How Hasidim 'Took Over' an Israeli City, According to a Disgruntled Resident

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Arad resident tells the story of how she met her husband at the lowest point on Earth

Rotem Nachmias.
Tomer Appelbaum

Rotem Nachmias, 43, from Arad; arriving from the Netherlands

Hello, landing after a long trip?

Eleven days. Never in my life had I left the children for more than four days.

And from where are you returning to us?

I was in a small village in Holland, where my partner lives. He’s not Israeli. We met many years ago at the Dead Sea, but I was married and nothing happened, and when I was divorced we remembered each other and decided to go for it. So we’re both on the Holland-Israel line, and it’s great.

How did you meet at the Dead Sea? How romantic to meet someone at the lowest point in the world.

We met because I came to give treatments there. I’m a masseuse and a reflexologist, and I also treat psoriasis. He was there for that reason, and that was that. At first he had psoriasis all over his body, and now only a little on the back of the neck. (Laughs)

How did you get into the profession?

By mistake, of course. I started architecture studies right after the army, and on a trip to Canada and the United States, I did a course in snowboarding. I didn’t find myself – coming from the desert to the snow – but on the course I met someone who taught massage, anatomy and physiology in San Diego. I went there, was turned on by the college, and stayed. I dropped the architecture and got into the architecture of the body. (Laughs)

Where do you live?

I live in Arad. I was born and raised there. My father was one of the city’s founders. He was there from the beginning, in the ‘60s, and worked at the Dead Sea Works, which belonged to an American company – they built the infrastructure for the whole place. My father is originally from Tiberias but grew up in Kibbutz Mishmarot in the “outside child” program. Arad was established by former kibbutzniks, so it has an essentially secular and pluralistic character.

That’s right, and you used to have the well-known Arad Festival of pop music.

Yes. During the festival, every home that could, or couldn’t, hosted the festival-goers. If, say, there were guys who were sleeping outside on the grass, people would open their home and invite them to shower and have something to eat. In the final performance at the festival by Meir Ariel – who was my father’s classmate on Kibbutz Mishmarot – we had 50 kids in the house. Meir sat there with my father and they reminisced, and then Meir just invited everyone, the whole 50, to his show and gave them tickets.

That sounds magical, and it causes a bit of a pang in the heart.

Yes. It was a city where people didn’t lock their doors. I walked around shoeless and people would say to me, “Would you like me to buy you shoes?” I would answer, “My dad can do it.” There was prosperity, it was the pearl of the desert.

And what happened to Arad after that?

In the past four years we’ve had a little immigration by Gur Hasidim, who became a fifth of the population, but a fifth whose presence is strongly felt. It’s not just a problem in Arad, it’s happening in other parts of the country, covertly. It’s disturbing, this takeover, because a uniform society is a sick society.

What has become more acute?

It’s not especially new – there have been Gur people since the ‘60s. The admor [the sect’s leader] was asthmatic and had a house there [because of the dry climate], and they didn’t bother anyone. But in 2014 the gates opened and more and more of them arrived. At first people didn’t notice so much, because we’re very accommodating and accepting, until it reached the stage of spitting at “revealingly dressed” girls.

And what did you do?

After the Gur people hung “for sale” signs on houses, even occupied houses, with phone numbers of nonexistent companies, just to create a feeling that the city was emptying out of its secular population, an Arad couple printed a sign with pictures of [Gur leader Yaakov Arye] Alter and [Gur sect MK Yaakov] Litzman and hung it up on Shabbat. After the end of Shabbat there were burning tires, and then we demonstrated. It was a rough, violent demonstration, until the police arrived to break it up. We didn’t disperse until 4 in the morning, when they brought in Litzman himself.

What next?

They understood that there were people who would fight them, but elections are coming up and the secular representative has already sold us down the river. One of the candidates is an Arad native who has returned to the city. Let’s hope he’s elected and we’ll see what happens.

Asaf Rahamim.
Tomer Appelbaum

Asaf Rahamim, 42, from Kibbutz Beit Hashita; flying to Romania

Hello, would you like to tell us where you’re flying to?

I’m going to an off-road motorcycle competition. It’s said to be the hardest in the world. A 15-year-old girl is taking part, who will probably be the youngest competitor there, and I’m going with her to shoot a documentary about her. My field in photography is extreme sports.

How do you shoot a documentary?

In principle, you need to get into the situation and learn it. In this case, because the racing situation is almost impossible, and many don’t even manage to cross the starting line, the documentary will focus on the experience she undergoes, irrespective of the result, so there will be a story no matter what.

Are there things that should or shouldn’t be done in the documentary situation?

The important thing is to be open all the time, not to create interference, to be careful, attentive, not to miss an incident. It’s challenging because you don’t know where you’re going – you know there’s a story and approximately what you want to say, but you don’t know what will happen at every moment. There can be one minute that’s wow and then two dull days.

How did you come to connect extreme sports and photography?

I’ve been a motorcycle rider from a young age, and my brother studied photography for two years in an academic program. I followed suit, and by the age of 11 I was already developing pictures by myself.

Sounds terrific. What did you do?

I would take pictures, I rushed to create ideas. I would come to a spot on Mount Gilboa, ask riders to kick up dust and I’d shoot. The photography has developed since then, but I still don’t use Photoshop. For example, a new moped arrived in Israel and I shot it in 360 degrees in a studio, against a white background on a revolving white stage. I like to take a complex idea and succeed in photographing it.

Can you elaborate on that?

For example, in 2010 I took friends who do hang gliding to shoot them doing their thing at night. I understood that because of the dark, the black background, it didn’t really matter against which background I photographed them. And I got an idea there. I took a hall and, using rappelling ropes, I hung them all in the air with their gliders. They were the stars of the scenes I shot. I didn’t even have to erase the cables with Photoshop because they were black against a black background. From there I went on to snowboarding, bikes and in the end I even hung motorcycles. I hung them so they looked like they were just about to crash, but it was actually a studio shot. And if, say, a bit of dust was missing I’d ask someone to clap his hands with flour. Without manipulating the picture.

You talk about shooting special photos without Photoshop, but in the end we live in an era in which everyone has a camera in their pocket and can upload the picture instantly. How does a photographer stay distinct, and how is the field developing in this situation?

I’m interested in the creative side more than in just the photography. It interests me to create something complex and succeed in making it real. Say I’m at a work meeting. I come with a prepared storyboard of the places we’ll shoot from, with the whole idea for the video ready and clear. The CEO tells me, “Your business card says Photographer, but you’re not only a photographer.” And the truth is, my business card now says ‘Creative – Production – Photography.”

Well done, a necessary leap forward. Finally, how do you go home calm after the adrenaline of motorcycle riding?

It’s just the opposite. A rider needs to use up adrenaline so he can come home clean. Riding is the place that’s pleasurable for me. Today I arrived at the airport – I could have used Route 6 – but I drove through the Jordan Valley, through all that nature, on winding roads. That’s a good way to clear the head, and it gives you a kick.