'I Came to Israel to Train in Krav Maga, but the Master Didn’t Want to Teach Me'

What it's like to consume iboga during a spiritual ceremony in Gabon, according to a young Californian globe trotter

Marco George.
Tomer Appelbaum

Marco George, 21, from Half Moon Bay, California; flying to London

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

I came to Israel to train in Krav Maga with a famous Israeli teacher, but when I showed up at his school he didn’t want to teach me.

You just showed up?

It’s something I’d done before in Japan. I appeared at the home of the master, and he thought it was interesting that I’d come such a long way. He said it made him feel humble in some way, so he accepted me for training in the dojo. I ended up staying for three months. I thought I’d be able to have the same experience here. But when I came to the class of the Krav Maga teacher, he wanted me to pay a huge amount for one lesson, maybe a hundred dollars, and that wasn’t realistic for me.

Depressing.

The whole interaction was a bit rough. I wanted to work with him because of what he learned from the guy who invented the method.

Why Krav Maga?

Because it’s a method that lets you use the body, to feel secure and not to have to rely on any outside means like a sword or a stick.

What drew you to martial arts?

Bruce Lee movies.

Seriously?

Yes. I’ve seen them all. When I was young, I trained in taekwondo and in Eskrima, which is a combat method from the Philippines.

Isn’t it better to stick to one method?

I didn’t want to stagnate with just one method. I often went to places where people were training, and I saw someone who’d been working for, say, six years already, and they seemed to be missing something, as though they’d reached some sort of plateau. It’s not that I’m trying to be eccentric – actually, maybe I am.

Is it combat as a profession or a hobby?

At home, I work most of the time as a driver for Lyft, like Uber. At Halloween, when it’s pumpkin season, I work on a farm. But I only work so that I can travel again. When I was in high school, I went to Spain on a student exchange program; after high school, I lived and worked for five weeks in Mexico, with my uncle. He’s a farmer and has 10 children and a sustainable farm. Before coming here, I was in Africa for two weeks.

Doing what?

I was in Gabon. I spent time there with an iboga shaman. It was terrific.

What’s iboga?

A [psychedelic] plant that has the ability to allow you to have a conversation with yourself in the most wonderful way there is. The spiritual tradition in which all this happens is called bwiti. There’s a ceremony that lasts all night, with music playing and everyone is dancing all the time, singing, playing instruments and keeping up a certain rhythm, all connected to spiritual energy.

Is iboga something like iowaska?

There are all kinds of plants and roots that are used. Each one has a different spirit, but the spirit of this plant doesn’t take control of you. It wants to connect you to yourself, to energy that never ends. And if you start from there, your momentum can be eternal. Fifteen people took part in the ceremony I was at. Sometimes I danced with them, but because I don’t speak the language, I only imitated the words they sang. It was all very intense. Maybe also a little ridiculous.

Why did you feel that you needed to converse with yourself?

I had a feeling of a large rift inside me and I wanted to live the truth that I am, I wanted a connection to my mind.

Do you know what caused the rift?

When I was in the sixth grade, I moved from southern California to the San Francisco area. That was a big change, from the desert to the sea. It was a total contrast, black and white, and it made me want to change what I was, to discard who I was. I think I was involved in around 30 fights in school that year.

Did the iboga help?

In the ceremony, I reconnected with the energy I’d repressed then, I reconnected with the boy I’d been. And when I thought about that boy, I understood that even though it seemed that I lost most of those fights, I actually didn’t lose, because I didn’t stop fighting. The ceremony connected me to an aspect of my life today. You lose only when you say you lose. In contrast to other experiences, that experience was real and will stay with me. It was an inner conversation in which I didn’t have to get anyone’s attention, because I’ll always have myself.

Moshe and Shaula Goldberg with Jonathan Melamed.
Tomer Appelbaum

Moshe Goldberg, 69; Shaula Goldberg, 67; and Jonathan Melamed, 13; from Ra’anana; arriving from Belgrade, Serbia

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Belgrade?

Jonathan: We went from Belgrade to Zlatibor, a town in Serbia. We got to a hotel where we trained for two weeks, a few hours every day. We were a few friends in each room. Quite a speech I prepared, eh?

But you didn’t say what you trained in.

Jonathan: Basketball.

Why in Serbia?

Shaula: It’s the ideal place, 1,000 meters above sea level. A lot of teams go there to prepare for the year ahead.

Moshe: A temperate climate in the summer. Sometimes it’s rainy, but there’s not much humidity.

Shaula: We’ve been going to these camps for 16 years. The Serbian coaches work at a whole different level. I see the difference in what they put into it, how they do things. They don’t keep an eye on the clock.

Moshe: They invest in imparting basic values of basketball to the players, and if the kid doesn’t do it the way he should, they go on working with him. In Israel it’s more superficial.

Shaula: Except in Ra’anana – we’re more professional. Ra’anana is a basketball powerhouse. 

I’m sure. How did you get into this?

Moshe: Actually, it all started when a Jewish-Serbian coach named Nadelko Janovicz, Nano for short, immigrated to Israel. He was a basketball player, and when he retired he started to coach in Ra’anana and got to Shaula’s department.

Shaula: He didn’t speak Hebrew, I had the intuition to bring him in.

Moshe: Nadelko ran that camp in Yugoslavia for three years by himself. He had connections, but kept losing money. Then Shaula and I entered the business and we started to make a profit.

How many children take part?

Moshe: It varies. This year there were 68, between the ages of 11 and 16. In the first years we did telephone and internet marketing, but now we don’t have to do anything. Half of the kids come back at least once or more.

How do you manage with 68 adolescents?

Shaula: It’s not easy, it’s a responsibility. This year we were four adults from Israel and a few coaches. The older kids help if there’s a problem. Every child gets attention.

What did you do before you started organizing basketball camps in Serbia?

Moshe: I managed a company that imported and sold electronic components. I retired five years ago.

Shaula: I also retired recently, but when I was younger, I was a goalkeeper for Maccabi Arazim in handball, No. 1!

Go Maccabi Arazim! Sounds like fun.

Shaula: We were champions and won the State Cup in handball. I also played on the national team. And then my daughter, who is very tall, started to play basketball. I saw continuity and also that work was needed, so I entered the children’s basketball department of the Ra’anana municipality and ran it for 19 years.

Impressive.

Shaula: Sports is very important for me, and basketball especially. When I ran the department, my dream was to bring Serbian coaches to Israel. No one let me do it then, so now I’m fulfilling the dream.

Moshe: You and your Serbian coaches. (Laughs)

Shaula: I believe we can learn from them. It’s a country with a highly developed sports consciousness. It’s not a big country, but players from there get to the NBA. You should see their amazing discipline. They work from morning until evening. When I see that, it makes me feel really good. You should also see how they listen to the coaches. One whistle and they’re standing.

Sounds a bit stressful. Is it like that in the children’s camp?

Moshe: Yes. The camp demands an effort, so we emphasize that it’s not suitable for kids who are only looking to have a good time. That’s how we filter out undesirable ones; they just don’t come.

Jonathan, are you a serious kid?

Jonathan: I’ve been playing since first grade, point guard.

Do you feel you improved in the camp?

I improved in the sense that I learned how to work very hard. And when it comes to technique, there are things the Serbs do all the way. They teach the basis, and that’s important.

Did you do anything other than basketball?

Jonathan: In the evening we went to stalls in town and bought food and stuff. It cost a euro and a half. But what I liked best is that so many friends were there. It’s the first time I’ve flown abroad without my parents, it was a bar-mitzvah present and it was really special. The camp is one of the best experiences I’ve had – and I’ve had experiences.