Stone Age

On a plate, in a display case or inside your underpants: No experience this summer will be complete without rocks from the river

River stones are the latest craze. They're like the phrase "the place that I'm at" or the expression "to go with the flow." In effect, they are precisely these words, what they represent, the way in which they pluck on the slender cords of the Israeli soul, which is thirsty for loving, kindness, and a massage. River stones come from a place where things flow. No experience this summer will be complete without them.

I arrived at the Shizen spa and "lifestyle hotel," at the Daniel Hotel in Herzliya, the first stop on a journey in search of the precious river stones of the summer, with a friend from America who had landed on my doorstep for a week. We had come for an Indian hot-stone massage.

"There's nothing Zen about Shizen - it's an Israeli spa," she remarked, when we were led into a basement with crowded locker rooms permeated by the smell of chlorine. We went out to the pool, and as we approached the bar, tried to decide whether we would order cucumber mojitos or Caipirinhas.

"What summer cocktails do you have?" my American friend asked the female bartender, who looked like a barman. "Maccabi and Goldstar," she replied. All the rest of the bottles lined up behind the bar, it turned out, were being held in reserve for the wedding of Olga and Yaron, so we drank Goldstar, in a can.

And then I saw them. They were small, smooth, deformed, and they were resting in a ashtray at the side of the pool, covered with dust combined with cigarette butts. But these were plain, ordinary river stones. We were impressed but not amazed. My guest crushed her Marlboro butt onto them.

The masseurs had already been waiting for us for 15 minutes in the tea corner. Mine was Meital, who led me through a long, dimly lit corridor, along whose entire length there were once again an inferior species of river stones, dried out and lacking in personality. At the end of the hall, though, was a temple of river stones.

A New Age soundtrack played in the background, and there was a small bathtub that the masseuse called a "roaster." The masseuse pulled steaming black river stones with a towel from the roaster, arranged them on the treatment table and covered them with another towel. She instructed me to lie on them, back down. With the skill of someone who has known many high-quality river stones, Meital continued to heat more and more stones, which she placed all over me - in my palms, under my knees, on my chest, on my stomach. The stones whispered. I wanted to know where they had come from, and Meital, not quite answering me, declared they were female and that the method had been learned via "communication with an ancient Indian entity." Somehow the method had been transferred from her to the senior masseur at Shizen, from whom it had reached Meital.

Meital continued with her work skillfully. She placed tiny and red-hot pebbles between my toes. It hurt. You are not allowed to laugh or to move during the stone massage, as such motion could threaten to topple the entire construction like a personal earthquake.

Meital explained that river stones have "energies of heat, energies of cold, and of course energies of the earth, because they come from the earth." She smoothed and kneaded me with one before telling me to turn over and to place my head inside a padded hoop.

Then I saw them. They were placed on the floor, directly under my face, inside a bowl, with a burning candle in the middle. Meanwhile Meital continued to cover me, and when it seemed that there was no place left to put any more river stones, she slipped two scorching stones inside my underpants. At the end of the treatment she poured a cup of water for me to drink and instructed me to get up slowly. She said not to exert much energy during the rest of the evening and to drink a lot, because the river stones can cause dehydration.

There were small pebbles in the dressing rooms too, in a bowl next to the sink. I took three for the road. We drove back to Tel Aviv, I told my guest what they had done to my backside and she told me what they had done to hers. I gave her a pebble from the bathroom as a souvenir.

Wow, amazing

What do I really know about river stones, I asked myself that night, after the invasive experience. They look harmless, nice, old. They have always been here, on the earth. When did I see my first river stone? I tried to make an effort to recall, but it's not something you remember. Let's be honest - a pebble is not a zebra or a dwarf.

The next day there was a stone dinner at the "White Night" celebrations in Tel Aviv. My guest came late, in a rush, straight from the hairdresser. She said that her cab driver had let her out far away and that as she had hurried down Nahalat Binyamin Street, when, from out of nowhere a large black pigeon had flown toward her and crashed into her head. A white night, I explained, apologizing for the raven.

Hatraklin bistro and wine bar was prepared for the White Night, a nightlong series of events celebrating historic Tel Aviv's architectural heritage. The floor of the restaurant was white, the chairs had been covered in white sheets and they were even serving white Smirnoff vodka. But nothing got in the way of the black-stone routine. Two tables away from us sat a couple making out, before whom was a plate, in whose middle sat a large, black and red-hot river stone, accompanied on both sides by slices of raw meat. The couple administered a hasty searing to each side of the meat, and ate it, medium rare. That's the rage at Hatraklin, a meal on a river stone. The sounds and smells of the sizzling meat filled the entire restaurant.

At our table, first a red wine, vintage 2005, was poured. The wine, a Cote de Rhone, was itself a stone beverage: It comes from a valley in France, it turns out, and its producers did not understand how their vines were producing such a rich, fruity, thick wine. Then they discovered that deep in the ground, beneath the vines, lay river stones. "That's where we got the idea," explains Yossi Ben Udis, one of the owners of the restaurant, which opened five months ago. Soon, he revealed, they will be launching a new house cocktail with a few tiny pebbles lying on the bottom.

River stones are doing the job for Hatraklin. There are already regular customers who barely have to ask to have the flaming-hot stone served to them. There are groups that come to eat a kilo and a half of sliced meat that comes with a huge river stone in the middle of the plate, ordered in advance. "Most of the reactions are 'wow, amazing, what an experience,'" says Ben Udis. "Everyone has a childish desire to play with food. But there are also some who don't want to prepare the food for themselves."

Our turn came. The flagship dish landed on the table. The river stone, brought from the Arava desert by Yaakov Yohanan, Ben Udis' partner, was resting on a fragrant mixture of dried rosemary, thyme and spearmint leaves, and next to it was baked garlic, chimichurri sauce and mustard mayonnaise. The meat was scorched quickly on the stone, which had been brushed with olive oil. We turned it over. Tasty. Accompanying it was stone bread baked in a tabun, also tasty. When our stone cooled off, even before we could alert the waitress, a fresh hot stone had arrived from the kitchen.

River stones are leaving their mark on many dishes that emerge from the kitchen of Hatraklin, such as pullet stir-fried with onion and pepper and served on stone bread, hamburger with a creamy truffle spread served on stone bread. Avigdor Lieberman, the minister for strategic affairs, wasn't impressed. "He was here, received the dish and asked to have it taken back," says Ben Udis. "He said that he doesn't expect to be cook his own food."

Suffering from a craze

At the table next to us at Hatraklin sat Zoya Perlmutter, who can go through the "eating on river stones" ritual with her eyes closed. While she waited for her stone, she did not remain indifferent to ours. "I do mine almost well done," she admitted about her grilling method. "It's really something, this ritual. I'm mainly a vegetarian, but here I can't resist."

With her gray hair pulled back in a bun she told us about the river stones in her house. "I collect them on all my trips. I have some from Poland, Greece, the Czech Republic and Israel. I took them out of all the streams and brought them. I also have some from markets, I buy ones that have paintings on them, little dolls made of smooth river stones, funny cartoons of people, in all sizes, made only of stones. And I also make jewelry, pendants."

We went out into the white night. Rothschild Boulevard looked like the jacket of the Doors' "Strange Days," only the street entertainers that greeted us were sweaty, Israeli and circa 2007. A woman with a painted face was moving inside a strange plastic box. Mimes and instrumentalists played local folk music. Deadly serious people played musical chairs - an art installation. They were trying to say something. It was very crowded.

I promised my guest that over the weekend we would go on a trip. A nature trip. To the Galilee or the Golan or somewhere with a flowing stream and real river stones, in order to help her to stop thinking about Masada, the Western Wall and all the other places that we wouldn't be visiting. "You people are stone obsessed," she said. "You lie on them, eat with them, shove them into your underwear. I respect that. But I want to go shopping."

On Sunday afternoon we went without her to the central branch of the Tufit Gan Ha'even gardening supplies store, near the Sharon Prison in Netanya. The place was overflowing with river stones. Odaya Levy, who hosted us, took us for a tour among the urns and the fountains and the innumerable stones, 30 different kinds. They were held in bags and huge containers and monstrous cages, in every shade and color. Levy displayed the merchandise and provided some background. "In recent years people are more aware of river stones. It's only for the best. They are pleasant, relaxing, everything connected with water has positive energies, openness, a flow."

Then Shai Ben Yitzhak, a tanned young man with a straw hat, showed up. He demanded to know what had been said during the tour. At first Ben Yitzhak said that very few river stones from Israel are sold, that they all come from Sharm al-Sheikh and Egypt and the Golan Heights. Afterwards he made an urgent phone call to his father, owner Shmuel Ben Yitzhak, and quickly returned with several corrections: There are no river stones from Israel, because it's forbidden here to tamper with the natural habitat. And there are none from China. On the other hand, he has river stones from Mongolia and Ethiopia.

Other gardening supplies stores actually do carry local river stones. Canaan Pots in Kiryat Shaul has a large collection: stones from the Nitzan and Amit streams, Amit discs (smaller), Shira stream stones and many others, which sell for NIS 28 for 25 kilograms.

Aren't river stones a type of "protected species"? "River stones are not a protected natural resource," explains Eli Sadot, who's in charge of projects in the science division of the Israel Nature and Parks Protection Authority. "In the nature preserves and the parks with streams, quarrying is forbidden, though if you take three or four river stones, nobody will say anything to you.

"Where are you allowed to take river stones," Sadot goes on. "From all kinds of streams - from the Negev, from Nahal Sorek, for example. They are quarries in the streams. You need a quarrying permit and you have to abide by its conditions of the permit, which say that the quarrying must be done in an active river bed, one where water flows, so that there will be new material all the time."

Hashekem Nursery, on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv, also has piles of bags, huge ones, containing river stones, produced by the Even Ari company. I met Yossi there. He was indifferent to the stones.

"I'm going to tell you a few things that will make your ears stand up like a Doberman's," he said, starting to talk about God. He apparently knows who He is. Afterward he also introduced his raven to me. "I have to feed him," he called out, when the bird arrived from the direction of the nearby falafel stand.

"And what about our river stones - aren't you afraid they'll become extinct?" I asked worriedly.

"How should I know? What do you think, that I was born in Nahal Nitzan?" he said, going to bring the dog's food to the raven.