in the scene for quite a few years,” Trax smiles. The high point was two and a half months ago, in a party that hosted four of the resident DJs from Berghain, the Berlin club considered by many to be the best in the world. “[The DJ] Ben Klock played until 9:30 in the morning,” Trax recalls, “and there were still dozens of people on the floor when he finished.” Many of those who were at that party say it was a milestone for the local scene, an unforgettable night.

‘Walls of fear and silence’

Trax relates that he learned about the shutdown of the six clubs in Tel Aviv around Purim. ‏(The police issued temporary closure orders − which do not require court approval − alleging the clubs were arenas for drug dealing, including the “date-rape drug” GHB, and then went to court to ask for permanent closure orders.‏) Trax asked an employee to call the police business licensing department to find out what was going on, but the reply was vague. Two days later, Trax was summoned to a police station to meet with the licensing officer.

“The police claimed that an undercover officer had documented drug deals in the club. We were given an administrative closure order, without a trial. I was shocked. We weren’t given a chance to defend ourselves, and we were also not told that the meeting was an official hearing and that we were entitled to have a lawyer present. After that, the police refused to meet with us or to let us see the evidence. When we finally did see it, we discovered that there is no mention of the ‘date-rape drug’ being found in The Block.”

What difference does it make which drugs they seized? The point is that drugs are illegal.

“Because the headline given at the press conference [held by the police] was ‘because of the date-rape drug’ − not just ‘drugs.’ Some people said that if that’s the case, we deserve to be shut down. But that was a lie, slander. That wasn’t what they found, and nothing like that [rape] has ever happened in The Block. I felt that they had damaged my reputation.”

Trax decided to respond via Facebook. “I published a post, which got 2,000-and-something likes − about the hearing that never was and the date-rape drug that never was. I spent five days on that post. I didn’t sleep. I consulted with lawyers, I Googled laws, I checked everything and I honed every word. I wanted to avenge the club’s good name.”

It was not just a post. It was a manifesto, of more than a thousand words. “It set in motion the wheels of the campaign against the shutdown,” Trax says. “There was talk in the industry about ‘Yaron the naive idiot, who is making mistakes again.’ Friends called and said I should drop it. My partners also pleaded with me. I was stunned by the walls of fear and silence. Why, in 21st-century Tel Aviv, in a supposedly democratic country, are people so scared? I decided to be the kid who shouts that the emperor has no clothes. I was raised on values of truth and honesty, and I felt like I had been mobilized. And when the knife is poised above your throat, you fight for your life.”

The intensification of the struggle against the closure became a cause celebre. Clubbers felt offended. “A secret group of them, who wanted to help, was formed on Facebook,” Trax recalls. “People wanted to volunteer. MKs like Dov Khenin [Hadash] and Nitzan Horowitz [Meretz] wrote to the police commissioner. Someone in the government also helped, but asked to remain anonymous. I felt like I was the owner of Google in terms of the number of people I had on my side. At one point I had a battery of five pro bono lawyers, a PR firm on a volunteer basis, guys who carried out guerrilla actions in the social media. A campaign started on Instagram of people who were photographed carrying ‘Save The Block’ posters, including DJs from abroad like Todd Terje and Nicky Siano. Gilles Peterson and Louie Vega published Facebook posts. I was interviewed by 12 radio stations during two days. It became an issue, no one talked about anything else.”

What did the authorities want from you?

“Maybe the police thought it would be good publicity for them, because 90 percent of Israelis don’t know anything about the Tel Aviv club scene − for them it’s just rape and violence. Maybe they were counting on our silence. There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories. It’s beyond me what exactly happened.”

Didn’t you know there were drugs in the club?

“Obviously I knew, I’m not naive, but I don’t remember any club in history where there weren’t drugs. We didn’t sell, and I didn’t want dealers in the club. If we suspected someone was dealing, we gave him the boot. At New Year, a few months before the shutdown, police showed up to search for drugs in the office, the storeroom and the artists’ lounge. They didn’t find anything. A few weeks later, I heard people making a drug deal in the artists’ room − I have no idea who let them in − and I told security to kick them out. One of them almost hit me. An employee filmed the whole thing on her phone. In the meeting with the police we wanted to show them the clip, so they could see how we fought against dealers. They refused to view it and claimed we had supposedly turned a blind eye, because we didn’t call them immediately.

“We heard that they had asked the court to issue a permanent closure order − again without talking to us. They tried to prevent us from opening in other ways, too. There was a feeling of warfare.”

In the decisive hearing before Judge Hyman, Trax notes, “The police tried to give the judge intelligence information, according to which one of our employees was a cocaine dealer. I know the guy. It’s like saying my grandmother is an astronaut. Ridiculous.”

Trax admits that drug use does not bother him per se. “I will not tell people whether to use or not. People should think what they want to do with their body by themselves,” he says. “Our responsibility is to make sure there is no dealing going on in the club. The real problem is lack of awareness. People use drugs without understanding exactly what they are doing.

“I met with the Anti-Drug Authority and offered to cooperate. When they talk about the subject, people don’t listen, but they might listen to us and then be able to make more responsible choices. The battle against drugs failed, and if people are going to use them in any case, let them at least have the relevant information.”

Maybe the guards at the entrance should do more thorough searches?

“Even with the most thorough search you can’t check what someone has in their underwear. The guards do their searches properly. There are rules and regulations, they are briefed by us and the police.”

And what’s the situation now?

“There are no accusations against us at the moment, but to get a business permit you need the police OK. As far as I understand, they are willing to give us an OK if we carry out their demands, which include adding more cameras and guards, sawing off the bottom part of the doors in the washrooms and having someone designated by us check the area of the washrooms, where the [drug] deals were documented.

“We are deferring the court procedure together, in the hope that we won’t have to return to it. A certain tension still exists, but two weeks ago the police chief of the Tel Aviv District and the regional chief came to the club with 10 more officers before a party started. There was a feeling of reconciliation. I hope it’s a sign of a new era of cooperation.”

Not Kafka

Yaron Trax ‏(originally Tracz‏) was born in Tel Aviv to a bohemian family. His father, Danny, was the director of the Haifa Theater and one of the founders of the Neveh Tzedek Theater in Tel Aviv. Subsequently he founded Mapa, a cartographic and book publishing company. He also produced the 1978 film “Fantasy on a Romantic Theme,” whose screenplay was written by the late playwright Hanoch Levin, and which was directed by Vitek Tracz, Yaron’s uncle.

“My father was also Levin’s agent,” Trax adds, a relationship which had a profound effect on Trax’s personality. His mother, Hadara, was a housewife. “My obsessions come from her,” he says. He has a younger sister, Rachel, who lives in Hararit, a village in Galilee, where she “raises chickens and grows vegetables, writes and teaches writing.”

As a teenager he studied classical music ‏(piano and composition‏). “I wrote scores for orchestras and was scornful of DJs. But in 1992, a friend invited me to a party where Guy Sabag was the DJ, and my life changed. I started to create music under the inspiration of the early work of Richie Hawtin, acid-house with early German trance. I was studying composition with the Israel Prize laureate Arik Shapira. When I played my stuff for him he screamed at me that it was primitive music. I thought it was going to change the world.”

Trax admits there was another reason for his attraction to electronic music. “My father doesn’t get it. I have a problem of obsessive perfectionism. It’s apparently a congenital inclination, but might also have something to do with the fact that Hanoch Levin was my father’s best friend. I played at his feet as a child and I grew up under the shadow of his genius all my life.

“My father’s other best friend was my uncle, Vitek, a multimillionaire who lives in England. He made his fortune from science and medicine databases. My father always gave his undivided attention to geniuses. As a youngster I wrote a lot myself − I wanted to be a writer. When I was 16 I showed him a story I’d written. ‘It’s not Kafka,’ he told me. Since then I’ve had it in my head that for me to have the right to exist, whatever I do has to be perfect and partake of genius. I made myself wretched as a creative artist.”

His relationship with his father is “rough and painful,” he says, “but I love him very much and I hope we will become close.” Underlying their tangled relationship is “a long history of an attempt by me to get him to appreciate me. I fought for his attention for many years, not always successfully. It’s only in the past few months that he has occasionally told me he is proud of me, maybe after he told people that he’s my father and they responded with ‘Wow!’”

Now that he’s proud of you, is that liable to undercut your motivation to prove yourself to him and ease your obsession with the club?

“Don’t get carried away, he doesn’t appreciate me that much. He hasn’t been to the club yet.”

Did you invite him?

“Casually, but maybe I’m afraid of that. There are enough problems between us, and they won’t be resolved by his coming or not coming to the club.”

He adopted the name Trax ‏(which he has been considering making his official surname “for a few months already − at some point I will do it”‏) in London, where he went to study sound in 1994. He earned a living by working as a graphic designer and also took part in recording an album by Sabag.

In the course of his five-year stay in London he married an Israeli opera singer, Hadas Gur, who lived in the English capital. She is the mother of his only child, Guy, who is now 16. “We returned to Israel when Guy was 2, and two years later we were divorced, because we were incompatible. Guy is now the youngest student at Rimon [School of Jazz and Contemporary Music]. He’s taking singing and bass.”

Guy left high school with his parents’ consent. “It was a scary decision, but he wasn’t getting anything there and we took a chance,” says Trax. “I also used to skip classes to work on music.” Tracz Jr. hasn’t yet attended parties in dad’s club. “It doesn’t interest him so much. He’s been to the club, but not when it’s open to the public.”

Trax was exposed to a wide variety of new musical styles in London, which was then the capital of the burgeoning clubbing industry. “I got deep into Detroit techno and Carl Craig. In 1998, I was bowled over by soulful house music. I bought records and synthesizers, and I had big dreams as a DJ. I still have 10,000 records − after selling 7,000 − and I kept on deejaying when I got back to Israel. In 2000, I became the resident DJ of the old Fetish club. The soulful house I played was completely different from what was being played here then. Some people looked at me like I was pathetic. I felt alone. In 2004, when Fetish closed, we moved to Maxim [another Tel Aviv nightclub], but I didn’t connect with the new place. I deejayed in other places, and I reached the conclusion that in order to enjoy this love of mine, I had to build a sound system myself.

“I dug for years. I investigated the subject on the Internet, met with all kinds of geniuses from around the world. But when I suggested to club owners that I should build a sound system for them and be their resident DJ, they responded in the conventional, sad way: ‘Why should we invest money in that? Who cares about sound?’ I had no choice but to raise money from all kinds of cousins and from a few local sound people who believed in the project, and then to open my own club. That took three years. I fantasized that I would go on being the resident in my club and that I would really enjoy myself.”

Did the rich uncle in London invest?

“He didn’t put money into the club, but in the past he gave me a few gifts that helped me put in money myself.”

Seventy dates

Trax opened The Block in 2008 in south Tel Aviv. A key source of inspiration, he says, was the peak period of Body and Soul, a New York house party. The club’s name was conceived by the DJ and radio figure Nadav Ravid. The two met while the club’s construction was in progress, Trax recalls, “and I described the atmosphere there to him. I imagined it as a kind of small town, a neighborhood.”

Trax is most proud of the mixer, which he built with his own hands “with the help of an electronics engineer. It was a fantasy come true. It gives DJs an erection.”

People say your sound obsession is out of control, and that the mixer you built is so monstrous that some of the DJs who come to the club find it hard to handle.

“That’s true. I also made some mistakes. I have now resumed work on a new mixer, Trax 2, which I started to build a few years ago. In my opinion, the sound of the mixer at The Block is the best there’s been in history, but since I designed it, in 2007, I’ve learned a lot of new things. Most of the European DJs are used to mixers with faders, which they move up and down in a straight line, and not to mixers with knobs, which are moved sideways, like I have. It’s a habit thing. On the one hand, the mixer looks frightening and deterring. But because it looks like a spaceship, it’s talked about all over the world.

“If DJs were scared of it,” he continues, “we switched to a regular mixer, at their request. A few months ago, we decided on a change of policy: this is the club’s sound and we are not willing to change it. But the Trax 2 ergonomics will be more standard. I understood in retrospect that less is sometimes more.”

In addition to building the mixer and designing the space, Trax had another mission he wanted to accomplish before the opening: “In order to be occupied with the club and not with getting laid, it was important for me to find a girlfriend,” he explains. He signed up with JDate, because “the circle of girls I knew was limited.” Seventy dates later, half a year before the club’s opening, he “met Shai. I was the first one she met.” They were married this year.

Shai Pnini, 31, became a member of the club staff. “I didn’t know the industry well enough, I was innocent,” says Trax, “and all kinds of ‘night people’ latched onto me and wanted to take me for a ride. I realized that no one cares about the club more than Shai and I, and after half a year we decided to manage it ourselves. We didn’t yet have the skills for that, but it was clear that otherwise the whole thing would collapse.”

As a result, Trax no longer had the time for DJ work. Then, a year later, he had to shut the club in the wake of an unexpected blow. “The municipality said that a road was going to be built that would run through the site of the club,” Trax relates. He had to move, at a steep financial cost. “To this day, the road hasn’t been built,” he grumbles.

He decided to establish a new club, at an investment of about $1 million, which he raised from grants he received from alcohol companies and from his partners. The second incarnation of the club, located at 157 Salame Street, in the Central Bus Station, was celebrated in July 2011. It has an area of 1,200 square meters and can accommodate 850 people. Adjacent to it is a smaller hall, The Squat, which is connected to the main space, though it sometimes operates separately.

Life and the bubble

Trax usually gets up at midday ‏(“If I wake up at noon that’s considered early”‏), a lifestyle dictated by the fact that on weekends “I usually get to sleep around 10 in the morning, after the party ends. And from the moment I get up I work: emails, meetings, PR people, producers, staff conferences.”

The club’s offices are separated from the floor space by ordinary-looking doors that open by an access code. The chaotic central working area includes a tiny room that is Trax’s personal office. Next to it is a lounge for the deejays, which contains dark armchairs and video games. Coffee is served in disposable glasses ‏(and milk is not always available‏).

Trax hates entering the club when it is completely lit, but he alone is able to explain to the DJs how to use the mixer he built. The division of work between Trax and Pnini seems clear: he is prone to impulsiveness and emotional reactions, she applies the brakes in the form of cold rationale. She is more suspicious, a trait reflected in her tough exterior appearance. From time to time, when she picks up bits of our conversation, she tries to get Trax to restrain himself. “I told him all my secrets,” he tells her. “You have to learn to talk less,” she snaps.

They share the club’s management with Nidal Habashi, who was the renovations contractor for both versions of the club and now helps run it. ‏(“There was a cosmic connection between the three of us, we became a family,” Trax says.‏) There are four more full-time staff in the club and some 70 part-timers, including barmen, lighting technicians, cashiers, guards ‏(through a security firm‏), poster hangers and social network operators.

According to the club’s unaudited financial report for 2012, it had a profit of NIS 247,000. Overseas DJs were paid about NIS 550,000 ‏(“A deejay can cost between $500 for people who are not famous yet, to $15,000 and more, but we don’t bring those because it’s not economically worthwhile,” Trax admits‏).

“The club makes a profit, but it’s still far from covering the money that was invested in its establishment,” Trax says. “It’s a well known, highly regarded international brand, but we still haven’t figured out how to translate the value of the brand into money.”

Noting that his life has been revolving around music for the past 21 years, Trax says, “I also ask myself: What is Plan B? At my age, am I going to go back to being a DJ for a few hundred shekels here and there? I have a child and I want two more children. That scares me. But when there are magical parties, it’s great fun to see everyone having a good time. A lot of people I don’t even know told me The Block is the only reason they are still in Israel. I don’t want to let them down. But for the past five years we haven’t had a life. We don’t even have time to cook at home. We are slaves.

“There were days when I dreamed of getting out, but I can’t. I am responsible for the investors’ money, and I am invested mentally, too. During the period of the battle with the police, I had fantasies of escaping. Hey, leave me alone, I don’t want to be accused of girls getting raped here. But I don’t want to give up.”

What’s important for a club to have in order to succeed?

“Perseverance first of all, vision and faith. If I didn’t have a fantasy that I see and hear when I close my eyes, it would be hard for me to work. There were periods when I lost it a little, like writer’s block. The sound can stand some more improvement, but it wouldn’t be good if I didn’t think that way all the time.”

What’s still left to improve in the sound?

“I don’t want to draw attention to the flaws, but give me another million dollars and you’ll see. I want people who enter the club to feel that everything is beautiful, that they are in a womb that envelops them with love.”

Trax is well aware that The Block is not only an arena for playing music: it is supposed to provide its visitors, whom he terms a “community,” with a more expansive experience. The shared fondness for techno, house and disco, The Block’s dominant music, is, he says, “an indicator of something deeper: an underdog feeling that partakes of humanity, morality and liberalism, because it’s music that emerged from the oppressed, from marginal groups in society.”

It’s an “escapist culture,” he adds, “a utopian bubble, but it has a positive aspect. Arabs, gays, Jews, straights − if they can all dance together at a party without thinking who is what, maybe we can imagine that one day this will also be the reality in the world outside the bubble.”

Fight club

For the time being, though, life outside the bubble involves a war against the whole world. Some DJs from abroad don’t want to come to Israel, he says, because of external elements, such as “the security situation and the hassles they sometimes get at the airport. We had 10 cancellations during Operation Pillar of Defense [in November 2012], and that buried us for three months. Some are afraid to come here and say their wives won’t let them. A minority refuse to come to Israel for political reasons, sometimes after getting ricochets about this being an apartheid state. I have replied to that by pointing out that one of our managers is an Arab, that our messages are always for peace and brotherhood, and that we also mobilized for a demonstration in favor of the Syrian people a year ago. But we are used to blows. Somehow we get back on our feet.

“I try to work to an international standard,” Trax adds, “but I am stuck with the local workforce. It’s hard to get quality and precision here. I feel like Don Quixote tilting against the windmills. We are successful, but it entails a great deal of frustration. All I wanted was to make music and sound, but being the owner of a club exposed me to aspects which I didn’t believe existed in our society: lies, thievery, immorality. The time has come to bring down the Ten Commandments again. One day we discovered that cleaners we had worked with for years ran a thieving industry here. They took phones that people had dropped in parties for themselves. We even caught local deejays stealing a needle or a slipmat from the turntable.”

Some promoters you used to collaborate with say they backed out because it’s impossible to get along with you.

“Everyone sees reality from his perspective. What did you expect them to say, that they left because of greed, because another club offered them a higher share of the gains? I admit it’s very hard to work with me. I am an obsessive perfectionist, but I am not a control freak. I am first of all critical toward myself, and my expectations are insane.

“I have a short fuse, and sometimes I scream and shout, and then I am ashamed. I have no control over it, it comes from passion. People are usually insulted and some don’t accept my apology. But that’s who I am. It drives me crazy if the lighting man doesn’t notice that there is no smoke in a party, that’s disrespect for the work. I expect people to understand that it’s something sacred, that it’s spiritual and deep.”

Let’s get this party restarted

In response, a spokesman for the Tel Aviv District police stated: “Following the activities of an undercover police officer against drug use in clubs, and prima facie evidence of drug dealing in The Block, the police permit for the club was canceled. An indictment was filed, together with a request to shut it until the conclusion of the legal proceedings. The club’s owner and his lawyers requested a hearing before the regional chief, Commander David Gez, who acceded to the request. In the meeting the owner expressed readiness to abide by every request made to him in order to preserve public security.

“Within that framework, and ignoring the strict letter of the law, the regional chief acceded to the request not to shut the club, provided changes were made in accordance with safety and security needs.

“The owner and his lawyers also stated for the record, in court: ‘We propose doing everything reasonable that the police will request in order to reduce the risk.’ Indeed, all the defects have now been corrected and the required means installed, other than an approval from the fire department. The district chief, who visited the clubs in Tel Aviv, formed the impression that the club owner did in fact work for the public’s safety and security.”



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