Kobi Malka. Tomer Appelbaum

'It’s Like a Private Island': Mourning the Impending Demise of a Secret Tel Aviv Beach

Reefs, boulders, natural pools and seabirds – all in Tel Aviv at a pristine beach. But if you don’t already know about it, the hour’s getting late



Aside from military installations, hardly any secret sites are left in Israel, with its saturation of media and social media. In Tel Aviv, the chance of finding a great but unknown place is even less likely. Every outlet selling some delicacy or another will become trendy and open branches in all the country’s malls within a month.

But somehow, one secret, and a pretty big one – 1,010 square meters in area (10,870 feet) – has survived for years in Tel Aviv. A few people know about it and it brings them joy. As a journalist, I always agonize about whether to write about these places or take their secret to the grave. True, an article may only appear on the most-read list for a day or two, but that won’t stop readers from flocking to the site en masse and ruining it.

Besides, part of the charm of these unknown places is that they lie in legal gray areas. An unnecessary media story could tighten the grip of the state, the inspectors and the people always thinking how they can score big. Still, I feel more comfortable writing about these particular 1,010 square meters because I know that whatever I do, the place is going to lose its appeal in the years ahead.

Other than being Israel’s nicest airport, Sde Dov in Tel Aviv created a natural wonder. Parallel to the airport, which shut down permanently at the beginning of July, a lean but special strip of beach existed that was somehow forgotten. You probably saw it out of the corner of your eye when you flew to Eilat, before just as quickly forgetting it – something yellowish and shiny on the other side of the fence. Sde Dov Beach, we could call it. But in Google Maps it has its own name: Secret beach, yes, with a capital “s” and lower-case “b.”

Each of Tel Aviv’s official beaches has its own character, but they look very similar. The secret beach at Sde Dov, however, has reefs, boulders, natural pools, greenery and a healthy dose of fish and seabirds. The sand is also studded with shell fragments.

Until a few years ago, the shoreline was even wilder and emptier. Getting to it was an ordeal; you had to bypass Sde Dov from the north, turn at Tel Baruch Beach and tread through sand. In March 1985, the beach hit the headlines when the body of American tourist Mala Malavsky was found there – she had been killed by Israelis Hava Yaari and Aviva Granot in a high-profile murder case. At the time, it seemed like an ideal place to dump a body.

I first visited the beach around 2000 when I attended a secret party on Yom Kippur eve, organized by the super-partyer and restaurateur Amour Kancepolsky. I don’t remember much about the event, and I have no idea how people got there on Yom Kippur. Either way, it was a one-time thing and I didn’t think about the beach again for years.

In 2010, the beach became slightly more accessible. The Tel Aviv municipality built a modest boardwalk that ran alongside Sde Dov’s barbed wire fence and put up a pedestrian bridge linking the beach to the harbor and the parking area of the Reading Power Station. I was living in the city center at the time, and it was my beach of choice on weekends, when the official beaches were packed with people and jammed with tanning chairs, raucous families, lifeguards in love with the sound of their own voices, and of course the worst – people playing matkot, the racquet sport. At Sde Dov you could be dozens of meters from the closest person and swim peacefully in the translucent water.

Well, not all that peacefully. Every few minutes a plane took off, even on Shabbat. But the image of the planes ascending to the heavens or landing above the bikinis was so surreal that the appalling noise was forgivable. Midweek, the beach was even emptier. Summer campers were few, so you could swim in the nude if you found a spot hidden from the joggers on the boardwalk. That’s less possible today because of another trend: electric bicycles and scooters.

Tomer Appelbaum

Disappearing watermelon

If there’s anything good in Israel, trust it to be eradicated fast. That’s what happened to Sde Dov Airport, which was done in by wealthy developers. Thus a large residential neighborhood, shopping centers and hotels are set to be built where the airport was. In this case, even complaining is unreasonable because the future – official – beach will serve far more people. Even so, it’s my right to mourn and part from the marvel in sorrow.

In reporting this article, I visited the beach three times. The first time was on a Saturday evening, when the beach is pretty popular. But I was feeling too melancholy to talk to people. I lay on a straw mat until dark. I was happy to see a barbecue or two – against the rules, and something inconceivable on Hilton Beach a bit further south, for example. I didn’t speak to anyone save for an Arab fisherman before going home.

l arranged to meet Haaretz photographer Tomer Appelbaum there on a Monday morning. He arrived long before I did (he was on time) and texted me angrily that nobody was on the beach. He probably figured that I’d made up the story that people like the place. I haven’t been a credible figure in the photographer community since I “accidentally” borrowed his shirt during our trip to Portugal and never returned it.

Unable to find an appropriate bathing suit, I covered my loins with a small blue item made of unknown material that left little to the imagination. I also couldn’t find proper headgear and was forced to pull out of the garbage can a straw hat in advanced stages of disintegration, something even a self-respecting beggar wouldn’t wear. “Dude, you look like a pervert. And where’s my shirt?” said Tomer – his version of a greeting.

My attire apparently also dissuaded the few other beachgoers present from talking to me, even though I hung around for a few hours and approached everybody there. Men probably thought I was a pickpocket posing as a journalist, and young women and girls looked at me with fear, though a few did agree to spew out a short sentence or two. For example, a girl wearing a T-shirt declaring “I hate Pilates” said, “I hope the construction is delayed as long as possible.” Another said, “The bourgeoisie and money are ruining everything. I have to get out of Tel Aviv.”

I asked her if she’d give me her name and if she wanted to add anything else.

“No, I’m in a hurry.”

So what do you do when you bid farewell to a beach? I looked at the airport watchtowers. In place of sentries, the towers had filled up with crows. In the same way that the shivah mourning ritual stirs a desire to eat, my stomach grumbled during the whole parting episode. I walked north to the Blue Beach Restaurant at Tel Baruch Beach. I was very hungry and went for the modest breakfast – at 72 shekels ($21). All the prices were exorbitant. I scanned the menu for the iconic watermelon and salted cheese, because all the beachfront cafés charge 30 shekels for that. But there was no watermelon on the menu; they hid it so that people would order more expensive food.

Next to my bicycle on the way back I met a guy I’d seen before, but he looked so deep in his own thoughts that I didn’t want to disturb him. He actually believed me when I told him I was a journalist. He was a gardener named Ricardo Lax, like the title character of a TV detective series that won’t be renewed for a second season. Lax, who immigrated to Israel a decade ago from the United States, wore a military-style T-shirt. “It’s like a private island here,” he said. “You can sit here for hours without anyone playing music next to you or playing racquetball. I come here once a week just to sit for two or three hours and listen to the waves quietly.”

I mentioned the noise from the planes before they closed Sde Dov Airport.

“I like planes. It was nice.”

Tomer Appelbaum

Yacht paradise

To find out what the future holds for the secret beach, I spoke with Orit Brender, an architect from the Tel Aviv municipality. I had thought it would become an official city beach, but a worse fate is in store. According to Brender, about a third of the beach, in the southern section, will become part of “a harbor for maritime sports and maritime education, which is very, very important.”

Sounds great. Who doesn’t like education (except for kids)? And the phrase “harbor for small seacraft” has a splendid ring to it. Then the other shoe dropped: She was talking about a marina for private yachts.

I remembered an article in which Haaretz’s environment correspondent, Zafrir Rinat, wrote that the establishment of another marina for yacht owners (in addition to the marinas in Jaffa, Herzliya and Tel Aviv’s Atarim Square) would be a socio-environmental crime. But like many important articles, that one didn’t jolt me. I would normally be happy to be the best buddy of any millionaire, even the most dubious, who has a yacht, if he takes me out sailing. But now it turns out that they’re taking away my beach!

“It’s an area with fewer nature values and no aspects worth preserving,” Brender said about the southern third of the secret beach, breaking my heart. Planning isn’t yet complete for the other two-thirds. “We will examine the aspects. Around 40,000 people will live in the new adjacent neighborhood, and we need regular beaches for them, one or two, not only beaches like this. ... At the moment, it’s impossible to put up lifeguard towers because the beach is rocky. So it can’t be left like that. The future residents will need beaches for swimming.”

It’s fun to swim here even when the beach is like it is now, and there are also natural pools.

Brender: “It’s not a regulated swimming beach, it’s a beach with people who go in to get their feet wet.”

There’s no chance you’ll conserve it as it is?

“Look, we don’t do conservation, we examine the city’s needs.”

But you won’t take away the boulders and the special reefs, right?

“It’s not possible to remove boulders.”

Great.

“The boulders can be covered with sand.”

Oy. But there are regulated beaches in Israel with boulders and reefs – Achziv in the north, for example.

“I don’t know what’s happening at Achziv. I don’t know if the beach there serves 40,000 people. Anyone who’s looking for that kind of seaside experience can go to the cliff – which won’t be developed – north of Tel Baruch Beach.”

Tomer Appelbaum

A lot of crabs

I returned to the beach the following Wednesday afternoon, this time in more decent clothing. I met a nice threesome who comes to the beach every week: Oded, a carpenter and sailor of 62, his daughter Mika who’s 21 and works at an afternoon preschool, and his 2-year-old granddaughter Yaheli (from another daughter). Grandpa Oded comes from Jaffa every week on his electric bicycle to pick up Yaheli from her Ramat Aviv nursery school, and they all go down to swim on a beach that I’m told is listed as not for swimming. “It’s an amazing place,” Oded said. “There are shallow lagoons that stop the jellyfish, no lifeguards, and it’s within the range of an electric bicycle.”

His look turned glum when I told him that a marina was going to be built where we were sitting. “Everything that people call progress is really a move backwards. I don’t see it as progress that the neighborhood is going to have residents. It’ll all be towers, like there are behind Sde Dov now. The towers will fight over which one is biggest.”

As he put it, “it would be better if it stays like it is now. But the real estate is worth so much money. In Israel, that overrides all logic.”

I told him that City Hall actually wants to put a public housing project in the Sde Dov neighborhood.

“Here? That’s what’s known as ‘happy is the believer.’”

Near the threesome, a couple – Tamar Moran, a marketer who had come to the beach to celebrate her 38th birthday, and Lee Stern, 39, a geologist who studied marine biology – were hanging out with their children, Goni and Gali. “We’ve been coming here since the day it opened,” Moran said. “When the bridge was opened, I celebrated a birthday here with girlfriends. I happened to pass by and said to myself, ‘That’s great, a new beach,’ and I decided to make it my regular sea spot. But I kept the place a secret. Luckily it’s hard to get here by car.”

As a marine biologist, Stern is thrilled at the sea creatures that hang out here. “There are a lot of crabs here, relative to the [rest of the] city, because fewer people come here, which means that fewer crabs are killed,” he said. “On the regulated beaches, there’s noise and there’s a lifeguard, and the marine animals get pushed aside.”

The children were restless, and Moran, whom the couple considers better at being interviewed, replaced her husband, who was sent to splash in the water with the little ones. “It’s a tough feeling, very sad. When the beach becomes regulated we’ll have to go out of town, to Mikhmoret or Arsuf, to find a quiet beach. We won’t go to the crowded beaches,” she said.

“For a lot of people, it will be the end of a beach that has a different vibe. There’s a very wild, primal vibe here, without beach umbrellas and chairs, something that suits people who don’t like to be hemmed in. For us, this beach is home. The natural pools are excellent for children. We don’t need a thing. Not popsicles and not all the development around.”

Also on the beach was Tomer Mizrahi, 28. He lives in Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev, where he’s an inspector with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. But on visits to his parents in Ramat Gan, he always ventures down to the secret beach. “The question is how long it’ll take before they build,” he said.

I suggested that maybe the Nature and Parks Authority could help.

“I’m not up on this region,” he said. “But I’m sure it’s one of the few virginal beaches between Bat Yam and Netanya. I hope they don’t destroy the lagoon that has been formed and don’t put up artificial breakwaters, and also that they build at a distance back from the shoreline, so people will have a chance to have some quiet.”

Tomer Appelbaum

Messianic tidings

Even though the beach is isolated and intimate, all communities and classes are represented: Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, Jews and Arabs, gays and straights, secular and religious. During one of my visits, sitting next to one of the natural pools were Netanel Uzan, a repair man with a big smile and side curls, and his children, David and Shneor. Uzan and his wife became religiously observant during a trip to India. For two years they’ve been living in Ramat Aviv and counting the minutes before they can return to India, this time to close a circle and work at the Chabad House at Palolem Beach in Goa.

“I can’t call myself a Tel Avivan – I’m not hooked into the way of life,” Uzan said. “It’s become industrialized and disgusting. When I got here, I was stunned that a place like this exists in Tel Aviv.”

Religiously observant people usually go to the special beach for them at the end of Nordau Street.

Uzan: “It’s disgusting there. They put you in an awful, enclosed place and tell you to enjoy the sea.”

When you’re back from India, there’s no guarantee that this beach will still be the way it is now.

“That’s a downer. Living here has become crazy. Life in the city cuts you off completely from the soil. How will it all end?”

How indeed will it all end?

“In the end, Messiah will come. There is no other way out.”

I have no problem with the Messiah. I’m just afraid of the resurrection of the dead. A lot of neighborhoods will have to be built to house them.

“We don’t know what will happen when the Messiah comes, but things will be better.”

I asked about the friction between the secular residents of Ramat Aviv and the Chabad people, but Uzan said it’s not serious: “All is well in the neighborhood. It’s just stories some people tell. It’s a type of game. There are people who play at being liberals and lovers of humanity, until a Jew comes along.”

We’re talking about Chabad missionaries for children.

“Some people sell shampoo or hand out leaflets. So I sell Judaism. It’s my right.”

Another person who came to celebrate a birthday, his 37th, was Kobi Malka, a kindergarten teacher. “I feel bad when I think that this beach will change,” Malka said. “I’ve always felt like it was my private beach. And in the end it will be just another beach for everybody. I’m here three or four times a week, for the sunset, with beer and good music.”

I suggested that in the end, maybe more people will get to enjoy it.

“It’s my slice of quiet in the crazy city,” he said. “I’m from Arad originally, where there’s classic quiet all the time. This is the only place in Tel Aviv where I find that tranquility. And I say this with total selfishness. Listen, this is the secret beach, there are people I won’t tell about it, people who don’t have the beach vibe. People with stereos and beach games.

“I don’t understand people who go to the sea to hear racquetballs flying over their head. Just before I got here I stood on my bike and breathed in the quiet and the pleasant sun. And then you reminded me about what’s going to happen, and in one second you wrecked everything. I imagine that I’ll come a number of times to bid goodbye to the beach.”

Tomer Appelbaum

Young people also come to the beach, though not in large numbers. I spoke with a group consisting of Daniel Rothstein, 17, and Amit Masika, Nadav Cohen and Nir Levy, all 18. They’re from Shikun Lamed in north Tel Aviv, and they visit the beach almost every day during the summer. Until we spoke, they hadn’t grasped that the closure of Sde Dov Airport would lead to a big change at the beach.

“That’s upsetting to hear. My feeling is that they’re taking the place from us,” Levy said. “I’ve been coming here since I was young. We came here from the moment we could walk alone. But there’s nothing we can do. We’re small potatoes compared to the system, and in Israel protests don’t help. It’s tough to start a struggle here. There’s no way back. There are no more planes in the hangars, and they will have to build.”

Behind them I corralled Amalia Gutierrez, 16, a student at Ironi Daled High School. She blames Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, even though Huldai actually fought against the closure of Sde Dov. “It’s awful. Tel Aviv is becoming a city for rich people only, accessible only to people with money,” she said. “Anyone who doesn’t have enough money gets trampled here.”

Gutierrez divides her life between her mother’s place in Ramat Aviv and a boat in the marina where her father lives. The beach is between the two. “It’s a quiet, special beach,” she said. “Everybody here minds his own business. It’s not a beach for the extended family. People here want the sea, not Instagram crap.”

Tomer Appelbaum

The view from the Thai Embassy

The beach’s reputation hasn’t been leaked to guide books like Lonely Planet. Still, there’s a foreign presence here. Alisa Chobisara, 37, and Thammajit Thitimontre, 34, two delightful, giggling employees of the Thai Embassy, live nearby.

When I visited, they were sunning themselves on an impressive beach mat. They were thrilled to talk to the maritime affairs correspondent of Haaretz, a newspaper they read devotedly. Chobisara is a consular clerk, Thitimontre is more senior; she’s the embassy’s first secretary (“even though I don’t look the part”).

As they put it, they like the quiet and cleanliness of the secret beach; all the other beaches are crowded. The two women are very pleased with Israel in general.

“We love the weather, the sea and the food,” Chobisara said enthusiastically. Thitimontre admits that she prefers Thai food, “but I won’t say which restaurant is my favorite, so no one will be offended.”

I asked them if Israeli men pestered them at the beach.

“We like talking to friendly people,” Chobisara said. “Often they only want to say hello and ask where we’re from, because we look like foreigners. Besides, Israeli guys are handsome.”

I explained to them that the beach is about to get more crowded, but they told me that by then they will have abandoned us for another embassy. “It’s sad, but we won’t be here forever,” Thitimontre said. “That’s business.”

Yes, that’s business. After the sun set, Tomer, the photographer, headed off. I told him that I wanted to say farewell to the beach, and he left me on my own. I lay on my faded beach mat until dark so I could describe the beach at night. But there was nothing to describe but a dark sky and dark sand.

I called partygoer Kancepolsky. “I used to go there when I was still a kid,” he said. “I would steal my mother’s moped and go to that beach with girls. At one time, all of Tel Aviv’s crap spilled into Tel Baruch Beach, and we would surf in it. Back then it was called Danger Beach.”

So why did he stop throwing beach parties?

“At one point, when the boardwalk was being built, cars and SUVs weren’t allowed to enter,” he said. Then I told him that the place would soon be regulated and become a plain old Tel Aviv beach.

“I love nature, I don’t want anything to be changed, only for things to stay the way they are,” he said. “But I’m not going to demonstrations for that. I’m busy.”

Tomer Appelbaum

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